Thursday, August 26, 2010

CNN: My Take-Ramadan a season of service and dignity

My take: Ramadan as a season of service and dignity

Editor's Note: Karim Amin is a domestic programs 
coordinator and humanitarian 
aid worker for Islamic Relief USA
based in Alexandria, Virginia.

By Karim Amin, Special to CNN
"I didn’t think anyone knew we were out here,” said the elder from the Crow Creek reservation as she humbly accepted a bag of food and clothing from me. “But you come back every year.”
She is known as “Grandma” on the Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Grandma is one of many Native Americans living in dilapidated conditions as joblessness and poverty continue to plague Crow Creek and many other reservations across the country.Too many reservations that were intended to give the Native Americans their own sovereign land have become outposts full of trailer homes and temporary housing - a place where the original people of the Americas have been sent to and generally ignored.
I had come to the Crow Creek Reservation with Islamic Relief USA’s (IR USA) Day of Dignity, an annual effort dedicated to alleviating poverty to thousands of people across the United States.
As Grandma talked to me about her and her family, I looked into her eyes and imagined all that she has seen - the pain, the neglect, the struggle.
“I am going to bring my grandsons to thank you and welcome you,” she said with a warm smile. “We really appreciate you coming here.”
I was moved but also humbled to see that a simple bag of groceries and supplies could make such a difference.
"It’s more than that," Grandma explained. Our presence there meant more than the aid and services we were providing–it was, she said, an acknowledgment of our common humanity.
Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit relief and development organization, began Day of Dignity eight years ago as a single event during the holy month of Ramadan. The idea was that since Ramadan is a season characterized by love, compassion and charity, American Muslims could use the day as an opportunity to act on their faith by helping those in need.
Today, Day of Dignity has evolved into an annual grassroots campaign that brings thousands of volunteers from all backgrounds together to distribute food, clothing, blankets, medical care, and other social services to homeless and underserved people. This year, the campaign’s goal is to serve about 20,000 people with the help of 2000 volunteers in more than 22 cities across the country.
At the Day of Dignity event on the Crow Creek Reservation this past June (the first one this year), Islamic Relief USA volunteers spent hours assembling and distributing aid packages filled with blankets, t-shirts, hygiene products, school supplies and food. Youth volunteers set up games and face painting for children who came to the event and health professionals were on hand to provide screenings.
But beyond the food, clothing and health services, perhaps the most touching exchange was that all day Crow Creek residents came and went, graciously accepting aid packages and stayed around to play games with the volunteers. Some of the elders sat with the volunteers to teach them about Native American language and culture.
One of the organizers of the event, Victor David, an American Muslim and long-time Native American advocate, said beyond assisting others, Day of Dignity’s’ goal is to bring diverse communities together in the spirit of giving.
“When we first came a few years back the people were hesitant first,” David said. “Now they look forward to us coming every year.”
We left hoping that we made a small a difference, if just for one day.
Islamic Relief USA will be hosting many other Day of Dignity events across the country during the holy month of Ramadan. It is my hope that American Muslims and people of all faiths will come out and join us as we extend beyond the comfort of our homes, mosques, churches, and communities to help those in need.
Almsgiving and helping those in need are major pillars of Islam and the basis of Islamic Relief USA’s work, but it is also the foundation for many other faiths.
As Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Do you love your Creator? Serve your fellow man first.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Karem Amin.
Posted by: Eric Marrapodi - CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Filed under: Islam • Opinion

Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Wear…or Not to Wear?…That is the Question.

The following is an article from my dear friend Elif Kavakci.  I thought this was a great article to share during the blessed month of Ramadan.  You can check out more of Elif’s articles on her blog:
click to see:Hijabitopia

I wanted to share with you a few thoughts...  First of all, we formed this blog so that it could provide a support system and a fun environment for hijabis and those who choose to dress modestly. 

Over the years, through my writing, I have been able to reach millions of readers.  Before I started writing for HijabiTopia, I was a fashion writer for ZAMAN - the Turkish daily news, and then transfered over to, where now I have a weekly column.

Also being an Islamic Fashion designer, I've had many ladies contact me about changing the way they dress, and leading a more Islamic life style.

Writing has allowed me to get to know so many new faces, and beautiful ladies, some who wear hijab, some who are in search of how to wear hijab, and others who know exactly what to do but can't take the first steps.

It has been fun to share experiences and support each other through spiritual changes in our lives.
I will now share with you some of my thoughts on hijab. For those of you who may not personally know me, I am not an extremist Muslim, and could never be one. I like to follow the sunnah of our Prophet (peace be upon him) about having balance in my religion. So therefore when I tell you my thoughts on this topic, I don't want you to think that I am some fundamentalist. I'm just sharing my thoughts on the way I feel.
I feel very passionate about hijab.  Alot of Muslims will state that it is an option to wear hijab. I am not one of those Muslims. I believe it is Fard (obligatory), because it is clearly written in the Qur'an that believing women must dress Islamically.

When people say it is a choice, it makes my blood boil. There is no question! To wear or not to wear hijab is not an option. If you love Allah and want to please him, you wear it. If you don't wear it, that is a decision you make as a Muslim, not a choice.

Now having said that, you are probably thinking "she hates all non hijabis, she sounds so extreme". Absolutelly not. I have many friends, those who wear hijab and those who don't.  Those who are Muslim, and those who are not.  I love them all equally. Whether they wear hijab or not does not affect my friendship with them.  But my closest friends are always the ones whose lifestyles, goals, and dreams are closer to mine.  I am encircled by those friends.

I'm not going to tell you that wearing hijab is easy! Untill it becomes a complete part of you, it's difficult to carry. Yes, we get hot! Yes, it gets itchy. Yes we would love to just tie our hair in a pony tail, throw on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and flip flops and walk out the door. But do we, NO! And why don't we? To please Allah!
This Ramadan, I would like for you to think about that. If you haven't started wearing hijab, just imagine yourself in hijab. Imagine how happy it would make you feel to submit to an obligatory rule from the Qur'an.
Ramadan uplifts our spirits. It's the same kind of feeling when you wear hijab, except it's on a daily basis. Imagine what you would feel like in the beauty of hijab. When you close your eyes, try to get beyond your image, and how other people might react to it,  try to think of Allah, and try to think of all of us who are right there with you. Just like when you fast. You do the act  yourself, but millions of Muslims are doing it as well.
I could go on and on about this topic. We will have many discussions, and I would love to hear your comments, and your stories, whether you wear hijab or not. We love to have you as readers. Anybody and everybody is welcome.

Elif Kavakci for HijabiTopia

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“Journey into America”- The Challenge of Islam

I want to take a moment to share my thoughts (humbly) on this unique and ground breaking book, just released in July.  If you are reading this blog (I’m honored), stop whatever it is your doing and enlighten yourself with the first “good read” for all who desire understanding and acceptance of society, faith, and culture in the beautiful U.S.A.  After reading this I truly felt “proud to be an American” as well as a sense of pride in my faith of Islam (if the two could ever be bridged).  As a matter of fact that’s what this journey is all about, bridges…

Check out Ambassador Akbar Ahmed talking about his new book, "Journey into America" on The Daily Show!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Akbar Ahmed
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

I was lucky enough to be involved in this “Journey into America” when my dear friend Elif Kavakci (blog: HijabiTopia) invited me to photograph for an interview she was doing for Turkish publication, Zaman News. The article featured an America girl who was on an anthropological study of Muslims in America and also life in Muslim countries. 3Hailey was her name, and the curious tendencies of human beings are her game.  Hailey is a star pupil of the famed Professor\Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, of the American University in Cairo, and traveled with him and the rest of their group across several Muslim countries and then across her own homeland here in America. 

Elif Kavakci interviews Hailey Woldt

After photographing Hailey for Elif’s article, I was invited for dinner at the Kavakci home, where Hailey in turn would like to study into my own humble brain for the secret life of an American convert to Islam.  The Professor also attended and it was truly an inspiring evening to top all dinner invitations (in my book). 
Elif Kavakci, Hailey Woldt, Nicole Queen

The next day I met Hailey and Elif and the Professor, along with another star student manning a small camera, at a high end mall in Dallas.  Hailey wanted to perform a sort of anthropology experiment where the three of us would dress in all black conservative garments, looking like what most Americans view as extreme Muslims, with simple black scarves around our hair, and heavy black abaya’s.  This was an experiment she had tried before in a small town on her own (braver than me!) and was able to see a lot of shocked reactions from people, based on merely her clothing.  Honestly, I told Hailey “Hey this is Dallas, people aren’t shocked to see Muslims shopping in the mall, the mall is always full of Muslim women blissfully shopping. Elif and I only know this because it’s what we have heard…LOL”.  We continued on anyway just to see if we could catch a few uncomfortable glances from passersby, curious at our choice of garments.  Later that day I met with Hailey at the hotel they were staying at nearby and we engaged in conversation on camera, for their documentary, “Journey into America”. Which later, was further inscribed into the pages of this challenging novel, “Journey into America-The Challenge of Islam”
I’m not going to spoil it but this book is not your “run of the mill” political or social writings…

“Professor Akbar Ahmed turns his intrepid approach to cultural dialogue and inter-faith understanding onto American society, in this brilliant follow-up to “Journey into Islam”. His insights should be required reading for anyone grappling with national security, national identity and national cohesion in today’s complex era.” Colonel David Kilcullen, author of Washington PostBestseller and Economist Book of the Year, The Accidental Guerrilla
“I have not read a work as insightful, erudite, and innovative on the challenge of American identity since Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Akbar Ahmed sets a new paradigm in the ongoing debate on defining American identity.” Melody Fox, Berkley Center at Georgetown University

  In this book, you will follow the adventures of a group of enlightening students, as they themselves discover what it’s like to be a Muslim in the U.S., post 9\11. You had me at Chapter 1…it’s exciting right off the bat.  Un-Expectantly adventurous and even a little frightening, but only enough to keep you wanting more.  Here is a small preview:
Muslim Odyssey
"I had walked into an ambush. An aggressive sniper was positioned directly in front of me, with two equally effective sharp-shooters to my left and the obvious leader of the group facing me from the back row. Having been in charge of some of the most battle-hardened tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I knew something about war tactics.  One lesson I had learned was to keep cool under fire.”
Showdown in a Mosque
“Where does one begin a search for American identity and it’s Muslim component?  The answer seemed obvious: in the nation’s heartland.  But what could be learned about America’s founding principles of freedom of speech and religious tolerance in a nondescript, almost shabby mosque in Omaha, Nebraska, where I now was?  Especially in the midst of a verbal ambush by an African American man wearing a typical Arab red-and-white checkered headdress, or kufiya, who looked as if he had come straight out of an orthodox mosque in Saudi Arabia.
Hearing my call for interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians, the man stood up in a startling breach of mosque-not to mention Muslim- etiquette to challenge my interpretation of Islam.  “Good Muslims” could not talk to nonbelievers, he almost shouted.  The salvos continued, despite my well-founded explanation: Muhammad, the holy Prophet of Islam, had himself paved the way for such dialogue.  He had urged Muslims persecuted in Mecca to migrate to Abyssinia, a Christian country, because he anticipated they would be well received there once the natives of that land had met them and learned about Islam.  But, the man in Arab headdress snapped back, the Prophet had really intended those Muslims to convert the Abyssinians by force.”
“The next day the team interviewed people about Omaha’s Islamic center and community.  The four who had challenged me, they learned, had posted a fatwa (pronouncement) in the mosque before 9\11 calling for the killings of Jews and Christians and praising the deeds of Osama bin Laden. All four were converts to what is known as Salafi Islam, in the United States, a fundamentalist version of the faith influenced by Saudi Arabia. It purports to be an unadulterated and “pure” form of Islam that is incompatible with any modern Western ideas.”

I was honored to discover that excerpts from my interview with Hailey are featured in such an amazing collection of societal history.  I would have never had the pleasure of meeting Hailey and the Professor if it wasn’t for the selfless act of my dear friend Elif, mentioning to the group that I was also an American who had become Muslim…and that I had a story to tell.  I learn on a daily basis what true friendship actually means, it’s an ever changing definition, and one of my favorite addendums is “A real friend is excited to promote the smallest attributes in their close friends, even placing them before their own much more grand achievements.”  I thank God every day for my new “Friendship Philanthropists”, without I might have never seen it’s true meaning.  Below are a few passages from my feeble attempt at sharing something in this amazing book.  Once again I am so thankful to my dear friend for opening the door to conversation with Professor Ahmed and his star pupil Hailey.  Thank you to the Professor for hearing my words and illuminating them with such understanding and clarity.

Muslim Converts:  Shame and Honor in a Time of Excess
“Religious Conversion is a dramatic event in anyone’s life, no less than it was for Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.  It changes everything. Fashion photographer Nicole Queen of Dallas had arrived at just such a turning point, paradoxically, at the pinnacle of her career. She was standing next to Justin Timberlake, one of pop music’s icons, with cameras flashing.  The glare seemed to illuminate the world of vacuous celebrity that Nicole was part of.  Wasn’t there more to life than this?  At the suggestion of a Muslim friend, she watched motivational videos on YouTube and was impressed by Yusuf Estes, a white Muslim convert from Texas who was once a member of the Disciples of Christ Church.  Shortly after, Nicole converted to Islam.
“One of the reasons for her conversion, Nicole explained, was the excessive behavior of women who appeared to be without shame or modesty, especially in front of a camera: “Girls took off their tops, exposed their breasts, they were making out with each other-and they aren’t lesbians, but if a camera’s there "I’ll do it if you put it on TV.”…Do you think their parents are proud of that?…They want to show that stuff because that’s what people want to see.  How low can a girl go?  That’s what sells here.  They know what everybody likes; everybody likes to see the lowest point that someone can go.  People just want to make a dollar out of it; these are the morals of our nation, whether we want to face that or not.”
“For Nicole, conversion to Islam allows her to reaffirm her American identity. Once the heat and noise subside, it is American converts like her who can play an effective role in interpreting mainstream Americans and Muslims to each other.  By doing so, they are ideally placed to counteract the idea of a clash between the two.”
Reading this treasure takes you on an indescribable journey that truly awakens your mind, clears out cluttered thoughts, and focuses much needed attention on the gripping relationship of Americans and Muslims.  I truly home you will embark on this contribution to the vibrancy of American Islam.

Click below to get your copy of:

“Journey into America-The Challenge of Islam”