Sunday, December 11, 2016

Merry Muslim Chrisrtmas




The Ghosts of Christmas Past

When I was a kid, Christmas was my absolute, hands down favorite time of the year! Christmas held a magic for me that was indescribable. There was just something about it. It was the tradition of picking out the tree and taking turns hanging bright, sparkling things off its branches as its sweet pine smell filled the house. It was all the treats that seemed to magically pop into existence only during the holiday season (I had no idea Almond Roca could be found year-round!). It was definitely the anticipation of presents going from zero to plethora overnight that created a sense of anticipation leading up to Christmas that I still feel to this day.
Christmas for mini me was never about Jesus may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. I didn’t grow up thinking there was more to the holiday than family, presents, Santa Clause, and flying reindeer. It may have been a secular holiday for me, but it was no less magical and no less important to me. My fondest memory is of trying to figure out where our parents hid the presents while pretending to believe in Santa. Despite our veiled disbelief in the jolly man in a red suit, our surprise and amazement came when our parents managed to produce presents out of thin air Christmas morning. I mean seriously, we looked everywhere! Closets, crawl spaces, the basement…everywhere! It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned they too knew more than they were letting on, namely about our shenanigans. So, they hid our presents in a most cleaver spot: Grandma’s house. Hmph.
Into adulthood I trotted and over the years, Christmas took on new meanings. I learned sometime in my teens about the Christmas story. You know the one, the baby in the manger, three wise men, and angels heard on high. I’ll admit, it heightened that feeling of mysticism. Although, I’ll shamefully admit, it was still for me largely materialistic. Sure the materialism took on a new form as Christmas wishes went from PJ Sparkles (yeah, Google that) and Cabbage Patch dolls to portable CD players, clothes, and books… lots and lots of books. But it’s spiritual significance grew as my walk grew closer to Allah SWT.
As I studied Christianity I became more and more conflicted about the time of year. When I hit my 20’s, the joy that comes with mass commercialism died down to a simmer. Some of the enchantment was replaced with a sort of growing condescension. After all, I had learned Christmas was supposed to be about God and a miracle baby, not spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the people in your life that need your attention more than your pocket book. It’s about raising your children to know who Jesus is, not to expect the sun and the moon under the tree in the morning. And the pagan roots of the holiday… don’t get me started!! I mean, it isn’t even actually Jesus’ birthday and the story taught to children- the story I was taught- was all wrong! This was 20-something me ranting, mind you...
Yet despite the growing conflict there was still that sense of holiday magic, that strange sense of wonder at the sparkling Christmas decorations against the backdrop of the season’s first snow fall. The feelings of hope and anticipation, warmth and joy, still struck me every year. I wanted to change how I celebrated Christmas, but was not willing to let it go altogether. So my husband and I struggled against the social expectations of what Christmas “should” look like and fought to celebrate it the way we wanted: Less presents, more reflection. We wanted to teach our kids what Christmas was really about. Not the secular version, not the popular Christian version, but our version.
The first thing we did was nix Santa. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, to three boys filled with wonder and excitement… Mark and I killed Santa Clause. Then, just when you’d think we couldn’t be more fun, we also downsized gift giving making the commercial aspect more about giving than getting. We also taught the historical version of the Christmas story (Jesus for starters was not likely born in December). Angel trees and volunteering at food pantries took the place of copious presents and holiday treats. We struggled and struggled against the social currents that told us, from two opposing perspectives, neither of which we fully agreed with, what Christmas was meant to be. It’s all about family! It’s all about the birth of the Lord and Savior! It’s about Santa and reindeer and presents! It’s about our salvation and the gift God gave us in Jesus! Talk about push me, pull you!


The Ghost of Christmas Present

Suddenly, in the midst of our attempts to personally define what Christmas really meant to us, along came Islam. Talk about a wrench! We were finally able to identify a world view that fit our personal world views which was really exciting! But… Muslim’s don’t celebrate Christmas. And so, in the midst of our struggle to define what Christmas meant to us, we made a bold decision: Christmas simply had to go. We gave away just about all our Christmas decorations, even the non-secular ones. Then we promoted Eid al-Fatr, the celebration following Ramadan, and made sure we got the kids the same quality of gifts they were used to getting for Christmas. We tried to be sensitive to the kids, even allowing one more “normal” Christmas before the big change, although it was hard on them no matter how we packaged it. Not only did we kill Santa, we killed the spirit of Christmas.
That feeling other Muslims get around the Eids (Arabic word for “festivity” or “celebration”), the same one many Americans get around Christmas, was not there for my kids at any Eid, nor was it truthfully there for me. We live in a culture after all that barely acknowledges Muslim holidays. The foundations of our family traditions were built around other holidays, primarily, yep, you guessed it, Christmas. While our first two years of Eids were fun, they were no replacement. Part of the wonder and awe of a holiday is how you are immersed in it, how the world inside your little bubble shifts and transforms magically with the spirit of the holiday. This happens for millions of Muslims all over the world during Eids, but not yet for my mini Muslims. No, for us, the magic is still relentlessly felt between November and December starting with Thanksgiving and the festivities and anticipation (and holiday movies!) leading up to Christmas and petering off after New Years.
Our transitions away from the more traditional American celebration of Christmas also put some awkward barriers up between us and our family and friends. Those closest to us struggled with figuring out what extent we were comfortable being included in their holiday traditions. Do we buy their kids presents? Many wondered. Do we invite them over for our holiday parties? Can grandma still buy her grandkids Christmas presents? It was a sudden shift in tradition that threw off our dynamics with literally our entire family, Christian or not. My mom reminded me of how holidays are what people make of them and Christmas for us was never about religion when she raised me. Hmmm. Food for thought…
And then there were cookies. A tradition going back not only through my childhood but through generations. Every year we invite family and friends over to our house for a cornucopia of cookie baking, just as my mom had done with us and her mom with her. Fattymands, sugar cookies, chocolate chip, and always a couple new recipes thrown in amongst the classics. Sure, I could bake the cookies at a different time of the year, but…wait! No I couldn’t! By definition a tradition is unchanging, steadfast over the years and across generations. How could I move cookie baking?!? So I didn’t. The one thing that has remained consistent for our family is our sugar infested bake-a-thon. It wasn’t about Jesus, peace and blessings be upon him. It wasn’t about Santa either. It was about us. Ok, and copious calories in cookie form.


Ghost of Christmas Future.

Regardless of your religious persuasion, you may not agree with my take on the jolly man with the red suit or the deeply religious tradition of the baby in a manger, and trust me, I understand. Not celebrating Christmas in a certain way may offend you. Participating in Christmas in any way, shape, or form may offend you. Stuck between two worlds, my family and I must forge our own traditions, so going forward, here is my take on the “holiday season” and my Muslim Christmas:
Traditions are not just about religion. They are about culture. Family. A glue that holds us all together across familial generations. Eids are a new tradition in our house, and are growing in their luster. We welcome our family and friends, regardless of their faith, into our homes to celebrate with us. We buy them gifts, which they gracefully accept. Who am I then to turn my back on their- nay, our traditions? How can I turn away gifts offered with the same love and respect to us for Christmas? We don’t have to put up a Christmas tree, we don’t have to celebrate the birth of one of our greatest and most beloved prophets.
What we can do is accept the love and kindness offered this time of year and return it in kind, now and during our own, newly established celebrations. We can allow the children to continue to learn about Christmas and Jesus, may Allah’s peace and blessings be ever upon him, as long as they understand the historical from the mythical. We can attend work parties and visit friends and family, just as we welcome them into our house for Eid Al-Fatr or Eid al-Adha.
Just as Friends and family wish us "Eid Mubarak," despite not being Muslim, so too can I wish people "happy holidays" or even, gasp, "merry Christmas." It’s not about embracing or agreeing with another’s beliefs or spiritual practices, it is about acknowledging the deeply rooted traditions of our family and our society and finding the middle ground.

And the cookie baking tradition. Well, I think it’s pretty clear it’s not going anywhere! As a matter of fact, for our family it is today.  As a second matter of fact, Grandma just walked in, so if you will excuse me, I have to get up to my elbows in sugar and all-purpose baking flour.

Whatever your beliefs, traditions, or religious preference:
 may Allah's peace, mercy, and blessings be upon you!
السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته As-salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu!




Sunday, October 16, 2016

Indeed With Hardship Will Be Ease



“Indeed With Hardship Will Be Ease”
Qur'an 94:6

So many people in my life, including myself, are going through a sort of crucible at this moment. For some it’s their health, for others, relationships. Some are struggling with faith or to find their place in this world or to reconcile unmet life goals with the realization that time is ticking by and their dreams are still out there… somewhere. Every trial I have ever had turned into a blessing, as will every trial I am going or will go through. I know it in my heart even if I cannot see it with my eyes. “Say, ‘Never will we be struck except by what Allah has decreed for us; He is our protector." And upon Allah let the believers rely.’” (Surat at-Tawba, verse 51, Quran.com)

So as I am going through my own lifemare I am silently shouting out to Allah subHanahu wa ta’ala (yes, silent shouting is a thing). My prayers are not as regular as they should be and I find myself making compromises, however small, both in how I handle myself and in my obedience to Allah subHanahu wa ta’ala. Yet at the same time I’m asking Him to hurry up and make it better already. All the while I am quite impatiently wondering what path do You have in mind for me? What does my future hold? See the problem in my approach yet?

I am going through what we religious folk like to call a trial- or a tribulation- take your pick of religious lingo. In other words, life is like, really hard right now. And my solution is to try for the quick fix which involves not embracing reality and growing through it, instead trying to manipulate it into something more palpable... and fast! If I were to give advice to anyone in my shoes it would be to not do what I am doing. In fact, I would tell them to take the Laura playbook and throw it out the window. Better yet, study it and do the opposite! So here’s my advice… to myself.

First, never turn your back on those who are most important to you, starting with God. Cutting your lifeline is not the way to survive. It is, however, a really good way to drown. So if you do nothing else to help your situation, pray. A lot. There is a peace that comes simply from taking a quiet moment to yourself to release the negative energy you have pent up inside. Therapists might tell you to journal to get your feelings out. Well, this is like journaling on steroids only you don’t have to go back later and re-read how silly or ridiculous you sounded while you were all worked up. You just let it go into the ether for someone else to deal with.

Prayer helps us to put into perspective the smallness of our problems while still acknowledging their bigness… Follow me on this one: Prayer is talking to Allah subHanahu wa ta’ala, The Creator of all the world. You’re telling God about your finances or your marriage or a health problem. Any problem you can throw at Him is pretty small potatoes compared to, um, God! And yet, as you pray, you are also acknowledging the impact of it on your life and how desperately you need to seek help from something or someone outside yourself. You are able to cry out about its immensity in your heart and on your mind, and the best part is, you don’t even need to use words!.

Prayer is calming. It is relaxing. It is humbling. It is a chance, amidst the chaos we call life, to take a time-out and a deep breath and just be. Remember, Allah subhanaHu wa ta’ala doesn’t need our prayers, we do. So when we stop praying, it is our own souls we're neglecting.

Second, never compromise. You are better than that. Allah subhanaHu wa ta’ala put on your heart a set of expectations. Don’t let anything get in the way of those expectations. In order to be authentically you, you have to stick to your guns, both in your relationships with Allah and with others. Don’t give in just because it is hard at the moment. Don’t compromise who you are to make someone else happy or for the sake of ease.

Is it ok to have expectations and stick to them? There is a saying out there, on the interwebs, “the moment you settle for less than you deserve, you get less than you settle for.” When you start putting aside those virtues or behaviors that are important to you, you stop being authentically you and it becomes easier to make poor decisions or compromises. Be the one in control. Live up to the expectations on your heart. Why? Because it is not your expectations of others I am talking about but rather Allah’s expectations of you. Don’t be afraid to let that virtue define who you are!

Sometimes life is hard and requires you to walk a narrow path. Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable. Or worse: lonely. It’s ok! You are experiencing it for a reason. There’s a pretty good chance there is some growing and maturing involved, or perhaps an opportunity to set some priorities straight. It is not the time to lose who you are, but rather, define who you are, to become stronger and more resilient.   

Third, take your time and let the present be the present. Try to have no expectations of what is going to happen. Work through those things you are able to and release from your grip those things you cannot control. You cannot change the other person or force any relationship to be something it isn’t, but you can change yourself, improve your shortcomings, dare I say, shift your perspective. Find a way to find peace with the situation as it is, not as you want it to be. Then determine who you need to be in the situation. Don’t make decisions while high on emotions. Make them when you are feeling calm and logical. Don’t be afraid to listen to the advice of others. Sure, it feels just like a judgement and sounds like something you don’t want to listen to, especially if the advice is to be patient.… so let me tell you slowly and succinctly:

B e  p a t i e n t! Sabr. Sabr. Sabr.

Allah subHanahu wa ta’ala has a beautiful plan for you. If He wills something for you, it will happen. If He doesn’t, it won’t. Trying to hurry God’s plan is like trying to move a mountain with your mind. Are you a Jedi? I didn’t think so! Stop trying to move mountains, sit back, and relax!

That’s my advice to me. Might not sound like there was a solution in there, but trust me, sometimes the more we try to control a situation, the more out of our control it becomes. Insha Allah (God willing) I will see God’s plan for all that is happening at the moment when He is ready for me to see it, and not a moment sooner. This time of transition is new, somewhat painful, a little confusing, a tad exciting, but most of all, is a catalyst toward something better! As the Qur’an says,

“indeed with hardship will be ease.” (Surah Ash-Sharh 94:6)

As-salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu! Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Imagine this...




     I don’t normally like to get too serious or delve into heavy social subjects on my blog. I like to keep it light hearted...fun. My blog is more about encouragement and telling my story in a way that, God willing, will educate or inspire others. There is a topic, however, that has been weighing heavily on my heart. In this blog post, I am going to ask you to come on a walk with me. One that will be hard. One that, if you are taking it seriously, may be painful and emotional. Warning: it is going to get raw. My intentions are not to incite fear or anger, but empathy and understanding. If you are not down with that, I completely understand and urge you, sincerely, not to read. Instead, catch up on some of my older blogs, perhaps Why Islam or Why I Wear Hijab.

     Ok, if you are still with me, I only have one small request: open up your mind. Not just your imagination, but your understanding of the world.

     Picture the town you live in. Picture the parks: green grass, play equipment, children laughing and playing. Now, the schools: kids laughing and playing as teachers look on. How about the local grocery store? People from all walks of life filling carts and thinking about their to-do lists, jobs, families, etc. What does your town look like? Reflect on the peace, the people, the steady, somewhat chaotic pace of daily life.

     Feel the peace of mind as you unwind from your busy day. Feel the happiness you experience when sitting in your backyard, enjoying a BBQ. Maybe you are watching your kids run around, or visiting with friends, or maybe you are sitting by yourself, sipping on a glass of iced tea. Imagine a little later as you put your kids to bed and lay your head on your comfortable pillow after a long day. You are at peace. You are safe. You love your little corner of the world. You are proud of your nation and your heritage. You feel so blessed that God put you where he did.

     But things aren’t exactly perfect. It seems these days people are more divided than united. So many voices calling for change in so many different ways, often calling for opposing actions. All of them are right, or none of them, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that is perfectly clear is that people are not getting along and the chasm between them is growing wider and wider. But it’s ok! Everything will work out. Remember, you are in a safe neighborhood. You are in a safe country.
Imagine for me now a random house on your street. You don’t know the family well but you know they consider themselves to be nationalistic, patriotic, and true to their God. Their roots date back to the founding of the nation. They are proud. They love their country. They grumble openly about the corruption of values in society today, about how something needs to be done before the country they love so much deteriorates further into moral decay. You still don’t know it, but they are growing more and more dissatisfied as, according to them, they see the fabric of their society coming apart. They decide it is time for a change.

     They are not alone in their dissatisfaction. Many throughout the nation begin to echo such sentiment. Slowly, quietly, right under your nose, a movement begins. And it grows. Pretty soon this movement becomes organized, with their most militant members numbering in the hundreds. You may, by that time, have heard some blips on the media. A few outbursts here, a demonstration gone violent there, the bombing of a church belonging to an ethnicity the perpetrators claim are children of Satan. All tragic, but all far away from you, in another part of the country. At this point, you have no idea your neighbor is involved.

     And so you go about your business, getting up, going to work, caring for your family. You are confident your nation’s law enforcement will quickly get a handle on things. You still don’t even know that at that very moment your neighbor is edging ever closer to the extremism born of fear, ignorance, and desperation that leads people to commit unimaginable acts. Sure, you’ve heard them utter their slurs and angry remarks, but everyone’s entitled to their prejudices, right? Even ignorant prejudices.

     Months, maybe years, go by as the water grows slowly hotter, so slowly you didn’t even realize how bad it’s become. The members of this extremist group are now openly calling for the downfall of your government and have taken part in many violent outbursts. As they call for liberty and justice people begin to herald their call, taking up proverbial arms on social media and through financial contributions. Skirmishes break out between the police and the group, resulting in casualties on both sides but worse, among the innocent civilians. Militants blame the police and among many distraught ears, their voices are heard. Their numbers swell, now in the tens of thousands. But that’s not all that’s rising. The death toll is too.

     You begin to worry now. Where once you put your kids to bed without a second thought, now you fear for their safety. What if one of those events on the news, a bombing of a mall or the killing of specific ethnicities, happens in your town? What will you do to protect your family? People in the heavily affected areas begin to leave the country, fleeing to safety in the hopes of one day returning to the country of their birth. You, however, continue to push the fear aside. After all, this is still a safe country, isn’t it? The unrest will die down and normalcy will continue. Besides, where would you go? You have a family, a house, a career. And so you push on, sharing in the fear, but largely trying to just get by.

     One day things change. The unspeakable happens. The family down the street from you is recruited by the militant organization to take part in militant operations. They intend to send a message to the government that they mean business. They plan to hit the nation where it hurts, to wake people up. Overnight your peaceful, quiet town is flooded with military looking individuals, but they are not military. They are a few hundred of the militant members of the extremist group. They parole the streets, bully the citizens, shout their propaganda, and begin establishing their own laws. They are hyper religious and intend to turn people back to the “right path”. If people won't do so willingly, well, they are ready to apply force. You don’t know what is going to happen, but they are planning something big.

     Now you are ready to leave, but it’s too late. The extremist group is not allowing people to leave.  You don’t sleep at night, you have pulled the kids from school, and you’re afraid to go to the store to feed your family. In a bizarre twist of fate, the government has shut off supplies to your area in the hopes of forcing the militants to concede. No food, no water, no bad guys. But they are not the ones who suffer.

     Your family goes days living off of meager supplies, bottled water, and sheer willpower. One of your kids have become sick but there is no medicine in the town and so you worry about how you will care for him. You typically don’t eat, leaving what little food there is for your children. As a result, you are growing more exhausted and you wonder how you will make it through each day or how you will get your family out of the hellish town once so beloved to you.

     Military troops are sent into the town to face off against the enemy, but they aren’t troops from your country, they are foreign. The troops are not as familiar with the surroundings and urban warfare leaves them at a disadvantage. Buildings are bombed, storefronts are pelleted with stray bullets, and people are cowering in fear.

     Weeks go by before they pull back, leaving behind them the devastation from skirmishes that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocents. People you knew. People who were your friends, who had hopes and dreams. Children in your town have stopped laughing and playing as they witness the tragic events around them. Life for them has become hopeless. No comfort comes from the fact that other nations are rallying together to end the threat. More forces seem only to mean more destruction and loss of lives.

      You imagine perhaps this story has a happy ending, one of the rescue and rebirth of your nation, but this story has no happy ending. A bomb is targeted at your neighbor’s house, where, unbeknownst to you, key leadership of the extremist group is meeting. But the bomb misses, just by a hair. You survive, but you dig desperately through the rubble. Your children, who have not been attending school, were in the house! Please God, let them live! You think fervently, eyes tear-filled, as you remove one piece of shattered wood after another. Never in your life have you prayed so hard and so sincerely.

     Imagine with me that you are about to face the hardest trial in your life. You are about to discover you will have to burry your beloved children.

     I know that must be painful to imagine. No one wants to think about their world being shattered, but bear with me for one more moment as you imagine in the scenario one more detail about who you are. In this scenario you are Syrian. You see, this blog post is not the story of a government. Nor is it the story of the extremist groups. It’s not about ideals or who’s right and who’s wrong in the Syrian or any civil war. This is the story of the everyday people, caught in the middle of a horrific war zone as forces from all sides battle each other at their doorsteps. Can you imagine now being a refugee being told you have to go back to that home?

     May Allah's peace, mercy, and blessings be upon all those who are living in war torn nations. May Allah  subHana wa ta’ala guide us to show his mercy to those less fortunate.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What? You’re Muslim?!?



What? You’re Muslim?!?


   I got a Facebook message the other day that got my cerebral gears a-turnin’. It was from a woman I had not yet met who had seen my posts on a secular Facebook page- a page that focused on health and fitness. She contacted me because in my picture I was wearing a headscarf which identified me as a Muslim. She was excited because she had recently come to Islam and was surprised to stumble across another local Muslim woman. I mean, what are the odds that in a town with a ridiculously tiny Muslim community she would find me on Facebook chatting about, of all things, a killer cross training session? After all, as a conversation topic, it really has squat to do with Islam.

   Having found each other “across the room,” we struck up a chat on Messenger and she opened up about some of her experiences as a new Muslim. I will not tell her story as it is not mine to tell. Suffice it to say many of her experiences mirrored many of my own. I had flashbacks to my own experience before my family knew I was Muslim. As I read her texts, I empathized with her. Coming to Islam in the Western world has it's challenges. On the one hand, having found peace and security in your beliefs is exciting and you want to tell everyone what you are experiencing. On the other hand, you know the negative stereotypes and fear surrounding Islam and it is easy to expect the worst.

   When I came to Islam, news spread like wildfire. Some people I told personally, others heard through the grapevine, which was often worse as they questioned why I hadn’t gone straight to them sooner with the "news". It wasn’t easy. In fact, it felt like I was admitting to some horrible crime or social taboo. Come to think of it, I kinda was. It is indeed taboo to embrace something at the center of so much controversy: Islam, of all religions, and NOW, of all the times in history. While it’s not a crime to be Muslim, the toxic fear running through the nation’s social veins is that Muslims are violent, hateful people. It was appalling to people that I could identify with it and hard for them to digest. They had to relearn how to relate to me, something I never saw coming.

   To me, when Allah subHanahu wa ta’ala brought Islam to me, it was like He gave me a word to describe something I had always known but could not identify. It was like I had always been wearing green, but only then learned the word for the color. Green! Al hamdu lil-llah (praise God), that’s what it’s called! From my perspective, in those early days, I felt I was still exactly the same person, but newly had a word to describe what I was wearing!

   To others, it was not so simple and so arose a conflict between my perception and theirs. My brother described my impact on people in terms I finally understood.  He used a pool as a metaphor for the space in which our lives all cross paths. It was as though I cannonballed into the pool, causing unexpected waves, causing some to get splashed in the face in a way that was shocking and uncomfortable. As he described it, people just needed time for the waves to calm, for them to come to terms with the new conditions in the proverbial family pool. From their perception, it was as though I told them all this time that they’ve known me, I had actually been a boy. It required them to redefine “Laura” and adjust accordingly.


   As I reflected on my story and that of my friend, I realized she and I just learned firsthand how difficult it is to “come out:” to reveal a truth about yourself that has always been there, always been an intimate part of who you are, but the signs of which people did not see or perhaps chose not to acknowledge. I now have a whole new respect for people who find it difficult to make certain things public. The backlash is not always easy. The “coming out” struggle that some people go through is not about getting attention, forcing others to agree with your lifestyle, or about straying from the status quo. It is about peeling back the layers of the socially acceptable “you” and letting the real you shine through.

   I've learned to be patient with those who are struggling with my beliefs. Not all my relationships survived my embrace of Islam, but insha Allah (God willing) with time and sabr (patience) the bonds of blood will overcome our differences in opinion about the nature of God. Most of my relationships; however, stood the test and are thriving. And whadda ya know… Allah has blessed me with many new relationships that build on and strengthen my Iman (faith in God). Masha Allah (it is as God wills)! Being more and more vocal about my faith means being more and more me, so let me tell you, struggle or no, it feels really good!
   If you, the reader, are going through something similar, I want to reassure you. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Every situation is different, and there might not be a “happily ever after” and I cannot promise that if you just hang in there everything will work out perfectly. But there is blessing in the trial and it does get easier. I have grown more and more confident talking about my faith and the more I learn about Islam and the more I talk to people, the more confident I become, not in myself, but in my Islam. I no longer skirt the issue of my faith or try to avoid the looks on their face when I tell people I am Muslim. I stand up now with an assurance that while people may not always accept me for who I am (Islam or no), I am strong enough to take that hit and keep on rolling.


May Allah subHanahu wa ta’ala continue to guide us all and teach us to love and accept each other for exactly who we are! As-salaamu alay

kum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu! Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings!



Friday, July 15, 2016

Muslim in the Military



For the previous 15 years, I have dutifully served my nation and my local community as a member of the Air National Guard. I’ve always been proud of my calling, proud of my brothers and sisters in arms, proud of the heritage I inherited and, Insha Allah (God willing), will pass on to future generations. Recently, however, something has happened. Something that caused me to reevaluate just what it means to be a member of the Air National Guard. As most of you readers already know, I converted to Islam 2 years ago and have since been on a path of learning and self-discovery that has included some pretty drastic outward and, insha Allah (God willing), inward changes. To some people this has been difficult to accept. For others it was joyous news. To the vast majority, it held no significance other than the passing curiosity: Why Islam? As far as my military career goes, it has been a change of opportunity. Being a member of the Chaplain Corps, I feel this change has put me in a unique position and given me a unique perspective to more fully understand and cater to the needs of a diverse population.
Recently I began the next step in my journey of modesty and obedience. I requested a religious accommodation to be allowed to wear my headscarf in uniform. To some, especially from Muslim nations, that might not sound like much. Certainly it would not seem to be as significant as putting on the hijab (traditional head covering) in the first place. The fact of the matter is, it was a much bigger, much more difficult step. In fact, it took far more determination (and time) for me to simply get the process started than it did for me to start wearing the hijab with my normal attire in the first place.
Religious accommodations, in general, are few and far between. Accommodations requiring a change in uniform appearance are rarer still. Mine? Virtually unheard of in the military. One reason is that the majority of military members quite simply do not require such accommodation. Another is that many have not made a request or are unsure how to. Then there is the dark little secret… that changes in uniform are just not that simple to accommodate. We are after all a military force and uniformity is among our most important unifying factors. It is the visible reminder that we are all brothers and sisters, fighting for the same cause, representing the same body of people: Americans. We need to operate as a seamless, well-oiled machine, not as a hodge-podge of random parts, each doing what it wants rather than what the machine requires.
 
Naturally, when an accommodation is requested to alter your uniform in such a way that you appear different from your fellow Airmen (or soldiers or sailors for that matter), those in charge of making such decisions must hit the pause button and consider the issue from many different angles. How is it going to impact the member’s ability to do his/her job? How is it going to affect their safety? How will it impact unit morale and cohesion? Oh… That last one’s a doozie! If we allow someone to alter their uniform appearance, how will that affect the unit around them? How do we even measure that? And so, such accommodations remain few and far between. Over the years, a shift in the understanding of diversity has slowly allowed men from Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim faiths to wear religious headgear while in uniform. Still, a full hijab is arguably a bit more extreme than the skull caps or turbans of our male counterparts.

Ok, enough with the fun facts, let's get back to my story! As I said, I went and did something pretty unprecedented, not only for my base, but for the Air Guard, and perhaps even the wider Air Force.  I asked to add a scarf to my uniform to cover my hair and neck. Whaaaaaaaaa? Seriously? Yep. I did. I know. It was crazy. But the even crazier part is the reaction from my leadership. I did not know what would happen when the wing commander saw my package. Would he gawk? Would he laugh? Should I warn him in advance so he’s not blindsided? Would he say “no way are we going to be able to accommodate that” and deny my request? What he did absolutely blew me away! Without hesitation, indeed with eagerness to do the right thing- not just for a single member, but for the Guard as a whole- he approved my request!

In my office at our base chapel on my first day wearing
hijab in uniform.

Now, slow down there cowboy … Before you get to dancing and celebrating, I should clarify, he is only able to approve indoor wear for my installation and we are still working on the request to broaden the accommodation. You see, a commander’s authority on the matter is limited and my request needs to go through more channels before I can wear my hijab outdoors while in uniform. The significance of this first approval though, cannot be understated. To even have that approval is groundbreaking. So with that caveat you can commence with some celebratory cheers and a few high fives!
If I am just one woman, and it is just one accommodation, why is it such a big deal? I mean, to me personally, it is pretty clear why, but what about the bigger picture? My accommodation does not just affect me. I am just a small part of a larger effort made by many people, of many religions, to slowly and respectfully change the atmosphere of the armed forces to more fully embrace diversity. Accommodations are not designed to subtract from the cohesion of the larger military body, but rather to bring more inclusion into that body, thus broadening our pool of knowledge and experience.
Sure, I have heard the complaints that religious accommodations are unfair, subtract from uniformity, or somehow take something (that nebulous “something”) away from other members. Just imagine, when people know that signing on to be a member of the armed forces does NOT mean they have to sacrifice the beliefs they hold so dear, how many more will join or remain members? How many women, for example, who could not join because they are not willing to discard their modesty will perhaps soon look to the military as a viable option for serving their country and communities? How many more military members will encourage the brothers and sisters of their religious institutions to join a force that upholds their rights to freedom of religion?

Talking with the Wing Chaplain in our little worship room.

My leadership, specifically my Wing Commander (who deserves a little shout out!), recognized this potential and did not hesitate to be a part of something bigger than just our base. They saw my accommodation as an opportunity to do the right thing, not just for me, but to set the precedence for those who will come after me. They recognize something that some people are still struggling to understand: that religious accommodation is not a force divider, it is a force multiplier! So I re-evaluated my pride in belonging to a prestigious military organization. I belong to so much more than that. I belong to a family… and I could not be more proud!

Until next time…السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته
Peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah and his blessings!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

As a Muslim, what are your intentions?

  


  I’ve been doing some self-reflecting lately- thinking about intentions and perceptions. The intentions being mine and the perceptions being others'. When I chose to do something for Allah swt, such as dressing more modestly, excusing myself to go pray, declining pork or other foods that are not allowed, what is my true reason for doing it? Am I living for Allah subHaanahu wa ta`aalaa (glorified is He and exalted),  making my choices based on His will for me and not my own agenda? Or am I on a war path toward social justice determined to educate the world about Muslims and punch the concept of Islamophobia in it’s big, ugly schnoz?

    I recently had someone question my intentions in regards to how I dress. Is it a way to show people who Muslims are, as though to say, “Look, I am a Muslim woman?” Is it to make a stronger statement to people who fear Muslims? “Muslims aren’t all terrorists! Accept us!” Or am I truly just following the commands of Allah swt. I will admit, I was both appalled and insulted at the insinuations that I might have ulterior motives. I’m pretty stinkin’ sure I came off as more than a little defensive as I felt forced to defend my position on my hijab. I left the conversation quite emotionally charged. Scratch that…  I was angry and offended. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, and I like a good, decent debate now and again, but I struggle with people challenging my character. I haven’t yet learned the humility and self-confidence required to handle with grace the moment when someone stabs at your motivations or intentions.

Chalk it up to years of insinuations coming from the other end of the spectrum. Being called names like “goodie-two-shoes,” “geek,” and “nerd”, eventually built within me a kind of confidence that if that is the worst they have, I must not be too bad. I have found in small doses over the years and in glaring examples such as this one since adhering to Islam that I do not have the emotional conditioning to be okay with someone thinking my intentions may be bad. Allah swt answers the prayer “help me be more patient” by putting someone in your life who tests your patience at every possible moment. So too He answers the prayer “help me keep my intentions pure and fixed on you” by sending someone who causes you to do some serious self-reflecting.
   
    Upon said reflection, I realized two things. First, it doesn’t matter whether I want people to see that I am a Muslim or whether I want to educate people about the teachings of Islam. Those are both noble causes in and of themselves.  Second, I do want people to know I am a Muslim woman. I do want people to know that Islam and terrorism are not synonymous. I do want Allah swt to use me to make a difference in this world, if even only in the heart of one person. So rather than being insulted, really, I should have embraced it. Being called a social activist is akin to being called a goodie-two-shoes. It is a reflection of how your actions are perceived by others but  it is a badge of honor, not an offense against my character.
   
My experience since coming to Islam has been so blessed that I have hesitated to discuss the negative aspects of my experience. The last thing I want is to paint myself as a victim when in all reality, what I have experienced can be summed up as nothing more than, well, life. It happens. People like you and people don’t. A situation is easy, or it's difficult. People accept you for who you are, or they struggle to accept you, or in some cases, they refuse to. You don’t have to carry a label to experience a little challenge in your life now and again. I see such challenges as blessings from Allah swt that help teach us strength, fortitude, and above all else, humility. Each moment is an opportunity for me to learn about others, learn about myself, and become a better Muslim.  

Now about those perceptions….. As my faith takes on physical manifestations such as those discussed above, how am I impacting those around me? Tune in next time! In the meantime ...


As-salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu! (may peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings!)