Tag Archive for 'Islam'

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’

Islam 101

I’ve been writing a lot about Islam lately. The reason is because,  in the realm of aid and development, I don’t think Islam is properly understood. This matters because quite often the communities, countries, and individuals that aid and development is meant to assist are Muslim.

Yet, we live in a world where some of the largest organizations have gone to court for the right never to have to hire or work with Muslims. We also exist in an online space where discussions of aid and development exclude Muslims because the tone and language of these conservations foster groupthink and exclude minority (especially Muslim) voices.

But what is Islam? Well, instead of citing a religious scholar, I think my friend John Green summarizes Islam pretty nicely in this video. If you have 13 minutes to spare, it’s a must watch:

 

How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog? Thoughts on the Digital Divide

This year I’ve been talking a lot about the “Digital Divide”. But what is that? And why does it matter?

The “Digital Divide” is basically a term to describe the technological gap which prevents the poorest of the world’s poor from participating in global online conversations that are occurring on the internet.

This is important because what we are doing on the internet is starting to have the power to shape our politics, our governments, our economies, and our own personal priorities, opinions, and tastes.

If the poorest of the poor are excluded from these global conversations, we can only use the internet to make a difference for the poor instead of using the internet to make a difference with the poor.

Aid bloggers sometimes deride photos like this one as "development and technology porn". From personal experience, villagers would rather you take their photos showing them fascinated at being connected than photos selected to show them crying, emaciated, and with flies on their faces. As I've written about before, what matters the most is making sure people are portrayed as they wish to be portrayed.

This is no more clear and apparent when it comes to international aid and development. Everyone from activists, aid professionals, and aid pundits are shaping how the poorest of the poor are served.

These aid discussions – ranging from polite and professional to snarky and snide – are shaping policies and practices on what is (and isn’t) “good aid”. But, due to the digital divide, the poor don’t have a say in this online discourse.

Although I’m no aid expert, I believe there are three things that are needed for the poorest of the poor to be brought into global conversations that directly affect them:

  1. Charity can’t solve this problem alone: The infrastructure needed to connect low income and remote communities must be laid by either governments or (more realistically) for-profit companies. Similarly, devices that can plug into this infrastructure (like cellphones and low cost PCs) need to be made more affordable. This isn’t about dumping stuff on the poor, but rather making it a viable consumer choice.
  2. There needs to be an incentive to get connected: Charities and NGOs will need to be a big part of this by giving developing communities a greater say and control in how they receive assistance. I believe using technology to connect donors and recipients together will go a long way to make this less about aid from an institution and more about people on opposite sides of the digital divide helping each other. Why does that even matter? As I’ve talked about before, the distinction between institutions and people can be important in many cultures and contexts.
  3. Giving an IP address isn’t enough: Just because someone can participate in a global online conversation, doesn’t mean they will. For example, I’ve already written about how conservative Muslims in developing countries will most likely avoid online aid blogger discussions. This is because the snark, sarcasm, and personal attacks occasionally thrown around in that space directly contradict some interpretations on Islamic Codes of Conduct. I believe digital intermediaries – or bridge-makers – can go a long way to foster conversations (and impacts) that are inclusive and free of unintentional ethnocentrism.

This is basically what talked about when I – thanks to you guys – got the opportunity to go to the World Economic Forum. It’s also something I continually talk about whenever I get the chance.

For example, with the United Nations running a contest to select a set of UN Citizen Ambassadors, I submitted this video talking about the need to bridge the digital divide:

And, while attending the United Nations Foundations’ Social Good Summit, I was asked by Ericsson to pose a question starting with “How Come?”. It was for this campaign they are running. I decided to ask “How Come the Poor Can’t Video Blog?”:

The bottom-line (and perhaps a plus): once the poor start speaking for themselves and we start using the internet to make a difference with them instead of for them, the sooner people like me will have to shut up :)

The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism

Hartel (Strike) in Bangladesh

With less than a month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence, protests, and strikes have erupted in Bangladesh. Much of this is fueled by an Islamic political party called Jamaat-e-Islami. This is a political party that exists both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Their goal? To advance the Islamization of Muslim countries (with the goal of ultimately ruling by Sharia Law).

When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked.

What surprises me the most is that aid workers are often the ones least willing to admit that such a connection exists at all. The impression I get from many of my friends and colleagues in the humanitarian sector, is that many see themselves as Starfleet officers operating on their own version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive.

Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of nobility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice in the aid industry, the notion that one can provide humanitarian aid and development while being impartial and above the fray of local conflicts is science fiction.

Continue reading ‘The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism’

Female Aid Worker Harassed in Bangladesh

Earlier this week, I got a letter from a young lady who had interned with an NGO in Bangladesh. With her permission, I am sharing excerpts of her email below:

I’m a female Canadian who spent a summer in Dhaka and it took me over 2 years to regain my ability to think and function like the typical North American female. Even still, it’s a challenge.

Your youtube videos on Eve Teasing & Purdah, especially the conversation with Nirjhar, were all too familiar.  No one prepared me for this aspect of my trip to “volunteer/intern” for [OMITTED] in Dhaka.  I knew I was going to a largely Islamic nation, with a great deal of modesty expectations for females.  I had no idea that because I was young (21), unmarried, and female, (and the coveted white-skinned!), that [OMITTED] would pretty much hide me away in a room for the duration of my 90 day visa because it was too much of a hassle to escort (felt like babysit) me around to go anywhere at all, and it seemed as though they also somehow considered me incapable of doing anything.  At the end of my stay in Dhaka (which felt like a lifetime spending 80% of it in a single room), I was told to come back someday after I was married and maybe they would have work for me.

I returned to [OMITTED] being unable to go out in public places without this overwhelming fear of men staring at me, with vivid memories of males pointing and talking about me in words I couldn’t understand but could sense were not exactly kind-hearted, and taking millions of photos of me with their mobiles. I was unable to bare my shoulders or ankles. To this day, I still wear scarves 75% of the time to add an extra layer of coverage to my front because I otherwise feel so incredibly indecent and ashamed. It is a constant battle to look males in the eye when I talk to them. It took over a year before I actually felt safe while going out after sundown by myself.

The Dhaka experience was incredibly… oppressive. It killed my heart to know that Bangladeshi women live through even worse every single day of their lives. I wish I knew of something I could do. I would go back if I had some sense that I could be of any use; but the result of my last trip gave me the impression that my presence is only a burden and therefore not wanted, only my money. Which as a student, I still have very little of.  So in the meantime I fund a Kiva loan every month, am slowly finishing my education, and ultimately aspire to get a decent enough job so I can give half my money away to the most respectable NGOs/foreign aid organizations I can find. But this plan leaves me feeling like I’m copping out, and just handing over money for other people to do the hands-on work.

Needless to say, I have more respect for Nirjhar the aid worker than words can describe.  And I hope and pray that maybe someday I, too, will have even a small portion of the courage that she has.

I asked for her permission to post this letter because, while I am sure there are tons of women who have had great experiences interning in Bangladesh, this is by no means an outlier.

There is a lot I like about Bangladeshi culture and tradition. For example, I believe local non-NGO ways and approaches to helping the poor are just as valid (if not more so) than foreign institutional and professional methods.

But not every facet of Bangladeshi culture, habits, and tradition need to persist. And this is a prime example.

P.S. Check out my friend (and personal hero) Anika Rabbani. As a guy, I will never fully understand the kind of hurdles she faces in her job.