Religion News Service Articles


COMMENTARY: What This Clash of Civilizations Needs is a Muslim Pocahantas
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) In the Disney film “Pocahontas,” the Native Americanprincess falls in love with John Smith, and their love helps avert needless bloodshed between the Jamestown settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe. While the Disney version varies a bit from the real story, its message is noble nonetheless: If we take a step back and see the true nature of the “other,” we will realize that they are more like us than we originally thought.

Watching the film (obviously, I have kids) made me think of America and the Muslim world. Some of my fellow Americans tell me that Islam is a”wicked, violent religion.” They tell me, “All we ever hear about Muslims is blood, bombs and burkas. Never any good news.” Some of my fellow Muslims tell me America is the “Great Satan.” They tell me, “America is at war with Islam.”

With all this heated rhetoric, it seems that Islam and the West are headed for a needless and mutually destructive clash. Yet, it does not have to be so. If there could only be a bridge between the two, perhaps this clash could be averted. If there could only be a “Muslim Pocahontas,”perhaps America and Islam could live together in peace.

American Muslims can be that “Pocahontas,” and I want to be amongtheir ranks. As Muslims, we understand the issues that burn in the Muslim world and the problem many Muslims have with aspects of American foreign policy. We understand terms used by Muslims the world over, such as “jihad,” and can help explain them to an American public that frequently does not understand them. We can point out when Muslims misconstrue the tenets of their faith and turn Islam into an instrument of terror.

As Americans, we know that America’s war is not with Islam, but suicidal militants, cloaked in the garb of Islam, who consider every American –military and civilian, Muslim or otherwise — to be legitimate targets in their illegitimate jihad against the West. We know that Americans are a fundamentally good people, with warm and generous hearts, and the vast majority of us do not bear ill will for Muslims and their faith. Americans simply do not know enough about Islam and the things for which it stands.

Given this reality, Muslims can help explain to our fellow Americans that Islam is not at odds with Western civilization and values. We can help explain that jihad is not perpetual war with all non-Muslims. We can help explain that the Quran does not call for violence against the “infidel.” Indeed, there are Muslims who commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of Islam. We can help show how they defile Islam’s message and denigrate the letter and spirit of its law. The whole of Islam must never be judged by the sins of a few Muslims.

In the role of “Muslim Pocahontas,” American Muslims can acknowledge to their fellow Muslims that America has done many repugnant things throughout its relatively short history. America has not always lived up to its ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. But this is not — we will tell our fellow Muslims — the America we know. America has done many things wrong in the past, but no country is perfect. No country has a spotless record. The whole of America must never be judged by some of the sins of her past.

Furthermore, American Muslims must strive to show America that she needs to chart a more fair and balanced, i.e., more “American,” foreign policy. America has to practice what she most eloquently preaches. We also have to strive to remind our fellow Muslims that our faith has no place for senseless violence against the innocent, something which they already know to be true. We have to remind fellow Muslims that fighting injustice is morally upright; using murder and terror as tools in that fight is not. Period.

The gulf between America and the Muslim world is very large, and it seems to be growing by the hour. Each side seemingly wants to focus only on the negative aspects of the other, and trying to bridge the two is a daunting challenge. But it is one American Muslims must take up. It is perhaps the most important “jihad” for American Muslims in the 21st century.

COMMENTARY: Will Islam and Democracy Mix Well in Iraq?
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Ironic, isn’t it? The recent historic elections in Iraq have swept the United Iraqi Alliance, a slate of Shiite religious parties, into power, winning a slim majority in the new Iraqi Parliament. And all indications point to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a physician and moderate Islamist with ties to Iran, as the next prime minister of Iraq.

Al-Jaafari, in a recent interview, said, “We will not have any laws that oppose Islam. That doesn’t mean we want an Islamic government. The majority of Iraqis are Muslims, and so it is natural that Islam should be the official religion.”

This is ironic because, I suspect this string of developments was notwhat the Bush administration had planned. After all, L. Paul Bremer, head of the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, once hinted he would veto any attempt by Iraqi leaders to write into the interim constitution Islamic Sharia as the principal basis of the law.

For his part, al-Jaafari is trying to calm the fears of many: “the most important thing is to respect the freedom of religion of all Iraqis of all ethnic backgrounds and traditions.”

Yet, this begs the question: Can Islam and democracy co-existpeacefully? Many in America answer in the negative. I, however, beg to differ. The Quran extols the virtue of the believers because they “(conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation” (42:38). In addition, the Quran commands the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to “consult (your companions) in affairs (of moment)” (3:159). The Iraqi National Assembly is one of the ways this concept of conducting affairs “by mutual consultation” is embodied.

Moreover, Sunni Islam, which the majority of the world’s Muslims follow, does not even accept the concept of a theocracy, or rule by religious leaders. Sunni Islam holds that the people must choose their own leaders. Most Muslims understand this to be the case because the Prophet, who washead of state as well as religious leader, refused to name his successor as he lay on his deathbed. He left that decision to the people. In addition, and contrary to the perception of many, Islamic law guarantees women the right to vote. In fact, Islam gave women the right to vote centuries before the U.S. Constitution was amended to do the same in 1920.

Thus, Islam enshrines the prime principle of democracy as it is practiced in the Western world: rule by the consent of the governed. Islamic political theory, however, does differ from democracy in philosophy. The philosophical underpinning of democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Islam maintains that sovereignty lies with God alone. Thus, any laws passed by the people must be within the framework of God’s law. This is what al-Jaafari meant when he said, “We will not have any laws that oppose Islam.”

Yet, it is quite true that the concept of “God alone is sovereign” is liable to lead to religious tyranny, whereby a ruler oppresses his people while claiming to “represent God.” The world has already witnessed such tyranny in Islamic form: the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. Yet, that regime was as Islamic as President Bush is a blue-state, liberal Democrat. The ruler in an Islamic political system is wholly accountable to the people for his conduct and can never hide behind the guise of God’s sovereignty to escape accountability.

Democracy and Islam can co-exist harmoniously, and there is nothing in Islam that precludes a people governing themselves in a Western-styled democratic system. In fact, both Indonesia and Malaysia, majority Muslim countries, have vibrant and thriving Western-style democracies. The fact that many of the countries with Muslim majorities are governed by brutal dictatorships occurs despite Islam, not because of it. In fact, if Muslims and their leaders followed the principles and spirit of true Islam, oppression would end, terror would melt away, and democracy would flourish across the Muslim world. And the world would be a better place for all.

COMMENTARY: Before Accusing Muslims, or Any Other Group, Wait for All the Facts
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) It was a particularly gruesome discovery: An entire family of Coptic Christians from Egypt was found murdered in a home in Jersey City, N.J., in January. Rumors began to spread that it had been an “Islamic killing.”

All the victims had been tied up and gagged. According to some reports, Sylvia Armanious, 15, had her throat slit “in line with Quran 47:4,” and across tattooed on her wrist was mutilated. Prior to the murders, Hossam Armanious, the father, was apparently warned by Muslim members of an Internet chat room, “You’d better stop this bull — or we are going to track you down like a chicken and kill you.”

Later on, autopsy reports revealed that the family’s throats had not been slit, and Sylvia’s cross tattoo was not mutilated, although being stabbed in the neck is not any better. As suspicion of Muslim fingerprints on the terribly gruesome murder continued to swirl, authorities announced the arrest of Edward McDonald and Hamilton Sanchez — both non-Muslim and non-Egyptian — for the murder of the Armanious family.

After murdering the family, authorities allege, the two men withdrewclose to $3,000 from the Armaniouses’ bank accounts using their ATM card, and ATM surveillance camera footage helped authorities catch the suspects. McDonald, in fact, lived directly above the Armanious family, in their second-floor apartment. It was the hardly the first time the court of public opinion prematurely convicted Muslims of a crime.

On July 4, 2002, there was a shooting at the Los Angeles airport. An Egyptian man, Hesham Mohamed Hedayet, shot and killed two people at an El Al ticket counter. Many immediately called the shooting a “terrorist incident.”After authorities investigated the crime, they learned that the shooting was related to Hedayet’s personal financial woes — and not terrorism.

And we all remember what happened in Oklahoma City in 1995. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, many pointed to Middle Easterners as the culprits.

On CNN, former Rep. David McCurdy stated back then, “My first reaction when I heard of the explosion was that there could be a very real connectionto some of the Islamic fundamentalist groups that have been operating out of Oklahoma City.”

The New York Times reported that “some Middle Eastern groups have held meetings there (in Oklahoma), and the city is home to at least three mosques.” Even after authorities released sketches of two Caucasian men, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “There is still a possibility that there could have been some sort of connection to Middle East terrorism.”

When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols — again two non-Muslim, non-Arab men — were arrested for the bombing, all these voices of suspicion were immediately silenced. Both McVeigh and Nichols were convicted of killing 168 people, including 19 children, and McVeigh was later executed for the crime.

All of these cases highlight two very important points: first, that terrorists come in all flavors, and second, we must wait for the facts before jumping to conclusions. A premature jump to conclusions is liable to hurt innocent people. As the Quran states, “If a wicked person comes to you with news, ascertain the truth, lest you harm people unwittingly and afterwards become full of regret for what you did” (49:6).

The premature blame of Muslims for the Armanious family murder contributed to increased tension between the Egyptian Muslim and Christian communities in New Jersey. According to Tarek Youssof Saleh, a Muslim cleric who went to the Armanious family funeral to offer condolences, “(Copts inthe crowd) called me killer and animal and terrorist.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, more than 200 incidents of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab threats, harassment, intimidation, vandalism and physical assaults were reported. A mosque in Stillwater,Okla., had its windows shattered by two separate drive-by shootings in the days after the attack. A Muslim woman in Chicago wearing a traditional Islamic head scarf was fired upon while walking in her neighborhood. One of the most serious incidents occurred on April 20, 1995, the day after the bombing. An Iraqi refugee suffered a miscarriage of her near-term baby after an attack on her home in Oklahoma City by unknown assailants who broke windows in her house and pounded on her door while screaming anti-Muslim epithets. The baby died.

We must always wait for the facts before jumping to a premature and completely erroneous conclusion, and that goes for the recent murder of a Muslim cab driver in Chicago. The cab driver, Haroon Piryani, was allegedly run over and crushed by his passenger, city employee Michael Jackson, on the night of Feb. 4. There were some in the Muslim community who wanted to call this terrible incident a “hate crime.” This temptation must be resisted. We must wait for the facts to be borne out of the case, otherwise we are no better than those who prematurely called the Armanious family murder a case of “Jersey Jihad.”

COMMENTARY: Our Actions Speak Louder Than Words to Muslims
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) If Newsweek dedicated an entire year of issues to touting how wonderful America is to the Muslim world, it would not be effective, and not because — as has been touted by some — Muslims “hate us for our freedom.” It is because many times — especially in dealing with the Muslim world– our actions have not always been consistent with our words, and Muslims pay attention to our actions.

This goes far beyond a recently retracted Newsweek report, based on a single anonymous source, that U.S. interrogators at a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet. The alleged American disrespect of the Islamic holy book is just the latest flash point to trigger protests, some of them deadly, of a country that prides itself on being a champion of human rights.

Although our initial justification for invading Iraq was weapons of mass destruction — a claim found not to be true — the U.S. has claimed that the invasion was a good thing because Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator with a horrible human rights record.

Then came the pictures of U.S. soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, actions wholly inconsistent with our values as a nation. More important, however, the actions directly contradicted our reasons for violently deposing Saddam — for the sake of human dignity and human rights — and the Muslim world paid close attention to this contradiction.

Time and again, the Bush administration has insisted that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, that the U.S. has a profound respect for the faith of one-fifth of the world’s population. We in America know this to be true.

Yet U.S. officials have confirmed that female interrogators at Guantanamo Bay have sexually humiliated detainees, including wearing thong underwear and wiping fake menstrual blood on detainees’ faces. In addition, several current and former detainees have made similar allegations of Quran desecration in media other than Newsweek. These actions send a clear message to Muslims the world over that America hates Islam, that the “war on terror” is really a war on Islam.

No doubt, these incidents are being used by the tiny minority of Muslims who do truly hate us to fan the flames of anti-Americanism. Yet actions speak much louder than words, and many times our actions are not consistent with our words.

So what is America to do? Stop fighting the terrorists who will stop at nothing to try to harm innocent Americans? Absolutely not. What America must do is bring its actions in the “war on terror” in line with its principles.

For example, the United States needs to seriously re-examine its mission at Guantanamo Bay. About the current detainees, Army Sgt. Erik Saar, a former Guantanamo Bay Arabic translator, told The Christian Science Monitor: “I thought these were `the worst of the worst’ hardened terrorists, but I soon realized many didn’t fit that category, not only by talking to detainees, but by having access to intelligence which said that.”

Saar estimates that only “dozens among the 600 or so (detainees)” fit the category of hardened terrorists. Any detainee who has nothing to do with terrorism against the United States should be released. Their continued detention — with no end in sight — will only do further damage to America’s already battered reputation in the Muslim world and is wholly inconsistent with the principles of our Constitution.

For the “worst of the worst” that are left, we have to radically change our approach.

Col. Patrick Lang, former head of military intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, told The Christian Science Monitor: “Instead of using Islamic culture to demean them, take Islam as a faith to defang the principles that condone terrorism. Islamic theology must be a component in building the relationship (between detainee and interrogator).”

This means that American interrogators must have a genuine respect for and understanding of the religion of Islam. Admittedly, this requires a tedious process of re-education and retraining, but it is desperately needed. Moreover, it is something in which American Muslims can — and would be very happy to — play an active role.

COMMENTARY: A Muslim Looks at Lent
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2004 Religion News Service

Published in The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan), June 18, 2005.

(UNDATED) The season of Lent is upon us, and Christians the world over are preparing for arguably the most important event in the Christian calendar.

Although I do not celebrate Easter, the holiday is fraught with very pleasant memories for me. Growing up, Good Friday would always be a day off from school (making it an even better Friday for me). During my years at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution, I would look forward to Easter even more because we would get five days off for the holiday.

In all seriousness, however, even though, as a Muslim, I do not celebrate Easter, it is not out of disdain for Jesus (peace be upon him). We Muslims absolutely adore Jesus (though not literally). One cannot be a Muslim without a firm belief in, and love for, Jesus Christ. He is considered one of the five mightiest Prophets ever sent to humanity, along with Abraham, Noah, Moses and the Muslim Prophet Muhammad (peace be unto them all). Muslims believe Jesus to be the Messiah sent to the Children of Israel.

The fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam lies in the belief about Jesus’ nature: The majority of Christians believe Jesus to be divine, the Son in the Trinity, who was sent to die for the sins of humanity. Muslims, however, believe Jesus to be a mighty messenger of God and do not accept the divinity of Jesus or any human being.

This belief is clearly outlined in the Quran: “O People of the Book (Christians)! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of God aught butthe truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of God, and his Word, which he bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from him.” (4:171)

Muslims do believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and the story of Jesus’ birth is recounted twice in the Quran. To Muslims, the miraculous virgin birth signals the greatness of Jesus as a prophet but is not a sign of his divinity. Further distinguishing itself from Christianity, Islam maintains that Jesus was never crucified: “… they killed him (Jesus) not, nor crucified him … of a surety they killed him not.” (4:157) Muslims believe God raised Jesus to him before the Romans arrested him. Muslims, however, as do Christians, believe Jesus will return to Earth again.

Jesus is mentioned 27 times in the Quran, more than six times as much as Muhammad himself, and he is mentioned even more times in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, salvation for Muslims necessarily includes belief in Jesus as outlined by this Prophetic saying: “If anyone testifies that none has the right to be worshipped but God alone, who has no partners, and that Muhammad is his slave and his apostle, and that Jesus is God’s slave and his apostle and his word which he bestowed on Mary and a Spirit createdby him, and that paradise is true, and hell is true, God will admit him into Paradise.”

Not only is Jesus prominent in Muslim belief, but the Virgin Mary is also greatly revered. The story of her birth was also recounted in the Quran. In fact, God set the Virgin Mary as an example for the ideal believer: “And God sets forth, as an example to those who believe … Mary the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity.” (66:11-12) Mary is also highly praised but again, Mary is not accorded any divinity in Islam.

Muslims, including this one, love Jesus with all of their hearts, minds and souls. Islam is not anti-Christian by nature. No devout Muslim would ever fathom attacking the person of Jesus as many who claim to be devout Christians have viciously and repeatedly attacked the person of Muhammad.

In fact, last year American Muslims strongly criticized as “tasteless and insensitive” a television commercial promoting professional wrestling that showed “Jesus” gambling with the devil in a sports bar. In addition, Muslims were among the many who protested the portrayal of Jesus in the film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Author Tarif Khalidi’s book “The Muslim Jesus” (Harvard University Press) details more than 300 sayings and stories of Jesus in Islamic literature. The fact that such stories even exist in Islamic literature is fascinating in that the faithful of one major world religion have taken in and made their own the central figure of another major world religion.

It is my hope and prayer that the common love for Jesus by both Muslims and Christians will serve as a desperately needed bridge of understanding between both faith communities. The sooner we American Muslims and Christians can come together as people of faith, the sooner we can work together to change our country and our world for the better.

COMMENTARY: Quran Desecration Is Nothing New
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

Published in Cleveland Plain-Dealer, July 2, 2005

Although many Americans have recently come to learn about it for the first time, the desecration of the Koran is nothing new. Islam’s sacred text has been desecrated for many years now, although not a single printed page of paper and ink was harmed in the process.

The Sept. 11 hijackers desecrated the Koran by their act of mass murder in New York City and Washington, D.C. In fact, all those who attack and kill civilians in the name of Islam – some of the insurgents in Iraq, suicide bombers attacking a Shiite mosque in Pakistan, the bombers in Bali, Indonesia – all of them, by their actions, viciously desecrate the Koran. A Muslim merchant who cheats his customers desecrates the Koran.

Yet, how can this be?

While technically a book of paper and ink, the Koran is a life force, breathing life into the believer and awakening him or her from a deep spiritual slumber. Moreover, the Koran is brought to life by the believer who follows its commands.

When someone intentionally desecrates the Koran physically, such as by defacing or burning it, he or she manifests a deep-seated disdain for the sacred text. But willful betrayal of the principles of the Koran in one’s actions effectively does the same thing.

The Koran holds all life, but most especially human life, with the utmost sanctity. The Koran says: “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause . . .. ” It also says, “Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law. Thus doth he command you, that ye may learn wisdom.” The verses are unequivocal, without condition or qualification. Further emphasizing this sanctity, suicide is strictly prohibited: ” . . . do not kill yourselves, for verily God has been most merciful unto you.”

So, when a Muslim militant straps a bomb on himself and kills innocent people (Muslim or otherwise), doesn’t he blatantly disregard a direct commandment of God in the Koran? Doesn’t this act of willful violence show disdain for the Koran?

The Koran also issues a stern warning to merchants and shopkeepers: “Woe to those that deal in fraud – those who, when they have to receive by measure from people, exact full measure. But when they have to give by measure or weight to them, give less than due.” If a Muslim merchant, therefore, pays no heed to this and willfully cheats his customers, doesn’t this action say that the Koran is meaningless to him? I believe it does. In fact, suicidal militants and dishonest businesspeople might as well spit on the Koran and tear up its pages.

This in no way belittles the incidents of Koran desecration that occurred at Guantanamo Bay, and I believe those involved should be punished by authorities. Yet, even though I share the anger of Muslims across the world over these incidents, I do not believe such anger excuses the senseless loss of life that occurred in its wake. Such violence and death, I believe, is a far worse desecration of the Koran than what occurred at Guantanamo Bay, without excusing what occurred there.

Still, the incidents of desecration did have some positive outcomes. The American public has had an opportunity to learn more about the Koran and its importance to Muslims. In fact, according to the Council on American- Islamic Relations, almost 12,000 have requested a free copy of the Koran since May 17. This can only be a good thing.

Equally as important, however, the incidents of Koran desecration have caused me to reflect on the true meaning of the Koran and a deeper understanding of what it means to desecrate any sacred text. And I will be all the better because of it.

COMMENTARY: The Unholy Logic of Backlash
HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

Published in Spokesman-Review

(UNDATED) Almost without fail, whenever a terrorist strikes — especially one of the Muslim flavor — a backlash against innocent Arab and Muslim citizens follows.

It happened after the Oklahoma City bombing, and it resulted in a miscarriage by a pregnant Muslim woman whose home was attacked.

It happened after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it included a Sikh American (who wears a turban but is not Muslim) being shot to death in Arizona.

It happened in Britain after the July 7 train bombings, and Muslims in Britain have reported more than 500 percent increase in hate-related incidents since those attacks.

The London backlash has even reached American shores: the Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported that a Muslim woman in Virginia — eight months pregnant — was physically and verbally attacked by three men, calling her a “terrorist b*tch.”

It is truly sad and unfortunate. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are nonviolent, and they reject the sort of violence and terror that is being committed in their name. They do not espouse the hateful and violent views of al-Qaida and similar extremist groups. Why, then, are they victimized and terrorized long after the deafening blast of the bomb and the choking haze of the smoke has gone away?

The only explanation I can muster is ignorance. Plain and simple ignorance.

And it truly is ignorant — to physically and verbally attack a pregnant Muslim woman in Virginia taking a morning walk, who has nothing to do with any act of terror, makes no rational sense. It is a stain on our national fabric, and those who perpetrate hate crimes against their fellow citizens of any race, creed or faith should be punished. Yet, the best way to rid our country of this scourge is to identify and address its root causes.

When we hear of terrorist attacks against innocent civilians overseas, our initial reaction is one of shock and sadness, which rapidly turns to anger at the senseless loss of life at the hands of vicious murderers.

Yet, more fundamentally, the aftermath of a terrorist attack brings fear and a sense of loss of control and security. No one likes to feel afraid every day; no one likes to lose control. The tremendous anxiety this brings leads many to become angry, and for a tiny minority, a way to discharge this anger — and perhaps gain some semblance of control — is to attack the symbol of their source of anger.

That symbol comes in the form of a community mosque, or Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, or a Muslim man wearing a skull cap. Yet, what does assaulting an innocent Muslim fellow citizen or vandalizing the neighborhood mosque accomplish? Does calling a Muslim woman a “terrorist b*tch” make usany safer from subsequent terrorist attacks? Does throwing a rock into the window of a mosque deter a would-be terrorist from carrying out his next attack? Does beating a Muslim American enhance our national security? Absolutely not.

All it accomplishes is to tear at the fabric of the unity of our country, and if the unity of our people is destroyed, then haven’t the terrorists already won? It is an unholy logic, and it must be defeated.

The best way to do defeat it is to increase the dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim America. This dialogue must be done face-to-face, over coffee and cake, or hot dogs and hamburgers, or pizza and ice cream. The dialogue must occur at cookouts and picnics, block parties and barbecues, golf outings and baseball games.

When this dialogue occurs, non-Muslim Americans will realize that their Muslim neighbors are not much different than they are, and ignorance will decrease as a result. When that happens, not only will we become better as a people, but our country will become better as well, because the logic of backlash will become as unholy as the act of terror that spawned it in the first place.

COMMENTARY: Physician’s Best Memories Are of Ramadan
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Ramadan has always been a special time for me. It began this year at sundown Tuesday (Oct. 4), and I am observing the holy month by abstaining from food, drink, and other sensual pleasures from before sunrise until sunset.

Even though Ramadan takes away one of my greatest loves — a large cup of coffee in the morning with lots of cream and sugar — the spiritual benefit of Ramadan far outweighs anything I may suffer.

The Quran states that “fasting has been prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may attain consciousness ofGod” (2:183). When I voluntarily forgo things normally allowed for me — food, drink, and most especially coffee — it is a potent reminder of the ultimate purpose of life: to live in the worship and service of God and place God before anything else. Yet the fast is much more than simply self-denial.

Maintaining the most upright moral character is an important requirement of the fast. If someone were to cut me off in traffic while I am fasting, I must refrain from screaming out any number of unpleasant phrases, no matter how angry I feel at being so rudely slighted. Do this for an entire month, it is hoped, and this noble character will carry through for the rest of the year.

I have been observing the fast of Ramadan ever since I was 9 years old, and even though I become tired for the first few days, fasting is really not that hard. In fact, some of the best memories of my life are connected to Ramadan.

In the fifth grade, our school track and field day was during Ramadan; my class won first place in every event. In high school, the most important track meet of the season was during Ramadan, and I had to throw the shot over 40 feet to ensure our team a first-place win; I threw the shot 40 feet, 6 inches. I had my medical school interview during Ramadan; I was accepted three months later. Just last year, my pulmonary medicine certification exam fell during Ramadan; today, I am a board-certified pulmonologist.

Fasting helps cleanse my soul of the impurities that come with the human condition, and it frees me from the bondage of this earthly existence and re-directs my spirit more “God-ward.” Whatever trepidation I may have felt for having to forgo coffee in the morning — if I performed my fast correctly — is long gone by the end of the month. Moreover, when I break my fast with other Muslims, or pray special congregational prayers in the mosque, the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood — easily shattered by lifein the 21st Century — are rekindled once again. Ramadan is a time like no other, and when all is said and done and the month is over — even though I can drink coffee in the morning again — I always feel a bit saddened.

The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, and thus the start of Ramadan rotates backward around the solar calendar each year. I remember fasting during the summer, when the sun would set at 8:30 p.m., and I also remember fasting in the dead of winter, when I got to eat and drink at 4:30 p.m. Both memories are fond ones.

With every Ramadan comes an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to polish my spirit and allow the light of God — obscured by my sins and shortcomings — to shine through and illuminate my way. The challenge is to keep that light from becoming dim once again.

COMMENTARY: The Vatican’s Worthy Call for Dialogue on Christian-Muslim History
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Amid the global uproar over the publication of cartoons of theProphet Muhammad, a Vatican official has called for talks with Christian and Islamic scholars on the Crusades and the Muslim conquests of Europe. I wholeheartedly support the idea.

In an interview with Religion News Service reporter Stacy Meichtry in Rome, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said: “It is a question that needs to be addressed. How do we read history? Can we read history together and come to some common understanding?”

The recent row over the cartoons has unearthed a centuries-old tension between the Western and Muslim worlds, a tension that continues to fester to this day. The Crusades were a series of military campaigns launched by successive popes to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. Centuries later, Muslims themselves pushed into Europe, conquering the Balkans and eventhreatening the city of Vienna.

Even though these events are centuries old, they still resonate in the minds of many in the Western and Muslim worlds alike. For many Muslims, the Crusades still evoke a powerful emotional response. The memory of Christian knights marching into Jerusalem and slaughtering Muslims and Jews — their blood was knee-high to the horses — is as fresh as if it had happened last week. The same is true for some in the West. In early February, Roberto Calderoli, Italy’s reforms minister, called on Pope Benedict XVI to lead a campaign in defense of European identity. He cited Pius V and Innocence XI as “Renaissance popes who mounted armies” and “forged grand coalitions to defeat the Islamic emergency.” Fortunately, the pope and the Vatican have rejected this advice.

These memories color current events. The sight of U.S. soldiers in thecity of Baghdad — the seat of the Islamic Caliphate in the past — calls to mind the Crusades, and some Muslims call coalition troops the “new Crusaders.” This was exacerbated even further when President Bush, soon after 9/11, referred to the war on terror as a “crusade,” with American bombs falling on Afghanistan a few weeks later.

Likewise, the sight of Muslim protesters burning Danish flags and torching the Danish embassy calls to mind for some in the West the “Islamic emergency” of the Ottoman Empire sweeping through Europe and the Mediterranean.

This tension is exploited by extremists on both sides in an attempt to bring about a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam. Only through dialogue — which must include scholars of both Western and Islamic history — can the historical confrontation be examined in an environment free of the charged and empty rhetoric of confrontation, hatred and mutual distrust. The goal of this dialogue, in the words of a Vatican historian, Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, is “to understand the issues so that (the West and Islam) can co-exist peacefully.” The true tragedy of this entire cartoon fiasco is not the publication of the cartoons or even the violent protests that followed. The true tragedy is that this episode is liable to further drive a wedge of misunderstanding and mistrust between the Western and Muslim worlds. This cannot be allowed to stand. It is my sincere hope and prayer that some good will come out of this unfortunate incident — such as the Vatican’s call for dialogue — so that the forces of hate on both sides do not dominate the discourse and lead to the destruction of us all.

COMMENTARY: How a Muslim Physician Squares Evolution With Creationism
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service

Published in the Kansas City Star, April 22, 2006

It was an amazing find: Paleontologists recently announced the discovery of an ancient fish that provides the “missing evolutionary link” between fish and the first mammals that crawled onto land from the sea.

Published in the science journal Nature, scientists described the animal, called Tiktaalik roseae, as having not only scales and fins – like a fish – but also primitive wrists, fingers, ribs and a neck, like land animals.

University of Chicago scientist Neil Shubin, who co-led the team that made the discovery, was quoted by The Chicago Tribuneas saying, “It represents the transition from water to land – the part of history that includes ourselves. When we talk about the fish’s wrist, we’re talking about the origin of parts of our own wrist.”

Is this another blow to the creationists, many of whom dispute the theory of evolution precisely because of the lack of evidence of such “transitional animals”? Moreover, is this a problem for me, a devout Muslim who is a fervent believer in and servant of the One God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them all)?

Not really.

As a believer, I do not accept that humans came from apes. I believe what God told me in the Qur’an: that he shaped our father Adam with his own hands and breathed into Adam the breath of life. Yet, as a physician, I also cannot argue with science and the scientific method, and evolutionary theory and biology are strongly supported by robust, well-conducted scientific experiments. This is easily reconcilable in my mind.

While I am not arguing with the science behind evolutionary biology, I look at it a little differently. I believe that all life on this Earth came from one unique and all-powerful creator. While it is possible that fish evolved into creatures that could both swim and climb on land, such as Tiktaalik, it is equally possible that both creatures were created by God and not related to each other at all. The fact that they may be genetically and biologically similar, in my mind, only points to the unique stamp of a unique creator.

The same is true with humans and apes. The fact the humans and orangutans are genetically almost identical is truly fascinating to me. But I do not conclude, however, that they are our “ancestors.” Rather, both humans and orangutans are so similar because they were made by the same creator. The fact that Tiktaalik’s wrist and arm are so similar to my wrist and arm does not mean to me that the Tiktaalik is my long-lost ancestor. Again, they are similar because we both have the same creator.

Every “creator” – whether it be a writer, painter, sculptor, carpenter or architect – has his or her own unique style that can be readily distinguishable. Well, the Lord God is the ultimate creator of all “creators,” and I believe he has a “style” and “stamp” as well, and this can be readily distinguishable when one studies the natural world.

Humans have the best hands, wrists, arms, etc. – I believe – not because we have mutated from lower human-like species, but because “We (God) have made humanity in the finest order” (Qur’an 95:4).

The researchers who made this remarkable discovery plan to go back and try to find more species that may be other “missing links” of the theory of evolution. If such discoveries are made, it will not shake my faith in God one bit. On the contrary, it will only increase my love and awe for God, and it will make me praise Him – the creator of all life – even more.

COMMENTARY Why I’m Nervous About ‘United 93′
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service

Published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Kansas City Star
May 13, 2006

Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the darkest days of my adult life. The memories of the pain and fear I felt on that day are still vivid more than four years later.

As an American Muslim, the attacks of Sept. 11 hurt me twice over: First, it hurt to see so many innocent fellow Americans brutally and mercilessly killed. But it hurt even more to learn that those Americans were killed by fanatics murdering in the name of Islam. That hurt still stings my heart.

Enter “United 93.”

Watching the film about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania would be enormously powerful and tremendously emotional for me. It would give me an opportunity to feel — if only for a moment — the pain of some of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. It would allow me to relive the horror from a different perspective, and share in the national trauma with millions of fellow Americans in a therapeutic, healing way.

And it would make me angry. To watch those “holy warriors” — as those murderous fanatics are wont to call themselves — invoke the name of the Holy God I worship, while killing innocent human beings, would kindle fires of rage in my heart.

To watch those murderous fanatics stand up and yell “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) — the same words I use in daily prayer — would make my blood boil. It makes me terribly angry to see my faith twisted and perverted to the point in which the murder of innocents is justified and glorified as a “holy war.”

Yet, I must be completely honest: I am afraid of going to see this film in the theater.

I am afraid that fellow moviegoers will take their anger out on me, even though I have nothing to do with the terrorism committed in the name of my faith. Perhaps this fear is irrational — Americans are good people, and I should never be afraid of my own people. But a recent incident in Arizona helped rekindle my fear.

On May 2, the Arizona office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that several young Muslim women were verbally abused by two people who said they recently saw “United 93.”

According to the three Muslim women, a middle-aged couple approached them and asked if they were Muslim. When they replied that they were, the couple indicated they had seen “United 93″ and then said: “Take off your . . . burqas and get the . . . out of this country. We don’t want you in this country. Go home.” Two of the three women are American-born citizens.

Of course, this is an isolated incident, and one anecdote does not a trend make. But recent events in Iraq, the ever increasing tensions with Iran, and the almost weekly release of video and audiotapes from al-Qaida leaders threatening Americans do not help the image of Islam in America.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 25 percent of Americans “admitted to harboring prejudice toward Muslims.” Nearly half of Americans surveyed had a negative view of Islam. The Post quoted experts who said negative attitudes were “fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.” All of this makes me nervous.

Yet, herein lies my dilemma. I really want to see the film, but I am afraid of the possible backlash against me and do not want to take chances with my safety. And if I don’t go, I would be giving in to the forces of hate — something I do not want to do.

Perhaps there is a compromise.

If a mosque, for instance, would host a showing of the film, I would definitely go and see the movie. In fact, it would be a perfect opportunity for community outreach. In a poll recently conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 60 percent of Americans are either “not very” or “not at all” knowledgeable about Islam.

A mosque screening of “United 93,” along with discussions and questions about Islam and terrorism, would go a long way in building bridges of understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans.

It would also show my fellow Americans that the Islam portrayed in “United 93″ — the perverted distortion of a few murderous fanatics — is not the true face of my faith.

COMMENTARY: Education Is Key to Reversing Attitudes About Islam
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service

Published in Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 9, 2006

I can hardly believe it has been five years since the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That day was doubly hurtful for me as an American Muslim. That anyone would willfully murder almost 3,000 people was painful enough. To learn, however, that those responsible for the death and destruction claimed their deed in the name of my faith hurt just as much. The memories —- as well as the pain —- of that terrible September morning will be with me for the rest of my life.

In the weeks following the attacks, our nation witnessed a tremendous unity that had not occurred in quite a long time. Americans of all colors, creeds and walks of life came together to comfort one another. What was most heartening was the response of non-Muslim Americans toward their American Muslim neighbors.

While there were scattered acts of violence and discrimination directed toward Muslims (or those who “looked” Muslim), for the most part, non-Muslim Americans reached out and comforted Muslims. The widespread backlash that many American Muslims —- including this writer —- feared would occur failed to materialize. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll found that the number of Americans with a favorable view of Islam rose —- from 45 percent in May 2001 to 59 percent two months after Sept. 11.

A 2004 Cornell University poll had more disturbing results: 44 percent of Americans favored at least some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslims (although more —- 48 percent —- said there should be no restrictions whatsoever). Approximately one-quarter of Americans said Muslims should have to register with the government and that law enforcement personnel should engage in racial profiling and undercover monitoring of Muslims.

Earlier this year, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed even worse results: 46 percent of Americans had a negative view of Islam. Twenty-five percent admitted harboring prejudice against Muslims. The number of Americans who believe mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims more than doubled, to 33 percent.

What happened? Why did Americans’ attitudes toward Islam and Muslims become so unfavorable? For one thing, ever since President Bush declared Islam to be a “religion of peace” (a far cry from his recent statement about “Islamic fascists”) many comments about Islam made by prominent Americans have been extremely negative. The Rev. Jerry Falwell called the Prophet Muhammad a “terrorist.” Franklin Graham —- son of evangelist Billy Graham —- called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.”

With the invasion of Iraq and the resultant insurgency, which brought out the most brutal Muslim extremists, Americans have witnessed the beheading of hostages; the kidnapping and murdering of journalists, aid workers and private contractors; and near daily suicide bombings. Many of these acts have been committed in the name of Islam.

The recent report that Palestinians forced two Fox News journalists to convert to Islam at gunpoint did not help things. It seems that the only news reported about Islam and Muslims involves violence and terror, thus it is not unexpected that Americans would view Islam in a negative light.

Yet, amid this doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope. There is opportunity among the smoke of “Islamic terror.” It is quite easy to explain that the near constant bad news about Islam does not accurately reflect the entire faith, just as the alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi girl —- or the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib —- does not accurately reflect the U.S. military. Second, I believe much of the negative attitude toward Muslims reported in the numerous polls conducted since Sept. 11 stems from ignorance about the faith.

Consistently, 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans admit to having little or no knowledge of Islam. Reverse this ignorance with education and outreach, and I am confident the negative attitudes toward Islam will decrease. People fear the unknown and out of this fear comes hatred and prejudice. Once Americans get to know their Muslim neighbors —- at cookouts, PTA meetings and sporting events —- they will realize that they have more things in common than in contrast. Then the prejudice that one in four Americans admits to harboring against Muslims will melt away.

Such outreach and education are hard work, and countering the near constant negative imagery associated with Islam is a daunting task. But it helps to bring Americans together when there are many who wish to tear us apart. We can again achieve the heartwarming unity that abounded after Sept. 11, even if it is five years later.

GUEST COMMENTARY: A Kinship That Transcends Party Lines
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service

Published in Albany Times Union, November 18, 2006
Published in Spokesman-Review, November 16, 2006
Published in Kansas City Star

A political earthquake struck America on Nov. 7, one felt across the country and even around the world. In a clean sweep, Democrats took control of the House and Senate, regaining the majority after more than a decade in the minority.

One of those new Democrats is Keith Ellison, elected to the House from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. Not only is he the first African-American elected to the House from Minnesota, he is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. His election was heralded not only across America but across the Middle East. The New York Times said Ellison’s election was “front-page news in several of the Arab world’s largest newspapers and high in the lineup on television news programs.”

American Muslims are proud to have him in Congress. As campaign volunteer Adeeba Al-Zaman, who lives in Philadelphia but flew to Minneapolis to help his campaign, told The Times, “I think it has inspired American Muslims. The fact that he won will probably motivate other Muslims that we have a shot and we matter and we are a part of the fabric of this society and we should be engaged because we have a chance.”

I am extremely proud of him and could not be happier that he was elected. This is despite the fact that I live in Illinois, and he will represent Minnesota. I am a Republican; he is a Democrat. I am an American-born son of Egyptian immigrants; his ancestors have been here for several centuries. I was born into the faith of Islam; he converted at age 19 while in college. I am a physician; he is a lawyer.

There is almost nothing we have in common, but I still feel extremely close to him, because we have a bond that is stronger than all of these differences: our faith as Muslims.

Even though I know that his first and foremost responsibility will be to his own constituents in Minnesota, I still feel like he is representing me, as an American Muslim, in Congress.

This “brotherhood of the believers” explains why U.S. Muslims are so proud of Ellison, and why we care so much about what happens to Muslims across the world, even though we may not know them personally. The prophet Muhammad was reported to have said that the believers are like one body; when one part is injured, the entire body feels its pain. At the same time, I have always believed this bond between Muslims the world over should never let Muslims feel indifferent to the suffering of others who are not Muslim. I think Ellison understands this. In a telephone interview with The Times, Ellison was asked if he felt he was wearing a particular mantle, of representing Muslim interests. He replied: “I think a lot of Muslims feel highly vulnerable and feel that they are under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. I am going to do it from a standpoint of improving the quality of civil and human rights for all people in America.”

That should be the attitude of Muslims everywhere, and I hope and pray that Ellison will always remember this as he serves his district in Washington.

GUEST COMMENTARY: The Virgin Mary Isn’t Just for Christians
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Today (Dec. 8) is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I, like I suspect many people, had always thought it was to commemorate the conception of Christ. But the Feast actually celebrates the conception — without original sin — of the Virgin Mary.

I have happy memories of this feast day, even though I am not even Christian. I must admit that’s partly because Dec. 8 was a day off from school when I attended Marquette University, a Jesuit institution. Yet, my happiness at commemorating the Virgin Mary goes much more deeply than that.

The story of her birth is one of my favorites: “When a woman of the (House of) Imran prayed: `O my Sustainer! Behold, unto You do I vow (the child) that is in my womb to be devoted to Your service. Accept it, then, from me. Verily, You alone are all-hearing, all-knowing.’ But when she had given birth to the child, she said: `O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female … and I have named her Mary. And, verily, I seek Your protection for her and her offspring against Satan, the accursed.”

That story doesn’t come from the Bible, but rather from the Quran. Muslims have honored and revered the Virgin for more than 14 centuries. Also in the Quran is the story of how she came into the care of Zakariya (Zechariah in the Bible), the father of John the Baptist. In addition, the story of Jesus’ birth is also told more than once in the Quran.

The Quran bestows enormous praise on the mother of Jesus Christ. It says the Lord accepted Mary “with a gracious reception and caused her togrow up beautifully.” The Quran also recounts how the angels said to her: “O Mary! Behold, God has chosen you, made you pure, and raised you above all the women of the world.”

The Virgin Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran, and she is the only woman to have an entire chapter (Chapter 19) named after her.

In fact, the Quran holds up the Virgin Mary as the ideal example of a believer: “And (God has propounded another example of God-consciousness in the story) of Mary, the daughter of Imran, who guarded her chastity, whereupon We breathed Our spirit into that (which was in her womb), and who accepted the truth of her Sustainer’s words –and (thus,) of His revelations — and was one of the truly devout.”

There’s no way for me to fully describe the love, respect and reverence I have for the Virgin Mary (and her son). I think I can speak for the rest of the Muslim world when I say that no devout Muslim would even fathom maligning the Virgin Mary (or Jesus Christ), as some who claim to follow Christ have done with the Prophet Muhammad. It is truly amazing that a major religious figure of one religious tradition is loved, revered and adopted as sacred by the followers of another tradition.

Perhaps people could use this phenomenon as inspiration to build more bridges of love and understanding between Christians and Muslims around the world, especially after the pope’s comments in September about Islam — and the furor they erupted. Christians and Muslims are natural allies when it comes to working toward the betterment of the world for all peoples.

The Quran says, when speaking of the birth of Mary, that “the male is not like the female.” Many have traditionally interpreted this to mean that the fact that Mary was a woman made it more difficult for her to become a priest, as her mother wanted for her.

Yet, there is another interpretation of that statement: “no male child (that Mary’s mother might have hoped for) could ever have been like this female.” I like this interpretation much better.

I pray that, by God’s grace, I am admitted to Paradise and will get to see the Virgin Mary, kiss her hand, and tell her how much I loved her while I was on earth. There could be no greater reward for me than that.

GUEST COMMENTARY: During Hajj, God Opens His Arms to Welcome You Home
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
Ac. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The desert was hot, and the land was barren, devoid of water or vegetation. In this vast nothingness, he simply left his wife and young son and walked away. His wife was startled. “What are you doing?” she asked.

He neither answered nor turned back to face her.

“Where are you going?” she asked again, even more incredulous.

“How can you leave us here, in the middle of the desert?”

Once again, he did not answer and kept walking away.

She then asked, “Did God command you to do thus?”

He finally replied, “Yes.” She then said, “Then He will not lead us astray.”

The situation, however, soon became desperate. The small amount offood and drink that her husband left her quickly ran out, and her baby began to cry out of hunger. Driven by the panic of a mother watching her child die from starvation, she frantically ran between two small hills seven times in a desperate search for food, water, or any sign of life or help.

When it seemed all hope was gone, the archangel descended and touched the earth with the edge of his wing. At that spot, a well sprung forth, and the young mother returned to find water. The mother and son both were saved, and her conviction in God’s help was miraculously confirmed.

This ancient drama of Abraham, Hagar, and their young son Ishmael in the land of Paran (modern day Mecca) forms the basis of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This sacred journey must be completed once in the lifetime of every Muslim who is physically and financially capable of doing so. It is the trip of a lifetime for every Muslim.

The Hajj consists of several rituals that re-enact the story of how Abraham left his wife and young son in the desert in obedience to God’s command. It also includes standing on the plain of Arafat — where it is believed Adam and Eve were reunited after their expulsion from the Garden — to seek forgiveness from God for their sins. Pilgrims also stone three pillars which represent the devil, just as Abraham did when the devil sought to dissuade him from sacrificing his son in obedience to the command of God.

This year, the Hajj will start around Dec. 29 and finish on Jan. 4. It is an immense spiritual journey, and there is not a person that comes back from Mecca without being profoundly changed. It was the Hajj, in fact, that changed Malcolm X’s views on race relations. I was blessed to perform the Hajj just short of four years ago, and it was the most powerful spiritual experience of my entire life.

When I first arrived in Mecca, I could not help but be humbled by the awesome presence and power of God. Yet God soon became a loving, caring friend, opening his arms to me and welcoming me home. The most emotionally powerful day for me was the day of Arafat (Dec. 30 thisyear). I was overwhelmed with emotion when I faced my Lord with all my mistakes and sins and really could say nothing to account for them.

The beautiful thing was, after the sun sets, the pilgrims’ sins are completely wiped away and he or she is born anew. Whenever I think about that day, even four years later, I still get overwhelmed with emotion.

Although the pilgrimage is physically demanding — there are 2 million people all doing the same thing, at the same time, in the sameplace — it is a truly wonderful experience. I couldn’t have been happier when my brother and sister told me that they both plan to make the pilgrimage this year.

I will never forget my Hajj experience, and there is not a day that Mecca does not call me back to her. Even though pilgrims who visit the holy city must sometimes travel thousands of miles to get there, Mecca is home for every Muslim.

The Hajj is such a powerful spiritual event that, no matter how fluent the orator or eloquent the writer, words cannot fully describe it. It has to be experienced firsthand.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Suicide Bombers are Murderers, Not Martyrs
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) As terrorists seem to be competing in the barbarity oftheir vicious attacks across the globe, the question of why people would do such a thing — although frequently asked — fails to lose relevance.

To this day, Americans continue to ask “why do they hate us?” when it comes to the terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001. It is a natural question. As a physician, I have not stopped racking my brain over how it can be that practicing doctors — who are bound to preserve human life — could be charged with the recent failed bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. It was a shock that will never really go away.

Yet, not all are surprised that doctors could be terrorists. Alan Krueger, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, recently said: “Although terrorists come from varied backgrounds, much research finds that they are disproportionally well-educated and from middle-class or higher-income families. Engineers and doctors, in fact, are probably the two most common professions among terrorists.”

Kreuger argues in his forthcoming book, “What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism,” that it is a misconception to think most terrorists are poor and ill-educated.

Still, it is hard for most people — including this author — to understand how someone could resolve to strap a bomb to his chest and detonate it among innocent people in order to commit mass murder. Forthe terrorists of the Muslim flavor, they justify such action by claiming that being a suicide bomber is an act of “holy war”; and that in traditional Muslim theology, someone who dies in “holy war” will become a martyr who instantly goes to heaven. Such rationale is a wholesale abandonment of centuries of Islamic principles and theology.

First of all, murder is strictly forbidden in Islam: “And do not take a life that God has made sacred, except for just cause,” the Quran reads. By no stretch of the imagination is killing innocent people a “just cause.”

Suicide is equally forbidden by the Quran: “And spend for the sake of God, and do not invest in ruin by your own hands. And do good, for God loves those who do good.”

The Quran also says, “And do not kill yourselves, for God has been merciful to you.” The strict prohibition against suicide is also mirrored in the prophetic literature. Thus, the suicide bomber doubly betrays the principles of Islam by killing both himself and others.

In addition, the suicide bomber thinks he can get an “instant ticket” to heaven with the press of a button. This also runs counter to Islamic belief. The purpose of life on earth is to do one’s best to live a good life, in accordance with the commandments of God.

Although Islam actively encourages worldly success, it should never distract the person from fulfilling what God has commanded: “But seek the abode of the hereafter with what God has bestowed on you, and do not forget your part in this world. And be good, as God has been good to you. And do not seek corruption on earth, for God does not love the corrupt.”

That process of “seeking the abode of the hereafter,” however, is not without hardship. The path to salvation is — and always has been — a difficult one. This is the essence of jihad — often mistranslated as “holy war” but which literally means “struggle.” Jihad is the struggle to rise above human temptation and do good on earth. Even the Prophet Muhammad said the battle against one’s own temptations is the “greater jihad.”

This struggle, this jihad, takes patience and perseverance, and the reward for this patience is heaven, as illustrated by this Quranic verse: “And the angels enter their presence from every gateway (saying): `Peace be upon you, for you were patient; and how excellent the reward of paradise!'”

To think that one can bypass the struggle to live a good life on earth — essentially “cut in line” — and go straight to heaven by becoming a suicide bomber would be laughable were it not a tragic mode of thought that has led to the pain and suffering of scores of innocen thuman beings.

Suicide terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon, and scholars debate over the reasons behind it. Yet, the religious justification cited by terrorists who claim to be Muslim is an egregious distortion ofthe principles of Islam.

The path to heaven is a difficult one, and the believer must patiently remain steadfast on the path that God has outlined in order to be graced with paradise. There is no way to get around this fact, least of all by strapping a bomb on one’s chest and killing innocent people. Such a person is not a martyr; he is murderer, plain and simple.

GUEST COMMENTARY: What’s in a Name?
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2007 Religion News Service

Should Christians call God by the name “Allah”? At least one Catholic bishop in the Netherlands, Tiny Muskens, thinks so. “Allah is a very beautiful word for God,” he recently told Dutch television.

“Shouldn’t we all say from now on we will name God Allah? … What does God care what we call him?”

Muskens based his opinion in part on the fact that Catholic churches in Indonesia use “Allah” to refer to God. “In the heart of the Eucharist, God is called Allah over there, so why can’t we start doing that together?” he asked.

It’s an interesting suggestion, but not one that has sat well with many Christians. In a survey published in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, 92 percent of people disagreed with Muskens. The Rev. Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest and an analyst for FOX News, said: “I’m sure his intentions are good, but his theology needs a little fine tuning. Words and names mean things. Referring to God as Allah means something.”

It is not, however, as far-fetched as many people might think. Since the birth of Islam, Muslims have asserted that they worship the very same God as Jews and Christians — the God of the Bible, the God of Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ.

Some Christian leaders, such as religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, disagree. “Allah was the moon god from Mecca. That is why Islam has the crescent moon,” Robertson says on his Web site. “The flag of Turkey has a crescent moon with a star in it. Well, the crescent moon is because Allah was the moon god, and that is the deal.”

Actually, not really. The Qur’an instructs the Prophet Muhammad to say: “‘O followers of earlier revelation (i.e., Jews and Christians)! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God.’ And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that it is we who have surrendered ourselves unto Him.'”

If, as Robertson asserts, “Allah” was the moon god of Mecca, then Arabic-speaking Christians must be worshipping the wrong god. They also call God “Allah,” and every Arabic translation of the Bible translates God as “Allah.”

There’s more:

• The name “Allah” is the Arabic form of the ancient Semitic name for the supreme deity. Its proto-Semitic root word is “LH,” which means “to worship.” The Hebrew “eloh,” which is the name used for God in the Hebrew Bible, also comes from this root word.

• In Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, the word for God is “alaha.” Moreover, the name “Eloi,” which Jesus calls out from the cross, is nothing but the Hebrew translation of the Aramaic “alaha.” Jesus would have called God “alaha,” which is very similar to “Allah.”

So should Western Christians call God “Allah” in their liturgies? No. The English word “God” is a beautiful name, dating back to before Christianity. It is the name I use when I speak to Muslims in English. Nevertheless, the fact remains that “Allah” is the very same God worshipped by Jews and Christians, and Muslims do not worship an alien or pagan god.

Rather than heed the calls of those who would seek to divide us, we should learn about and appreciate our similarities — as followers of the Abrahamic tradition — so that we can learn to work together for the common good. The God upon whom we call is one and the same; the name that each community chooses to call him is completely immaterial.

GUEST COMMENTARY: The last lonely Muslim Republican
By HESHAM HASSABALLA
c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) I have been a registered Republican for as long as I have been active in political life. I even left my wife — in labor — at the hospital to vote for George W. Bush in 2000.

Yet, in the intervening years, it has become more and more difficultfor me to stay in the Republican Party. I may be, in fact, one of the last Muslim Republicans left in America.

I feel most at home in the GOP: it is the party of Abraham Lincoln, in whose land I live; the party that emancipated the slaves; the party that believes the best government is the smallest government. And since I tend to be conservative on many social issues, being a Republican just made sense to me.

Many American Muslims joined me in casting votes for President Bush in 2000; in fact, it may have been the Muslim vote in Florida that helped get President Bush elected. Yet, ever since that day, I have felt nothing but hostility and negativity about Islam and Muslims coming from prominent Republican leaders and supporters.

To his credit, Bush did come out and support the American Muslim community when it was under siege due in the initial hysteria that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But those days of unity and closeness have long since vanished, and I feel more and more out of place in the Republican Party.

For the past seven years, prominent supporters of the president, such as evangelists Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson, and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, issued scathing attacks, not against Muslim extremists, but at the religion of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran.

Islam is an “evil, wicked” religion; the Prophet Muhammad was a”terrorist”; The Quran is a book that advocates the killing of innocents. We all know the drill well. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado even called for the bombing of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in response to another 9/11-style attack.

The response from the president was silence — deafening silence.

Not only that, he seemed to equate Islam with fascism by calling our enemies “Islamo-fascists,” although it should be noted that he and other White House officials have since backed off of that term.

This anti-Islam rhetoric continues in the Republican race for the White House. Front-runner Rudy Giuliani takes issue with calling terrorists what they truly are: fanatical extremists. He insists we call them Islamic terrorists, as if he wants to highlight their Muslim faith. In addition, Giuliani now has the support of Robertson, who has said Islam seeks to “control, dominate and then if need be, destroy.”

Tancredo has defended his campaign TV ad that shows a hooded terrorist blowing up a shopping mall. “There are people in this country who are preaching hatred from mosques,” he said. “There are people who are planning to do bad things beyond getting the job that other Americans don’t want.”

As I hear these attacks against my religion, and then hear no response from national GOP leaders, I keep wondering to myself, “Am I even welcome in the Republican Party?”

That’s part of the reason I didn’t vote for Bush in 2004, and it really makes me think twice about voting for a Republican come 2008. I suspect most American Muslims feel the same way.

Is there hope for the GOP and Muslims? Is there anything the GOP can do to bring Muslims back into their fold? First of all, GOP leaders and candidates should reject the fearmongering and hateful rhetoric. They should declare outright that our enemies are fanatical extremists — some of whom cloak their evil in the garbs of Islam — and not all Muslims. Our war, they must say, is not against Islam, but against those who would use Islam to justify the murder of innocents all across the world.

More importantly, the GOP must reach out to Muslim Americans, many of whom share the same political and moral values. The party must work with them on the local and national level, so that the party truly represents all segments of American society.

If they want my vote, Republicans must return to the values that made the party great — the values of Lincoln. They are values that have been abandoned of late, especially during the Bush presidency.

I truly do not want to abandon the Republican party, but unless things change, I cannot keep from asking if the party has already abandoned me.

COMMENTARY: Not that there’s anything wrong with that …
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Now it’s gotten out of hand.

At a Detroit rally for Sen. Barack Obama on June 16, two Muslim women were barred from appearing in the prominent seats behind the senator because they wore the hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

According to Politico.com, one campaign volunteer explained that “because of the political climate and what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with Muslim Americans, it’s not good for (the women) to be seen on TV or associated with Obama.” Another campaign volunteer was paraphrased as saying, “We’re not letting anyone with anything on their heads like baseball (caps) or scarves sit behind the stage.”

In a statement e-mailed to Politico.com, the two women, Hebba Arefand Shimaa Abdelfadeel, called the incident “unfortunate and extremely disappointing.” They still support Obama’s White House bid.

To his credit, Obama has since apologized.

“The actions of these volunteers were unacceptable and in no way reflect any policy of my campaign,” he said in a statement. “I take deepest offense to and will continue to fight against discrimination against people of any religious group or background.”

I can tell you this incident sparked a lot of anger in the Muslim community, and deep sadness in me. It seems that the Obama campaign is deathly afraid of being associated with anything Muslim, despite assurances from the senator and his campaign to the contrary.

Yet, on his new campaign Web site, www.fightthesmears.com, Obama lists the lingering rumor that he is Muslim as a “smear.” Why is that considered a “smear”? Sure, I know Obama is a Christian, but what is sowrong with being Muslim?

Islam is one of the three Abrahamic faiths and comes directly out ofthe Judeo-Christian tradition. Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews. Islam teaches love of God, love of country, love of humanity, tolerance, respect and peace. The Islam that I know gives me enormous spiritual comfort and demands of me that I be the best doctor, writer, father and citizen possible.

Unfortunately, that is not the Islam that many — if not most –Americans have come to know. The Islam they know is the twisted, ugly, satanic cult of the 9/11 hijackers and other terrorists who claim to be Muslim. Even though Islam strenuously condemns the murder of innocents, these terrorists have used the cloak of Islam to hide their criminal barbarity.

At the end of the day, it falls on us Muslims — not Obama — to change this perception. We must double our efforts to engage our fellow Americans in the activities of everyday life. We must get involved in local government, in PTAs and school boards, in homeowners associations and neighborhood watches, in block parties and neighborhood barbecues. The more non-Muslim Americans get to know their Muslim neighbors on a personal level, the more that negative perception of Islam will melt away.

Still, Obama could help in this effort. These “whispers” that Obama is a Muslim will not go away; in fact, they will probably get louder as the presidential campaign swings into high gear. I wish he would say, just once, that even though he is a committed Christian, there is nothing wrong with being Muslim.

It’s almost as if Obama should invoke a version of “Seinfeld”: “I’m not Muslim … not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

I’m not asking Obama to be a positive spokesman for Islam; far from it. Yet such a statement from the senator would go a long way toward bringing Americans together and, as he said on June 3, shun “the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge.”

GUEST COMMENTARY: Declaring independence during Ramadan
By HESHAM A. HASSABALLA
c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Last week marked the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims the world over abstain from food, drink and other sensual pleasures from dawn until dusk. As Muslims deprive themselves of what is normally allowed, they are reminded of the poor and hungry, and motivated to help those who are less fortunate.

On the surface, forgoing food and drink is an exercise in restraint of human freedom. Except for the words of the Quran — “Fasting is prescribed upon you as it was on those before you that you may be conscious of God” — there is no rational reason to not eat and drink during the daytime for 30 days. The Ramadan fast may not make sense to many non-Muslim Americans, even though fasting is also an essential part of the Judeo-Christian ritual experience.

Yet, on the contrary, the fast of Ramadan is all about human freedom. It is a declaration of independence, if you will, from those worldly things that can enslave the believer during every day life.

Granted, food and drink are essential to life, and people should not fast if fasting will place their health and well-being in jeopardy. But excessive food and drink can be enslaving, and the fast of Ramadan can help break that enslavement.

In fact, it’s amazing to realize how much food and drink can dominate the day’s activities when they are taken away from you, if only temporarily. Fasting during Ramadan shows how you can really do just fine without that extra cup of coffee or cookie during the day.

Every year, for example, I was close to stupor for the first few days of Ramadan due to caffeine withdrawal. I was enslaved to caffeine, and the fast of Ramadan helped me break my dependence.

Perhaps the most liberating aspect of the month of Ramadan is the opportunity to free oneself from nicotine (fasting Muslims may not smoke). Given the addicting nature of this substance, forgoing smoking can be particularly difficult.

Still, after 72 hours, nicotine is completely metabolized from the body. What remains — and what continues to ensnare smokers — are the behavioral associations with cigarettes. “After I eat, I simply have to have a cigarette,” I am told by countless patients and friends who find it so hard to quit. That need is extremely powerful, more than most people realize.

Yet, somehow, during Ramadan, they are able to forgo cigarettes while fasting, and if they can do it during the day, they can certainly do it during the night. In fact, the month of Ramadan is the perfect time to quit smoking. Ideally, there should be no Muslim smokers, yet sadly, the Muslim world has some of the highest smoking rates smoking around the globe.

Ramadan is a very special month for Muslims, and almost universally they will tell you that its spirit is unlike any other. By fasting during the day, the spirit can be re-focused on the divine and freedfrom the distracting mundane aspects of life.

Ramadan can also help with the bad habits and vices that can accumulate over time as well. The hope is, by the end of Ramadan, we emerge better, both spiritually and physically.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s