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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Seven Months As a Muslim

In Opinion, Religion on May 13, 2010 at 12:35 am

Things look a lot different now that I’ve been a Muslim for over seven months. I’m wearing the hijab for one thing; I started wearing it full time about a month ago. I’m actually surprised at how good it feels. I don’t feel strange at all. You know what my biggest worry is? How am I going to make it through the summer! I have to wear long sleeves and pants, dresses or long skirts besides the hijab and I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to stand it. My Libyan Muslim friends say that it’s not that bad, but they’re used to it. Oh, well, I’ll just pray a lot and hope for the best.

But how I dress is just an outward thing. That’s why I don’t think it’s critical to one’s faith. It might even stand in the way for some people, like if it makes you feel so self-conscious that you can’t concentrate on your relationship with God. One of the things I like the best about wearing the hijab is that other Muslims know right away that I’m one of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask where I’m from as if they can’t believe that someone like me is Muslim. (I look stereotypically American: blue eyes and fair skin, light eyebrows–my hair is blonde.) When I say I’m from “here,” they ask if I’m Muslim and when I say yes, they get all excited. Mash’allah is something I hear a lot. (That’s what you say when something is good.)

Or someone will say to me, “Salaam alaykum (peace be to you),” which is a standard greeting from one Muslim to another. I’m prepared for it when one of my Muslim friends says it, but when a stranger says it to me, I’m taken aback for a moment. I forget that I’m wearing the hijab, so I’m not expecting someone to recognize me as a Muslim. I had a young man apologize to me the other day because he was afraid that I wasn’t a Muslim after all, since I hesitated before replying, “Wa alaykum salaam (and peace be unto you).” I told him I’m just not used to it yet!

Sometimes I have trouble arranging my headscarf or I can’t find one to go with my outfit (or the other way around), but I’ve managed to collect about 20 hijabs so far, so I do okay. At first I was worried that I’d look awful, but I needn’t have worried. I look different but not worse. And sometimes I even think I look better. But that’s just a vanity thing. It shouldn’t matter what I look like, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t give it a thought. I am a woman after all. Becoming a Muslim doesn’t erase who you are.

Some people think that women who wear the hijab are more religious than those who don’t, but Muslims are quick to tell you that what matters is what’s inside, not outside. So how am I doing on the inside?

Well, I still think I made the right choice to embrace Islam. But it’s not an easy transition, at least not for me. I have trouble getting in all my prayers every day. I can’t read Arabic so I have to rely on pronunciation guides, which are hard to find. I get confused when I hear different opinions about what Muslims can and cannot do. I wasn’t prepared for there to be a difference of opinion. But I should have been; after all, Muslims are human. There are Muslims who are very strict about the “old” ways. And there are those who are more open to modern interpretations.

I can see both sides. After all, I wear the hijab, which is seen by some Muslims as mandatory. But I don’t think, for instance, that women should be closed off in a room or behind a barrier when they go to the mosque. A woman has as much right to hear and see the iman, the recitation of the prayers and the sermon as a man does, and depriving her of that right puts an obstacle in her path to Allah. That should be a sin (and possibly is, in God’s eyes).

Even though I often feel inadequate, I know that what God wants is for me to concentrate on Him, and all else will follow.

2009 Book List Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Opinion, Reading, Religion, Self Improvement, Writers on November 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

These are the books I have left on my 2009 Book List (out of 30):

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  2. The Gathering, Anne Enright
  3. The Night Watch, Sara Waters
  4. Waiting, Ha Jin
  5. Against Interpretation, and other essays, Susan Sontag (nonfiction)
  6. The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
  7. A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn
  8. Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult)
  9. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen
  10. The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb
  11. Eclipse, Richard North Patterson
  12. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
  13. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  14. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Young Adult)
  15. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  16. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

I made it about half-way through my reading list and then got bogged down. I didn’t slack off, though: I read a whole lot of books besides these. I just can’t believe that it’s been a year since I made this list. (See my original post.) Right now I have #1 and #6 in my possession. I started #6, but it’s not a typical Dennis Lehane book (it’s a historical novel) and I had trouble getting into it, even though I normally like historical novels.

What have I been reading instead? For one thing I got off on a tangent about Islam (and if you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I recently became a convert, which takes care of one of the items on my 2009 Project List as well). But I’ve also been reading anything and everything that comes to my attention that sounds interesting. I’ve been keeping track of them in Goodreads, so if you want to see what I’ve read, check there.

These are the books I read on my original list:

  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)
  9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken  (literary nonfiction)
  10. The Paper Anniversary, Joan Wickersham
  11. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
  12. The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke
  13. Sloppy Firsts, Megan McCafferty
  14. Paris Trout, Pete Dexter

I really liked 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9.  I’m glad I read 12 and 14. I didn’t finish 4, 10 and 13. 7 is part of what encouraged me to look more into Islam. I would have liked 8 if I had been more familiar with Virginia Woolf’s work.

Not bad for a list of 14.

I won’t get 16 read by the end of the year. Particularly because I already have a stack of books on my shelf that I want to read first. They are:

  1. Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford (nonfiction)
  2. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  3. Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (nonfiction)
  4. Big Machine, Victor LaValle
  5. Homer & Langley, E. L. Doctorow
  6. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadl (nonfiction)

And those are just the ones I can see from the couch! I chose 1 and 4 because they’re on Publisher’s Weekly list of the ten best books of 2009. I intend to read as many of those ten books as I can and also focus more on contemporary female authors because there was such much controversy about the fact that there were none on the ten best list. I don’t read that many contemporary books–I have a tendency to not think of reading a book until it’s been around for a couple of years at least.

One thing I’m looking forward to is seeing the movie they made out of The Time Traveler’s Wife which I read last year. I heard it wasn’t that good, so I’ll probably wait until I can get it from the library. But I still want to see how well they transferred the book to the screen. It’s a complicated book; they had their work cut out for them. What made them pick this book to make a movie out of? I suspect it had something to do with the success of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I didn’t really care for (the movie, not the book/story).

I feel that I accomplished my goal of reading more intentionally and not reading as much “junk.” I want to continue to work on that by finding out more about the authors I read and their other work, if any. I want to work on remembering what I read. What good is it to read if you don’t remember it? That’s like eating with no sense of taste. I’d like to put my reading in perspective with my life.

Where I’d Like to Live

In Culture, International, Opinion, Reading, Travel on September 8, 2009 at 7:45 am

One of my daughters asked me the other day where I would live if I could live anywhere I wanted to. I had a hard time answering that question. I haven’t been to all that many places and I almost always find something to love in every one of them.

If I could live anywhere, regardless of cost or opportunity, it wouldn’t be in the United States. I love the States and I’m proud to be an American, but I would love to live in Europe, preferably in Germany where I sort of know the language and have in-laws.  The problem with living in Europe is that I’d be so far away from my children and grandchild. Ideally I would live in Germany half the year and the States the other half. And when I was in Germany, they could always come and visit. (Remember, I said regardless of cost.)

I was in Germany when 9/11 occurred and the sympathy and outrage the German people expressed was moving. It made me realize that we’re all in this together on this planet. If I’d been in the States when it happened I think I would have experienced it much differently. More parochially.

I loved being in Europe because it’s so communal. Whether they like it or not, all these countries are within hours of each other. In the time it would take to drive from the East coast to the West coast in the U.S., you could travel all around Europe and still have time left over. That’s an exciting concept. I still remember how thrilling it was to me as a child whenever we visited Canada. The differences were obvious as soon as we crossed the border, let alone when we drove 300 miles north of Toronto. Even something as small as the lack of trash blowing around the streets and highways made me realize that we were in a different land.

I don’t necessarily have to move somewhere to add it to my life experience. Once I’ve traveled to a place, and particularly if I spend some time there, I can imagine living there even if I never go there again. That’s why travel is so important. The next most important activity you can engage in is reading. Not your average travelogue, but a novel perhaps. For example, I once read a novel set in Papua New Guinea (I wish I could remember the name) and now I feel like I’ve been there more than I think I would if I’d just watched a video. Being put in the place of the narrator will do that for–and to–you.  A couple years later I chose Papua New Guinea as a country to study in an agricultural economics course and found that many of my assumptions about life there were true. It was a rewarding experience.

So until I have enough money to travel more, I’ll keep on reading. And imagining.

“Natural Born” Presidents

In Culture, International, Opinion, Politics on July 28, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Michael Lind asks on Salon.com why an immigrant couldn’t be President of the United States. It’s an interesting article, and one that the so-called “Birthers” should read. He lists the three ways you can become a citizen of the United States and explains the probable reason why the “natural born” qualification was was included in the Constitution. (If, as the Birthers would have it, “natural born” means being born on American soil, then even John McCain wasn’t eligible: he was born in the Panama Canal Zone.)

Why are the Birthers so upset about this issue? What would be so bad about having a president who was foreign born? Read the article. It will make you think.

My New View of God

In Culture, International, Opinion, Religion on June 6, 2009 at 11:42 am

After reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong (most of which was beyond me, I admit) I have come to the conclusion that it is sacriligeous for any of us to say that we have the last word on God. Why? Because God, by His very nature, is beyond our comprehension. It’s even sacriligeous for us to call Him “Him.” That’s one reason why I always capitalize pronouns that refer to God, to differentiate between Him and a human man. I would call Him “She” except that would be perpetuating the same misconception. And since I can’t quite handle calling God “It,” I use the male pronouns.

But the probable truth is, God is “It.” The “It.” Like most “its,” He is subject to misunderstandings and met with confusion. And humans don’t like to be in the dark about their gods. Any of our gods. We want to have total grasp of any and all subjects: biology, psychology, chemistry, physics, theology–the list is legion. And when we don’t–or can’t–have total understanding, we make things up to make ourselves feel better.

I wouldn’t say that I have lost my faith, because I still believe in God. I just think it is limiting to latch onto one interpretation of His nature, whether that be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Druidism or whatever. I think some explanations have more merit than others, but it is hard for me to say–at this point in my life–that any one explanation is the only true or full explanation. How can God be captured like that?

If we were to be totally honest, isn’t it more accurate to say that “this is the way I experience God”? And since we are all products of our upbringing, history, culture and psychology, doesn’t it make sense that we are going to have different experiences? I believe that God exists, but I also think that people try to make Him fit into their version of reality. People who need a great deal of structure in their life are going to be more likely to identify with a specific set of doctrines, for instance. Or people who see God as an agent in history (or rather, the Agent in history) are going to experience Him in the context of their history.

Thus the Jews hold onto their conception of the Creator God and themselves as His chosen people. Christians have shaped their religion around the philosophies of the church fathers and have identified with a Triune God.  And Muslims see God as the last word in faith and history (according to Mohammad). Obviously I am oversimplifying here. And I’m leaving out the other belief and thought systems. But these are just examples.

I was raised as a Christian. Not only that, but as a Lutheran. I learned to identify with Martin Luther, the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ. (Not necessarily in that order.) It all made perfect sense to me. I was never beset with doubts about the Trinity or the resurrection of the body.  When I became an adult, I joined the Methodist church where I learned about John Wesley and the doctrine of works, not just faith, and the second blessing. Not long after that, I became a born-again Christian. I remained in the Methodist church, but identified with non-denominationals, probably because I felt constricted by the Methodist–and Lutheran–doctrines. I sensed that denominational differences had more to do with historical events and persons than with revelation.

Lately, I have been learning more about Islam and I realize that it, too, fits the culture out of which it grew. I don’t come out of that culture; hence, it seems foreign to me. At the same time, I recognize that Allah is as valid a concept as the God of Israel or the Triune God.  What, other than my background, keeps me from “trying on” another belief system? If I try to use reason and base my choice on comparisons among religions, I come away with the realization that they all have something to recommend them. But they also all have things that don’t make sense to me, or I don’t agree with, or I can’t see making such a big deal about. And I have to take that all into account. I can’t experience God without being who I am.

“Religulous”

In Culture, Opinion, Religion, Self Improvement on May 16, 2009 at 6:41 am

My husband and I watched Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” the other night. I had a pretty good idea what itwould be like: Maher drilling holes in the beliefs of religious people. I know his style from his stand-up comedy. You could say that he’s the epitome of irreligious. He’s also pretty darn irreverent. Some of his act is just that: an act. But I got the impression that he was serious when he argued with and at times ridiculed the people he was interviewing.

He was asked by a couple of people in the film: “What if you’re wrong (about not believing in God)?” One time he answered, “Well, that’s a pretty lame reason to believe in God.” (I’m paraphrasing; I don’t remember what was said word for word.) Another time he asked back: “What if you’re wrong?” I don’t think he thought that through. If a Christian is wrong, it’s not like he is going to have something bad happen to him. He’ll just die and that’s it. But if an unbeliever is wrong (about the afterlife), he’s going to be mighty unhappy about the outcome.

I agree with Maher that that’s not the most ideal reason to believe in God. That’s not true faith anyway; that’s just fear. I suppose that’s not the worst reason to believe in God: because you’re afraid of Him. But as a Christian, I don’t believe that’s what God intended. He wants us to do what we do out of gratitude and love. I’m not going to get preachy here. I have my own doubts. And in that I agree with Mayer: having doubts is a sign of maturity.

If we believe out of fear, or habit, or only because we were raised in a particular faith, our belief system will be weak. It’s only when we have thoroughly examined God, our church’s doctrine and our own beliefs that we can consider ourselves grown-up. Anything less is for babies. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be immature sometimes, especially when we’re first starting out. But hopefully, we will allow room in our souls for honest inquiry.

Tea Bagging

In Culture, Opinion, Politics on April 16, 2009 at 8:22 am

Yesterday, on tax day, thousands of people protested the government’s spending policies by having “tea bag” protests. (How cute!) What these people don’t realize is:


  1. We have to have some way of providing services and aid for those who are less able to take care of themselves.

  2. We also have to provide basic services and amenities (fire and police departments, trash collection, parks, etc.) for the average citizen, who could not afford to pay for these things by himself.

  3. Very few, if any, people understand how we got into this mess to begin with and know what it will take for the U.S. economy to recover, but doing nothing is not an option.

  4. It’s a good bet that most of the people doing the protesting are not going to have to pay more taxes. How many of them make over $250,000 a year? How many CEOs and doctors, college presidents, etc. were in the crowd?

  5. Instead of having protests, people should be educating themselves about the economic crisis and then contacting their congress people and the President with their criticisms and suggestions, or maybe–what a revolutionary idea!– get involved in politics themselves.

  6. People who are against governmental spending for social services would do well to look to the European model. They pay more in taxes, but have safety nets that we don’t have here in the States. And it is the lack of safety nets that has most people running scared.

  7. No one is asking for blind support for the President and his policies, but we do need to give him time to affect change. He has only been President for three months so far!

  8. Those who are protesting any kind of change are being short-sighted. We obviously don’t want to keep on doing what we’ve been doing.

  9. Some protests have been skating on the edge of calling for secession. (The governor of Texas, for example.)

  10. The protestors are hypocrites, because they’ll take government money and services when it suits them (which is often). Texas, for example, gets back 88% of every dollar it sends to Washington.

  11. Conservatives may not fall into the class of “right-wing extremists,” but the reverse is certainly true. There’s no denying that there are fringe elements who are getting out of line (for instance, with allegations that Obama is another Adolf Hitler, or slogans that are patently racist).

  12. Some conservatives are equating the Department of Homeland Security’s findings about the rise of “right-wing extremism” with an attack on them, when it obviously is warning about groups like white supremacists and individuals like Timothy McVeigh. I’m assuming that the average conservative has no truck with that kind of “conservativism.” They are also accusing the Obama administration of coming up with findings like these in order to attack conservatives when papers saying the same thing were being produced under the Bush administration.

The problem with these kinds of protests is that they are often fueled by emotions, not sound and careful thinking. Americans are feeling threatened and they want to find someone or something to blame. They also want quick fixes. (I’m one of them!) But the fact is, we’re not going to get out of this mess any more quickly than we got into it.  We need to educate ourselves about what went wrong and what we can each do to make sure it doesn’t go wrong again. Tying teabags to our hats and protesting on State House lawns is not going to cut it.

[Note on 4/19/09: Tea Party Fallout from The Huffington Post.]