VIDEO | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part I

VIDEO: Part 1 and Part 2

Earlier this month, the youth group at the Prince George’s Muslim Association (PGMA) mosque in Lanham hosted a discussion before a packed crowd on how Muslims should understand issues related to homosexuality and interact with members of the LGBT community.

When I first saw the promo email’s subject header in my inbox, I almost deleted it without opening it thinking that it must have been spam since it’s pretty rare for mosque lectures to touch on hot-topic issues.

The panel discussion idea was the brainchild of Manaar Zuhurudeen and I also give credit to the PGMA youth group and the mosque leadership for being progressive and pragmatic enough to take the first step to make the mosque a safe place where serious and relevant discussions can take place. I used to love going to the mosque but my enthusiasm has waned over the years as the mosque with its penalty boxes and other make-shift barriers has come to symbolize a place of increasing cultural isolation, irrelevance, and loneliness.

At PGMA, men and women pray in separate rooms but for this event women were allowed into the main hall both for prayer and to listen to the panel discussion. Still, there were barriers erected to divide the hall in half and by gender.

Dr. Adeyinka Laiyemo, a physician, opened by mentioning that frank discussions about sex are still largely considered taboo in the Muslim community. Dr. Laiyemo’s powerpoint presentation included a few graphic photos of certain disorders like Turner Syndrome and Klinefelter Syndrome, so I knew this would not be a typical mosque lecture.

Working in health care these definitions and photos are routine but it I found it remarkable how we as a Muslim community could come together in the mosque to discuss these issues with pictures in a such a matter of fact manner when we’re still so uncomfortable even sharing a hallway or prayer space. It occurred to me that this is probably similar to the way many issues were discussed openly in the mosque of the Prophet (peace and blessing of God be upon him).

Laiyemo broadly defined a number of terms related to biology, sex, and sexuality including true and pseudo-hermaphrodites and men on the “down low.”

PGMA’s imam Dr. Ahmad Azzaari, also a physician by training, spoke next  about the history and prohibition of homosexuality in Islam. Imam Azzaari said the issue of homosexuality is addressed a number of times in the Quran and that this repetition and emphasis indicates the seriousness of the matter. He read verses in the Quran that mentioned the story of the people of Lot whom many Muslims believe were punished by God for their homosexuality and a number of hadith from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Azzaari also offered a rebuttal of the interpretation that the destruction visited on the people of Lot was due to their lack of hospitality and attempted rape of their guests.

In another welcome change from the typical mosque lecture, two women were included on the panel. Dr. Naseem Sharieff, a pediatrician and community activist, and Sarah Yazback, a doctoral candidate in education counseling, who has been involved social work and counseling in the Muslim community for many years.

Dr. Sharieff used a white board on stage to illustrate her points and began my mentioning that every person has his or her strengths and weaknesses and that the challenge is in what we do with those weaknesses. In a nod to Muslim converts, Sharieff acknowledged that there is a difference between those born into Muslim families who are Muslim by chance and between those who are Muslim by choice through conversion and commitment to practice.

In choosing to be Muslim and to practice the faith, Sharieff advised that patience in the face of tests and trials makes a person stronger. She encouraged Muslims to not despair when faced with life’s hardships but rather to turn to the Quran, which contains both prevention and cure for what ails the heart. As she closed, Dr. Sharieff reminded the audience that they could maintain their beliefs and still treat others with respect and accord them their rights.

I found Sarah Yazback’s presentation to be the most enlightening part of the discussion. She began by acknowledging the importance of creating a safe space where people especially young people feel empowered to discuss relevant issues like homosexuality particularly for young people growing up in this society as homosexuality, gay marriage, and the repeal of discriminatory laws continue to be in the news and become more mainstream. Acknowledgement, Yazback clarified, does not mean justification and that legitimizing feelings does not mean legitimizing specific behavior. Continue reading “VIDEO | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part I”

What All American Muslim Women Eat | Burgers, Fries, & Milkshakes

Burger 7 (not my tray)

We don’t always eat like a “heart attack on a plate” but last week, nearly a dozen friends and I descended on the semi-halal (it’s complicated) Burger 7 restaurant in Falls Church, Va. There was an All American Muslim convert moment when, of course, another convert and I were the first ones to arrive (early).

A colleague of mine had recommended that I try the fried egg topping on my burger so with some nagging trepidation I ordered it. And to my surprise it was rather flavorful and delicious.

I’ve never thought milkshakes and burgers go well together but they seem much more appealing when all the other drinks on the menu are alcoholic or caffeinated. So most of us ordered milkshakes to go with our meal. The laughter and good conversation were plentiful  and we lingered for a couple of hours until nearly closing time.

This week after attending an event at Newseum near Capitol Hill in D.C., some friends and I wanted to grab a bite to eat for dinner. At 10pm, our options were pretty limited but one friend who used to work in the area directed us to the Good Stuff Eatery on Pennsylvania Avenue, which thankfully is open until 11pm.

Not only did we get amazing nighttime views of D.C. including the Supreme Court, Washington Monument, and Capitol Building but we also had some more tasty burgers, fries, and milkshakes.

The politically savvy menu includes items like the Michelle Melt Free Range Turkey Burger, the Prez Obama Burger, and the Vegetarians Are People Too ‘Shroom Burger. I ordered the veggie burger and we shared a side of Village Fries topped with thyme, rosemary, and sea salt. The beer and soda beverages just aren’t my thing so we each choose a milkshake from the dozen or so specialty ones listed.

No night in D.C. would be complete without a parking story. After we left the Newseum, we debated whether or not I had to move my car after the three-hour time limit expired. I thought I did but since the parking sign only indicated parking instructions until 10pm, we decided to risk it and leave my car parked on the street until after we ate. When we returned, I was greeted with a pink parking citation on my windshield.

Remaking America | From Poverty to Prosperity

Packed house for the Remaking America event

Last Thursday, I went to the Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity event presented by Tavis Smiley at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium.

Before the event, I found a public parking garage that charged about half the fee of the GW lot. Unfortunately, it was a cash only lot and I was about fifty cents short. Thankfully, the parking attendant said he would make up the difference.

As I approached GW, there was a line stretching around the block with almost 30 minutes before the start time. Some of my ticket-less friends had stayed away fearing they would be turned away as an usher walked up and down the queue stating that only pre-registered ticket holders would be allowed in. I didn’t make it in until nearly 40 minutes later and by then they were no longer checking tickets.

Suze Orman

What followed was an inspiring two and half hours of some of the best American progressive social, political, economic commentary. The audience was refreshingly engaged and frequently erupted into shouts of support and loud applause.

Tavis Smiley moderated the discussion and began with the devastating statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau that when the perennially poor, new poor, and near poor categories are combined together that nearly 1 in 2 Americans or about 150 million people are living in or around the poverty line. Many of the people in the new poor category were until recently among the middle class. Vicki Escarra, the President and CEO of Feeding America, highlighted the reality of food insecurity and that 50 million Americans are hungry each day, many of them not knowing where their next meal will come from.

Barbara Ehrenreich hammered away on the point that for too long poverty has been seen as a character flaw by both those on the right and some on the left. Rather than as a result of low wages, the inability to find work, and the system increasingly being stacked against people trying to get out of poverty.

Dr. Cornell West lamented that while nearly 56% of children live in or near poverty, the poor have been pushed to the margins of society and their plight and concerns are largely invisible on the national stage. West chastised our political leaders beholden to corporate interests and greed to actually lead on the issue of poverty, which he labeled the major moral and spiritual of our time. According to West, poverty is as much an issue of national security as are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore observed that America has always had a poor working class going back to the legacy of slavery. Certainly, America would not be as rich and prosperous today had it not benefitted from hundreds of years of slavery. Moore continued that financial institutions miscalculated in going after the white middle class through the mortgage crisis. Now, that poverty has an increasingly white face added to that of people of color, we see more grassroots anger and movements like Occupy Wall Street beginning to take shape.

Suze Orman remarked that “there is now a highway into poverty and no longer even a sidewalk out” and that many of the people that call into her show are the former middle class who are now the face of the new poor. They are of all backgrounds and colors and Orman reminded the audience could very well be the person sitting next to you. Continue reading “Remaking America | From Poverty to Prosperity”

Thanking My Elementary School Teachers – Part II

Part I: Thankful for my Teachers at Brockport Central School District | Mrs. Steinebach & Mr. Follman

Second Grade: Mrs. Nowaczyk

Mrs. Nowaczyk, I don’t have many strong memories of second grade but I remember you were very warm and supportive. The classroom space you created for us was inviting and I looked forward to going to school each day. I remember our unit on counting money, it was so much fun and opened up a new world of possibilities for me. Thank you!

The day in 3rd grade that we said the pledge of allegiance on the loudspeaker

Third Grade: Mrs. Robertson

Mrs. Robertson, third grade is the first year I remember being a bit of trouble-maker, sorry for that. Katie Holmes was my best friend and she had a knack for making me laugh at the most inappropriate times, which is a habit I carry with me until today.

We were always trying to be contrary, we wore the colors of the Washington Redskins, the year they faced off with the Bills in Super Bowl. I don’t care for football at all and even as I now live close to FedEx Field, I follow the Bills from afar hoping they do well.

Third grade is the first year I remember having the support of a team of teachers with Mrs. Preston and Mrs. Crozier (not sure about the spelling), which I would continue to have straight through the end of high school.

I remember one cold winter day when some older kids set upon one boy in our class and how we had to come in early from recess. It occurred to me then and probably much more now that I’m older how much care and concern you had for our well-being.

I’m really thankful that there was some mainstreaming in our class and I was paired with a student with a developmental disability. This helped me increase in empathy and made me work to reduce the stigma associated special needs’ individuals. I would go on to work for many years with this population. And of course, I can never forget what happened to my friend Marie Parcells after the car accident.

Fourth Grade: Mr. Voorheis

Mr. Voorheis, everyone wanted to have you for a teacher and I feel very thankful and blessed that I had the good fortune to be amongst the few.

Reading, writing (still have my journal from that year), and all the fun activities including camping, our winter wonderland day, and having chicks and rabbits as classroom pets made for a memorable year. I realize a lot of behind-the-scenes effort must have gone into planning such a adventure and learning-filled year, thank you.

Fifth Grade: Ms. Fallon

Fifth grade was a growth year for me and I was a bit of a bully. I learned a lot out on the playground and at the bus stop. I always loved the classroom couches for reading and having stories read to us. I miss having teachers that read stories to their students. Thank you.

Thankful for my Teachers at Brockport Central School District | Mrs. Steinebach & Mr. Follman

Friday was the StoryCorps National Day of Listening also known as Thank A Teacher Day. Reflecting on my early education, I’ve had amazing teachers, and each has left lasting imprints on my life. Far too rarely have I expressed my appreciation to them, so here’s a small step in that direction:

Kindergarten: Mrs. Steinebach

I am going fishing (kindergarten, age 4)

Thank you, Mrs. Steinebach/Ms. West for your warmth and understanding. I remember being overwhelmed by the school experience and was too shy to speak much in class. I remember my parents sending my older sister Chika with me to class one day to teach you and the other students how to say my name correctly. I don’t remember what I had been called up until that point nor of clinging to your skirt but I know I did the latter because I still have my report card, where you mentioned it.

Nap time was my refuge, although, I think I’m the only one who actually slept. That was, of course, until I made my first friend, Meghan Schuth who helped me come out of my shell. Thank you for never making me feel bad about needing speech therapy classes to pronounce th, r, and L correctly, unlike my siblings who teased me mercilessly.

Thank you for saving some of my work to include in my permanent writing folder, which I continue to treasure until today. And thank you for teaching us the alphabet in sign language. I was just reflecting on this with Chika this past week and she also remembered that you taught her class some sign language as well.

First Grade: Mr. Follman

My family (age 5, first grade)

Thank you Mr. Follman for always pushing us to excel. I remember (or at least I think I do) racing with you to complete the mad minute math problem worksheets and our medieval castle unit. I think I was one of the first students to reach the highest level and be knighted.

I remember learning many patriotic songs including the Marine Corps anthem. Songs I would sing to myself or with my siblings and whose lyrics still echo in my mind today. I’ve always thought that if I ever joined the military that I would join the Marine Corps. I don’t really have a good reason for that especially when my friends say I’d be better off in the Air Force or Navy other than the positive influence you as a former Marine had on my life. And thank you for introducing us to ice fishing!

To be continued…

Penn State & Workplace Ethical Dilemmas | Why We Behave Contrary to Our Morals

The unfolding scandal amid allegations of sexual abuse involving a former Penn State coaching assistant has led as it should to a number of resignations and terminations. The biggest names to go are Joe Paterno, the long-serving Nittany Lions football coach and the university’s president.

Sexual abuse is devastating not only for the victims but also for their loved ones. Many commentators observing the scandal from afar are shaking their heads in disbelief at how so many people could witness abuse or receive reports about it and not act more forcefully to protect and seek justice for the victims. The story is shocking and should be as President Obama suggested a cause of much “soul-searching.”

However, in addition to personal culpability, I’m inclined to believe that there are elements of corporate/team culture, which negatively impact the natural impulse to report or challenge wrongdoing. Fear of losing one’s job or income potential can be a powerful silencing motivator.

At one former job, I informally overhead some of my colleagues discussing an incident, which occurred several years earlier, before I began working there. The description, which as far as I can tell only happened once, might make one suspect that a vulnerable individual had been sexually abused.

I believe the staff narrating the incident reported it, as in the Penn State case, to their immediate supervisor. I do not know if any further action was taken at that time. But it does not appear that a report was made to either Adult Protective Services or to the police.

When I first heard the story, several years later, I was shocked and honestly did not know how to follow-up on the report. There was no direct evidence that abuse had occurred, the vulnerable individual and possible victim could not be interviewed, and there seemed to be a lack of clearly communicated agency protocol detailing the reporting of such incidents.

I have a deep respect for many of my former colleagues as they are among the most hard-working, dedicated, and caring individuals I know. They have a sincere love and concern for the welfare and well being of the people they serve and would want to protect them from harm. I say this not to excuse anyone’s actions, least of all my own, but to humanize people with very real lives and emotions put in difficult situations at work. The best way forward is not always clear.

The Penn State assistant coach who testified before a grand jury to witnessing the rape of a young boy has been threatened and vilified for not doing more to intervene. It’s very easy to claim to know how you would react if put in a similar situation. I’m sure we’d all like to think we would be the first one to stand up and jump in to intervene but I reckon some of us might respond the way the then graduate assistant coach did. If we’re honest, we must admit that we cannot know how we will react until faced with a similar situation ourselves. Others also saw or received the firsthand accounts of abuse and few seemed to act in a way we all hope we ourselves and others would act to protect these children from a sexual predator.

My colleagues reported their observations to their supervisor at the time and the situation did not progress further. My memory is hazy but I think I may have asked my supervisors for their guidance and ultimately a course was decided, which would require that I take the initiative to report the suspected abuse. Continue reading “Penn State & Workplace Ethical Dilemmas | Why We Behave Contrary to Our Morals”

How To Avoid a Rick Perry Texas-sized Debate Gaffe

I cringed as I watched the online replays of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s brain freeze in this week’s CNBC debate. Every public speaker forgets points, gets sidetracked, loses their train of thought, or makes a gaffe usually by fumbling over words. What makes Rick Perry’s gaffe all the more lamentable is that he could have avoided it altogether with better public speaking and debate skill technique.

Technique #1: Respond to general questions with general answers

The candidates were asked a general question about how they would work across the aisle with Democrats. A general, I’m open to working with the other party by reaching across the aisle to find common ground and form partnerships that will benefit the American people would have been an acceptable answer.

What sunk Perry was his overconfidence, competitiveness challenging Ron Paul’s five federal agency elimination plan, poor preparation and note-taking, and anxiety.

Technique #2: Prepare beforehand with notes (mental and written)

It is always a good idea to prepare even if just mentally with a few points you want to mention before you respond to a question or make a public speech. If I have to speak publicly, I make a mental list of what I want to say and try to limit my main points to  not more than 3 items. Once I have my 3 main points, I mentally review them frequently and outline or plan what I hope will be the course of my talk. If there’s time, I’ll also write them down and perhaps jot down supporting sub-points.

Even when I prepare intensely, the actual speech rarely accords flawlessly with my mental image of it. My own anxiety or technical issues or audience reactions have a way of giving the speech a life of its own quite different from how I planned it.

Technique #3: Gloss over your mistakes

Studies have shown that more people fear public speaking than death so when you’re up there and on the spot most of the people listening or watching (unless they’re somewhat evil) really want you to do well. It’s just as painful and uncomfortable for those in the audience to witness a speaker’s public meltdown.

I’m currently listening to a lecture series and the speaker’s English could use some work and his manner of speaking is awkward and even I cringe while sitting alone in my car hoping it gets better for him even though I know the lecture has already happened.

At certain classes and lectures, I get nervous before the start, wondering how the speaker will perform. Public speaking is a type of performance art. Some speakers who I’ve come to expect good talks from immediately put those in the audience at ease. But even they have off days.

Technique #4: Start off and finish strong

Listeners tend to remember the first and the last thing you say. Never set yourself up for low audience expectations by admitting weakness in the beginning. Don’t apologize for speaking, don’t tell us you didn’t prepare, and don’t tell us that you’re nervous. Just try your best to start off and finish strong.

Many articles commenting on Rick Perry’s gaffe had the word “oops” in the title, which is the last thing Perry said at the end of his 53-second meltdown. While the beginning of his response was not that memorable, people do remember the gist, which was his inability to remember the third federal agency he claimed he wants to cut if elected president.

If there was ever a time for an interfaith prayer and unity event, we should pray that Rick Perry never makes it to the Oval Office. Although, it is stunning to see how poor public speaking technique, evidenced by both George W. Bush and Rick Perry, does not seem to be an impediment to reaching the Governor’s office in Texas.

Technique #5: Stay calm

This final technique is much easier said than done. Anxiety is a major mental stumbling block. I try to ground and center myself before I speak in public. I take a deep breath, say a silent prayer, and try to reflect on something that makes me smile.

I also find that scanning the audience with my eyes helps me relax me, I try not to let my eyes rest on any single person for more than few seconds because that may actually increase my nervousness. Although, scanning your audience for their interest and understanding or fatigue and confusion is an important feedback measure. But if I focus on a single person, I may become distracted by that one person’s reactions rather than focusing on the audience as a whole.