Tag Archive for 'Jewish'

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.

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’

Negative Attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh

Earlier today, Shahnur Alom (a 25 year old Bangladeshi) wrote me this:

Fuck you Shawn, and fuck those chinky basterds you’ve come to help and molest during the night (that’s what aid workers do around the world in the name of charity). you dirty mother fucking Americans can fuck off from our land and suck some Jewish Israeli cocks.

To a Westerner, this guy is just a troll and a hater. However, to a Bangladeshi, this is an attitude which is sadly quite commonplace in Bangladesh. It’s attitudes like this which have made it difficult for NGOs to exist in Bangladesh, for aid workers to do work, and for potential donors to trust whom to give money to.

Anti-NGO attitudes are even worse if you're perceived as being a Christian NGO. Sadly, level of education does not change negative perceptions. The above comment was sent to me be a Bangladeshi whom I discovered had studied at the London School of Economics.

This is why I do things the way that I do. When I’m in Bangladesh, in virtually every village, I end up having to emphasize three things. And only by emphasizing these three things do I avoid sentiments and attitudes like those from people like Shahnur:

  • I have to emphasize that I am not an NGO. What I’m doing is as just a guy.
  • I have to emphasize that I have blood ties to Bangladesh.
  • I have to prove and emphasize that I respect Islam.

With a population of over 150 million people, Bangladesh is by no means a country of uniform consensus. But, prevalent negative attitudes and perceptions towards NGOs and aid workers is something I feel has been under-reported, insufficiently documented, and poorly-studied.

"Elite Perceptions on Poverty in Bangladesh" by Naomi Hossain is one of the few academic pieces that delve into Bangladeshi attitudes towards NGOs and poverty. However, it focuses primarily on Bangladesh elites. Many anti-NGO attitudes, I have discovered, are prevalent amongst all social classes in Bangladesh.

Granted, there has been one notable study on Bangladeshi elite perceptions on NGOs and poverty. And, on a rare occasion, a non-Bangladeshi aid blogger traveling in Bangladesh will encounter this and blog about it. But the majority of aid & development professionals and scholars don’t focus on this.

This is because, at least of late, there is a focus on quantitative data and a dismissal of anything else as “anecdotes”. But, as any anthropologist will tell you, not all knowledge and insight can be gained from a quantitative approach. Sometimes a small, individual, and ethnographic approach is needed.

A blogger interviews a director (pictured above) from "Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF)" in Dhaka. In this interview the AMRF director says that "Aid is an industry... and it's not the poor people who profit.", "NGO is the main impediment to development", "NGO jobs depend on perpetuating poverty," and "When I see an NGO with very good paperwork about all the amazing work they are doing, I know they are a fraud." Not even including the years I've been doing this project, I can attest these are VERY common beliefs in Bangladesh.

I don’t believe the solution to this is for NGOs to go away and for aid and development to be done just by individuals. But I do believe that NGOs and charities can benefit from independent individuals who work alongside NGOs as “bridge-makers”. I’ve already talked about how I try and do this.

In fact, everything I’ve done: from not incorporating, to not using donations to give myself a salary to stipend, to raising funds for overhead separately, to saying no to lucrative job offers with UN agencies and NGOs, and to leveraging technology to directly connect donors and villagers has been with this goal in mind.

These two village women have been trained by Save the Children to be village health workers. I, as an individual and not an NGO employee, collaborated with Save the Children to make sure these health workers have stipends. In addition to some paperwork, everything was captured on video and photos. Donors and villagers both know exactly where the money came from and exactly where it went. Save the Children also got double the administrative and overhead funds it requested thanks to donors who donated specifically for that (which was collected separately from donations designated to help the poor). By the end of 2011, these two women will have helped an estimated 300 to 400 kids - almost all of them Muslim. This was part of a larger project I did with Save the Children that will ultimately help over 10,000 children in Southern Bangladesh. Oh, and the specific donations helping these two village health workers came from the Jewish community in Haifa, Israel. If this causes cognitive dissonance for people like Shahnur Alom than everything is going according to plan.

Yet Another Reason to be Hopeful

A Muslim comes to the aid of a Jewish person being beaten by Anti-Semites in New York City. Turns out all it takes to piss off an Anti-Semite is to wish them “Happy Hanukkah”.

You can read the story here on CNN. This was also posted by Rezwan in his blog The Third World View as well as on a popular Jewish blog.

Oh, and what’s the background of this person who came to help? He’s a 20-something student of Bangladeshi ancestry. 🙂