Thursday, November 29, 2007

To Muslim Girls, Scouts Offer a Chance to Fit In

Do you guys remember the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the main character didn't want to go to Greek school when she was young because she was unable to be part of the Girl Scouts? The rejection of her culture was the result of her indignation of feeling left out.

So, I guess there is something inherently American about being part of the Girls Scouts, something I really don't quite understand since I did not grow up in the States. However, today's article was about how there have been a growing number of Muslim Girl Scout troops because it is believed that the troops can be used as a tool of assimilation for the girls into American culture, without losing their Muslim identity. Neil MacFarquhar reports that some slight modifications to the Girl Scouts program would have to be made for these girls, like eating beef hot dogs instead of pork, or respecting fasting schedules. However, the program leaders feel that this is a way to show the world that a girl wearing a hijab is still like every other American girl.

It really is an admirable effort for diversity by these Scout leaders. However, my main problem with this article is the way MacFarquhar started.

He begins the article by describing how 12-year-old Asma Haidara likes to put her girl scout sash over her everyday clothes whenever she does quotidian things, like riding the train or shopping a Target because she finds that the green sash "reduces the number of glowering looks she draws from people otherwise bothered by her traditional Muslim dress."

My intuitive reaction to that was that this 12-year-old girl has already learned to mask and tweak her outward identity according to what she thinks society wishes to see. I understand why she would want to do that: It is not a great day if someone decides to judge you on a distorted perception that they have of your religion. But it is just as bad to put on a different outfit to try and persuade others that you are different from other Muslims because you are so American– Look, I'm wearing a green Girl Scout Sash!

Also, MacFarquhar wishes for one of the core message to be that Muslim people are just like American people. He writes, "By teaching girls to roast hot dogs or fix a flat bicycle tire, Farheen Hakeem, one troop leader here, strives to help them escape the perception of many non-Muslims that they are different."

I believe that without differences, there won't be knowledge, or education. How can Americans possibly learn about true Islam if Muslims themselves wish to dilute their identity? There will be no questions asked if there are no differences shown, and if no questions are asked, how are we to understand what's going on in the world right now? The prevailing message that we are currently getting is that Islam is a driving force of terrorism (Look at Middle East! Look at 9/11! says the newspapers), but not all Muslims are bad– The good Muslims are just like Americans, no different from you and I! says this article.

I absolutely loathe that message, and I wish MacFarquhar had taken a different angle to his article. His real message (what it should have been) was not totally lost, but it was completely buried! It comes after he explains how the Girl Scouts have decided to make Muslim communities for Muslim girls.

"Scouting is a way of celebrating being American without being any less Muslim, Ms. Hakeem said," he finally writes.

Understand that I think this Girl Scout program is an admirable project, and I am sure Miss. Haidara also likes wearing her green sash because she is proud of being a Girl Scout, not just because she wants to avoid looks. But really, it's all in the way that the writer tells it, and this hook and nut was a real miss.

A little over a month ago, NYU organized a discussion between Jewish and Muslim leaders, and it was moderated by Russell Simmons (Why him, I don't know– as far as I can see, all he does that could be thought as interfaith-related is yoga, which, let's be frank, is not even related.) It was a fairly illuminating session because the leaders did not all agree, like many people thought they would. An example would be when they were asked if they believe that Abraham was a good man. Most of the leaders agreed, but one of the rabbis said no, because he started wars.

The public thought that because these people were gathered in this space to fuel interfaith dialogue, then they would only talk about their similarities. However, there are stark differences between both religions that cannot be ignored, because it would be denying their own beliefs. It's not a dialogue if everyone just sits around and nods– if there are differences, they need to be addressed. The beauty of living in America is that people can have blatant disagreements when it comes to faith and culture, and still understand that that is a category in one's identity that does not encompass his/her entire person.

Link to article:

Link to an article regarding the discussion between Jewish and Muslim leaders, thanks to Washington Square News, NYU school newspaper:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Democracy's Root: Diversity

The Sunday Op-Ed section is always so interesting to read, because there's Frank Rich, who is explosive, yet sometimes astute, in his observations, and there is a section by Clark Hoyt, who is the public editor of the Times. It's fun to read Hoyt call the Times out on various hypocrisies and mistakes in the newspaper.

However, today, I was focused on an Op-Ed by Thomas L. Friedman, whom though is prominently featured weekly in the Times, I have never taken the time to read his pieces. His subject was about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's visit to the vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday. He had presented the Pope with a golden sword studded with jewels and a gold and silver statue depicting a palm tree and a man riding a camel. Friedman's problem with this event is that the Pope should have asked to visit Mecca, because it is illegal for Non-Muslims to go there.

I'm starting to get rather sick of reading about other countries' cultures in the point of view of an American, because it seems to me to be rather presumptuous of us to say that having a single national religion is akin to being intolerant of other religions. Friedman's issue with Saudi Arabia si that they forbid practice of any of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian religions in public. The authorities, according to, would also deport workers who have been holding private services.

Also, after he observes the lack of religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia, he goes on to say that "more churches and mosques have been blown up in the past few years than any time I can remember." I am not one to crack down on religious tolerance, but I think that it is misleading to equate the dislike of certain religions to the willingness to bomb a center of faith. It is unfair to lump all religious intolerance under the cause of acts of religious terrorism. Sometimes it has to do with social conflicts and class disparities. Sometimes it stems back to the bloody history between two sects/religions.

Friedman is quick in his words, but not so much in thought. He likes to elect truisms in his writing, saying things like, " most of the Arab-Muslim world toda, where the political ethos remains "Rule or Die." Another awful, awful mistake he made when comparing India and Pakistan: " Yet they are basically the same people– they look alike, they eat the same food, they dress alike." That's like saying all Americans are the same as Canadians, which many Americans would disagree to. Friedman is focused on the superficial details of the essence of nationality, whittling it down to just appearances and food. The fact that he said that also shows that he took no time to distinguish the subtleties between both nations– which I don't know whether if that makes him stupid (the sentiment "physical features are all the distinguishes a nation.") or racist ("All brown people look the same, and I don't know why they have to fight.")

I agree with his general point, which is that we should celebrate diversity, especially if we want to promote democracy– though I think we should just celebrate diversity, without that conditional. I thoroughly dislike his way of going about it to express it. It was uneducated, as it had many misconceptions of different races and of Islam. It is especially irresponsible to just espouse his views under the guise of "information regarding Islam" (citing BBC and such) when we live in a world fraught with tensions between the Western world and the Muslim world.