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A Muslim’s Thoughts on 9/11

As a Muslim, I feel personally ashamed at what happened on September 11th, 2001. I know I shouldn’t be – I wasn’t (nor any Muslim I could possibly personally know) involved in that heinous act.

But Islam emphasizes unity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Canadian Muslim, Arab Muslim, or a Bangladeshi Muslim. It makes me think: the 9/11 hijackers probably prayed in the direction of Mecca and fasted for Ramadan just like me.

Yet, the first thing that most Muslims around the world did was point out that the perpetrators of 9/11 don’t represent them or Islam. As if distancing ourselves from this minority within a minority makes it all better.

I probably don’t represent many (if any) Muslims when I say this but, pointing out that people who do violent and horrible things in the name of Islam don’t actually represent Islam isn’t enough.

At the same time, 9/11 isn’t something that can be “counter-balanced” through an equally sized positive act. It’s a scar that will live on in history. At least that’s what I feel. Many Muslims reading this are probably rolling their eyes right now.

I think, as a Muslim who feels like I do, all that one can really do is live their lives in the way that best represents one’s most sincere interpretation of the goodness, positivity, and peace-making that is within Islam.

These children in rural Bangladesh currently study in an open field (or, when attendance is lower, a small cramped Church building the size of a parking spot for a car).

It’s that belief that, for me, has brought me to this remote rural village in Bangladesh – where I am potentially the first Muslim to ever build a Christian (Catholic) School. In fact, I was able to come to Bangladesh to do this on a plane ticket paid in part by a Rabbi.

Me with Avraham Berkowitz in Brooklyn prior to flying to Bangladesh – partly on the Rabbi’s dime.

I don’t claim this modest school will change the world. It’s not meant to. Rather, all I want to do is create a tiny piece of the world I’d like to see. It’s a world where people embrace each other for their differences and get strength from diversity.

Bangladesh – in fact any Muslim nation – is better off with strong, protected, and thriving minority groups. This diversity enriches the Muslim world. Only through diversity, can we understand that which is different from us. And those differences curb our own personal extremes.

A Priest with the Catholic Church coordinates with villagers on construction of the school building, funded by people who have supported me and my work. This particular congregation’s approach to aid and development is well respected enough that they are the implementing partner for many major NGOs – including World Vision.

But beyond this village, beyond just Bangladesh, and beyond Islam – fundamentally, we enrich each other in this life not by merely co-existing but by seeing the value in each other’s existence. And, by helping each other grow, thrive, and prosper, we enrich ourselves.

Future students of this school participate in the ground-breaking ceremony. This school will serve Bangladeshi Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. And, given my family’s personal experience with the Catholic School System in Bangladesh, no student will ever be pressured or required to convert to Christianity.

Ultimately, this Catholic School will only serve a small handful of Catholics. It will mostly be helping local Bangladeshi Hindus. As the school teacher put it, “I’m Hindu, I plan to stay Hindu, I just want to teach”. You know what? I want to help her.

And so does the Priest who is helping to build the school.

And so does the Rabbi who sent a Muslim to Bangladesh.

And so does the Muslim who was insane enough to hatch this crazy idea.

And by helping each other, we’ve hopefully helped and enriched ourselves.

I couldn’t think of any other way I’d want to live my life on September 11th.

5 Reasons I Kept My Religion a Secret

Me dressed for Eid celebrations in Bangladesh. When I started this project, I’d have rather died than share/disclose the fact I was Muslim.

Today is Eid-ul-Fitr. In Islam, this is a day of celebration marking the end of 30 days of fasting for Ramadan. I’m one of the people celebrating because I’m one of the many Muslims around the world who have fasted for 30 days.

If you’ve known me for a while, you know how difficult it is for me to write that.

Back when I started this project, I took great pains to keep my ethnicity and my religion secret. I hid all traces of my last name (an obvious giveaway – Ahmed) and gave non-answers when directly questioned about my religious beliefs.

Why did I do that? Here’s five reasons why:

5) The Uncultured Project Isn’t a “Muslim Project”: We live in a world with double standards. A Christian can say that Christ inspires them while still being able to claim their work is secular. This is the case behind the people who founded Charity: Water, One Day’s Wages, and even Invisible Children. In a post-9/11 world, whether or not it’s fair, the same isn’t true for Muslims. I feared (and still fear) the cost of speaking about my religion would (and will) be less support for my work.

4) YouTube Haters: Before starting this project, I did a quick search on YouTube on videos that were done by Muslims or mentioned Islam. Needless to say, the comments on those videos came straight from the deepest cesspools of humanity. YouTube is a big part of how I connect people to my work and it’s hard to build an audience and momentum on YouTube if haters are flooding your videos with vitriol and pressing dislike on every video.

3) Real-Life Islamophobia: I don’t want to be treated like a terrorist. But, even when lecturing at a university and not even touching upon my religious beliefs, I’ve been accused of being (and I quote) “an Islamic terrorist gaining dupes”. If that’s how I’m treated simply for being brown and having the last name “Ahmed”, imagine what doors (and minds) will close if I “come out” as Muslim?

2) Aid Bloggers: “Hack”. “Idiot”. Comments about my masturbation frequency. These are actual comments sent to me by aid bloggers. Why? In 2010, without stating explicitly my religion, I started to openly talk about traditional Muslim approaches to aid and development. Online, aid bloggers lauded and applauded the vitriol coming my way saying one needs to “man up” and just take it. Offline, I received sympathy and support that eventually led me to learn that some of the most vocal anonymous vitriol (including one from a prominent anonymous aid blogger with over 3,000 followers) were actually from employees working at a large Christian NGO with a Christian-only hiring policy. My experience with the aid blogosphere left me feeling that aid bloggers were intentionally cultivating a vulgar (or “snarky” if you’re being euphemistic) and unaccountable atmosphere (due to the ease of creating anonymous social media profiles) with a bias against minority and non-Western viewpoints. What sucks is that, if I were to be more vocal about my religion and put my experience with aid bloggers in its proper context, aid bloggers could say that I’m “playing the race card”.

1) I Don’t Represent Islam: I’ve had Muslim friends on Facebook unfriend me for my pro-LGBT rights tweets and posts. I’ve had Muslims say its Islamically forbidden to listen to music – or use them in videos. I’ve had Muslims call me a coward when they felt I tweeted or said something that didn’t make Islam seem superior to other religions. I’ve had Muslims argue with me at length about my views that Israel has the right to defend itself or by supporting Rabbi Berkowitz and his message calling for the (now successful) release of Gilad Shalit. The number one reason I didn’t want to talk about being Muslim is because, while I happen to consider myself Muslim, I don’t know how Muslim other Muslims consider me to be.

The reason I decided to not keep my religion a secret anymore is because, in order to build bridges between different cultures and religions, you can’t keep your own culture and religion a secret. So, for better or worse, I hope you stick around for whatever comes next.

Controversial Comments on Circumcision

When I decided to start an ambitious interfaith project in collaboration with Christian and Jewish support, I knew I’d have to start being more vocal about my own Muslim beliefs and opinions. Some, like my criticism of Germany’s banning of infant and childhood circumcision, has stirred a heated debate.

Let’s see if I can bridge the gulf on this issue a little bit…

Continue reading ‘Controversial Comments on Circumcision’

Poverty Makes Bangladesh Look Bad?

I recently received this comment from a Bangladeshi who is wealthy enough to live in the United States:

I understand that this guy is helping the people in Bangladesh, but honestly is it that hard to shoe [sic] the good part of Bangladesh and not the part that’s poor because not everywhere in Bangladesh is like that. [emphasis mine]

I’m sharing this comment because many wealthier Bangladeshis equate anything that has to do with poverty (whether or not that focus embraces guilt-free positivity and eschews poverty porn) as automatically “bad”.

There’s nearly 150 million people in this country and, according to the United Nations, over half of them are living in extreme poverty. It would be nice if wealthier Bangladeshis could acknowledge we can have a conversation about Bangladesh’s poor without it being seen as “showing the bad”.

I’m not saying this based on one lone YouTube comment. This point-of-view is actually fairly commonplace among wealthier Bangladeshis and has actually been the focus of a thorough academic analysis in the book “Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh” by Dr. Naomi Hossain.

As Dr. Hossain points out, wealthier (or “elite”) Bangladeshis “do not feel threatened by the extent of poverty, or by poor people”. Rather, they feel that poverty threatens “the wealth or international stature of the nation”. So for many Bangladeshis, talking about the poorer half makes Bangladesh look bad.

We need to get over ourselves.

 

Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?

If you follow me on Twitter, you already know I’m back in Bangladesh. When I’m Dhaka, I live with my maternal uncle and aunt. Lately, I’ve been noticing a trend.

Just a few days ago, when I came back home carrying a bunch of groceries, my uncle chastised me saying “you better not have used any donations to pay for those groceries!”. In his mind, using donations – however small – for my own food, clothing, or anything that benefits me would be tantamount to stealing.

Toilet paper, antibiotics, soap, and pajamas - not taking a salary from donations is not enough for my Bangladeshi uncle. I also can't use donations to buy personal necessities.

I was able to put the matter to rest by explaining that my groceries were paid for with an allowance from my parents. Besides, if I bought something such as computer or video equipment that I could benefit from outside of charity work, I have a fund specifically for equipment. No donations to help the poor have been “stolen”.

The next day, after having dinner, I pulled out a small snack I had brought to Bangladesh with me from Canada. I brought it with me because it’s a small little treat you can’t find here. As I was eating in front of my aunt, my aunt looked at me and asked: “if you’re helping the poor, why do you eat such expensive food?”.

Eating this protein bar (about two bucks) is a "betrayal of my principles to help alleviate poverty" according to my Bangladeshi aunt.

The snack cost me less than $3. But, when 80% of Bangladeshis earn less than $2 and day (and about half earn less than $1 a day), I could see how this snack (a protein bar) could be seen as an opulent indulgence. “If you help the poor” my aunt elaborated, “you should live a very modest life – or it goes against your principles of wanting to alleviate poverty”.

I bring this up because many aid experts, aid bloggers, or aid professionals simply don’t get what it is I’m trying to do with this project. Some see me as a fundraiser – raising funds for charities I like. Others see it as online promotion – getting lots of tweets, retweets, and YouTube views for my favorite charities.

That’s not it at all. At best, you could call all that stuff a side-effect of my work.

Continue reading ‘Have To Be Poor To Help The Poor?’