Thursday, December 25, 2014

Prophet Muhammad Says, "Merry Christmas!"

This time of year, people who know my full name, Walid Abdul Jawad, interrupt me mid-sentence asking "Do you celebrate Christmas!?" as I’m ranting about how Christmas is an obligatory national shopping season augmented by an unhealthy dose of collective gift buying stress. I always take a deep breath before smiling, "yes, I celebrate Christmas" then quickly continue with my rant. I am contemplating giving myself a break this year so long as people don’t expect me to send them cards or buy them presents believing that I’m exempt as a non-Christian.

I was born in St. Elizabeth hospital in Texas with an oversized cross covering the side of its five-story building, my tonsil removal surgery as a child was in the Coptic hospital of Cairo, Egypt (no, I am not Egyptian) where I was attended to by cross bearing nuns, and my first wedding I’ve attended as a little child was at a church in Italy (I’m not Italian either obviously) when my Muslim uncle took a Christian wife. I grew up being taught to revere Jesus, just like other Muslim kids who were told the story of the virgin birth and the many miracles he performed.

Above all, I was taught that Islam is a revival of Christianity because, as it were, god’s true teachings were lost in translation as evident by the bible’s different books, therefore he sent Mohammad to renew his true message. This blurred the religious divide for me, so much so that I viewed Islam as simply another Christian denomination. Very few people understand Jesus's centrality in Quran; he is mentioned over 30 times while Mohammed only four. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when other Muslims celebrate Christmas either.

When prophet Muhammad first moved to the holy city of Medina he saw its Jews celebrating the day when god saved Moses and the Israelites by parting the sea. He turned to his followers and directed them to celebrate with the Jews in the same fashion, by fasting. Muslims are to celebrate Christmas not only because they would be following Muhammad’s lead in interfaith understanding, but also because Islam, in fact, is an extension of Christianity; same teachings, same commandments, same god.

Granted, celebrating Jesus’s birth on December 25 is not based in reality thanks to Emperor Constantine for moving Jesus’s birthday to the pagan celebrated day of Dec 25, in effect, voiding Christmas of its religious depth. Today we celebrate a shopping season wrapped in a façade of religious symbolism. The reality for most is that Christmas is simply a commercialized annual pilgrimage, worshiped by ad executives and prayed to by CEOs. Now that we have cleared the confusion over Christmas timing and Islam’s relation to it, we are better suited to salvage what would enhance our collective betterment. 

To that end, we must not be confused that Christmas is an occasion with a religious flavor and we should all approach it as such; celebrated by those who believe and observed by the rest of us to commemorate and honor our humanity. One thing is for sure, Christmas should be a time for all of us, Christian and non-Christians, to reflect on the good things we have in our lives and to recommit ourselves to our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity. If you’re like me not buying into the religious aspect of the season then you can always embrace the spirituality emanating from 2 billion Christians around the world - humanity will be better for it; Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Anything to fit in: The struggles of an Arab American

Americans are not racist; at least they like to think they are not. In general, Americans are not consciously racist, but inevitably racism rears its ugly head with dramatic flair. We see it time and again in news reports exposing tension along racial fault lines in a cyclical fashion. Although most Americans will deny harboring racist thoughts against members of other groups, stereotypical beliefs are activated in unforeseen situations leading to devastating results. The Ferguson and Brown incidents are only the latest examples of such situation leading to shattering effects on members of the African American community. While it is forcing American to look deeper into its past and present, the U.S. needs to examine its broader struggles with racial prejudice on a structural and societal basis.
African Americans are indignant, and rightfully so, as they point to the many lives cut short by unjustifiable use of force by law enforcement personnel. Police officers feel betrayed by the community as they insist on examining each case separately. All the while, the rest of America would rather avoid the topic all together and not deal with the traffic disruption caused by protestors. It is impossible to approach the recurring scenario except as a racial problem. In fact it would be shortsighted not to look beyond the violent incidents to examine how deep racial prejudice runs in America. Millions of citizens have firsthand experience with explicit and/or implicit racial discrimination.
Arab Americans and Muslim Americans take their own steps to Anglicize their names. Mohammed becomes “Mo,” Samiah and Sameer become “Sam”
Walid Jawad
Visual triggers based on color and features constitute the majority of the incidents covered by the media; i.e. a black men killed by white police officers. Hate crimes are not covered by the media with the same intensity. Profiling is one other form of racial prejudice that competes for the attention of media outlets, but because profiling doesn’t rise up to the principle “if it bleeds, it leads”, we don’t hear much about it. Racial profiling is a structural problem that is sanctioned by the legal system.

The complete picture

Zooming out in an attempt to see the complete picture, one would notice that racial profiling usually manifests itself in the form of old/established immigrants, mainly white, profiling new immigrants who come to the U.S. with their own languages and cultures. US society, in an effort to avoid dealing with some of these race issues, labels it under different banners. “Immigration reform,” for instance, transforms such profiling to a legislative issue as it debates whether to extend the American promise of “liberty and Justice for all” to immigrants. It’s worthy to note that the issue is not to allow or ban certain people from entering the U.S., rather it’s whether to give those who are already here the legal rights and responsibilities as people legally living in this nation.
On a societal level, this racial profiling against Hispanics doesn’t discriminate between those who are in the U.S. legally and those who are not. The curious experience of Mr. Zamora is a case in point. In his YouTube video, Jose Zamora explains that he was not able to find a job because of his ethnic name so he decided to drop the “s” from his first name making him “Joe.” At which point, he started receiving job offers. Interestingly enough, he applied to those similar jobs with the same old resume except for the small change in his name. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans sympathize with Jose taking their own steps to Anglicize their names. Mohammed becomes “Mo,” Samiah and Sameer become “Sam,” Abdullah is “Abe,” and Walid becomes “Wally.” I recently met an “Aisha” who went by “Megan” - I failed to see the connection between the two names, but just the same, she found a way to fly under the racial profiling radar to get a job. A sizable population with ethnically Arab or religiously Muslim sounding names makes a concerted effort to avoid such discrimination in the hope they would be offered an opportunity to be judge based on their merits before they get sidelined based on their ethnic/religious affiliation.

Racial profiling

Going one step further, Americans with Arabic or Muslim names endure a structural racial profiling under the guise of security. The no-fly list established after 9-11 is one form of legally endorsed racial profiling. The numerous cases of false positive matches on the no-fly lists have turned the life of many traveling Arab and Muslim Americans to a living hell. Many children have been flagged based on the no-fly list, an obvious case of false positive. The late Senator Ted Kennedy’s name was included on the no-fly list causing him to be repeatedly delayed at airports. It took many weeks and personal appeals on the highest levels to get his name of the list in 2004. Finally, last June, and thirteen years later, a federal judge ruled the no-fly list violates the Constitution; a good sign that things are headed in the right direction.
According to the Arab American Institute’s 2014 poll on American Attitudes Toward Arabs and Muslims, 42% of Americans are in favor of the use of profiling by law enforcement against Arabs and Muslims. The overall favorable attitudes toward Muslims are the lowest among all of the groups included in the poll at 27% (with 45% unfavorable). Similarly, Arabs in the U.S. enjoy only 32% favorability (39% unfavorable). It’s an uphill climb for both Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. to tip the scales toward favorability.
Personally, in 2003 while reporting for the TV show “Amreeka min al-Dakhil”, (translates to America From Within), I received a request from the FBI for an interview. Upon enquiring, I was told the reason for the interview is that I was asking questions about emergency workers (first responders), which was true. The segment I was making was about volunteer fire stations in America. I decided to reach out to a firehouse to request an interview. My name, Walid Abdul-Jawad, can be the only reason why it would cause the station chief to contact the FBI. I must say that the FBI agents were professional during the interview. An hour later I was on my way. Nevertheless, this was a case of fear-based racist profiling initiated by the firehouse chief and sanctioned by the authorities in the name of security (albeit, the scars of 9/11 were still raw).
Racism against new Americans can manifest itself in different ways often hard to detect. For instance, job seekers with ethnically sounding names are deprived from their chance to pursue the “American dream” as we can infer from Jose Zamora. Arabs and Muslims have to navigate a suspicious population that is consumed by the fear of terrorism further limiting their options. Daily observation leads me to believe that Americans with Arabic/Muslim sounding names are stratified; they tend to become professionals (doctors, engineers or lawyers), or taxi drivers, shop keepers, etc. It is rare to come across an Arab/Muslim who works in other capacities unless s/he have Anglicized their name. Before long, Arabs and Muslims might need to add their own chants along those of Ferguson and Brown protesters around the nation who are repeating “I can’t breathe” and “don’t shoot”. American Arabs and Muslims can add, “No more secondary security screening” and “Just let me make a living.”
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj

you can find the original article at 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Echoes of Allahu-Akbar in the Washington Cathedral

It wasn’t the first time the call for prayer, “Athan,” was called in the Washington National Cathedral, yet this November 14 marked the first time a Jumu’ah (Friday) prayer was held at the most revered Christian church in the nation’s capital. It was a symbolic event exemplifying tolerance, coexistence, and shared humanity. The cathedral is a marvelous architectural beauty befitting of a grand religion. The magnanimity of its façade is complemented by the warmth of its hosting clergies’ hearts. Friday morning, serene and inspired faces walked through the cathedral's arches many of them Muslim women wearing their hijabs passing the inviting pews to the front of the grand hall where prayer rugs were unfurled facing Mecca. As people gathered for the "Jumu'ah" sermon and prayer they exude peace, love and understanding.

That spiritual beauty was quickly brought back to earthly reality as a lady walked up to the Muslim congregation yelling out her disapproval of such display of compassion demanding Muslim guests to "leave us alone, leave our churches alone! This is America, founded on Christian principles!" before she was escorted out of the Cathedral. In a Facebook post she proclaims that her blood was boiling with "righteous anger" ending her post with "We are in God's army, Soldiers in the Cross! We should act like it. There is a battle out there! WORRIOR UP PEOPLE! ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS!" Religion has always been a double edged sword as it "has the capacity for cooperation bringing people together around shared values, or it can be used to 'soldier up’ be it by Christian, Muslim or Jewish extremists" said Dr. Richard Rubenstein of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.  

She was not the only person objecting to the event. The Facebook group "2 Million Bikers to DC" attempted to organize a motorcycle ride to the Cathedral to protest the prayer. Although none of the 600 invitees and the 170 confirmed participants showed up, "anti-Muslim sentiments run deep as the war on terror becomes increasingly military based. The general tendency is increased animosity against those associated with the enemy,” said Rubenstein. On the other hand, those who believe in tolerance and understanding are not seeding the field to load intolerant hate filled groups.  

Christian-Islamic Relations
For years, the Cathedral has been active in forging an open and sustained lines of communication with Muslim communities within the Washington, DC area. In 2008 the Cathedral hosted a Ramadan “Iftar” ushering in an era of deeper engagement with members of the Islamic faith. For its part, the Muslim community in the Washington, DC area has been forward leaning. As devastating as 9-11 was for the U.S. as a whole it was harder on the American Muslim community as they grieved for their country while having to defend their religion. The Muslim community adopted a two pronged approach; condemning terrorism and educating fellow Americans.

For years before 9-11 and more intensely after it, many of the steps taken by Islamic centers and Mosques were localized in the form of open houses for community members to learn firsthand of Islam and its teachings as well as the role Muslims play in the community. The grassroots effort spillover effect lead to the rise of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations), MPAC (Muslim Public affairs council) as nationally recognized prominent Islamic organizations. These three national groups in addition to two local Islamic centers; ADAMS (the All Dulles Area Muslim Society) and Masjid Muhammad, sponsored the Jumu’ah prayer at the cathedral. These Islamic organizations have been increasingly effective in their grassroots efforts and in reaching their fellow Americans including Masjid Muhammad giving the opening prayer at the U.S. Congress. It is not surprising that these organizations were invited to sponsor the Jumu’ah prayer at the Washington Cathedral, but what is interesting is that the event was suggested and lead by the South African Ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool.

Mandela’s Jumu’ah
A peacefully protesting Nelson Mandela has done for South Africa what violence could not. He inspired the sense of justice and fairness within his people and with that he captured the imagination of our humanity. In his death too he continued to inspire. As the Cathedral worked with the South African Embassy in Washington DC to coordinate a service to celebrate the life of Mandela a discussion between Ambassador Rasool of South Africa and the Reverend Canon Gina Gilland Campbell has lead a year later to this Jumu’ah prayer.

In his “Khutba” sermon, Amb. Rasool laid out the essence of the issues ailing the Muslim world when he said that Muslims “have been challenged to find consistencies between condemning the excesses done in the name of Islam and protesting the mistakes of our countries and our governments.” he went on to voice his concern for the inequality of approach when Muslims “had to manage our dismay that while we seek in this country [the U.S.] the freedom to worship we couldn't promise the same right to Christians where our fellow religionists are in the majority.” The two points of condemning extremists and calling for Muslim nations to extend freedoms to its own religious minorities were the two major points emphasized by the lineup of speakers representing the different Islamic centers.

When the “Khateeb” concluded his sermon the “Muathin” called for prayer. The echoes of “God Is Great” continued throughout the grand hall of the cathedral ushering the Muslim congregation to stand up before god; men in the first four rows and women in the following three. On their modest attire reflections of colorful sunrays filtered by the stained glass lining the cathedral. That surreal unity of imprints; Islamic rites on Christian marble and reflections of Christian stained glass on Muslims praying was a sight to behold. Among those in attendance were tens of dignitaries and guests belonging to different faiths and denominations listening and observing. When Muslim worshipers stood up to perform their Friday prayer, they too stood up and remained standing as Muslims bowed to god. During that afternoon, those who were able to take action sponsored and attended, those who were able to talk stood at the “Minber” and spoke, while the rest offered a gesture of respect and solidarity; an Islamic principle that is truly universal exemplified by hosts, sponsors and guests on a sacred ground on a hopeful day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Finally a Good Arabic Movie Worth Watching

I covered the Washington, DC Arab Film Festival first in 1997 for ANA TV an MBC sister company. I was assigned to report on the festival at the last minute as my colleague was suffering from flu like symptoms. I was the junior reporter at the time fresh out of training. The producer gave me a flyer and told me "this is your assignment" and turned walking away. This would be the first time I cover an event in DC without training wheels; any senior reporter or producer to hold my hand. I thanked my lucky stars it wasn't a political event as I wasn't all that familiar with the DC political scene yet. No, this event was a cultural one, the 2rd annual Arab Film Fest of Washington, DC called Arabian Sights.

Driving to the movie theater I imagined a small turnout of mostly new American Arabs congregating in a small community type theater. But as I got there I was impressed by the large venue and fanfare; the excitement was palpable. I interviewed many people there for the report. Surprisingly, a good portion of the attendees were non-Arab. The tapestry of American attendees was made up of people with diverse religions and racial background. Each of the people whom I interviewed expressed, in different ways, their excitement and gratitude to the organizers for allowing them the opportunity to see a different side of the Arab world. Americans typical learned about the Arab world through news reports of destruction and conflict painting an unflattering picture of a people. Enthusiastically, the attendees wanted to complement the narrow reality covered by the media with elements that are difficult to see without traveling to that part of the world.

Diplomats, politicians, academics, movie buffs, first and second generation Arab-American and students from other nations and ethnicities were in attendance. “They want to see the films and appreciate the opportunity to do so in the city they live in and they come back year after year” said Shirin Ghareeb the coordinator of the festival and one of two people who work year long to screen and select the best Arab movies to feature in the festival. As someone who just moved from Saudi Arabia back to the U.S. at that point in 1997 one particular attendee surprised me. Upon asking him on camera why he made the effort to attend the festival, he said that as a Jewish American he was trying to get acquainted with Arab culture as much as he can because Arabs and Jews will have to live together whether they like it or not. He explained further that both people need to take proactive steps to move the nature of the relationship to a more positive one based on better understanding.

It would be narrow for me to consolidate the great contributions Arabian Sights makes every year to the singular point of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Arab ethos has a much bigger problem to contend with. Political Islamists and the barbaric terrorism of ISIS and Al-Qaeda are challenging the essence of what defines Arab nations. Stories and the arts are the elements that confirm a culture, but apparently the well of Arab creativity has ran dry since Sinbad’s Magic carpet, Aladdin, Ali Baba and other fables and stories that live on beyond time and space. These stories of Arabia are in fact the parts that Arabs should put forward as a source of pride knowing that they permeate political and linguistic barriers gaining global recognition. Disney’s take on these stories is a clear example.

The transcendent narrative a culture puts forth allows its people to shape how others define them. Currently Arabs are allowing the chaotic events of killings, bombing, sectarian genocide, etc. to provide a backdrop for others to paint distorted pictures of who Arabs are. The limited efforts by Arab artist to tell the stories and humanize a culture are falling by the wayside. Arabs are unaware of the benefits they will reap by advancing such artistic forms of expression. For that, I am grateful that a team of two is bringing some of those stories to the big screen in Washington DC at the annual Arabian Sights. Shirin suggests that “These films allow viewers a window into the different Arab regions for them to learn about and figure what is going on there.”  
This year like every year, I will attend a couple of movies and seek out my American and Arab friends hoping that this 19th year of Arabian Sights would not be the last one for us to get together around good Arabic movies.

Arabs constantly complain that America doesn’t understand the Arab world. That might be true, but what are they doing to help Americans learn about their proud history and culture. Arab governments are interested in spending untold amounts of money to sway the thinking of a few American politicians forgetting that such politicians are fundamentally limited in their powers to what the majority of their constituency would not object to. Arabs, governments and people, should be concerned with creating open lines of communications with the American people. Cultural events like the Washington DC Arab Film Fest slowly, but surely, help with forging a better understanding of the Arab world. The one-dimensional stereotypical view of Arabs as violent and barbaric in the American mind is the singular most devastating factor for Arabs; they have no one to blame for it but themselves. As a matter of fact the policies and actions of the U.S. toward the region affect the lives of Arab publics throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Having a highly respected and well attended film festival is one of the many options that Arabs need to encourage, support and advance if should be bold enough to help Americans see them for what they are. Despite this obvious connection, it was doubtful for Arabian Sights to blow out its 19th candle this year due financial challenges. My calculation leads me to believe that the entire cost of the festival doesn’t reach the six digits range. Thankfully, a handful of loyal sponsors stepped up to the plate and donated the necessary funds to make this year’s festival a reality, but what about next year?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Losing our Arabism at Washington’s Arab Festival - COMPLETE* ARTICLE

Welcome to the Arab Festival of the Washington DC Area brought to you by the heirs of the former Turkish Empire. It is ironic that as soon as I walked through the gates into the festival grounds I see the main sponsor's logo all over: Turkish Airlines. It seems that the irony is lost on the organizers and the sponsors. Arabs and Arab Americans short term memory loss is problematic as they have lost the lesson of how brutal was the Ottoman Caliphate occupation of Arab lands.

With great anticipation I visited the one day festival, Saturday the 27th of September 2014, checking out vendor tents void of any allure for only the handcrafted pottery vendor. I quickly became suspicious of the origin of the art work. “This style doesn’t look Arabic” I thought to myself when the gentleman manning the table started with his pitch. I quickly asked “where was this one made?” he paused for a second and said “Persia.” A smart attempt to avoid saying “Iran” identifying himself and the artwork in a less politically charged affiliation. the score so far: festival 0 for 2. I followed my nose up the hill. I’ve planned my day so to eat my major meal at the festival imagining the numerous variety of traditional tasty Arabic cuisine in an afternoon of culinary bliss. My hopes were dashed realizing that none of the vendors were giving out samples of any long missed tasty Arabic foods.

The longest line was the one forming under the shade of some trees. I wanted to stand in line just to escape the glaring midday sun, but I was curious to check out the half dozen food stands, looking for the most intriguing menu items. Kabob on the grills of a couple of vendors with smoke dancing to a delicious beat of hunger and growling stomach. The first one was a Pakistani restaurant, the second was an Afghani and the last was Indian. Only the first vendor was making Arabic cuisine. Was there anything Arabic about this “Arab Fest”? Sure there was, there was the music echoing from the bottom of the hill, it was unequivocally Arabic. I approached the stage to get a glimpse of the band. It was a Palestinian one made up of five family members of which a little 8 years old girl played the guitar and sang; very endearing. Although, singing Marcel Khalifa’s “Tifl we Teyara” was the antithesis of the festive vibe the gathering was anticipating.

I must respect the Palestinians’ persistence to remind us and the world of their plight. Unfortunately it is not resonating. There is a major disconnect between the Palestinian people and the land of Palestine. The Palestinians over the last few decades have been coming across in an unflattering way. The divide between Hamas and Fath, the rift between the people of Gaza and the West Bank is a major conundrum. Less the Palestinian find a way to unify and become again one people it will remain a challenge for them to gain any real international public support including that of the Arab world. Arabs are unified in their animosity toward Israel, but are by no means pro Palestinians.

Back at the festival my patience was running thin, I was ready to leave. The entry fee was exaggerated, historic enemies were sponsoring the festival, the festival was lacking in festivity, Arab kids were undisciplined and hijab was overcasting an aura of Islamic tint over the afternoon. There is nothing wrong with Hijab or Islam per se, but equating Arab culture with the Islamic faith is troubling. Setting the bar, no pun intended, to adhere to a conservative religious interpretation for the purpose of appeasing the minority is tantamount to catering to the outlier minority among the group. The lowest common denominator approach is the same one that gave us Al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/IS. The outward appearance of the festival wasn’t visually religious, but the festival lacked essential festive and celebrated Arabic signature items such as the Lute and Qanoon, Arab dresses and jewelry, Arab architectural achievement and arts, Arabic inventions and history, and Arabic language, poetry and literature.

The Arab Festival did not materialize in the way it did in a vacuum. It is a reflection of the Arab world; especially that more immigrants are flooding the U.S. bringing with them ingrained fears and desperation as well as memories of destruction and atrocities. But they also bring with them a more recent Arab experience, dreams and hopes. I believe this is a good time to reflect on Arabhood and on our Arab-Americanism to examine what makes us Arabs. Muslim Americans are mostly non Arabs while being classified as White is a false classification leading successive generations to lose their Arabism, which leaves us in a peculiar place. The only factor that brings Arab-Americans together as it were is our shared grievances. And even that external negative unifier is now being lost seeing how dominant the Turkish and Iranian presence was at this festival. This would have been a different kind of article; one that praises coexistence, forgiveness and tolerance if the festival was in fact a celebration of Arab culture and not just a facade.

Nevertheless, in typical Arab fashion we avoid abundant sunshine by seeking the reprieve of any shade. Although the historic Turkish clouds are dissipating, the Iranian skies are ominously darkening. Nevertheless, Arab Americans have found darker clouds for us to gather under; the NSA, FBI and CIA along with many local law enforcement agencies are resorting to failed profiling tactics. Without their biases and prejudice we would have lost our Arab-American identity.

* A shorter version of this article was first published on Al-Arabiya (Oct 5, 2014), but it was edited to be shorter depriving the reader for some essential elements. I hope you find this complete version to be satisfactory