Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Tag: Muslims

Freedom of Religion

tina-2

“The recent controversy over Article 26 in Iraq has exposed an important problem in the Middle East,” said Tina Ramirez, president and founder of Hardwired, an organization that goes to some of the darkest places in the world in countries like Nepal, Sudan, and Iraq, and provide people on the frontline of religious oppression an understanding of what their rights are so that they can stand up and defend them, for themselves and for others.

“In the Middle East, individuals are not identified by their humanity but by their religion,” she said. “And consequently, they are also divided by their religion.”

Ramirez, who lives in Virginia, flew into Michigan on Thursday, September 29 to visit members of the Chaldean community at the Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF) in Sterling Heights. Along with myself, present at the meeting were Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, and Wendy Acho, director of strategic initiatives at the CCF.

Ramirez is an award-winning humanitarian whose passion for religious freedom began in college while studying at the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, decided in 2013 to start an organization to end religious oppression. Around the world today, 5.3 billion people are living under religious oppression and that number is growing.

“For many refugees from the region who have resettled in the U.S., it will take a while to fully understand that most Americans do not know what religion they are by reading their name or looking at them,” she said. “And they likely will not care.”

She explained that Americans have been heavily influenced by a Protestant worldview that views religion as something that can be changed, challenged, and reformed.  Religion may influence their lives, but it is not an immutable characteristic like race and ethnicity so it would never be placed on a government driver’s license or identity card like it is in the Middle East.

“Its absence does not mean it is not valued,” she said. “But it is valued as an individual choice and not as a means to classify and stratify people.”

Hardwired focuses on specific leaders in the community, which range from advocates and lawyers to media personnel and religious leaders, to make a ripple effect and influence others to embrace the idea of freedom of religion.

“One of the challenges for individuals we work with around the world who identify others by their religion is that they often fail to see the common humanity they share,” she said. “The commonalities are what ensure that each person has the basic rights and freedoms to live according to a particular religion or belief in peace with others, even those with whom they may disagree.”

Earlier this year, Hardwired brought together ten teachers from around the world representing seven different religious communities in the Middle East so they can teach their students in that region about freedom of religion and belief.

“A couple of teachers who joined us were Yezidis from northern Iraq, who themselves had experienced persecution for their beliefs,” said Ramirez.

The two men development an activity where they took a group of displaced students to choose flowers. They told them to pick whichever flowers they wanted but to keep a few yellow flowers. After the students did that, the teachers expressed how the same situation happened to their country when ISIS came and destroyed everyone except the people who believed and looked like them.

This activity enabled the teachers and students to discuss issues about their countries and what vision they had for it. The students had the opportunity to then plant their own garden and to go around and learn as much as possible about one another. Throughout the process, one of the young Yezidi boys, who didn’t like Muslims, shared something with the teacher as they went back to the garden that was replanted with colorful flowers.

He told his teacher, “I didn’t know that other Muslims had suffered the same way we have.”

He had done a project with a Muslim boy learned that they had both been attacked by ISIS.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work to plant the seeds of freedom in that society,” she said, “but it’s worth it and it would make them feel safer in the future.”

There are several ways one can become involved in this program by signing a petition, joining the Hardwired team and becoming an ambassador for freedom, hosting a screening, or investing to the program. To learn more, visit http://www.hardwiredglobal.org/

 

Black Filmmakers have it Made – Compared to Us!

First Day of Filmming

First day of filming The Great American Family, a documentary which is currently in post-production.

Most people know me as an author and journalist, but I’m also a filmmaker, one who has to almost work underground, using my own flashlight, like a miner. It’s difficult enough being a women filmmaker let alone one with Middle Eastern background. So when Chris Rock talked at the Oscars about the lack of blacks in Hollywood (in films, receiving awards, etc.) I thought, “They Have it Made – Compared to us!”

Over ten years ago I was at the Surrey Writer’s Conference in Vancouver and I met with three producers, one who’d produced Father of the Bride II, one who produced Pay it Forward, and the third, I forgot what he produced. Anyhow, I pitched to them and their reactions to my stories were quite unique. Even though the U.S. had been politically involved with Iraq for decades, even though my stories were of modern day Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans, these producers didn’t see how they could possibly adapt them into film.

“It would be difficult to cast an Arabic movie,” one said. “Who would we cast for the leading role? Tom Hanks?”

As if Tom Hanks is the only actor in Hollywood! It was not a problem to cast him in The Terminal, a sweet and delicate comedy, similar to my type of work – where Tom plays a man from the fictional country of Krakozhia who is stuck at John F. Kennedy International Airport.  It was possible to cast Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta as women (Tootsie and Hairspray), but it is impossible to get a good actor to play a normal Arab?

Plus, the roles of “bad” Arabs have been easily played by other western actors, starting with Rudolph Valentino. In the 1920’s he starred in The Sheik and Son of the Sheik, two films which set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. They both represented Arab characters as thieves, murderers, and brutes.

Jack Shaheen, in his book Reel Bad Arabs, surveyed more than 900 film appearances of Arab characters. Of those, only a dozen were positive and 50 were balanced. Shaheen writes that “Arab stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema. From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy #1 – brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural “others” bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners

I didn’t make such remarks to that particular producer, who smiled at me as though I was a naive little girl. In the middle of our conversation, he had actually winked to his colleague, as if to say, “Isn’t she a darling creature to have such profound visions?”

I walked away, uninfluenced by their discouragement, but over the years, I saw how negative images keep certain communities in the dark and without a voice. When I watched the Oscars the other day and listened to the emphasis on the lack of black peoples receiving roles and awards, I thought, they have it made – compared to filmmakers of Middle Eastern and Arab backgrounds. For us, we can’t even get our stories in the industry let alone be given roles and win awards.

Stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims are often manifested in a society’s media, literature, theater and other creative expressions, and often have real repercussions for people in daily interactions and in current events. Though not legally prohibited, stereotyping could put innocent people in danger.

I’m glad that black people are at least bringing this subject to light, because for humans to survive, diversity must have a home. With millions of Middle Easterners living in the US, making them the fastest growing group of immigrants, and with so many social, political and religious issues regarding that region – Iraq in particular – happening on a daily basis, it is becoming absolutely essential for Hollywood to provide film audiences everywhere true stories of the lifestyle and culture of the modern Middle Easterner. In this way, cultures will develop a better understanding of each other, and thus, the world will be pushed into another, a more diverse reality.

 

 

 

 

 

The Tomb of Prophet Jonah and Prophet Daniel Blown to Pieces

Prophet Jonah

The Radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed Shrines belonging to two biblical prophets – high revered by both Christians and Muslims – Prophet Jonah, dating back to the 8th Century B.C. and Prophet  Daniel.They’ve also destroyed 11 churches.

ISIS has, in one month, destroyed or damaged 30 shrines, ordered female genital mutilations in Iraq and told Iraqi shops to veil mannequins.

This proves that I was right when in 2008, I wrote the article “Operation Iraqi Freedom Enslaved Iraqi Women” where First Lady Laura Bush raves about how this war is going to liberate Iraqi women. I should write another article entitled “Operation Iraqi Freedom Enslaved the Iraqi People.” But by now, hopefully everyone knows this, I would think, so there’s no need.

You can read Operation Iraqi Freedom Enslaved Iraqi Women: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/the_iraqi/conversations/topics/4358

A Perfect Example of Diversity in a Little Town in Jordan

Once upon a time, it was not uncommon for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together in peace and harmony. These days, such togetherness is rare – but maybe not. Maybe we don’t look for it long or hard enough to find it.

Evidently the filmmakers of “At the Intersection of Faith and Culture” knew where to look. This is part of a short documentary video series that reveals Arab communities where love is what drives peoples’ relationships. For instance, in the small town of Al Huson, Jordan, where there are 7 churches and 6 mosques, lives two lifelong friends of different religions who brought their town together by forming a cultural museum.

“I am a Christian and he is a Muslim, but you can’t tell the difference,” Mazin, who teaches at a university, says of his friend Samih, a local expert in tradition and culture. “By the end of the day, we make one person.”

“Traditionally, when a Muslim bride left her house, one of our Christian brothers would give her hand away, and vice versa,” said Samih. “We are following in our parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps.”

“Our message of love unites us,” said Mazin. “Honestly, we can’t live without each other.”

He is absolutely correct. We cannot live without each other.

Different Religions

Visiting the Holy Land

The Holy Land

My husband recently had the chance to visit the Holy Land, arriving to the Church of Holy Sepulcher just in time to begin the procession, with a candle in his hand. The daily procession passes through the places of the passion-death-resurrection of Christ, in a way of recalling to pilgrims the need to constantly meditate on the humanity of Jesus.

I visited this church many years ago. It’s an indescribable experience that leaves you in tears, regardless of whether you are a man or woman. One thing I did not get to do which my husband did is visit the famous Al Aqsa mosque and the Jewish temple that neighbor the church. Israel is a place of great diversity; Christians, Jews, and Muslims all consider it to be one of the holiest places in the world. To the Christians, this is where Jesus and His followers walked and where the great Biblical events were enacted. To Muslims, the Prophet Mohammad entered heaven from where the Dome of the Rock now stands in Jerusalem. For Jews, Jerusalem has always been a sacred city, gateway to the land of their ancestors.

Here’s my question: If these religions live so close together, where for centuries a Muslim family has held the key to the Church of Sepulcher, shouldn’t they act like family rather than rivals?

Prophet Muhammed’s Promise to St. Catherine

Peace

I had a meeting Saturday afternoon with a friend producer about a film project we’re currently working on. I told him about my experience at the masjid and he said that people have created so many divisions when really we are all cousins who stem from Prophet Abraham and today. He said that, if Prophet Muhammad or Jesus saw what we were doing to each other, they would turn around and go back into their graves.

“All this fighting is not about religion,” he said. “It’s about real estate.”

He said quite a few interesting things, some of which I knew, that Jesus and all the prophets are revered in the Quran and Mary is the only woman’s name mentioned. Surah 19, one of the longest chapters in the Quran, carries the title “Maryam: Mary.” One thing I never heard is the story of the document that Prophet Muhammed wrote to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited monastery which is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt. The document that Prophet Muhammed wrote is hung inside the monastery along with its other manuscripts, which are outnumbered only by the Vatican library.

The Promise to St. Catherine:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.

The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Well, off to church I go now.

Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Mosque

Today I feel as if I visited South Asia for two hours. Last night I received an email from CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) mentioning that its Executive Director-MI, Dawud Walid, was going to give a lecture at the AMDA Masjid about the importance of recognizing and properly addressing extreme religious rhetoric in Islam. I met Mr. Walid a few years ago. He and I have spoken at some of the same conferences and he is part of a documentary that I’ve been working on. We once talked about the possibility of doing a type of forum to open up dialogue between Muslims and Christians here in Michigan. Noticing today’s lecture was going to be only minutes away from home and liking the subject matter, I decided to go. Well, I was in for a big, but pleasant, surprise.

As soon as I entered the masjid, I saw people taking off their shoes at the door, women wearing head scarfs and kurtis, and a gold-colored silk curtain partially separating the men from the women and children. I have been in a mosque, which is similar to a masjid, once before when I was in London, so it was not a real shock. However, given the announcement of the “lecture” I was expecting a different setup. I asked the women who were warmly greeting me whether it was okay for me, as a Christian, to be here. They said, “Yes, definitely. Please feel at home.”

I took off my shoes, wishing I had worn my better socks, and although no one batted an eye, I respectfully put my long hair in a bun. I joined the ladies on the beautiful burgundy rug with beige and light green decorations. A number of the women approached me to introduce themselves and answer questions I had. From them, I learned that many of the attendees were Bengali, but there were others from countries in South Asia. This masjid has been around for approximately three years, but it’s temporary. A larger one is being built a few miles further north. It’s always available for prayer but on the first Friday of every month, there’s a community gathering where everyone brings food and eats together, then prays, then listens to the speaker of the month give a lecture.

The conversations around me were similar to all women topics – nails, weddings, etc. All the young ladies were university students. The food was heavenly, the call to prayer reminded me of my childhood days in Baghdad, and the lecture was something we don’t hear about in non-Islamic media outlets. Mr. Walid talked about the importance for American Muslims having good manners towards differences of opinion.

“In other Muslim communities around the world, each town and village may follow one school of thought,” he said. “But there’s a diverse pluralistic community called America where many different ethnicities live. So we have to open our minds and be flexible to others’ opinions. Just because we don’t understand something does not make it wrong or un-Islamic.”

He encouraged for people to instead give advice, if they’re qualified to do so (he noticed the worst debates on Islam are those who know nothing about it) in the manner the Quran asks for – with tenderness and gentleness so that they do not commit verbal aggression on each other and so no one feels slighted or embarrassed.

“In Islam there are some things that are non-negotiable, but most are flexible. We shouldn’t let our small differences disunite us as a community. Scholars debated centuries ago about such matters as whether the Quran is a word of God or if it the creation of God, and about other matters. They never sorted out those questions so we don’t have to get bogged down about it.”
Another quote he used from the Quran was “Let there be no compulsion in religion because right action is clear from error” – meaning, anytime we use pressure to make someone do something against their will, they will naturally hate it.

I have so much more to say about this experience, but I have already gone over the limit of how long I want my posts to be. So I may just have to pay the masjid another visit in the near future.