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?