Of current events, triggers, and moral bankruptcy (II)

As events unfold in Syria and Iraq, I am brought face to face with so many deeply troubling aspects of what we used to believe. As well as what we weren’t told. And yeah, chose not to see.

For several weeks now, I have been debating whether or not to actually try to blog about some of these issues. These are really difficult issues to think about, much less talk about. And how would trying to talk about this be at all constructive?

But I see that threekidsandi has blogged about the situation in Sinjar (northwestern Iraq, where thousands of members of the Yezidi minority are trapped on a mountain by the so-called “Islamic State”, formerly known as ISIS). So, I suspect that I’m not the only convert/ex-convert who is being triggered by these events and is having a great deal of difficulty processing them.

Why? For a number of reasons, I guess. As converts or ex-converts who were part of very ethnically diverse communities, some of us knew people from those areas, or who now live there, and we now worry and hope that they are ok. In that, we are not so different from many other Muslims in North America.

But there, the similarities end. For some of us, the antics of the so-called “Islamic State” (I’ll use “IS” from here on in) raise serious theological questions, evoke survivors’ guilt, and finally undermine whatever lingering trust in or regard for our former leaders that we might still have.

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Of current events, triggers, and moral bankruptcy

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to entirely ignore current events. Some of the news headlines recently have been very triggering. We lived through all this stuff in the ’80’s and ’90’s, and recent events keep bringing it back.

I am glad to no longer be living in any of the conservative Muslim communities that I was involved in or had dealings with, because I remember all too well how they used to deal with these sorts of international events: Incendiary, polarizing, us (Muslims… and therefore always in the right) versus them (kuffaar… and therefore evil) rhetoric from the minbar. Protests. Incessant calls to boycott X, Y and Z companies and products. Fundraising dinners, allegedly for refugees and orphans produced by the conflict—though in those days there was often little financial accountability, so who knew where the money really went. Guest speakers at Islamic conferences and other gatherings who talked about their experiences with the conflict (and collected donations, allegedly for relief work). And of course, the duas at Friday Prayers for “the mujahideen in X, Y, Z… wa fi kulli makaan!” (You could usually tell what the imam’s sectarian and political leanings were by which “mujahideen” he would or wouldn’t pray for in those duas.) And at times of particular crisis, imams would recite the Qunoot an-naazila. Even back in my most koolaid drinking days, that prayer deeply disturbed me. Invoking God’s curse on people? Really?? What an absolutely horrible thing to do. But it was justified because it is supposedly the sunna.

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Do we “still” need feminism?

On a road trip with an old friend of mine—another formerly conservative convert—we were listening to the radio as we were driving along. And, lo and behold, the issue of the day that the radio host was discussing with several invited guests was the burning question of… (drum roll…) whether or not “we still need feminism.” As soon as he announced the topic, my eyes started rolling. I guess that’s part of getting old—because as far back as I can remember the media has been dredging up this non-issue at least every few years, with wearying regularity. And these discussions never seem to resolve anything.

This particular discussion was no exception. One of the guests was a rightwing woman who spent most of the time repeating well-worn Tea Party-ish talking points: Yes, feminism sort of did a bit of good for women way waaaay back in the day, by getting women the right to own property and attend universities and vote… but then it went right off the rails, because it turned into a movement that is all about putting men down and demonizing them, while trying to make women superior instead of equal. Feminism (she said) denies the innate differences between men and women, and promotes women neglecting their husbands and children, while stigmatizing women who want to stay home instead of having a career. Women are weaker than men, and women should celebrate and embrace this rather than deny it. Oh, and feminism is also bad because it promotes abortions.

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Impossible mimesis

Ramadan. The moon shining outside my window seems to mock me, saying: Ramadan will soon be gone, and what have you done? How many days have you fasted so far? How many rak’ats have you prayed, how many juz of the Quran have you read, how many iftars have you hosted or attended, how many times have you managed to pray tarawih? How many fard and sunna acts have you not performed—and in this blessed month, when every good act is rewarded more than at any other time of year? How many blessings are you missing the chance to gain? And if you’re not part of this mad rush for blessings, are you really part of this umma?

And I don’t know what to say, except—this is a big part of the problem. Yes, this kind of attitude has an awful lot to do with why so many things connected with Muslim belief and practice trigger me today. Why I’m basically burned out.

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Of (some) converts and online radicalization

So, another white American female convert has been arrested for allegedly providing aid to terrorists. Shannon Maureen Conley, or as she called herself, Halima Conley, from Colorado. Only 19 years old.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what was going on with her on the basis of media reports. If what they have to say is accurate, she comes across as someone who is very naive, socially isolated, socially awkward, takes things at face value… and doesn’t think before she speaks. Perhaps more of a danger to herself than anyone else—but still, she was apparently warned repeatedly that what she was planning to do is illegal, and she did not desist. What did she expect would happen? Was this some sort of a cry for help? An unconscious effort at self-destruction that unlike cutting or drunk driving or suicide attempts would be “moral” in her mind because she could explain it to herself as “religious persecution”?

As usual, the media is trying to explain how an apparently average American suburban young woman ended up not only converting to Islam but supporting a very extreme fringe group whose calling cards are death and more death.  Some turned to social media in search of clues to her radicalization process, and pointed to pictures that she had posted of herself wearing a baseball cap, a hijab, and then a niqab, as if that “progression” explains everything.

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I am a haunted house

For those of us with war-related ptsd, this time of year in North America can be particularly triggering, due to parades including uniformed soldiers, artillery salutes, fireworks and other similar things.

Is it possible to deconstruct sacred texts and stories that were used as weapons against us and others, so that their power to wound is taken away? (Artist: Ala Ebtekar http://www.torandj.com/works1.html)

How do we relate to sacred texts and stories that were used to justify war and torture and a long list of horrors, and to manipulate us into assenting to things that our consciences rejected? Are we forever at their mercy, trapped by the guilt that they were used to instill in us? Is it possible to read them instead of being always read by them?
(Artist: Ala Ebtekar http://www.torandj.com/works1.html)

There’s nothing quite like calmly walking down the street on a holiday afternoon, enjoying the sunshine… until you hear artillery, and even though you rationally know that no real shells are being used and nobody is dying you start to shake, and every ounce of your strength becomes focused on keeping yourself together and getting away from that sound as fast as is humanly possible.

Or like standing in a crowd of happy people ooh-ing and ah-ing over a spectacular display of fireworks, aware that you alone are unwillingly cringing at every boom and being reminded of aerial bombardments and you desperately want to be anywhere but here.

Trying to “ground oneself,” to remember that “that was then, this is now” and that this is just a patriotic holiday celebration and nobody is getting hurt. Trying, and not really succeeding. And feeling very, very alone in that sea of evidently happy people. They can enter into the holiday spirit. But although I can usually seem outwardly composed, inwardly, I am a haunted house.  I never know when the ghosts will reappear. Sometimes I’m almost sort of ok with fireworks and I think that I’m well on my way to overcoming this problem… and then I find that I’m not.

Back in the day, we were taught to recite certain verses from the Qur’an or masnun du’as when we were afraid or otherwise troubled, and it worked. But now, it usually makes things worse. So much of the violence that now haunts me was justified by men (and sometimes women) who quoted from those sacred texts and claimed authority due to their knowledge of them.

What I tend to find more helpful than the invocation of these texts is art that deconstructs their use as weapons in the hands of the powerful.

This particular series by Ala Ebtekar really helped when nothing else did. Not only was it wonderful to see a particular instance of religious wartime propaganda from the ’80’s represented and in the process  unmasked for what it was, but it provides a glimpse of the possibility of a future in which these ghosts might be neutralized. Shorn of their ability to terrorize, and put to work in the service of artistic creativity instead.

 

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Learning to leave it on the mountain

Recently, I went hiking up a mountain, in search of the remains of a ghost town.

What was left of the road was steep, and not in good repair. I got lost for a bit as well. But I finally found what I had been looking for—what was left of a ruined farmstead.

One of the few remaining buildings in Thistle, Utah. Photographed by Drew Zanki.

When you pour so many hopes and dreams (and so much effort) into something, it can be very hard to admit even to yourself that it was pretty much a lost cause from the beginning….
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thistle-Burried_House.jpg)

It was a bright sunny day. The sky was blue and the birds were singing.

Lichens grew on the large rocks that littered what had once been the pasture. A tree had grown in the middle of the remains of the small barn (which had long ago lost its roof). What was left of the foundations of the house was so overgrown with tall weeds that it was hard to gauge how large it had once been.

It was a lovely and yet despairing place.

The original settlers had been allotted that isolated swathe of rocky land up the mountain, with the promise that if they could build houses and produce crops on it that it would be theirs. They had come there expecting that they were getting land that could be farmed. They had had high hopes, thinking that the several families who were coming to farm there would establish a village, which would then become a town.

But what they found once they laboriously cleared the trees from the land was soil that was too thin and poor to grow wheat or corn or oats or much of anything. It wasn’t even very good for pasturing cattle.

The remains of their back-breaking labor were still evident in the stone fences and what was left of the buildings. They had moved those stones with oxen. They had cut, prepared and notched those logs by hand. But no matter how hard they worked, they had barely been able to scratch a living from that land. Within fifty years, the last of those settlers had come down from the mountain, abandoning their farms.

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