This isn’t the story of how donations built a school. Donations don’t build school. Watch the video to see what I mean.
Haphazardly Trying to Make the World a Better Place. Inspired by my time as a student at the University of Notre Dame.
Recently, a donor raised concerns about the quality of the construction work being done on a new school I'm helping locals build. His concerns were all raised by a single instagram. From this single photo, the donor concluded that the rods were not joined properly. Therefore, this building is being built improperly. Therefore, this school won't last. Etc etc etc.,. I'd like to address this and I'd like to start by sharing a classification system I've developed as an educational tool to explain to others how various charities build schools.
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 ...
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. [caption id="attachment_3748" align="aligncenter" width="499" caption="Toilet paper, antibiotics, soap, and pajamas - not taking a salary from ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Last month, I wrote a blog post about negatives attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh. I’ve also talked about how these negative attitudes can be avoided by being a “free agent”, emphasizing blood ties, and respecting and understanding Islam.
I’d like to elaborate on that last point because I recently stumbled on this video:
Before you click play, I should probably point out this video is not for everyone. At the very start of this video, the Imam suggests that all non-Muslims (with a particular emphasis on Israelis) are liars.
It’s also important to note that this particular Imam, has got in trouble in the past and has been accused of hate speech. But, honestly, what he’s preaching would not be out of place in many conservative villages in Bangladesh.
Traditional Islam has a strict standard on what is and is not considered a lie. There is no such thing as an “innocent white lie”. Moreover, the penalty for lying is severe and can incur the wrath of God (including the afterlife – Qu’ran 4:145).
“Fear Allah, and be with the truthful.” (Qu’ran 9:119)
In the strict interpretation of Islam, even hyperbole is considered a grave lie (i.e. “I called you a million times!”). In fact, as the Imam points out, even wearing colored contacts or dying your hair is a form of dishonesty.
But how does this pertain to aid and development? And why does not being a NGO or charity seem to help foster greater trust in more conservative villages in Bangladesh? Find out after the jump…