2010: A year of hate?

2010 was not a great year if you were Muslim, Gay, or Hispanic. Massive protests against the construction of Muslim places of worship and community centers, discriminatory legislation singling out Hispanic communities in Arizona, and increased harassment and targeting of Gay Americans often resulting in tragic suicides were among the highlights of what it meant to be a member of these communities in 2010. Eboo Patel’s wonderful piece on tolerance in America gave me the inspiration to reflect on this issue in 2010 a year in which hate reigned supreme and diversity was on the defense. We must reflect on what went wrong in 2010 or we will make the same mistakes in 2011.

Although Americans saw a spike in intolerant discourse in 2010, we did witness positive actions. We saw Americans coming together to promote tolerance avoiding Qur’an burnings, fighting back against discriminatory legislation, and repealing discriminatory policies. We saw many Americans coming together to fight for equal rights, diversity, and freedom. There were many advances in the promotion of tolerance in America and we should celebrate those who stood up for equality, even though there is still work to do.

In order to prevent intolerance and discrimination from gaining ground in 2011, like a cancer we have to cut it off at the source. I believe that the surge of intolerance that spread across the nation like wildfire in 2010 coincides with the rise of the “political” group known as the Tea Party.

This very active and vocal group of extremely far Right Republican voters and activists came into power unified and monolithic in their political beliefs and ideology, and their rejection of a diverse America fueled their rage. Tea Party members tend to be from the least ethnically, socially, and religiously diverse populations in America and tend to vote primarily for Republican candidates.

This group was started, supported, and given a platform on major media outlets, and whenever we witnessed hostile discourse concerning policies affecting diverse groups of Americans, Tea Party supporters were involved. Tea Party candidates and supporters were at the forefront of every major discussion involving Muslims, Gays, or Hispanics in 2010 resulting in some of the most vile and bigoted discourse to air in the national media in decades. I believe that if this group was not given the platform that they were given, the level of intolerance wouldn’t have been so high.

Why is this important?

Whenever you have a monolithic group whose views are diametrically opposed to those different from themselves, and this group is given national prominence, support, and funding, then it’s only a matter of time before their will is established and enforced among the general populace. Whether is was the debate about Park 51 in Manhattan, Immigration Law in Arizona, or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in Congress, wherever the Tea Party and their supporters were given a platform, they capitalized on these issues as political and ideological opportunities. Tea Party politicians eagerly fed off of Tea Party “frustration” and in many cases it resulted in legislative victories and won elections in November.

I find it no coincidence that the rise of the Tea Party also resulted in the rise of intolerance in America in 2010. If we are to learn from this year and avoid similar consequences in 2011, Muslim, Gay, Hispanic, and other diverse communities will have to work together in the spirit of tolerance. We have to realize if we are apathetic toward the challenges facing one group different from our own, we only risk allowing those same challenges to visit our group at a later time. If we allow the voices of exclusion to gain the upper hand in the national discourse, we should not be surprised the next time discriminatory legislation and policy is put in place. In 2011 we are now faced with a legislative body placed into power on a tide of intolerance, if we are to fight back; we have to be committed to working together. Alone we are just various individual communities, together we represent the diverse and true face of what makes America great. Now is the time to bring our voices and causes together, so that in the future as we embark on the close of another year, we can remember 2011 as the year that America’s highest values and truths were restored.

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Changing my Religion

For when they are told, “Come unto that which God has bestowed from on high, and unto the Apostle” – they answer, “Enough for us is that which we found our forefathers believing in and doing.” Why, even though their forefathers knew nothing, and were devoid of all guidance? Qur’an 5:104

For the greater part of my life I lived, believed, prayed, taught, studied, and thought as a Christian. The tragic events of September 11th changed all that.

I admit that for the last 9-10 years since I converted to Islam that the circumstances and reasoning as to why I changed my religion I have been somewhat ambiguitious. Surely I have written and spoken about the nature of my conversion at length and given some detail, but I have never truly been comfortable openly speaking out concerning the theological and spiritual debate that I waged within myself. Most assume based on my commentary over the years that for whatever reason some negative and some positive, that upon discovering the Qur’an I just took to it and like magic “presto” I wanted to be a Muslim.

It was never like that no matter how vague my recollection and retelling of the events are. I know exactly why I converted and why almost a decade later I am just as committed to being a Muslim as I was then. I have been so abstract in my commentary due to my overwhelming desire to avoid creating a situation where my words could be used in anyway to promote a false idea that I am somehow against Christianity.

I am against Christianity due to theological irreconcilable differences in some ways; however, I never wanted these differences I expressed to come off as an admonishment of who I was, who my family is, and what I generally think of those whom I love who are Christian. It has always been my desire to not add fuel to the flames of any lingering resentment or mistrust due to my rejection of the religion that we once had in common.

However, there comes a time in everyone’s life where there are things that have to be said regardless of any emotional feedback. As I read the Qur’an today as is my daily custom, I began to reflect on the above quoted ayah and how it applied to my daily struggle in my path toward my Creator. I remembered how this verse and the various others like it were instrumental in my conversion process giving me the light bulb moment that led to my embrace of Islam.

I remembered what it was like in those early days as I read the Qur’an over and over. I remembered how I agreed with every major point that was written yet, held back and held on to what I believed. I remembered that it wasn’t until I meditated on the question presented in this verse that I was able to convince myself that I was brave enough to become a Muslim.

If given clear proofs and presented clear truths, will you still hold on to your former beliefs and practices because that’s what your forefathers did?

This question transformed, challenged, and made me question who I was as a person. It was as if I were being asked what I would say to a person who knowingly crossed a bridge after being warned about the imminent collapse especially if that person accepted the warning as credible. I would call that person a fool and believe anyone would. This is the closest I can come to explaining what the debate that waged within me was like in those days prior to my conversion.

Although, I had read the Qur’an cover to cover had accepted a great many truths within, I refused to make the decision to convert. It wasn’t until I realized that I was that guy walking across the bridge that I understood that I continued to walk anyway because I was concerned about what my family, friends, and command would say.

It was much easier in my mind to continue with business as usual even though I knew that my outlook on this life and my place within this world was dramatically altered. I felt that it was easier. I could continue with my life paying lip service to God concerning my faults because after all I was already “forgiven” right?

Eventually, I chose not to cross that bridge heeding the warning and the rest is history. I wonder how many people cross that bridge daily and the emotional and spiritual turmoil that choice must create within one’s mind and thoughts.

How many people knowingly live unfulfilled lives because they choose not to embrace those the truths that they have internally and readily accepted? How many of us go through the motions afraid to be who we choose to be because we are too afraid to offend or hurt those whom we love?

For years, I struggled worrying about the way my family viewed my conversion and dutifully toed the line in my rhetoric careful not to inflame passions and fears that somehow my beliefs were a rejection of them. I realize now that I would only be hurting myself in the end if I continued to bite my tongue when asked about these sensitive and delicate matters.

It boggles the mind when I consider how many people could I have potentially influenced for the better if I had clearer with my words. How many times have my words been read or circulated? I don’t imagine that I’m important in the big scheme of things, however I can’t shake the thought that if but one person over the years found themselves walking toward bridge, and stumbled upon my words, that maybe I were just a little clearer, that I could I have been a catalyst in preventing their crossing.

I truly believe there are many people follow what they do because it’s all they know. There’s a false sense of comfort and security in routine and avoiding change. Often this sense of comfort is justified because people don’t want to offend their loved ones.

I have encountered many Christians in my time as a Muslim that readily accept many Qur’anic teachings and lessons. They listen to Muslims quote the Qur’an and nod their heads in agreement, but for whatever reason won’t explore Islam any further than the lecture, interfaith event, or dialogue they have attended.

I believe that for most of them they just can’t conceive a life in which they must openly reject what they are used to. Comfort easily trumps reason in their minds, I know because I was there. It’s hard to imagine not waking up to open gifts on Christmas, the Easter egg hunts, trick or treating, or many of the “liberties” that come with being a Christian. The Christianity that many Americans follow allows one to live in a society where “living your life” and still believing isn’t necessarily opposites of one another ideologically. To many Islam represents a complete rejection of worldly “comforts” and it is to a degree. Islam enjoins upon it’s believers for all practical purposes complete and total change. The way you talk, the way you eat, and in some cases the way you dress, are all parts of the change Islam requires and are diametrically opposed to countless habits many are accustomed to. When given a choice between chopped BBQ, clubbing, promiscuity, pop culture and Islam, I can say from experience that for many, especially those of my generation, Islam isn’t all that appealing. Islam is like the US Marine Corps of religion requiring of adherents the dedication, discipline, and service to higher principles and practices that the non adept openly ridicule as too rigorous, too challenging, and unattainable but only for a few.

The problem isn’t with Islam. The problem lies within man’s perceived notion of comfort in a society unequipped, unwilling, and unable to present clear distinctions between what is right, fair, and just. A society incapable of challenging it’s citizens in the proper to use their God given faculty to reason beyond their lower carnal desires in search of those higher principles and teachings that ultimately reject the ideas, habits, and beliefs that are as natural to us as getting dressed in the morning.

This ayah in the Qur’an challenges the reader to do something many of us are unwilling to do which is to be brave. It takes a lot of courage to reevaluate, re-prioritize, and reject those things that we are accustomed to especially when we know they are bad for us.

When I look at my peers who like to have “fun” knowingly engaging in acts that their grandmothers wouldn’t approve of, all the while proclaiming this or that religion, I see these choices as a classic example of what happens when one’s comforts have become superior to one’s truths.

I wonder how many people would continue on their paths if the perceived discomforts and fears associated with change were removed. Imagine if when one changed their beliefs and practice that instead of being asked “what is wrong with you?” you were asked “what is right with you?” would our ability to change increase?

Many believe and practice what they do not necessarily because it’s a major part of who they are as a person, but because that’s all they know. It’s comfortable that way. When religion becomes lip service and more routine than substance, it’s very easy for people to openly declare one thing while practicing another. Given the choice I believe there are many who would embrace Islam in its purity devoid of cultural, political, or sectarian ideology given the knowledge, opportunity, and support that’s necessary once truth is presented and it’s up to those of conscious to allow themselves to be that support when called upon.

I have decided that I will allow myself to be a support through my words and actions never again mincing my words out of some preconceived idea, notion, or fear concerning the feelings of family and friends who believe differently. Besides, what is love if one cannot openly express what they believe to be true, because of fear?