Saturday, May 28, 2005

Short and Sweet

Well... in spite of my trying, I have yet to be able to convince my fellow bloggers (listed to the right on the main page) to actually blog, despite my entreaties to do so. One of the reasons for their recalcitrance appears to be my own writing - my posts have been long, considered missives that had been fermenting in my head until a) I could stand it no longer and b) I could find 20 minutes where I could be away from family, work, and volunteering. Usually I'll be at a Caribou Coffee (far superior to Starbucks - if you need to know where any of them are in the Western Suburbs, just ask me, I visit them all) drinking my lunch, typing furiously on the infrared keypad that goes with my T5. Most likely I present a comical picture of a broad-shouldered guy wearing a kiddie tie, hunched over a tiny, tiny screen. In my line of work a handheld computer is far more useful than any laptop, and so I look ridiculous when I need to go beyond its essential functions; but hey, I'm old enough to look ridiculous no matter what I'm typing on.

In any case, I'm proclaiming for all: This blog doesn't have to be full of serious theses-length compositions. I'm going to prove that, right....... now!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Performance Based Sermons

Ever since I made the conscious decision to start going to Friday prayers again a few years ago, I have at times regretted the decision. It is not that I believe that I don't believe in the good of prayer in general or the communal prayer in particular. I'm a believer (scientifically speaking, of course) in the relationship between religious engagement and positive social benefit. Numerous studies purport to link churchgoing with lower rates of teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, school performance, etc. (I have yet to see the study that shows such a benefit from watching "The 700 Club," or reading any of the "Left Behind" series, however.)

I'll also readily admit that I've had some good experiences at the mosque on Fridays. Even so, it's not as if I demand to be lifted off the carpet in awe, my life forever changed, by an enrapturing service. (I don't think that I could handle more than a few life-changing moments at this point as it is. It's hard enough just slogging to the gym.)

No, what reduces me to bouts of perditional dissatisfaction is the unpredictability of what I'm going to hear on any given Friday. Mosques vary in their degrees of organization, and it's the rare one that has a reliable imam who is likely to give the khutba every week, allowing you to develop a degree of consistency. Even at the largest, most wealthy masjid you are as likely to hear from a studied scholar one week, a gynecologist the next, and a high schooler attempting to spread the chocolate milk across his face into a beard the week after that.

My most recent pang of regret hit about a month ago, smack in the middle of what had been an uplifting Friday service. The imam, of Arab descent and based at a different mosque than the one I was visiting, had spent a good 10 minutes about one of the finest qualities of our prophet, peace be with him: his love for people, Muslims or not. It is a quality that is not emphasized enough among Muslims (and it is safe to say that it is almost never emphasized among non-Muslims, especially in American discourse).

Unfortunately, after a precious few minutes of self-reflection on how I need to emulate Muhammad's love, my spirit was slammed down against the cement floor of the mosque. Within seconds, the imam's gentle demeanor evaporated revealing an agitated animation about what he supposed to be the antithesis of the prophet's inimitable love: women leading prayers.

Yeah, the connection eluded me too. It took me a minute to regain my bearings and realize that the whole exhortation to be excellent to one another had been just a setup, a tease for an unpleasant switch-and-bait. The imam, as he ticked off almost by rote the religio-legal reasons against women being imams, morphed like Jim Carrey in "The Mask" into an bundle of activity and volume, waving his arms, eyes glaring, the occasional spittle flying off his lips.

By the end, I didn't just feel dejected - I felt had. The whole brouhaha about women leading prayer had been beside the point. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the concept of or need for women to lead prayers, the imam had disingenuously injected his own reflexively regurgitated (at least by what he presented) opinions on the issue into the mosque by using "`The Prophet's Love" as a mere pretext. I wondered which of these two points was really more important to him.

On leaving I had a brainwave that I followed on impulse. If it is required for me as a Muslim to go to the Mosque for Friday prayers, do I really need to sit back and take it when I find the imam's words unpleasant? I decided to take a small, personally important action. After prayer, I usually donate $5 to the mosque for hosting the service; but with that illuminating display, Pffffffffft went the donation. I only gave $1.

Of course, $4 makes no difference to the mosque in any real sense. It's arguable whether mosques pay attention to the opinions of their congregants at all, as most seem to cater their policies to the beliefs of the few heavy hitters donating large amounts of cash. Perhaps, though, this is my effort to suggest a new trend in Muslim circles: performance based sermons. It seems only fair that if in every other aspect of life - spiritual as well as lay - we are rewarded based upon our performance, we have the right to expect our imams and mosques to undertake their Friday responsibilities much more seriously in return for our support.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Brick Lane, Oona King, and Muslim Fish and Chips

Back in the late 90's my wife and I tried to go on our first real vacation. (Meaning, a trip where we were going somewhere far, but not visiting thirty relatives in twenty days.) Using frequent flyer miles, we visited my best friend from high school and his wife in London where he works for an obsequiously wealthy investment bank in The City. Over a summer weekend, we did the usual tourist whirlwind - Picadilly Circus, Big Ben, the Tower - but with us being Muslim we had to try and throw in the ridiculous religio-ethnic tie. My wife wanted authentic fish and chips, but the only place my bud John knew where they were made without beer in the batter was Brick Lane.

A centuries-old street in the East End, Brick Lane had after World War II become one of those outposts of South Asia overseas - think Jackson Heights or Devon Avenue, except entirely Bangladeshi. Finding the one fish and chips stall, we hung out for an hour by the window, watching another community where people dressed, spoke, and acted not as if they were in the West but in a tiny patch of South Asia ripped from the mainland and tossed across the globe to England.

These memories came back to me Thursday evening as I followed the results of the recent British elections on the internet. Most Americans were unaware that they were happening at all (Hey, if your closest allies were losing power because they backed your foreign policy, you wouldn't advertise it either, right?); those that were heard only about the dressing down Tony Blair's Labour party received in the form of a slashed majority in parliament. Yet Bethnal Green and Bow - the constituency of Brick Lane, with an electorate that is forty percent Muslim - was the setting of the greatest upset of the elections, one with unclear implications for Muslims in Britain and throughout the West.

Bethnal Green had been a solid Labour party constituency, having elected a Labour MP to the House of Commons for forty five years straight. At the time of our experience with alcohol-free fish and chips, it had just elected Oona King to represent it. Ambitious and young (she was only 29 when she first won election), King was swept into office with the Labour party wave Tony Blair created. As one of only two black women in parliament, she enjoyed a level of trust and eventually a good working relationship with her largely Asian British constituents. In 2001, King was easily re-elected over her Muslim Conservative party opponent.

Fast-forward to 2003 and the contentious vote in parliament to decide whether or not to send British troops into war with Iraq. Despite holding over 400 members of the 659 in parliament, Blair's Labour party was in danger of splitting over the issue. Many Labour MP's dismissed Blair's assertion that Iraqi missiles could reach the UK in 45 minutes and voted outright to oppose their own party. Although King's constituency was heavily against the war - Bethnal Green Bangladeshis were polled against it seven to one - she made the fateful decision to follow her leader, come what may.

Her vote for the war provoked a furious response from Brick Lane, and marked her as the public face at which British Muslim anger could vent; it also marked her as a political opportunity. George Galloway, a former Labour MP from Scotland who was expelled by the party for viciously criticizing its support for the Iraq war, swooped in on wounded prey. In short order, the Scotsman set up shop in the East End, formed his own RESPECT party, and declared himself a candidate for King's seat based solely on one issue - punishing Tony Blair for leading Britain into Iraq.

The campaign that ensued was bitter and personal. King's car was egged and her tires slashed, and low assertions were made in whispers that attacked her on the basis of being a Jew. In response, King publicly assailed Galloway for having met and praised Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War. Behind the scenes, Galloway's RESPECT party forged coalitions with local Muslim organizations that attempted to mobilize the Muslim electorate to his side. Over the month of campaigning that built to crescendo on May 5, the question for many Western Muslims became this: could this one Muslim community - which had lain politically dormant for decades - finally make a dent in the electoral systems of the West?

In the end, they at least made a change of their MP. After winning her reelection by over 10,000 votes in 2001, Oona King lost to George Galloway by 823 votes. Upon being named the winner Galloway declared, "This result is the final nail in the coffin of Tony Blair's premiership." The Muslim community of Bethnal Green could say that they were the deciding factor in electing the most fervid anti-war candidate now in the House of Commons.

Yet great questions remain about what exactly the Muslims in Bethnal Green have won. Brick Lane now has a representative who is strongly hated by the ruling party and whose politics are an anathema to the opposition. What's more, George Galloway has already declared that he will not run again for election in Bethnal Green, essentially making himself a lame duck. One can only hope that the recent revitalization of Brick Lane does not stall given its lessened influence in government, and one can only pray that the Muslims there do not believe their job is done with respect to their involvement in the greater British community.

For all that, I don't know that I'll be following what happens there for much longer. Truth be told, the fish and chips really sucked anyway.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A Night at the Community Cafe

This past Friday, after months of the mantra "We'll go some other time," my wife and I finally went to an event that we've been missing for far too long: The Inner-city Muslim Action Network's (IMAN) Community Cafe. Before I say more, lemme say that In Sha Allah we'll be back - it was a blast.

We drove to the spot - The Spoken Word Cafe at the corner of 47th and King Drive - the location of which I feel we have been trained to fear by endless dramatic talking heads on local newscasts. What we found was an area that thankfully has begun to see some of the redevelopment that has been unstintingly slathered upon the North Side for many years. The city has declared 47th street East of King the "Blues District," officially made so by blue silhouettes of singers and musicians posted high on lampposts that eerily glow at night, as if to evoke dead perfomers.

We joined about a hundred others in the cafe, sitting amid the many college-age women wearing hijab, African-American hip-hop fans, and curious others. We didn't feel old or out of place - that is, until we realized that this was the first time we had seen any live performance of music whatsoever since we had had children. That fact is almost as embarrassing as the fact that we've already gone to dinner theater...

I'm not a music critic, with my knowledge of music frozen in the alternative 90's, but the performances were good. A local African-American Shaykh recited Qur'an to start, after which Capital D (lawyer by day, hip hop artist by night, active Muslim all the time) introduced the acts. The performances were split between hip hop and poetry reading, with a lot of open mike. For the most part, the open mikes were good although not always agreeable - the adorable 80-year old 'original rapper' set off groans among women near me when he called for polygamy, while a young 'madrasa student' made me cringe with her castigations of America (which provided a bizarre contrast to the Arab-American woman who earlier on stage staked her identity as American). The 'human beatbox' teens from the Northern Suburbs provided good comic relief, if only because they brought back so many memories of "Police Academy" movies with Robert Winslow.

The lead performers were Aquil Charlton and D Steele, Alia Bilal, and One.be.lo. Aquil and D Steele were a good intro - Aquil doesn't have the deep baritone that many rappers use to push their performances; his voice has a more intimate quality that relies on the lyrics it conveys. Thankfully, the lyrics were a good accompaniment.

Alia Bilal is a teenager graduating from the Universal School (whose father, I swear, is on my son's "Adam's World" videotape as a guest of the Muslim puppet) who performed original poetry. While I found her focus - the conflict of being Muslim in a secular culture - less interesting (at my age, I've already been there), her words were lifted by the intensity of her recitation and emotion. She burned with a controlled determination that would hint at the potential of explosion, and that made for engaging contact.

One.be.lo was the final act, and he raised the roof (am I allowed to say that?). A native of Suburban Detroit, his lyrics were powerful, his delivery crisp, his voice deep. He took us to places that most of us only visit in stereotyped TV shows or our most lurid fears, and he did so with an honesty that reassured you that you weren't being fed a line.

The evening ended at 10:30, almost too soon for me, which is the first time in a long time that I've felt that when going out. I left feeling, more than anything, proud to be supporting IMAN. Their efforts to better their community (I mean local, not religious) are imbued with a sincerity and an originality which I still feel are sorely lacking from most Muslim institutions. God Willing, we'll be back for more.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

More testing

trying to navigate the intricacies of this thing