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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Oh, how they lied

I’m in the middle of reading what is so far a pretty awesome book: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition.

It's awesome because it's honest... at least, what I've read of it so far. Which is sad, really---why is being honest about "the tradition" so rare? What does this say about the self-styled bearers of "the tradition" who I dealt with that they couldn't be bothered to be  honest, or actively didn't seek to be? What is a tradition worth when people can't tell the truth about it?

It’s awesome because it’s honest… at least, what I’ve read of it so far. Which is sad, really—why is being honest about “the tradition” so rare? What does this say about the self-styled bearers of “the tradition” who I dealt with that they couldn’t be bothered to be honest, or actively didn’t seek to be? What is a tradition worth when people can’t tell the truth about it?

This is quite an experience. Parts of it are very triggering, frankly. Reading through all the medieval interpretations of Q 4:34 as well as the views of the jurists who followed the four Sunni madhhabs, was really something. Much of it I had encountered before, mostly through reading… but that was in dribs and drabs. The overall effect of all that delivered at one fell swoop was really, well… horrifying. Just bone-freezingly horrifying.

For several reasons: Because the misogyny of “the tradition” was simply undeniable. Because it kept mentioning things that had happened to friends of mine, or to me, or which had been reported on the news… and we had been assured that it is “unIslamic” and that “no true Muslim would do such a thing” or “this is a misinterpretation.” And it wasn’t true. Which brings me to the third, and in a way, the worst reason: Because they lied. Those imams, shaykhs, community leaders, study circle teachers, people we looked up to and trusted… lied.

I can’t count how many times down through the years that we were told in so many ways that marriage “according to the true teachings of Islam” is ultimately all about love and compassion. That while men and women have different roles in marriage, this is according to the design of the all-wise Creator, and therefore these differences are intended for the benefit of both of them, as well as for the benefit of the children, and society as a whole.

Well, not only does it turn out that this idea derived from 1950′s-’60′s functionalism (a very secular sociological theory devised by non-Muslims, btw—the horror!) rather than the Qur’an, the sunna or “the tradition,” but medieval Qur’an commentators and jurists to a man saw marriage primarily in terms of what men (aka not women, or even children) were entitled to. And among the things that most of these scholars held that a man is entitled to is an obedient wife. We’d heard that often enough… but with the edges of the definitions of “obedience” typically softened.

We heard different definitions of “obedience”—everything ranging from a woman performing her ritual duties properly, to obeying her husband in everything unless he commands her to do something sinful. But we never heard the opinion that a wife who, say, had been in the habit of meeting her husband with a smile but ceased to do so is “disobedient” and therefore should be admonished, separated from in bed, and if he deems it necessary, beaten. (!?)

This is the sort of interpretation that had me wondering wtf?? Since when does hitting someone for not being cheerful or welcoming enough make them more rather than less cheerful or welcoming? The author wryly points out that she can think of any number of reasons why a woman might not be in a smile-y mood (illness, tiredness… I’d add pregnancy or cramps or in-law problems) that have nothing to do with her attitude to her husband. But the scholars with this particular take on disobedience were not at all concerned with trying to understand why a wife might behave in a way that her husband finds less than satisfying, as the author points out—their focus was on what the husband is entitled to. He was entitled to a wife who pleases him. She however was not entitled to a husband who pleases her. If she got that, then that was a bonus, but she had no legal or moral right to it, in their view.

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How I know I’m still Muslim: because I’m still as critical as all hell :-(

Some days ago, someone sent me a link to a video of British Muslims being, well, happy. Lip-syncing, dancing, smiling, and acting goofy, mostly. Women, as well as men and children. Not all the women were wearing hijab. One hijabi was biking, and a number were dancing. I watched it, and had two automatic and rather contradictory reactions—”awww, that’s kind of cute” and “the following things in this video are haraam, makruh or at least Islamically questionable and therefore the makers probably should have avoided them, because X quranic verse and Y Z A hadiths and the sayings of such-and-such scholars.”

And the thing was, these were my automatic responses, that I didn’t even have to think about or try to formulate. Not just the “awww…” response, but the second one, the hyper-critical, These Are All The Things That Are Wrong Here And These Are The Proof-texts Why response.

Thinking about the second response, I am taken aback… and not in a good way.

Where does this hyper-critical response come from, complete with its associated proof-texts?

Sure, this stuff was all pounded into my head years ago, when I converted. But I’ve been away from conservative Muslim communities for a while now, and seldom interact with conservative Muslims (aside from a few family members). I don’t usually listen to conservative khutbas or attend mosques or read books written by conservatives or (god forbid) go to those fatwa sites. So, it’s not as though those attitudes and proof-texts could be expected to be uppermost in my mind, because they aren’t exactly receiving reinforcement.

And, these are mostly ideas that I don’t rationally believe in either (more on that in a minute).

So, where does this come from??

Well, wherever it comes from, it soon became evident that I was not the only person who has the same inbuilt Islamic Carping Criticism-o-meter (ICC), because it did not take long for a “halal” version of the video to be posted. Meaning, a version in which most of the women have been edited out, and those remaining are hijabis. Only the upper one-third of their bodies are shown, and they are mostly standing still. Not only are the dancing women now gone, but even the hijabi riding her bike.

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Boundaries

Years ago, I bought a copy of “Hijab–An Act of Faith” (way back when we still had VHS tapes). Recently, I noticed that I still own the thing, though I can’t actually watch it, because—like most other people nowadays—I don’t have a VCR. :-)

But fortunately (?) enough, someone in youtubeland apparently was thinking of people in my situation, because they posted a copy of it.

Ok, so I watched it. Just for old times’ sake, I guess. I remember that I bought that video, even though it was kinda pricey, because I thought that on the whole, it was pretty good. Unlike most of the pamphlets and books and talks about hijab that I had ever run across, it didn’t feature some solemn-faced guy telling the womenz how they should be dressing and behaving. It was mostly women talking… and they were confident and articulate.

It’s interesting how the passage of time can alter one’s perceptions.

Back in the day, the main thing that struck me about that video was how new and fresh it all seemed. Instead of the books and pamphlets admonishing women to ensure that their clothing complied with x number of detailed rules, or warnings of divine punishment for those who didn’t comply, or suggestions that women who don’t wear hijab are somehow responsible for causing men to sin (or that they bring harassment on themselves)… instead, a number of clearly intelligent, informed and socially active Muslim women talked about a range of issues. Whether it was the history behind contemporary western stereotypes of veiled women, or the impact of advertising on girls’ self-concept, it seemed that these sisters had it all down. When I watched it, I felt validated. And, confident that my daughters would find it inspiring and validating.

But now, watching it again all these years later, I notice things that didn’t really register before.

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