Discourses in the Intellectual Traditions, Political Situation, and Social Ethics of Muslim Life Wed, 03 Sep 2014 04:58:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Hassan’s Tale, Part 14 – Positive Assumptions Wed, 30 Nov -0001 00:00:00 +0000 Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.   Jamil and a stocky African-American brother came to my cell hardly ten minutes after I was released from the hole and admitted back into the general population. Jamil had […]

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13

See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.


Jamil and a stocky African-American brother came to my cell hardly ten minutes after I was released from the hole and admitted back into the general population.

Jamil had a stack of magazines that he set down on the writing desk in my cell. As soon as Tuna – my Samoan cellie – saw that, he stood up and walked out, saying, “Ia manuia,” which means “good luck” in Samoan.

Jamil nodded to the stocky brother, who was short and barrel chested, but had a baby face. “This is Rashid,” Jamil said. “Some folks call him Big Wheel.”

Rashid nodded at me and said salam, and this time I responded in kind.

“Take your shirt off,” Jamil said. “We're going to armor you.”

“Excuse me?” I was incredulous. “I told you before I don't need your help.”

“Akhi, we're way past that now. We've been battling the AB for the last six months over what they did to you. We have one dead on our side and three on theirs.”

“La ilaha il-Allah!” I exclaimed. “I never asked anyone to do that.”

“We didn't do it, brotha,” Rashid said. His voice was incongruously deep for his size. “AB decided that if they couldn't get to you, they'd come after us. Half the Muslim brothers been transferred out, and a mess o' the AB too, but it's still on. We tried parylayin' a truce but the AB ain't havin' it. We down to twenty men, and they thirty strong. But they used to have sixty. After you clowned 'em, they had a bunch of walkouts. It's wild. They hate you, Hassan. Plus, we in talks with the BGF. They might come in on our side. They got thirty men.”

The BGF, I later learned, was the Black Guerilla Family – another powerful prison gang.

I was stunned. A Muslim had died because of me! Laa hawla wa laa quwwata il-la billah. I felt numb. Jamil pulled up my shirt and I cooperated passively. He held a magazine against my chest and Rashid used a large roll of duct tape to secure the magazine in place by wrapping the tape all the way around my body. They repeated the process with the other magazines, covering my entire torso.

“It may not seem like much,” Jamil said. “But it's effective.”

“Who was the brother who died?” I asked.

“Older brotha from New York,” Rashid said. “Khalid. They bum rushed him in the shower.”

“It's not your fault, akhi,” Jamil said. “It's the nature of the beast. He's a shaheed and he's alive with Allah. Wa la tahsab annal-latheena qutiloo fee sabeel-illahi amwaata.”

And do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead. I'd heard the ayah before, but somehow it was like I was understanding it for the first time. What was I so afraid of? Why had I feared Sarkis and Mr. Black? Why had I allowed Cutter to intimidate me? And do not think that those who are killed in the way of Allah are dead.

I completed the ayah. “Bal ahya'un 'enda Rabbihim yurzaqoon. No, they are alive with their Lord, enjoying His provision.”

Jamil nodded at me and spoke to Rashid. “The brother has some knowledge.”

“What about you?” I said, pointing to Jamil's stomach. He lifted his shirt, revealing one plastic dinner tray taped to his flat stomach and another to his back. Taped to the front tray was a long, sharp piece of steel wrapped with duct tape at the base. A shank, as these homemade weapons were called.

Rashid took something from his pocket and extended it toward me. Another shank.

“I can't… I don't believe in killing,” I said.

“That was you that waxed Cutter out by the gap, right?” Rashid said. “And the other three the day after?”

“Yes, but I didn't kill them.”

“A'aight,” Rashid said. “Just throw down like you do. They probly gon' come at us on the mainline, so keep yo' back to the wall. When it go off, don' half step.”

I looked at Jamil, who grinned. “He means don't hold back.”

Rashid slid the blade up into his shirtsleeve, and we moved out. Just three ordinary inmates, going to breakfast. Except that all the inmates in El Reno seemed to know what was going down. Everyone gave us a wide berth.

I wondered how it was that the Muslims had suffered only one casualty, while the AB, with their greater numbers, had lost three men. I was to learn the answer before long.

We made our way out of the cellblock wing and onto the mainline, which is a wide corridor down the middle of the cellblock on the way to the chow hall. Jamil walked in front of me and Rashid to my side. The tension in the air was palpable. There was a heavy guard presence in the hallway, Was all this because of me? It was unreal.

“Stay close to the wall,” Jamil said.

There was a commotion at the far end of the hall, behind us. A white con was scuffling with a Mexican. The prison guards on duty hustled in that direction, while the many prisoners in the hall seemed to vanish. Suddenly the three of us were alone, still moving toward the chow hall.

“This is it,” Jamil said.

A door opened in front of us – a maintenance closet – and twelve members of the Aryan Brotherhood streamed out of the room, not even bothering to hide the shanks, clubs and other assorted weapons in their hands. I recognized the bald man from the first attack a year ago – the one whose elbow I had broken – and two of the men from the second attack. Among them was a one-eyed man with a tattoo of a spider on his face. I later learned that he was the leader of the AB in El Reno and was known as – naturally – Spider. Cutter was not among them. It turned out he'd been in a wheelchair ever since I whiplashed him.

Viking was also not among them. I'll tell you more about him later. I think you'll be surprised.

A chaotic melee ensued. Rashid shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” in a booming voice that rang off the walls and seemed to freeze everyone in their places for a split second. For an instant it seemed that his shout alone would drive the ABs back. Then one of them let out a wordless yell and hurled himself at Rashid, swinging a short steel pipe. Rashid moved into the attack, slipped inside the radius of the pipe's arc, and drove his own shank into the man's chest. I heard the distinctive sound of breaking bone and knew that Rashid's knife had either pierced the man's sternum or broken a rib. I'd heard that sound many times in war.

The ABs mobbed us, weapons slashing and swinging everywhere. I threw a man into the wall head first and his teeth snapped shut on his tongue, severing the tip, which flew through the air like a bit of sausage. Then I launched a kick into the knee of an AB who was about to stab Rashid in the back. Men grunted, cursed and screamed. The metallic tang of blood filled the air. I almost slipped on the blood and that might have saved my life, as a skinny white con swung a knife through the empty air where my neck had been. I recovered my footing, ducked low and snaked an arm between the man's legs, then lifted him onto my shoulders and threw him into the other ABs.

I shot a look at Jamil and saw something that stunned me. He was ghosting. That was the name I had given to the elusive style of movement that I had seen Mr. Black perform, and had spent years learning to emulate. It was not the typical bob and weave you saw in boxing, or the irimi-style movement of Aikido and Jujitsu. A man would come at him and he would seem to disappear, reappearing behind the man. It was unmistakable, and in all my martial arts and combat experience, I had never seen anyone do it except Mr. Black, in the Tel-Az-Zaytoon camp the night he'd murdered Daniel.

Where could Jamil have learned it? No wonder the AB had lost so many men.

In that moment of distraction I felt an impact to my back. I launched a back kick without looking and heard a grunt. I spun into the man behind me, palming his face and digging my fingers into his eyes. He fell and I moved closer to Rashid, putting my back to his and fighting like a machine.

It was over in seconds. Nine men lay around us, three dead and the rest badly injured. Three of the ABs were limping away, one being supported by the other two. Rashid had a cut somewhere in his scalp and the blood poured down his face. Jamil clutched his throat. “Not a stab,” he said hoarsely. “I got punched in the throat is all.”

As for me, I was gasping for breath and felt light headed. I felt like I was about to pass out. I fell to one knee, fighting for consciousness. I couldn't understand why I was so out of breath.

Jamil and Rashid wiped their weapons clean and dropped them, then helped me to my feet. We began to walk toward the chow hall, but I stumbled. Rashid caught me, then looked me over and said, “subhanAllah.” He indicated my back. Only then did I see that I had two weapons embedded in my body. A screwdriver had somehow slipped between the magazines and was stuck in my upper back, and a shank made from a sharpened toothbrush was buried in my hip. I later learned that the screwdriver had punctured my lung.”


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Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Strikes Personal Chord with Loss of Friendship Tue, 02 Sep 2014 04:00:32 +0000 By Mona Shadia Up until about four months ago, I called a pro-Israeli Persian Jew my best friend. She and I were initially drawn to each other through an appreciation for a commitment to our respective faith — Islam for me and Judaism for her. We saw each other as representatives of the strong, intelligent […]

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By Mona Shadia
Up until about four months ago, I called a pro-Israeli Persian Jew my best friend.

She and I were initially drawn to each other through an appreciation for a commitment to our respective faith — Islam for me and Judaism for her. We saw each other as representatives of the strong, intelligent women we seek and appreciate. We connected through various other life experiences, ones that Middle Eastern women encounter in America, like our struggle with a culture in America that defines beauty differently from our kind of beauty. We connected through a yearning for peace and freedom in the Middle East — Iran for her, Egypt for me, Jews and Muslims for both of us.

We connected through a craving for authentic love, the kind where there's mutual respect and shared religious connection between a man and a woman. We found a connection through an appreciation for the Middle East's rich culture, its intoxicating romance, extravagant music, seductive beauty and ancient civilization. We connected through heartbreak.

When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject that would inevitably be discussed considering our respective religions, we found a common ground in wanting peace for both sides, in rejecting injustice and murder. We also felt that the foundation upon which our friendship stood was unshakable by this conflict.
I used part of a column I wrote about life as a Muslim in America for a local newspaper to showcase how through our friendship peace is possible, how peace is the ultimate goal and the ultimate liberator on earth.

Although we didn't always agree on everything, we provided for each other a safe place to discuss the conflict. She knew I was a supporter of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel as a peaceful measure to pressure it to give Palestinians their freedom, to stop the continued illegal building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to eliminate the more than 50 Israeli laws that distinguish and discriminate against Palestinians living in Israel.

She knew it all, and when she felt differently about some of my views I always refrained throughout our friendship from challenging her. I did it in the name of compromise, peace, friendship, the bread we broke together and the laughter and tears we shared. I also knew that she struggled to justify the immoral and criminal behavior and policies of Israel, and I didn't want to make it harder on her.

There were times when I felt a deep sense of guilt for not presenting the Palestinian side more forcefully in our conversations. After all, I openly criticized Arab nations and Muslims for their shortcomings and the destruction of which they're responsible. How can I not do the same in the face of all injustices?

Things changed when she fell in love with a man who didn't have the capacity for our kind of intelligent dialogue or debate.

Although I didn't notice it at first, his tendency to slip a few hateful words here and there against Muslims and Arabs and lash out unexpectedly revealed his character to me overtime.

But the real problem was her attitude also changed. She was less inclined to talk about a solution and always concerned that Israel is being unfairly pointed out.

Then came the day when I posted a Los Angeles Times op-ed that identified Israel as an Apartheid state.

The boyfriend exploded, insulted me, my profession, journalism and journalists and told me that because I have Jewish friends, I should think twice before sharing these sort of articles or holding these beliefs.

There seemed to be no middle ground: To him, I either supported Israel or I was the enemy.

And my friend's reaction? Silence. The reaction of the rest of our mutual friends, who also support Israel? More silence.

Here was I: someone she had known for years, with whom she had shared friendship, heartbreak, laughter. And there was he: someone she had known for less than a year.

I realized something through her silence, and the rest of the mutual friends' silence. This silence wasn't actually about the nature of her relationship with him or her desire to protect it. I realized her actions personified the current culture and attitude of Israel and its supporters: The Israeli culture of hate and vengeance that is unwavering even with the systematic murder and dehumanization of Palestinians. It is a culture that is not interested in prosecuting the mobs of settlers who torment, torture and burn alive Palestinians. A culture celebrated by Knesset members, rabbis and public figures.

And silence is what led that culture to where it is today. Because criticizing Israel and suggesting that its policies and behavior are reminiscent of crimes committed by others throughout history is considered a betrayal, self-hate or equated with hating Jews and being anti-Semite.

Criticizing other countries — like Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Mexico — and taking them to task for their behavior is viewed as an honorable and important cause. Criticizing Israel's actions are equal to being anti-semitic, anti-Jewish, anti-democratic, immoral.

It was very tormenting for me to walk away from our friendship. She and I would at times talk about the day we'd both be married to our dream husbands and how our kids would grow up together — Muslims and Jews, side by side. But I knew stepping away was the best option for me. She didn't look back and I wouldn't allow myself to remain in any sort of a relationship where I wasn't valued and appreciated.

But even after I stepped completely away from both of them, the hostility on her partner's part continued. After Israel began its Operation Protective Edge, killing more than 2,000 people, injuring thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, I received an unsolicited message from him telling me to enjoy the destruction Israel was causing to the Palestinians. He told me to not mess with the Jews, hurtling unspeakable insults about my gender and religion my way.

What I came to understand is this behavior was not the ranting of one crazy man. This for me became a snapshot of the culture and attitude Israel breeds. It's a snapshot of the Israeli Defence Force soldiers who post celebratory photos of the destruction they do to the Palestinians. It's a snapshot of the more than 90 percent of Israelis who are supportive of the ground incursion and don't want a ceasefire. A snapshot of the Israeli leaders who call for revenge and who describe Palestinian children as snakes who should die. It is a snapshot of the chants on Israeli streets of no more schools in Gaza because there are no children left. A snapshot of the attacks and intimidation toward those Israelis and Jews who are speaking out against the occupation and murder of Palestinians. It is a snapshot of how the occupation continues and what has justified the dehumanization of a whole group of people.

This silence is what is keeping this culture alive and thriving. The silence is what brought it to where it is today.

The irony of course is this is exactly how six million Jews were killed: It was due to silence.

Mona Shadia is an Egyptian American writer and journalist living in Southern California

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MuslimKidsMatter | The Prisoner of Life Poem (Ode to Children in Gaza) Sun, 31 Aug 2014 16:00:32 +0000 The Prisoner of Life by Sarem Leghari The girl sat in the bottom of a fifteen foot well Thinking of the days she had a family. When she was not on the verge of losing her sanity She could still hear the cries of her baby brother. As above them helicopters began to hover. She […]

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The Prisoner of Life

by Sarem Leghari

The girl sat in the bottom of a fifteen foot well
Thinking of the days she had a family.
When she was not on the verge of losing her sanity

She could still hear the cries of her baby brother.
As above them helicopters began to hover.

She remembered the smell of her mother's appetizing food.
Or that day in her house, when toxic gas was spewed.

Her only crime, to be born in a place so long torn by war
That not even her grandparents remembered the good times before.

As she cried, she began to lose hope.
But then she saw something throw down a rope.

She held the rope and began to climb.
As she hopefully thought of her future, a good time.

She reached the top of the well,
And felt the warmth of the sun against her pale face.

A man with a smirking face pulled her out.
But in her mind she had not a single doubt.

As she turned her face to thank the man.
He planted four knives in her back skin.
As he pushed her down the well again

About the Author

Sarem Leghari is a 14-year-old boy in 9th grade.  He lives in Pakistan.  He has a flair for writing and he loves to write poetry.  He also has his own Facebook page of poetry and more.  Sarem also writes many stories and essays on numerous world issues.  He is a swimmer and a national debater.

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“Brand Islam” – Commercial Encroachment or an Act of Faith? Sat, 30 Aug 2014 04:40:09 +0000 By Lubaaba Amatullah Seen from above, the size of the bazaar is incredible, row upon row of colorful stalls selling everything from food to ethnic clothing and books. This is the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) annual convention in Washington D.C., and by the looks of this bazaar, faith has taken a consumerist bend. […]

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By Lubaaba Amatullah

Seen from above, the size of the bazaar is incredible, row upon row of colorful stalls selling everything from food to ethnic clothing and books. This is the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) annual convention in Washington D.C., and by the looks of this bazaar, faith has taken a consumerist bend.

Welcome to Brand Islam.

One stall sells t-shirts; from the tongue-in-cheek, “I'm fly 'Coz my iman is high” and “Think I'm hot? Hell is hotter. Lower your gaze,” to the cheerful, “Smile, its sunnah!” Another stall sells halal sweets and frozen foods, packaged to perfection so as not to look out of place in any standard American supermarket. Yet another stall sells designer hijabs, patented “pins-free” styles to silks and cashmeres with a broad selection of jeweled pins and brooches. Many stalls are from local businesses, yet several are from other cities and even abroad; one ethnic wear shop flew in especially from Pakistan, another Islamic book shop flew in from Britain. Brand Islam seems to be truly making its mark – on a global scale.

The bazaar is teeming with shoppers as they make purchases for upcoming Eid or wedding events, stock up on the latest literature, or enjoy the latest in halal savory snacks. Notwithstanding the countless lectures, seminars, and workshops the conference conducts, led by world class speakers, many flown in specially, the bazaar remains a central attraction of the convention. At the end of each day, one overhears attendees speaking of their purchases; the latest book by Professor Tariq Ramadan, a new Emirati jilbab adorned with Swarovski crystals, or a child's new salwar kamiz for the upcoming Eid celebrations.

A few months later, across the border in the Canadian capital of Toronto, is the annual Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference, and the story is much the same. An event that hosts tens of thousands of Muslims from across Canada and abroad, the conference hall is matched in size by its adjacent bazaar hall. Arabic calligraphers design names with flourish. The largest stall is for women's modest fashion, selling outerwear such as jilbabs and long coats, to casual tops and skirts. A store selling beautiful Arabic calligraphy showpieces delicately carved out of wood catches the eye. Verses of the Qur'an and the names of Allah adorn the vast display. One can't resist purchasing a piece – God's name, “Al-Rahman, The Merciful” – a small coffee table showpiece, an affordable token from a pricey selection. The eye however lingers on the gorgeous circular carved, “Ayat al-Kursi, the Verse of the Throne,” a vast bronze creation well beyond budget, although well within dreams.

But is there something unsettling in the commercialization of faith that this bazaar seems to epitomize? Should faith be a t-shirt worn, or a state of mind and heart? Is there something paradoxical in the materialism of luxury hijabs?

Muhammad Haque, an organizer at an American Muslim charity which held a stall at this year's ISNA bazaar, doesn't think so. “The commercialization of Islam has brought products and services that fulfill the needs of Muslim consumers,” he suggests. To Muhammad, the benefit of brand Islam is not only for the consumers, “Doors are opened for entrepreneurs into niche markets who otherwise would have failed to penetrate a mature and competitive conventional market.”

However, there are those who feel commercialization is contrary to the spirit of faith. Rofiqul Islam is a Briton who often attends Islamic events such as the massive Global Peace and Unity (GPU) conference held annually in London. His thoughts on the shifting culture are mixed. “Modern expansion and commercialization is far from the true spirit of Islam. It's driven by selfish ends,” he contends, adding that, “It is by revealing and upholding the truth, Muslims inspired people around the world, rather than commercial culture and marketing of religion.”

Although the commercialization of faith may seem worryingly contrary to the spiritual nature of Islam, there is no denying the attraction it has for Muslims of all leanings. Nabeela Chowdhury, a Canadian who enjoys attending RIS, feels the bridging and unifying factor that comes with the branding of Islam, “To me commercialization of Islam is a good thing because it brings the Muslims together as a large community. By drawing people to events like RIS and ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) conferences, Muslims can feel and show their community spirit while also learning from the live lectures by diverse speakers. Alongside that they can also shop for Islamic goods.”

While a prayer in a mosque may be a more traditionally encouraged form of faith, to many, Islamic products are a bridge to faith for those less inclined to a mosque setting but more likely to seek out quirky new styles and delicious halal food. Yet, branding Islam is not simply about consumer products at major conventions. In a climate where Islam is frequently misrepresented in the press and disproportionately aligned with acts of terror, marketing the faith has taken another role.

Inspired by Muhammad, a British campaign which included a series of advertisements across London's transport services, has turned to commercial culture to strengthen the image of the faith. The initiative saw the marketing of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad's positive message through showcasing successful Muslims who affirm the Islamic Prophet as the inspiration for their positive actions. From converted MTV presenter and environmental activist, Kristiane Backer, to leading human rights barrister, Sultana Tafadar, and Cambridge University Professor, Dr. Timothy Winter, advertisements sought to counter controversial and inaccurate portrayals of Islam.

Whatever one thinks of Islam's growing commercial culture, one fact remains true: it is a culture that is rapidly expanding to match its ever-increasing demand. Each new convention draws an even bigger crowd and ever more consumers to the floors of the mandatory bazaar. Meanwhile, outside the walls of Islamic conferences, the Muslim community is finding ever more creative ways to adapt consumerism to their faith and culture. How this will translate in the long run remains to be seen. For now, however, Brand Islam appears here to stay.

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Book Review: Jesus & The Last Messenger Sat, 30 Aug 2014 04:06:11 +0000 If you're over the age of 20, then chances are that you already have a healthy cynicism for the attention span of people younger than you. You've seen the progression from epic movies to youtube videos and now to 6 seconds on Vine. You've watched as conversations on the phone have been replaced by emails, […]

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If you're over the age of 20, then chances are that you already have a healthy cynicism for the attention span of people younger than you. You've seen the progression from epic movies to youtube videos and now to 6 seconds on Vine. You've watched as conversations on the phone have been replaced by emails, then text SMS messages and now the 140 character limit of Twitter.

The trouble is that no amount of eye rolling and nostalgia will undo this collective shortening of the average persons ability to focus and concentrate. This becomes especially worrying when you consider it in the context of things that we need to know. One of the foremost things on the need to know list is the life of the greatest man who ever lived – the seerah or biography of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

The book “Jesus and the the Last Messenger” by Adam Rahman seems to be a seerah written for this age. It is short, readable and makes use of lots of white space. In fact, I read the entire book in one sitting. Having read most seerah books in English – I'm pretty sure this is the only seerah book you can say those things about.

Of course the brevity comes at a cost. Large personalities and events are glossed over such as the reversion of Umar raḥimahullāh (may Allāh have mercy upon him) and the battle of Hunain. However, this is more than made up for by the readability of the book and the way the author avoids turning the seerah into simply a rehash of the different battles involved. I found the chapters on how the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and Khadijah raḥimahā Allāh (may Allāh have mercy upon her) first met and then married to be particularly well written and poignant.

The life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is one that is rich in meaning and substance. Every anecdote is worthy of a volume in itself, every sentence could have a book written about it… and that is no hyperbole. Adam Rahmans writing style tends to bring this out in subtle ways. I found myself re-reading about well known events with interest rather than a sense of De'ja vu.

It is becoming incredibly difficult to get people to read anything these days that doesn't involve emo vampires or wizard boarding school kids. “Jesus and the Last Messenger” is a readable and light seerah that is a perfect fit for this generation that does enough to spark the flame of interest for further study and inspiration.

(If you are interested in buying the book then  it is available on Amazon in both paperback and eBook: - The author has stated that all proceeds will go to charity.)

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Hassan’s Tale, Part 13 – Zero One One Wed, 30 Nov -0001 00:00:00 +0000 The judge stared at me for a long moment through bushy white eyebrows, then said, "I believe you, young man. I see a lot of desperate people in this courtroom. For most, their desperation brings nothing but loss.

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

See the Story Index for a chronological guide to all the stories.


A feeling of euphoria engulfed me. I felt like I was sailing on a sea of warm, amber light. As soon as I had the thought, there I was on a sailboat on the bright Mediterranean, a warm wind ruffling my hair. The sun sparkled on the water like gold. Daniel piloted the boat while Gala set a tray of mezze on a folding table. A boy sat beside me, gliding his fingers through the water. It was Charlie. I somehow knew that wherever we were going, my parents would be there when we arrived. This was the happiest day of my life.

Suddenly the boat began to sink. The ocean turned gray and I began gasping for breath. I wasn't even in the water yet but I was drowning. The blood rushed to my head and my face turned hot. I broke out in a sweat and began to shake. Everyone else on the boat had vanished. It was just me and the gray sea and the sinking boat. My chest felt like it was being squeezed by a python. I heaved for breath, trying to get oxygen.

At the same time, I felt almost peaceful and so warm. The hot sea called to me. “Let it go, come to me, sink down into me and let go.” The boat listed and began to slip beneath the water, and me with it. I knew that I could drown happily. It would be comfortable and warm. All I had to do was open my mouth and let the water into my lungs. Give up.

But what would my father say if I gave up? He would be disappointed in me. And the Prophet, peace be upon him, who had cared enough to come to me in my dream, what would he say? I could not give up. After everything I had survived, after all the battles I had fought, I couldn't die like this.

I fought to get to the surface, using sheer willpower to stay alive. I felt something strike my face, and again, and heard someone say, “Stop that! Let me through, I'm a doctor. I felt air rush into my lungs, and pressure on my chest.

I woke up on my back, staring up at a white ceiling with a long crack running along one side. I was covered in a white blanket. An IV tube ran into my left arm. My stomach ached as if it had been used as the football for the World Cup. My face itched, but when I tried to scratch it, I discovered that my right hand was restrained. I tried to shake it loose and heard the clatter of metal. I was handcuffed to the bed.

I tried to call out, “Hello!” but it came out in a whisper. No one answered, and I felt the veil of sleep descend over me like a black sheet.

I was awakened by a sharp pain as a young Filipino nurse removed the IV and reinserted the needle in a different vein.

“Where am I?” I rasped.

The nurse looked up at me in surprise. “Sam Prancisco General,” she said. “Heroin pinger pop in your stomach. You almost die.”

I remembered the boat, and the sea of warm light. Charlie gliding his fingers through the water. How peaceful it had been. Now I understood why Lena had been unable to fight the heroin dream song. The lure was strong. I was strong enough to see through the siren song to the mask of death on the other side. Perhaps Lena had seen the reality of heroin as well, but she had not been strong enough to stop. When the balloon had burst in my gut, I had seen all the people I loved. What had Lena seen when she was high? What idyl had she been unable to resist?

The FBI were curious about the fact that I spoke American English with no accent. I told them that my real name was Hassan Amir, not Emer Berke, and that I had been born in Los Angeles. The two FBI agents who interviewed me were skeptical at first, accusing me of inventing a fiction to gain American citizenship. But Hassan and I had celebrated our birthdays together on three occasions, because he was exactly one year and one day younger than me. So I knew his birthday, and I gave it to the FBI. I also knew where he'd been born. He'd fallen on his skateboard once and broken his arm. I'd visited him at Good Samaritan Hospital and he'd proudly informed me that he'd been born there, as if revisiting the place of his birth was some great accomplishment.

The FBI told me that they would check my information and return.

As I lay alone in the hospital room, my mind raced. When the FBI returned, I could see from the looks on their faces that they were halfway convinced.

“There are no adult records for you,” one said. “How do you explain that?”

I explained that my parents had been killed by a drunk driver when I was young. I'd been raised by an aunt in Burbank, then had become homeless after she died of breast cancer.  Eventually I made friends with a Turkish drug dealer who recruited me to smuggle American currency to Turkey, and return with heroin.

None of this was true, of course. My friend Hassan himself had been the one killed by a drunk driver. I happened to know that his parents had returned to Iraq after his death. The aunt in Burbank was a complete fiction.

But I embellished the story with honest details of Hassan's youth in Los Angeles, attending Rio Hondo Elementary, playing guitar in the school band, and whatever else I could remember.

The FBI bought it. I entered the criminal justice system as Hassan Amir. It was a lie, and Islam tells us not to lie. But I could not use my real identity. It was too dangerous.

I pled guilty to the charge of narcotics trafficking. The prosecutor asked for a twenty year sentence, saying that drug smuggling was destroying the fabric of American society. My public defender pointed out that I had voluntarily admitted that I was carrying drugs. The judge asked why I had confessed. I hesitated, took a breath, then told the truth in a quavering voice:  that I had loved someone whose life had been destroyed by heroin addiction. I'd agreed to smuggle the drugs out desperation, but had realized midway through that I could not justify it morally.

The judge stared at me for a long moment through bushy white eyebrows, then said, “I believe you, young man. I see a lot of desperate people in this courtroom. For most, their desperation brings nothing but loss. They learn nothing. But it's been said that desperation is the raw material of drastic change. I believe that you are ready to become a better man. Still, there must be a consequence to your actions. I sentence you to eight years in federal prison. That is the lowest sentence I can give you under the federal sentencing guidelines. So be grateful, and try to find some peace.”


Inspector Katrina Sanchez spat a gob of brown saliva onto the Lower Haight sidewalk. Her husband hated her habit of chewing tobacco and nagged her about it constantly. But a woman had a right to her vices. When you spent your day chasing down the dregs of humanity, you had to relax any way you could.

This was a strange case. The beautiful redhead had at first spun a bizarre tale to one of the uniformed officers. She claimed that she had picked up a homeless man named Mr. Saleh – the father of a co-worker – and brought him home. The homeless man had stabbed her in the back and disappeared into the night. But when Sanchez had shown up to re-interview her, she had reversed, claiming that nothing of the kind had happened, and that she'd simply fallen from her bike onto a fence post.

Sanchez had seen a photo of the woman's back. She knew a knife wound when she saw one.

Even though the woman – Alice – did not want to press charges, Sanchez had a feeling there was more to this story than met the eye. She had a habit of latching on to cases and not letting go. In the male-dominated and racist precinct they called her the Mexican Pit Bull, and she took it as a compliment, though it was not always intended it as such.

Her husband complained about the long hours she worked. But she was a junior inspector in the Mission precinct's Personal Crimes division, and she was a woman. She came to work every day to find a dead mouse wrapped in a tortilla in her desk drawer, or a clipping from a porno mag on her locker, or a chihuahua bobble-head on her desk. She was fed up.

She reminded herself of one of her mother's proverbs: El perro ladra y la caravana pasa. The dog barks, but the caravan passes by. Let the men have their petty jokes. Katrina Sanchez had earned her gold star, but her caravan would not stop until she made lieutenant then captain, and maybe more. And the only way to make that happen was to crack cases like walnuts.

She walked up a short flight of steps to an apartment with a round sticker on the door that bore some sort of foreign writing. Persian, maybe? She rang the doorbell three times, knowing full well that the occupants might be asleep, and not caring.

She rang again, and again, until finally the door was opened by a sleepy-eyed young man with brown skin. He identified himself as Khalil, a Bangladeshi student at SFSU.

“Yes, Muhammad lives here,” he said. “But he's not here.”

“Is that usual, for him not to come home at night?”

“No. But he is an adult. It's not my job to police him. No pun intended.”

“Uh huh.” She spat tobacco juice into the hydrangea bush beside the steps, hitting one of the flowers dead on. “Where do you think he might be?”

The young man stared at the hydrangea bush, then frowned at Sanchez. “I don't know. Maybe at his friend Hassan's house.”

The Bangladeshi disappeared inside the apartment and came back with a phone number written on a slip of paper, and a flyer for a martial arts class.

“What's that sticker on your door, Mister Ka-leel? Some kind of code?”

“Code?” The young man shook his head. “No, Detective.”

“Inspector. San Francisco doesn't have detectives.”

“Pardon me, Inspector. It says, 'Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem'. In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”

Sanchez spat into the flower bed again. “What's wrong with God bless America?” she demanded. “Or home sweet home?”

The young man held his hands out, palms up. “Well… nothing.”

Sanchez walked back to her unmarked car. Truthfully, she did not care about the sticker on the door, and had no problem with foreigners or Muslims, which this young man obviously was. As a victim of discrimination herself, she was wary of perpetuating stereotypes. But sometimes when you pried at the things people valued, they revealed hidden aspects of themselves. That hadn't been the case with Khalil, but it was time to turn her attention to this Muhammad Saleh, and see what she could pry loose.


“I won't bore you with the details of my life in prison,” Hassan said. “The many institutions that I was transferred to, the amazing and despicable people I met, the constant waiting for everything – waiting for food, waiting for laundry, waiting for doors to open or close, waiting so long to get out into the free world that it starts to feel like an impossibility, or like Jannah. And then there's the explosive violence, like lightning out of a blue sky. I was given a prison number – I still remember it. 83303-011. To the guards, I was a number. I was expected to write my number on any property that belonged to me. I was identified on paperwork by my number, and addressed by my number. Zero One One, they'd call me.

I could write an entire book about those years, and maybe one day I will. For now, I just want to tell you about my friend Jamil, because I wouldn't have survived without him, physically or spiritually.


“The male version of me!” Jamilah said. “I'm glad he was a friend.”

Hassan smiled. “Yes. I didn't meet him right away, though, and at first I was terrified, because I feared that prison life would be like Bakırköy. But it was utterly different. I learned that prisoners – aside from having to work and adhere to prison schedules – are largely left to their own devices. Yes, there are some evil and sadistic hacks – guards, that is – but for the most part it's not the administration you have to fear in U.S. prisons. It's the other prisoners.

I ended up in a high security federal prison that was situated on the prairie outside of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. There was nothing around but miles of tall grass in every direction, with a single tree casting a shadow about a quarter mile to the south. A strong wind blew constantly, but the sky was huge and cloudless.

The prison itself was old. It was the stereotypical complex of massive brick building, with multiple cellblocks containing stacked tiers, steel staircases, and cramped cells with steel bars that slid open and shut. It housed almost two thousand prisoners, from mafia bosses to counterfeiters to drug dealers of all stripes.

The yard was big, with three separate weight piles – “


Muhammad interrupted Hassan's narrative. “What's a weight pile?” he asked.

“Ah. Sorry. You get so used to the lingo that you forget it's not understood by everyone. A weight pile is an open-air weight lifting area, typically a large cement slab with a few dozen machines, benches, and racks for free weights. At El Reno there were three piles. One was open to the sky and the other two were covered by awnings. The open air pile was run by whites, another by the blacks, and the third by Hispanics. If you didn't fit into one of those neat classifications, or if you weren't in a gang, you'd have a hard time making use of the facilities. That was true also for the music rooms – again, there were three – and for the factory jobs, which paid better than standard prison jobs and were in high demand. If you weren't hooked up – connected, in a gang – you'd be run out.

That's what got me in trouble, in fact. I applied for one of the factory jobs – the El Reno factory was a huge metal fabrication plant that employed over 300 convicts – and got it. My first day I was being trained on an assembly line that made steel tubing. A muscular white convict with a moustache, a shaved head and a swastika tattooed on his scalp came up to me and said, “Who you with?”

“No one,” I replied. “What do you mean?”

He sneered at me. “You need to quit this job. This factory is for hooked-up cons only. I see you on this line tomorrow, I'll mess you up.”

I looked away and made no response. I wasn't frightened, exactly. I just didn't have the energy to argue. I wanted to keep my head down, do my time, then get out one day and go on with my life.

I was still at a low point in my iman. I was hardly praying at all. I remembered Allah with my tongue. I woke up and said, 'All praise is due to Allah who gave us life after we were dead, and to Him is the return.' I said Bismillah before I ate, and alhamdulillah when I was done. But I was like a sleepwalker. I had no fight in me, no drive, no ambition. I'd left all those behind in room where Lena died, and behind the closed doors of the Bakırköy mental institution.

There were dozens of Muslims at El Reno, mostly African-Americans but also some Arabs, Pakistanis and even a few white and Hispanic brothers. I'd see them around the compound, wearing kufis and sometimes praying Maghreb in jama'ah on the yard. But I stayed away from them. I was so low spiritually. I felt like a fake Muslim. Those brothers would expect me to join them in Islamic activities and to be strong, and I didn't have that in me.

I quit the factory job like the man told me and went to work in food service, sweeping the floors of the chow hall and picking up trash after meals. The job paid eleven cents per hour, which went into my commissary account. The money could be used to purchase items like toothpaste, canned tuna fish or cookies at the prison store.

A few days later the same mustachioed con approached me as I was picking up litter during the lunch hour. Lunch had consisted of ham, spinach, grits and an orange. Some of the men had left orange peels on the floor.

“Get me a bag of extra oranges,” the man said.

I told him that I was just an orderly and didn't work in the kitchen. Besides, if I were caught I would go to the hole.


“What's a hole?” Muhammad asked. “Is it a real hole in the ground? That's crazy!”

Hassan chuckled. “No. It's what convicts call the detention unit. Administration calls it the Special Housing Unit, or “shoe”. It's a separate cellblock wing where you're locked in isolation around the clock. When you break a rule you go before a lieutenant who can sentence you to any length of time in the hole. Some men are confined there for years. They lose their minds, some of them.

Anyway, the man cursed me. He told me he was an OG – a senior gangster, and that if I didn't do what he said he'd shank me. Stab me, in other words..

Again, I did what the man said. I snuck into the pantry, stuffed some oranges into my pockets, and delivered them to the man in his cell just before the four o'clock count. He laughed and said that I was his punk now, and that I would do whatever he said.

I was shocked and infuriated. In my naivete I'd thought that if I did him a few favors he'd leave me alone. Instead he now seemed to think I was his slave. I told him that he could forget about getting any further favors out of me, and not to talk to me again. He stood up and seized me by the neck, and I went into combat mode. Ever since Lena's death I'd let the world push me around, humiliate me and control me. No more. I'd finally hit my breaking point.

I grabbed the hand that seized my throat, pinning it to myself, then applied a wrist lock that dropped the muscular man to his knees in pain. I smashed him in the face with a powerful knee strike and heard a crunching sound as his nose bone shattered. Then I walked away. I hoped that I had sent a message and that I'd be left alone after that. If I hadn't be so green, I would have known that the opposite was true. I had made a lifelong enemy, one who was part of a powerful gang. I'd started a war.

I returned to my own cell. My cellie, a hugely muscled and profusely tattooed young Samoan nicknamed Tuna, sat on his bunk with a notebook on his lap, drawing, as usual. He was a generally sullen and angry young man who didn't know how to read and write and had never showed much interest in conversation. He spent much of his time drawing pictures of fantasy figures like dragons, ancient warriors carrying broadswords, muscular warrior women in skimpy outfits – that kind of thing.

The cell had a small steel writing desk with a stool bolted to the ground. I sat on the stool and put my head in my hands. I felt utterly lost.

I heard a knock and looked up to see a tall, lean African-American standing in the doorway of the cell. He wore a black kufi with gold embroidery and had a musalla folded and draped over his shoulder. He nodded to Tuna, who nodded back and said, “It's your world, Jamil. We just walkin' through it.” I was surprised. I'd never heard Tuna offer a kind word to anyone. He was normally as reticent as one of the Easter Island statues.

Jamil then smiled at me and offered salam, but I only said, “What's up?”

He held out a plastic bag. “The brothers put together a welcome bag for you,” he said. “We always do this for newcomers. It contains a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, shower shoes, snacks and other items. Also, this prayer rug. So you don't have to use your t-shirt.” He grinned and held the musalla out toward me.

The gift bag sounded good. I could really use those items. But instead of accepting it, I said, “I don't know you. How did you even know I was Muslim?” I knew I was being rude, but life in Bakırköy had taught me to be wary of strangers bearing gifts. No one in these places ever did anything without a motive.

“I'm Jamil,” he said. “One of the brothers saw you performing salah the other day. What's your name?”

“Hassan,” I muttered.

“Ma-sha-Allah. Well I have to inform you Hassan, you're off to a bad start. The word is you made an enemy in the AB.”

“What's the AB?” I said reluctantly. I didn't want to get into a conversation, but I needed to know what he was talking about.

“Aryan Brotherhood. White supremacist gang. The thug you put down – Cutter – is one of their OGs.  I'm not trying to frighten you or pressure you. I'm just telling you the facts. If you join the Muslims we can protect you. If you stay on your own, the AB will kill you. Count on it.”

I felt a surge of resentment. Everyone in here seemed to want me to do something or join something. I just wanted to be left alone.

“I don't have a problem with them,” I said. “One guy tried to pick on me and I stopped it. They should leave it at that. And I don't need your gift bag.”

“It doesn't work like that, akh. But suit yourself. Let me just tell you one thing. Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are. He's still with you, caring about you, keeping your heart beating. You're here for a reason. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said that this world is a prison for the believer. So what's one prison inside another? It's still just prison. This is all temporary.”

“I guess so,” I said.

He nodded. “I'm your brother. I'm not looking to manipulate you. It's not like that with the Muslims in here. If you need me, I'm here. Whatever you're going through, you don't have to do it alone.”

The Aryan Brotherhood came at me the next day. I was walking through the yard, on my way to circle the track. I was staying off the weight pile like Cutter had ordered me. My head felt full of storm clouds. I couldn't close my eyes without remembering Lena on the floor, her blood spreading out in a grid… or the horrors of Bakırköy… How would I get through these eight years? It seemed impossible.

The yard was crowded. Men waited their turn to play handball or use the weight pile. Others sat around on benches, or stood in knots, talking. Suddenly I sensed a bubble of silence around me. I looked around and men were retreating from me, walking away in different directions. I looked behind and there were three white cons making a beeline from three different directions, forming a wedge that would converge on my position.

There was nowhere to go. I was in a part of the yard where it narrowed as it passed between two cellblocks. Ahead was only the track, which was a quarter-mile closed loop with no exits. I would have no cover out there. The track was within sight of the gun towers, but I'd be as likely to get shot as the ABs. Better to make my stand here. I continued for a few yards then ducked behind the corner of the cellblock. As the first of the three men turned the corner, I attacked. It was Cutter, his nose bandaged and swollen. I flicked my fingers into his eyes as I seized his knife arm with my other hand. I elbowed him in the face, directed the knife into his own ribs, twisted his head rapidly one way then the other, and let him drop.

I'd gained some weight since I'd been incarcerated, but I was still much lighter than I am now. I weighed maybe 130, and I had still not recovered fully from Bakırköy. But my body reacted from years of training, going into combat mode.

The other two men stared at me. “You broke Cutter's neck!” one exclaimed. He was about my height, bald, with a thick handlebar mustache. The other man was six and a half feet tall and wide as a tree. He had blonde hair and a long beard that was tied into two braids. Both men brandished wicked looking homemade knives.

“I'm not looking for trouble,” I said. “Your man here tried to punk me. You've got the wrong guy for that. Just leave me alone.”

The smaller man came at me rapidly, thrusting the blade at my belly. I ghosted, changing angles and sidestepping. I slapped him hard across the eyes then punched him in the kidney, dropping him to one knee.

I was prepared to engage the larger man but he held back. The smaller one rose to his feet and came at me again. This time I parried his knife thrust, seized his arm, and snapped his elbow with a palm strike. He fell to the ground with a scream, and I kicked him hard in the temple with the toe of my boot. He was out like a light.

The bigger man regarded me. “Cutter says you insulted him.”

“That's not true,” I gasped, breathing hard. “He tried to make me do things.”

“His neck really broken?”

“I don't think so. Whiplashed.”

“Where'd you learn to move like that?”

“Beirut. I was a soldier.”

The big man raised his eyebrows and ran one hand down his beard. Then he tucked his knife into his waistband. “People call me Viking,” he said, then turned and walked away.

No one witnessed the fight, and no one reported me. I returned to my cell and sat on my bunk. My legs trembled from the adrenaline. I hoped that was the end of it, and the AB would leave me alone after that.

They did not. Three white cons came at me on the catwalk hardly five minutes after the cell doors opened at six a.m., in full sight of hundreds of men and at least two guards in the control booth down on the floor. The AB must have been insane with their desire for revenge. These were all different men from yesterday. I put them all down, breaking teeth and noses, separating one man's shoulder and crushing another man's ankle with a hard stomp. But one of them stabbed me deeply in the side and blood poured down my side and leg.

I was taken to the prison infirmary and patched up under tight security – two beefy guards stood watch the whole time – then sent to the hole, where I spent the next six months in isolation.

I thought a lot about what Jamil had said to me. “Allah is still Allah, no matter where you are. He still cares. You're here for a reason…” The words touched me deeply and I sometimes found tears welling in my eyes.

That's where I met Wolf, by the way. Remember, Jamilah? The homeless man on the street the other day, when your bike was stolen? He was in the cell across from mine.”


“You claimed you didn't recognize him!” Jamilah exclaimed.

“Sorry about that,” Hassan said. “He used to tell stories and make up jokes to pass the time. We'd play twenty questions or hangman. The latter could be comical because neither of us were good spellers. Anyway, I made it up to him later. For ignoring him that day, I mean.”

“I wish you wouldn't lie so much, Hassan.”

“I'm sorry. If I'd admitted I knew him it would have raised a lot of questions that I wasn't prepared to answer.”

“It's fine, akhi,” Layth said. “Go on.”

“A week after I entered the hole,” Hassan continued, “a Muslim came to see me. He was an African-American brother named AbdulQadeer. He told me he was a contractor employed by the Bureau of Prisons. He serviced a dozen prisons across three states, but he said he would stop by once a month if he could. I asked him if I could get a Qur'an and he promptly reached into his leather satchel and brought out a paperback copy of the Qur'an with the Yusuf Ali translation. He also gave me a white kufi and a musalla.

Those things were nice, but the nicest thing of all was that AbdulQadeer talked to me man to man. He didn't talk to me like a free man to a prisoner. He related to me just as if I were any other Muslim in the outside world. It was refreshing and reminded me that I was not just Zero One One.

I began exercising every day, doing push ups and burpees.”


Jamilah laughed. “Burpy?” What kind of exercise is that? Drink a soda then burp?”

“No, silly,” Hassan said.

“I know what it is,” Muhammad said. “Drop to the ground, shoot your feet back, do a pushup, bring you feet forward, stand up, and repeat.”

“Right.” Hassan nodded. “Doesn't need much space. Cells in the SHU are six feet by eight.”

“That's tiny,” Muhammad said.

“I was aware that I had turned a corner,” Hassan continued. “I'm not sure why. Maybe fighting off the ABs had restored my confidence. Maybe it was Wolf and his jokes, or AbdulQadeer's visits that made me feel human and dignified. I was still haunted by the past – Lena's death was a ragged wound – and I still had nightmares and found it difficult to concentrate. But the pain was no longer incapacitating.

It's not allowed to practice martial arts in prison but the good thing about the hole is that most of the time no one is looking. So I began practicing every day. In that place, you have to stay busy or you will literally go insane. I could hear other men talking to themselves all day long, babbling, screaming… Some men would deliberately provoke confrontations with the guards, then strip naked and cover themselves in vaseline or excrement, so that when the Special Tactics Squad came into grab them they wouldn't be able to get a hold.

“That's awful,” Kadija said. “What a nightmare.”

“Some men attempted suicide, and some succeeded. Some reverted to a wild state, growing their hair and nails and refusing to shower.

“You had a shower?” Layth said.

“Not in the cell. Once every three days you're handcuffed behind your back and taken to a shower that's also behind bars. Once you're inside they un-handcuff you and watch while you shower.”

“That's humiliating,” Kadija protested.

“That's how it is. There's no privacy. Whenever you're transferred, you're subjected to a very invasive strip search. You have to shut off your thinking mind and just go through the motions, otherwise yes, it's dehumanizing and humiliating. It's the same when you have a visitor. You're subjected to a naked strip-search afterward. I never had visitors, of course, but I heard about it from others.”

I began reading the Qur'an the chaplain had given me, and praying more regularly. The time passed, and soon I was out of the hole.

I'd thought that maybe the AB would have let the whole thing go. I should have known better. Prisoners have long memories.

Next Week:  Hassan's Tale, Part 14 – Positive Assumptions

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Syrian Crisis Creating a Lost Generation Tue, 26 Aug 2014 11:26:36 +0000 This is cross post, you can find the original here By Hani Almadhoun director of donor development at ANERA The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has now registered one million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon to escape the war back home. They account for one fourth of Lebanon's population. But that figure sadly […]

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This is cross post, you can find the original here


Hani Almadhoun
director of donor development at ANERA

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has now registered one million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon to escape the war back home. They account for one fourth of Lebanon's population.

But that figure sadly does not take into account more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees from the Syrian conflict who are now in Lebanon, too. They are not covered by the UNHCR and have found shelter in Palestinian refugee camps that are administered by the UNRWA, the UN agency that is solely responsible for caring for Palestinians. Living conditions in Lebanon's overcrowded refugee camps were already appalling and the influx of new refugees is straining UNRWAs resources beyond measure. Yet, the international community appears to have mostly ignored their plight.

I was in Lebanon to visit projects that the nonprofit I work for has implemented to provide relief and support to Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. My first stop was Shatila camp, five minutes from the center of cosmopolitan downtown Beirut. It may as well have been a world away.

Shatila was set up in 1949 and remains today a maze of mildewy, dark alleyways between ramshackle apartment blocks that are stacked so close to each other the sun never makes it through the windows. Webs of wires and cables hang overhead and kids play in sewage.

I am originally from Gaza, and thought that nothing could be worse than conditions in the camps there. But the night after I went to Shatila, I could not sleep. Believe me, I tried. But what I saw in Shatila was so hopeless. My stomach was upside down. I felt like an only child who had just discovered that all along he had a big family who spoke just as he spoke, valued what he valued, and who lived not too far from where he had lived.

Shatila has little to offer its 15,000+ desperate Palestinian refugees but hundreds still continue to arrive — fleeing the violence in Syria. These newcomers find themselves trapped in a paradox where they have to start again from zero in a place that has virtually nothing to give.

I visited a school named after the Palestinian city of Ramallah where classes are running in two shifts to reach all the children. Yet, access to education for these new refugees is problematic.

Families who fled Syria with just the clothes they were wearing can hardly afford to put food on the table in their makeshift shelters, let alone pay for transportation, school supplies or any education-related fees. Most families are crammed into small rooms or makeshift tents, without proper lighting or sanitation, making it nearly impossible for children to study.

Teenage boys are more focused on finding odd jobs to help support their families and often drop out of class or attend school only occasionally. Some have been out of school for two years or more.

There is rising concern now that a whole generation of future decision-makers and professionals will be lost.

The next day I went up north to Nahr El Bared camp where metal trailers are serving as homes for Syrian and Palestinian families. These boxes were installed as temporary shelters seven years ago in the wake of military clashes that left most of the camp destroyed. Now, rusted and disintegrating, they provide poor protection from the cold, heat or rain. I met a handicapped Syrian man there who had found shelter inside a trailer. Even though the community has little, long-time camp residents collected a mattress, blankets and kitchenware to give to his family. ANERA-sponsored plumbing students installed a new bathroom in his trailer that he can use with ease — something that restores some dignity in his life.

In southern Lebanon I visited the largest camp, Ein El Helweh, home to 70,000. There I met Palestinian refugees from Syria who feed themselves by dumpster-diving and collecting rotten produce from the local market. They are among 60 families living in camp-within-a-camp in makeshift tents. I talked to a father of four whose family was pleased to receive quilts and other relief supplies from ANERA. A successful blacksmith back in Syria, he wondered where he could find work in Lebanon to support his family over the longer term.

Looking around the camp, I spotted Ahmed, a six-year-old boy from Syria who was collecting flowers. I asked, “What for?” He said, “For Auntie Sahar, my teacher!”

Despite all the destruction and uncertainty, this youngster still finds a way make people smile. He, like others I met on my journey around Lebanon's camps were positive and resourceful in spite of nearly impossible conditions. But, for how much longer?

For more than 45 years, ANERA has provided humanitarian and development assistance to Palestinian refugees and marginalized communities in the Middle East.

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What is your legacy? Fri, 22 Aug 2014 04:00:21 +0000 This is a repost, and was originally posted here   A leader is remembered not by what he or she possessed or consumed, not by how much power they had or whether they were charming or beautiful, but by the legacy they leave behind. This is what I want to talk to you about; leaving […]

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This is a repost, and was originally posted here


A leader is remembered not by what he or she possessed or consumed, not by how much power they had or whether they were charming or beautiful, but by the legacy they leave behind. This is what I want to talk to you about; leaving a legacy.

I want to start by saying two things to you which I want you to remember.

The first one is:

1.       “It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort.”

The second one is:

2.       “It is in the nature of the 'dream' to be impractical.”

A practical dream is an oxymoron.

I want you to remember these two things because I am going to tell you three stories about three people who believed in extraordinary goals and had impractical dreams. To tell stories is a good way to learn, no? Okay here goes.

The first story is about a man who bought a train ticket for the First Class and got into the compartment. But as he was sitting there, a strange thing happened. The Guard came and threw him out of the compartment. Actually, physically threw him out onto the platform. As the man picked himself up from the ground, a dream was born; the dream to set his people free from slavery.

But remember, the dream to set his nation free was born when the man could not even guarantee his own freedom. A very impractical dream. A very extraordinary goal.

The second story is about another man who sat in a prison for 27 years. I have seen that prison. It is a prison on a rock in the middle of the ocean. A rock that is surrounded by the sea which has some of the largest sharks in the world. That nation has the most sophisticated shark repellent technology in the world. You know why? Because they have the biggest sharks. This man sat in that prison without any hope of ever escaping. A lot of the time in solitary confinement. And in that situation he had a dream. The dream was to set his people free from the apartheid which enslaved them in their own land. Once again, a very impractical dream. A very extraordinary goal.

The third story is about another man. This man, when he was young, had a sporting accident in which he lost the use of both his legs and his eyesight was also affected. He was, since then confined to a wheelchair. Then what did he do? He went to get an education in one of the most venerable universities in the world. After he became a scholar, he went back to his people, where he became a refugee in his own land because the invaders and occupiers of his land destroyed his home along with the homes of thousands of others. All his life there, he worked to help his people in their misery to bring some measure of relief to them through medical aid, social help, food, emotional support and by teaching them to fight for their rights.

For this service, he was imprisoned for many years by the invaders and spent time in some of the most horrific prisons in the world. And all the while he had a dream; to set his people free and to have their land returned to them.

Then finally, at the age of 67, on March 22, 2004 while he was returning home from the morning prayers in the masjid, he was murdered by the invaders and joined the honorable list of martyrs.

As we stand here today, there does not seem to be any chance of his dream ever coming true. But he dreamt and others share that dream. The man died but the dream lives because dreamers die but dreams live on as long as there is someone to dream that dream. Once again an impractical dream. An extraordinary goal which inspires extraordinary effort.

The first question I want to ask you after telling you these true stories is:

What is your dream?  

In order to make dreams come true we need perspective.

Perspective is the ability to hold two pictures in your mind: Where you are now and where you want to be. The positive tension between these two pictures will drive you to reach where you need to be.

Without perspective we are either stuck in the current reality and get frustrated or we have our heads in the clouds and no idea of how to realize what we want to achieve.

We all start in the same place….as children. What does that mean? It means that at least initially, our condition depends on others who take care of us. So we get conditioned to look to them to 'make us' happy. And when that does not happen, we blame them.

This leads to the mental model: “Someone else is responsible for my welfare. My role is to feel good or bad about what the other person does. If I am happy, I laugh. If not, I sulk.”

Strangely, many people get stuck in this mental model even when they grow up physically and are in charge of their own affairs and have the power to do things for themselves. Because to grow up, means to take responsibility. To take ownership for all that you say and do and its effect on others and on the world. Not merely to accept accountability but to actively seek it. To stand up and say, “Here I am. You can count on me.” And if things go wrong, as sometimes they will, to say, “I am responsible for what has happened. Here is what I learnt from this. And this is how we will ensure this never happens again.” Most people fear this intensely.

So they are all ready to talk about freedom, but will not actually work to become free.

There is great safety and solace in slavery, in never growing up. In being a 'child' all your life. And you can see so many 50 and 60 year old children. There is much to fear in freedom. Emotional Maturity is therefore not a factor of age of the body but the maturity of the mind.

This voluntary slavery of the mind is not only found in individuals but in organizations, societies and countries. Often among those that are very rich and powerful but choose to be helpless and blame others for what happens to them. They refuse to see that their happiness lies in their own hands. That they can be free of this mental bondage, if they choose.

So my next question to you is:

Do you really want to be free?

What is the key word in that question? Yes, that's right. It is 'really' Do you REALLY want to be free?

Freedom, if you really want it, comes with some choices that you have to make: And these are:

  1. To care more than others think is wise
  2. To risk more than others think is safe
  3. To dream more than others think is practical
  4. To expect more (from yourself) than others think is possible

My dear brothers and sisters, we all start in the same place in another way. We all start as idealists. I have yet to see a child who was not an idealist. We all want to make a difference to the world we live in, to do great things and to be remembered. But how many people actually achieve that? And why not?

Let's see what happens and why.

We all start as Idealists. Then life happens. Things happen where people let us down. Often the very people we counted on to support us. People deceive and lie and cheat and sacrifice long term benefits for short term gains. They are corrupt and this and that and the other. So as all these things happen, we get onto the slide and start sliding downwards.

From being Idealists, we become Optimists (because idealism is tough to put down, especially when you are young and energetic) and then we become Realists, than Pessimists. Along the way we acquire 'advisors'; people with lots of 'education'; who take us aside to 'talk some sense' into us. They tell us, “Look, don't be a fool. Get real. This is the real world. Be practical. Be realistic. Ideals are okay to talk about. They don't work and will get you into trouble. Forget all this. Look around you. How many people do you see actually working for 'ideals'?”

We say, “But look at what Yawar is saying!! What about that?”

Our advisor will say, “Let him talk. What does it matter? That is his job. He is a teacher and trainer. Let him talk. You eat the nice snacks, meet your friends, have a nice time and go home. Forget him. Forget what he says.”

And slowly – if we choose and only if we choose – we also become like our 'advisors'. We become Cynics.

From Idealist to Optimist to Realist to Pessimist to Cynic; on the slide.

Cynics are very popular at parties as they are witty and make cynical remarks and make people laugh. But cynicism is a cancer. It eats the soul from inside. And unlike cancer, it is contagious and spreads.

And in the end, at the bottom of the pile, we become Indifferent. We stop caring what happens. That is the real bottom of the pit.

But remember one thing – all this will happen only if you choose to allow it to happen. It is your choice and you are completely in control of it.

You know why people get angry and fight you when you say idealistic things? Because you remind them of what they were one day. The flame of idealism is possible to dampen. But it is impossible to kill. It will remain alive as long as we live. It dies when we die.

That is the reason people oppose idealists at first. Because when people who have allowed themselves to become cynical and indifferent meet you as an idealist, you remind them of what they were like, long ago. In your eyes they  see a glimpse of their own history and that frightens them. They hate what they chose to do to themselves. They hate the picture of themselves that they see in your eyes. All this while you are not aware of what is going on and you think they are opposing you. But they are not. They are fighting with themselves. They believe that if they can make you shut up, then somehow all will be well. Because they are one of the many who believe this fallacy, that if one can make someone who speaks the truth to shut up; then one can remain comfortable in one's falsehood. They refuse to face the reality that the truth is the truth even if no one speaks it.

The thing to do therefore, if you want to light the lamps of other's idealism, is to ensure that your own lamp never goes dim. The way to do that is never to lower your ideals in the name of expedience, or diplomacy or Hikma. By all means use your wisdom and skill in putting across your ideals in as convincing and acceptable a way as you can, but never lower the standard. For the standard is our only protection against the slide into mediocrity and oblivion.

Remember that no person or nation lives forever. But their thoughts, their goals, their ideals and what they stood for endures long after they have become dust. That is what we stand for; ideals that have stood the test of time and which we carry forward to generations who will come, long after we have gone.

In 1997, a man used to stand outside the White House holding a lighted candle in his hand, a silent protest against the US sanctions against Iraq. He would turn up there every evening and would stand there for a few hours well into the night.

One evening, it was wet, windy and very cold. As usual the man came, wearing a coat with the collar turned up against the bitter cold, and an umbrella to shelter the tiny flame of his candle from the blustery wind.

As he stood there, the guard at the gate, who used to see him every day and occasionally waved to him in friendly camaraderie, came out to him and said, “Man! I know you are committed to this cause. But look at this night! It is so cold and horrible; you are one man, standing here alone, do you think you can change them?”

The man looked at the guard and smiled. “I don't do this to change them,” he said, “I do this so that they will not change me.”

Much has happened since 1997 and history has been written in words of shame by the blood of innocents. However there is one man somewhere who still believes in justice and mercy and that truth will eventually prevail over falsehood. That is his legacy. The legacy of a man whose name we don't know. But his story inspires others. We need such people more than we need those who have the power and use it only for oppression.

I say to you that I am a shameless idealist. I have always been and would like to remain this way until the end of my days. And if I ever start to slip, as can happen to the strongest of us, then I want you to remind me of what I am saying to you today.

So the next question I want to ask you is:

What are your ideals?

Finally I want to close my speech by telling you another true story. This one is about a little boy and the famous writer Loren Eisely. Loren writes that he was on holiday by the sea side when one night there was a big storm. Very early next morning as he was walking on the beach he saw that among the debris of the storm were literally hundreds of starfish which had been thrown up on the sand the previous night. As he walked along, Loren saw someone in the distance doing what looked to him, like a dance. The person was bending down and standing up and moving along as he did this. As Loren neared him, he saw that it was a little boy who was picking up starfish from the beach and was throwing them back into the sea.

Loren was like me. A man of the world with a lot of education and life experience.

He went up to the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”

The boy said, “I'm throwing these starfish back into the sea so that they don't die. They can't move on the sand and if the sun comes out, they will dry out and die. So I am throwing them back so that they will live.”

Loren says, he laughed at this statement. He then proceeded to put things in 'perspective' for the boy. Remember, I told you the importance of having perspective? But there's perspective and there's perspective.

So Loren said to him, “Look, do you realize that on this beach alone there are literally thousands of starfish? And then of course there are hundreds of beaches in the world, on which are thrown up millions of starfish in every storm. You are one kid, throwing one starfish into the sea! For God's sake, what difference does it make?”

The boy looked at Loren; he looked at the starfish in his hand, he turned and threw it far into the waves and said to Loren, “It made a difference to that one!”

Loren writes, “I walked away and kept walking for a long time. Then I returned to the boy who was still there, picking up and throwing the starfish into the sea. I silently picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea. And we did this together for a long time.”

My final question to you is:

What difference do you want to make?

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Tariq Ramadan’s Boycott: A Critical Analysis Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:01:50 +0000 I had the pleasure of first meeting Dr. Tariq Ramadan during the 2011 RIS Convention when I was covering the event for this publication. It was an amicable meeting; I recall being struck by his down-to-earth attitude. He took the time to have a genuine conversation with people – a rarity at such large events. […]

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I had the pleasure of first meeting Dr. Tariq Ramadan during the 2011 RIS Convention when I was covering the event for this publication. It was an amicable meeting; I recall being struck by his down-to-earth attitude. He took the time to have a genuine conversation with people – a rarity at such large events.

It was the year of the Arab Springs and I remember his insightful talk about the role played by American institutions in kindling the protests in Egypt. The next year I met him again at the RIS Knowledge Retreat where he gave a series of classes entitled, 'Shariah, Sufism and Ethics'. It was a powerful analysis of ethics and spirituality in the Islamic tradition. I recall asking him advice on how to combat the shariah fear-mongering that was going on at the time; he responded with words of wisdom as usual, 'Normalize your presence without trivializing yourself'.

So, I was naturally quite shaken to hear that he had publicly boycotted the RIS and ISNA conventions; especially given his active role in the past several years. While he doesn't use the word 'boycott' is his essay, his action is just that – a public censure of an organization and disengagement to achieve particular goals. I found his stance particularly troubling, and more importantly, ineffective. The reason being that he fails to adequately answer the essential questions for a successful protest: why boycott, how long to do it and what needs to be done to address the underlying concerns of the boycott.

Dr. Ramadan's first allegation against RIS is that it remains 'apolitical'. I find this charge particularly disingenuous given that speakers, including himself, frequently address political issues at the convention. I clearly recall the atmosphere at the 2008 convention when Israel started its bombardment of Gaza; outrage and condemnation was outspoken. A fundraising session that year, led by imam Zaid Shakir in the main halls, raised over $100,000 within a half hour for the victims.

When the civil war in Syria started and Bashar-al-Assad began his atrocious crimes, the speakers did not shy away from expressing their disgust with him. When Ghaddafi was captured and killed, Dr. Ramadan was the one who voiced the unacceptable way in which his case was handled. These are just a few examples I can recall from my numerous years as an attendee and volunteer. Perhaps RIS isn't political in the way Dr. Ramadan would like it to be, but to accuse convention of being silent on political issues is an unfounded assertion.

Dr. Ramadan's second and more serious allegation relates to the speakers at RIS. He accuses these speakers of supporting dictatorships, despots and all the oppression they perpetrate. He fails to elaborate on who these speakers are and neither does he bring proof as to why he believes some of the leading Muslim preachers are supporters of tyranny and war crimes.

Those well informed on sectarian politics of the Middle East assume they know who and what he's referring to; the rest of us are baffled and in utter confusion by this accusation. In his blog post, he refers to these people in convoluted terms such as 'some speakers' who follow the 'sufi' trend. This has implicated all the scholars at the convention and we're left wondering: could he be referring to Shaykh Hamza, perhaps its Habib Ali, may be imam Zaid, what about Dr. Jackson, or is it anyone associated with Mufti Ali Gomma or the late Shaykh Buti ?

Professor Ramadan's elusive approach only opens the doors to speculation, conjecture and confusion. By disparaging the moral character of the scholars that Muslims so deeply trust and rely on for spiritual guidance, he has sown the seeds of doubt in their hearts – his boycott will do nothing to remove it. Not only will his move lead to political rifts, it also creates a spiritual crises built on doubts and division.

In the worldview of the Dr. Ramadan and his supporters, the immoral stances of their opponents are obvious – to the average American or Canadian RIS attendee they are not; most are clueless about the subject matter in the first place. If he was going to make such egregious allegations in public, especially on a matter generally debated in inner scholarly circles, he should have taken the liberty of at least supporting and clarifying his claims. Sure, we hear of the occasional tweet here and a facebook post there, but those hardly offer the degree of certainty required to establish such bold claims.

Instead of identifying, confronting and refuting the people he so vociferously opposes, Dr. Ramadan sanctimoniously declares them to be puppets for tyrannical rulers. He neither engages in a debate with them nor does he give these scholars a chance to clarify the basis of their positions. Using unsubstantiated claims masked in ambiguity he fosters the very phenomenon of partisan politics he's trying to combat.

I am certain Dr. Ramadan has convincing arguments to back up his views, but his failure to elucidate them for us only breeds suspicion and bars us from the opportunity to judge for ourselves. If the scholars speaking at our conventions have indeed committed such serious transgressions, we deserve to know with absolute clarity before we decide to boycott them.

As for his boycott of ISNA, the professor offers much more concrete reasons; his approach, however, is still divisive and ineffective. The grievances he has expressed about ISNA's unacceptable silence over deeply troubling aspects of U.S. domestic and foreign policy are universally shared by American Muslims. These Muslims, however, have not decided to boycott ISNA over it.

Instead, the recent events have lead to serious introspection and have stirred a much needed debate on how Muslim engage with government institutions. These issues will no doubt be raised and discussed at the upcoming convention; Dr. Ramadan could have been an important voice in influencing change but he has decided to not be present at these meetings.

ISNA is at an important cross-roads; it has become manifestly clear that its current engagement model has shortcomings which need to be seriously re-examined. It has to determine an approach where it can collaborate with institutions of power without being stifled by them or compromising its integrity. Glenn Greenwald, like many others, have stressed the need for an effective outsider-insider strategy for engagement. ISNA will certainly fall under the 'insider' category; its mandate is not like that of CAIR – which always seems to be in conflict with institutions of authority. It needs to transform itself into a effective lobbying group which can advocate on behalf of Muslims without being paralyzed by fear. Now, more than ever, it needs friends, not boycotters.

Dr. Ramadan's boycott no doubt succeeds in putting pressure on ISNA and kindling up much needed discussions, especially given the support he has received from fellow speakers. However, this pressure comes at a cost. He has chosen to take a highly divisive route and no doubt has burned many bridges with the Muslim leadership in North America. Given his influence, the move has also galvanized many of his supporters who too are re-considering their attendance at the convention. ISNA is the one of the few institutions American Muslims could look up to as a representative of their interests; being publicly chastised and boycotted by a leading Muslim academic is bound to create division at a time when unity desperately needed.

Furthermore, the more important shortcoming of this move is that Dr. Ramadan has offered no concrete actions that need to be taken to address the issues he raises. How long will he and his supporters disengage from two of the largest gatherings of Muslims in North America? Blanket boycotts with no clear demands and deadlines are pointless and ineffective. What steps exactly does he want RIS and ISNA to take? We'll never know the answers to these questions.

Professor Ramadan felt it a moral obligation to dissociate from organizations he had serious political disagreements with. Instead of the method he employed, he could have easily taken a less divisive and more effective route.  This could have been achieved had he publicly published detailed criticisms of ISNA and RIS with suggestions for actions they need to take. He could have then, like many others, privately declined attending the conventions; his absence would then be more meaningful to the organizers as well as the attendees. I am thinking of something along the approach Shaykh Hamza Yusuf took to highlight his disagreements with ISNA over the moon sighting issue.

The current approach taken by Dr. Ramadan is rash and its impact is temporal. He has picked a fight with the very people he needs to be advising; its unlikely they'll be receptive to what he has to say if he does't resort to more diplomatic methods. No one questions the legitimacy of the criticisms he has offered or the concern for good that drives his actions. However, this highly controversial approach has lead to greater harm, in this author's opinion, because it engenders disunity amongst Muslims, casts doubts on the integrity of our scholars and fails to provide any tangible solutions to the exceedingly complex challenges our community faces today.

Ed Note: We encourage discourse and writers on Muslimmatters have a variety of individual points of views including this post; this should not be taken as a Muslimmatters 'position'.

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4 Thoughts on Condemning People Doing Terrible Things Thu, 21 Aug 2014 01:52:44 +0000   Here are four thoughts that normally go through my head when folks ask for individual American Muslims to condemn some foreign group of people claiming Islam while doing terrible things: 1) Muslims regularly speak out when people try to abuse our faith or use it as cover for atrocities. It seems that a combination […]

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Here are four thoughts that normally go through my head when folks ask for individual American Muslims to condemn some foreign group of people claiming Islam while doing terrible things:

1) Muslims regularly speak out when people try to abuse our faith or use it as cover for atrocities. It seems that a combination of things limit the reach of our voice: we are not good at getting our message out and people often are not truly interested in what Muslims actually have to say.

2) Personally, I'm tired of playing the condemnation game and I find it a bit offensive when people question if I disagree or am appalled when some crazy people do horrible things, while claiming that they are Muslims or that they are acting in accordance with Islam. That's because it should be expected that I'm appalled and the question itself makes me wonder about the questioner. It makes me think that when atrocities are committed in the name of something they identify with do they support the atrocity?

3) I've also noticed that there is a huge double standard or in the best cases severe cognitive dissonance in the people who regularly ask for or “need” to hear condemnations from others. They tend to broad brush groups, while ignoring either the problems in their own communities or more commonly the fact that they openly support things that directly contradict their stated values when done in support of causes they are sympathetic to. This brings me back to wondering if/when the shoe was/is on the other foot would/do they speak up?

4) If it is the case that we struggle to live values-based lives, avoid hypocrisy and create a better world, it is not/shouldn't be considered hard to be against people abusing one's own faith or cause. It is much more difficult to be morally consistent in all areas of our lives.

The world needs a lot more honest introspection and a lot less finger pointing. Gandhi told us a long time ago to be the change we wish to see in the world.

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