Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Islam

The Loss of Chivalry


An American man who worked as a warden at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain once told me how when he got to the airport in Bahrain, he learned that contrary to what he had grown up thinking, women in the Arab world do have rights, not as many rights as they need to have, but they do have rights.

He was standing in line at customs when a woman just zoomed in front of all the men in line. He called out on her inappropriateness with a “Hey, hey, back of the line!”

All of the sudden, he was surrounded by police and angry civilian men. He knew he’d done something wrong, but given the language barriers, he couldn’t figure out what it was. Seeing what’d happened, a British man intervened, explaining to the police that this American did not know the customs of this country, which was that women are allowed to cut in line whenever or however they pleased and no one could say a word about it.

“You don’t do that here with women,” said the British to the American.

For the remainder of his stay in Bahrain, the American man didn’t dare open his mouth when he begrudgingly watched women cut in line at supermarkets, even when he and other men would have one or two items and the women had ten.

This right may seem like no big deal, but it is a big deal given how far we’ve distanced ourselves from chivalry and respect toward women. Yesterday, a Muslim woman was kicked out of Donald Trump’s rally, with a crowd of men harassing her exit along the way. It was an inappropriate behavior for our great nation that’s supposed to set an example for the rest of the world. It’s also a behavior that puts our nation at risk. When these types of footage go viral, they attract the attention of those who already hate us and makes it easier for them to recruit more members.

As I often say, it’s not a woman’s dress that threatens our society, whether she dresses modestly or in a bikini, it’s the politics of leaders who place their best interest before that of their nation, as so happened at this rally.

The Truth About the Veil

The Veil

Last week, I did a radio interview with Stu Bryer of WICH in Norwich, Connecticut. We talked about several subjects, including the Syrian refugees and the veil. While I believe that veils that completely disguise people are problematic for safety purposes and unnecessary in a Western country where people choose to live, I also feel that we should explore the issue of veiling in a more historical and personal context.

During my trip to Baghdad in 2000, I visited my parents’ Christian village in Mosul and asked my cousins to find me an abayya in the souk. He found one I liked, disputed with the merchant over a few dinars, wanted to walk out, and at my plea, agreed on a price. I left with an abbaya that today still has some of the spices I’d carried in my luggage in a journey that lasted from Baghdad to Detroit three days.

What’s an abbaya? It’s a veil that reminds me of my mother and the neighborhood women who’d sometimes wear it when they went to the market. Since Saddam encouraged women to wear western clothing and he was against Islamic fundamentalists, the burka wasn’t allowed in Iraq. Usually older women wore the abbaya. They did so for religious purposes, as Islam requires women to dress modestly in order to keep the focus of beauty on spiritual and not superficial attributes. Wearing the veil was also a way to avoid harassment. But mostly, they wore it because it was part of a culture that predates Islam by many centuries.

In the Near East, Assyrian kings first introduced both the seclusion of women in royal harem and the veil. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were told not to veil, and were slashed if they disobeyed this law. This practice also appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and in India among upper caste women. It’s suggested that afterwards it spread among the Arabs.

Muslims in their first century were relaxed about female dress. As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of women, were adopted. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. Muhammad’s wives originally dressed in veil in order for people to distinguish them from other women.

Throughout Islamic history only a part of the urban classes were veiled and secluded. Rural and nomadic women, the majority of the population, were not. The veil did not appear as a common rule to be followed until around the tenth century. In the Middle Ages numerous laws were developed which most often placed women at a greater disadvantage than in earlier times.

For 2,000 years, Catholic women have veiled themselves before entering a church or any time they are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (e.g., during sick calls). It was written into the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1262, that women must cover their heads – “especially when they approach the holy table”

For many centuries (until around 1175) Anglo-Saxon and then Anglo-Norman women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins. It was in the Tudor period (1485), when hoods became increasingly popular, that veils of this type became less common.

Sometimes a sheer was draped over and pinned to the bonnet or hat of a woman in mourning. They would also have been used as a simple method of hiding the identity of a woman who was travelling to meet a lover, or doing anything she didn’t want other people to find out about. Veils were also sometimes worn to protect the complexion from sun and wind damage (when un-tanned skin was fashionable), or to keep dust out of a woman’s face. Conversely, veils are often part of the stereotypical image of the courtesan and harem woman where the mysterious veil hints at sensuality and the unknown.

Among the Tuareg of West Africa, women do not traditionally wear the veil, while men do. It’s believed that the veil wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well. This veil is worn from 25 years of age and is never removed, even in front of family members.

What about the origin of a bride’s veil? Some say that the veil was introduced in ancient Rome to keep away the evil spirits. It’s also said that it was a symbol of purity, chastity, and modesty. Other say that the origin of the bridal veil was due to the circumstances of an arranged marriage. In days past, men bargained with an eligible young lady’s father for their hand in marriage. After the ceremony, the veil was lifted to reveal the bride’s features. This was to keep a groom from backing out of the deal if he didn’t like what he saw.

With my mother, the veil was used for convenience, when she didn’t want to change from her nightgown in order to go to the bakery and buy bread. Or when my cousin wanted to meet her lover without anyone noticing her. Or it was worn by those who found it attractive or simply liked having it flutter around their ankles.

When I was a little girl, I used my mother’s veil to play house. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have my own veil, not knowing then that one day wearing fabric in such a manner, or not wearing it, could cost women their lives.


Counterpoint: Religious Intolerance Serves No One

Religious Tolerance

This opinion piece was originally published by The Chaldean News a few days ago

Many of our people, like Californian artist Paul Batou and Chicago attorney Wisam Naoum, have compared the genocide of the Christian Iraqis to that of the Native Americans, who recount how an estimated 80-100 million of their people were wiped out by disease, famine or warfare imported by white men carrying crosses who came here to find gold and to own new land. Those who survived were forced to convert to Christianity and to abandon their traditions and their native language.

Yet, we don’t see Native Americans protesting against our churches in the prejudiced manner we’ve protested against mosques. They keep their ancestral memory and lessons alive through storytelling and ceremonies, not hate speech.

Native Americans mainly blame politics and greed, not religion, for what happened to them. They’re not the only ones with this viewpoint. Ariel Sabar is a Kurdish Jewish author whose father was from Zakho. Currently a professor of Hebrew at UCLA, Sabar is a native speaker of Aramaic and has published more than 90 research articles about Jewish Neo-Aramaic and the folklore of the Kurdish Jews. In his book, My Father’s Paradise, he describes the old community in Zakho:

“Muslims, Jews, and Christians, Judaism, Sufi mysticism, Bahaism, and Yezidism flourished alongside one another and extremism was rare…. Muslim, Jew, and Christian suffered alike through the region’s cruel cycles of flood, famine, and Kurdish tribal bloodshed. They prospered alike when the soil yielded bumper crops of wheat, gall nuts, and fragrant tobacco. In important ways, they were Kurds first and Muslims, Christians, or Jews second.”

Sabar also blames politics and greed, not religion, on the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq in the 1950s. Some of Sabar’s accounts are similar to what occurred last year with ISIS’ Christian genocide. If we were to research history, we would see that political greed is at the root of most invasions, massacres and occupations.

If we choose to have a one-sided memory, we will never be able to have a dialogue with other cultures, ethnicities and religions, and yet that’s what democracy is about. It’s the reason this country has such great potential and why people risk their lives to come here.

We remember the 1933 Simele Massacre but we forget the 1991 Gulf War, the unjust UN-imposed sanctions that were enforced on Iraq for more than 12 years, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, all which caused the deaths of millions of innocent Iraqi civilians and a refugee crisis for which the world is today paying the price. The Arab world looked upon these wars and sanctions as Christians’ war against Muslims. During that time, many in Iraq began labeling Christians “Bush’s people” and terrorists were easily able to recruit extremists.

Despite all this, Saddam did not permit Muslims to use hate speech against Christians. Batras Mansour, a refugee I once interviewed, said, “I haven’t seen a day of peace since the war. During Saddam’s regime in Iraq, we experienced much better days. Back then, no one could say a wrong word to us Christians.”

Mansour told the story of how an imam spoke against the Christians over the microphone. After he was reported to authorities, the mosque was circled by four cars. The imam was taken away and no one saw him since.

So was Saddam more intolerant of religious hate speech than we are?

Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of people from the Catholic religious order. They never blamed Islam for Iraq’s current situation. In my recent book about the lives of Iraqi American artists, most of the artists expressed nostalgia for the Iraq that was once unified.

Randa Razoky said, “I once painted a painting of mosque, churches, and Mandaean men baptizing women by the river, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow. This painting represents an Iraq of diverse religions which no longer exists. We lost that Iraq.”

Maybe We can get that Iraq back if we open our hearts and re-learn to co-exist. Otherwise, true peace will never find a home within us.

Wahhabism vs. Islam

Dr. AlSaedi

This morning I read that Saudi Arabia has postponed Friday’s public flogging of activist and blogger Raif Badawi on medical grounds. Badawi, who set up the “Free Saudi Liberals” website, was arrested in June 2012 for offences which also included cybercrime and disobeying his father – a crime in Saudi Arabia. The prosecution had demanded he be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, but a judge dismissed that charge. He was sentenced last year to 10 years in jail, a fine of 1 million riyals ($267,000) and 1,000 lashes after prosecutors challenged an earlier sentence of seven years and 600 lashes as too lenient.

I remembered a talk I had two days ago with my colleague Dr. Kamal Alsaedi, an Iraqi-American. Dr. Alsaedi and a group of activists started protesting against the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC in 2011. This group has been active through lectures and meetings with political officials in trying to bring awareness on the Wahhabi religion movement’s influence on our country and the rest of the world.

“The Wahhabis, not Islam, are responsible for the terrorism acts happening today,” he said. “Wahhabis consider themselves ‘the chosen people’ and so anyone outside of their religion is a sinner and ought to be killed – that includes me, even though I am Muslim.”

Because he is a Shia Muslim, Dr. Alsaedi is viewed as much a sinner as Christians and Jews. Non-Wahhabi Sunnis are also considered sinners, but they are given an opportunity to convert.

“Wahhabis look at all religions, all people as sinners,” he said.

The Wahhabi religious movement is a fundamentalist Islamic order that advocates a strict interpretation of the teachings in the Quran. It was founded in the 16th century in what is now Saudi Arabia as a reaction against the influences of Sufism and the Shia interpretation of Islam. The early Wahhabi leaders believed that Islam had become rife with superstition and what they believed to be deviant practices. These practices included invoking the names of prophets or saints for veneration, practicing magic and sorcery, and changing the accepted methods of worship.

“The religion for terrorists is Wahhabism,” he said, noting that between 1970 and today, there have been 250,000 individual Saudis involved in terrorism acts around the world. Before the Iraq war there were 459 nonprofit organizations inside of Saudi Arabia that collected money for terrorists. Right before the September 11th attack, the United States shut down 250 of them. And the obvious – 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

The 9/11 Commission Report ultimately went on to explain why so many Saudis were involved in the hijackings to begin with. According to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of the September 11 plot, as he toured Al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan in the years leading up to the attacks, he found that the vast majority of the recruits being trained there (by his count 70%) were from Saudi Arabia (p.232). This assessment has been further corroborated by two other prominent Al Qaeda operatives who estimated that a full 80% of Al Qaeda’s members were from Saudi nationals in an interview with the PBS news program Frontline.

“Politics is above humanitarian issues,” he said. “It’s not about consciousness, it’s about money. The Saudis pay ISIS money to take down countries. The other problem is the media. Nothing negative is ever said in the news about Saudis. Never. Why? Because they pay the American news channels $12 billion a year.”

Dr. Alsaedi has started a petition urging that Saudi Arabia be listed as a country that represents, supports and sponsors terrorism. To learn more, visit:

What a Pro-Saddamist once said to me


Maaloula, an ancient Syrian village with Christian inhabitants was attacked by rebels today. These rebels shot and killed people, and forced residents to convert to Islam.

Yesterday my cousin told me that he was nearly killed in a Baghdad bombing where 8 men died and 20 were injured.

“Since Saddam’s fall, you tell me where in the Middle East and Arab world has there been peace?” a famous local radio announce once asked me.

I did not have an answer for this man, who is known to be pro-Saddam and was once investigated just because, he said, “I did not have a dislike for Saddam.”

“I mean, isn’t this why we went into Iraq to begin with?” he continued. “So the world would be a more peaceful place?”

I still had no answer for this man. But these questions blink in my head each time I watch the Arab news channels and see violence tread the streets of the Middle East and Arab world, like a loose madman in search of blood.

If only men would stop trying to be heroes through war, and emulate Gandhi’s type of heroism.

Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

Is Islam a Religion of Peace

I went to cover a story at Eastern University entitled “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” One of the main speakers was a Muslim who flew to Michigan from Turkey. I guess this is a debate that has been going around for a while, and all over the world.

The speakers each had very valid points to think the way they did. But one of the Christian speakers mentioned that the fear we had of Muslims was not an exaggerated one, that we were not fighting an ideology but Islam itself. He was concerned that if we didn’t put a stop to “it” we could be under real threat. He used Hitler as an example.

“Look what he did to the Jews,” he said. “He wanted to wipe them all out.”

True. But wasn’t Hitler a Christian? As was the American Presidents who bombed, sanctioned, and again bombed Iraq until Christians had to flee their land and live in Diaspora? There are a load of other examples of how violence was second-nature to some Christian men throughout history and even recently. But that definitely does not mean that all Christians are a violent group of people. Quite the contrary!

Regardless of what the speakers said, it was wonderful to see them respectfully engage in a dialogue and afterwards, hug each other. They proved that communication, not violence, is the real way to peace!