Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Message From a Muslim

Is there really an attack on Christmas?

If I were to believe what the news media has been projecting this Christmas Holiday Season, those who do not share “Christmas” are images of Rambo, armed to the teeth with his AK-47, shooting reindeer off the rooftops, busting down the doors of people’s living spaces, setting Christmas trees and tinsel a fire, turning over dinner tables and smashing gifts and toys, as little children look on in fear… 

Of course, there is no war on Christmas…just like there is no color to Santa Claus. I heard on TV a young lady talked about what her family told her that Santa Claus had no particular color, and that it all depended on what part of the world he was and with whom.

Lying awake early this morning, giving thanks to Allah or God in gratitude for the goodness and light of the Moon and stars, the light of love and enlightenment in front of the darkness of the fears of the unknown, the joy of the season brings calm to my heart. 

Memories of my early years of childhood play before my mind’s eye. The joy of the season, the joy of my community, the joy of my family and friends, and the joy of my soul.   

Bringing all of that joy I share with you, peace to the world for all of humankind.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage and Islam

In 2010, Washington DC joined five states: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in affirming same-sex marriages. Of course, being one of several hundred citizens that spoke in support of same-sex marriage in Washington DC, I testified before the DC City Council as their only Muslim religious leader to speak on behalf of same-sex marriage. Needless to say, the testimony presented convinced members of the City Council to pass the pending resolution and same-sex marriage became law in Washington DC.

It is very important to point out that it was not just queer people alone that supported the legislation for same-sex marriages in the District of Columbia. There were numerous non-gay religious leaders and their institutions that supported the law. These individuals and institutions recognized the inequality that had been set in place through centuries-old beliefs founded in heterosexual normative thinking that marriage is only for a man and a woman. In speaking with several of the religious leaders who had welcoming congregations, they indicated in the early days when they began supporting the resolution to change the law, there were personal and congregational debates on the issue. However, after much personal prayer and discussion with their queer and non-gay congregants, they had to stand for what was right in their scriptural understandings and providing equality under the law. In some instances, some long-term congregants left their fellowships never to return.

Furthermore, as it relates to the current status of same-sex marriages, organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and, showed graphically, how many states granted some form of "rights" for same-sex couples, and the number of countries in the world where same-sex marriage is endorsed. Though internationally, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden have same-sex marriages, I will concentrate on the United States in this blog entry.

In 17 of the 50 states, some form of same-sex marriage benefits do exist, five of those states and Washington DC, as outlined above, permit same-sex marriages and 12 states civil unions, but fall horrendously short in the benefits permitted couples in comparison to heterosexual couples. According to the 2009 report by the HRC, there are nearly 1131 benefits available to married couples-over 1000 of them are federal and 400 are state. I am happy to say, though, that under the Obama administration a number of federal benefits have been granted for same-sex couples where at least one partner works for the federal government have been granted, there remains significant ground to be covered in order to bring full equality of benefits for all married couples.

It appears, though, unless you are in a same-sex marriage or civil union, many queer people are not fully aware of some of the areas where they lose significant benefits because the current laws prevent them from obtaining as same-sex marriage or civil union couples. Some of these areas include survival benefits for children or parents, but also include many others like earned income tax credits, head of household status credit, child tax credits, tax on gains from sales, estate taxes, tax and retirement savings, family and medical leave, employee benefits, continued health coverage, and a barrage of other federal and state benefits.

Several weeks ago, I received my DC Marriage Officiant license to perform all types of marriages in DC or other places. Happily, I have framed the certificate and it hangs on my wall today, but I also recognize very clearly that whosoever wishes to marry, should the couple be same-sex, the full range of benefits and rights may be limited, or even null and void, depending upon where they reside. Though this license helps me further promote same-sex marriages, let it be known that I am not unaware of the extreme imbalances in state and federal rights that are granted to anyone that I marry. This is why I encourage you as queer Muslims who are in same-sex couples, or hope to be in the future, to continue in your local, state and federal jurisdictions, to push for passage of same-sex marriage. Be mindful that you should not ignore, but make sure to include in your efforts to change these discriminatory laws, your supportive friends, family and allies. It is through combined efforts that same-sex marriage will become as commonplace as opposite sex marriage. It is just my hope, regardless of a couple's religious affiliation or not, the majority of same-sex couples will not duplicate the outrageous 51% divorce rate that plagues heterosexual marriages today.

Mental Health

Several days ago, while researching mental health awareness amongst various faith groups, the numbers of Americans—54 million—have some form of mentally illness.[1] What I noted and highlighted in my research—in some cultures and communities—specifically among minorities—mental illness remains a subject of taboo and misunderstanding. 
According to Dr. Donna Holland Barnes, a research associate and professor at Howard University's Department of psychiatry and director of the suicide prevention program stated, "No one wants to think something is wrong with them…People don't realize that the brain can malfunction just like any other organ in the body.”

In my early career and having worked in a substance abuse I was aware that substance abuse occurs across all spectrums of society. But it is also very important people educate themselves that mental health issues cover all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, and geographical regions of origin. Yet so many people of color, due to the stigma associated with mental illness, far too frequently, face barriers to receiving... mental health care. The barriers come from two sides of the treatment program: (1) the patient who does not recognize that they may have symptoms that would indicate they are having mental health and substance abuse problems; and (2) the mental health practitioners themselves who may not be receptive to people of color and the foundations of their mental health issues.
The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), along with Howard University's Department of Psychiatry, conducted Internet teleconferencing with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in 2010. Five HBCUs participated and talked about their mental health programs on campus. It was noted that the schools encourage people to eat well and exercise to maintain good mental health. However, the research also indicated that there were barriers that prevented minorities receiving needed mental health care. When we look at colleges and universities nationwide, this stigma remains true.

Typically, patients who are people of color usually lack knowledge about the signs, symptoms, and potential treatments that keep them from requesting mental health services. “Imagine experiencing racing thoughts that fly through your brain so quickly you can’t keep up. Or feeling abrupt, mood changes that take you quickly to the extremes. You might even hear a whisper or pounding that no one else hears and feel easily angered. Envision feeling like you have knowledge and abilities superior to everyone else’s and a need to act spontaneously, even urgently, despite the risks.”[2] These are common symptoms of those experiencing some form of mental illness.

Sometimes it is a healthcare provider that is not receptive to people of color and do not ensure their staff is trained to recognize mental illness and substance abuse, though these two disorders are often linked. This phenomenon is not limited to doctor offices and hospital facilities, but also include the police, the courts, and social service agencies, and government officials who may be poorly trained in recognizing the relationship between mental illness and substance abuse issues.

Dr. William B. Lawson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Howard University Hospital (Howard’s College of Medicine), emphasized that stigma most often “prevents individuals and family members in minority communities from joining support groups.” He encourages “everyone to read more about mental illness”, and help increase knowledge about mental health across the board. This is not limited to just medications, but has to include all types of mental health and substance abuse services.

The late author Bebe Moore Campbell wrote about mental health and substance abuse issues in the black community. Dr. Judi Moore Latta, executive director of communications and marketing at Howard University, a personal friend of Ms. Campbell, said, “In our community(ies) we sweep things under the rug and people with mental illness are often stigmatized, isolated, ignored and overlooked.” She further elaborated, Ms. Campbell dedicated her books to doing something about the problem. Though Ms. Campbell died in 2006, it was through the efforts of her friends committed to see her vision take place, lobbied lawmakers in Congress. In 2008, a congressional resolution noted “that only about one in seven people in America [about 16.5 percent] who suffer from a mental disorder seek treatment and that African Americans are less likely than Caucasians to receive treatment.” Dr. Latta further elaborated to remind us, “Statistics show that minorities are much more likely to have a problem with the diagnosis because of racial issues and life conditions. We need to be aware, educate ourselves, share information and tell others.”

Ultimately, as a provider of pastoral counseling, I must emphasize how important it is for people of color to clearly understand the following: When they notice changes in (a) their own behaviors; or (b) note changes in the behaviors of their loved ones, whether family, friends, co-workers or close community members—they should take immediate action and seek help for themselves, or others. In order to make the situation better, you must follow through in getting mental health and/or substance abuse treatment for yourself or others.

[1] This is according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
[2] Howard University Health Magazine, CHECK Up, p. 4, (May 2011).

The Sacrifice of Personal Time

As an Imam, I am often privy to semi-private conversations that are easily overheard while people are generally having discussions or making commentary about their day-to-day lives. One theme that I hear quite a lot is the “sacrifice of time”—I don’t have the time—the “boogy-man” of commitment. Don’t get me wrong, people are committed to many things depending upon where they may be in life—early may be focused on education or work, middle on intimate and family relationships, later years dealing with health and maintenance issues, and like most other people, we have social issues we support.
What I don’t hear that often is the willingness to make some effort towards a common goal. What do I mean by that statement? A commitment to an ideal does not mean one has to do all the work. If it is an ideal that you support with a few volunteer hours a week, you are part of the process of moving towards the ideals to which you are committed. In order to express my point more clearly, let me give you a personal example.

In my early activist years, I learned Jane and John Q. Public types, as well as the more progressive, center left types, (I am talking about a spectrum of folks), not everyone was able or willing commit some small amount of time on a regular basis. Yet, across the board for the folks I met, when individuals agreed with those progressive and inclusive ideals I was promoting—they would say things like, these ideals should be encouraged or made available to all, or believed such a change could benefit them. However, when asked to commit to a small amount of time or donate funds to the organization in order to help bring these ideals to fruition, people would sidestep or reject the idea they could or should actively participate in bringing change. What that says, generally, people under most circumstances expect these great changes will drop like manna from heaven—a gift from on high—but failing to recognize that change takes active participation and that means effort expended in time (hours of work) and/or a donation of money on a regular basis to facilitate transition to a better system that provides those benefits sought.

Now, do understand me, I have been and continue down the road of working and going to school at the same time, working and participating in the activist community, and now juggling work and building a progressive Muslim community in Washington, DC. Yes, a person’s time can be sparse or limited. However, the difference is my commit is I plan a specific number of hours each week and use that time to focus on moving the envelop getting closer and closer to my goals. I have also made the commitment to put it on your calendar, mark it in highlighter, and let people know that is “my time” and I am committing “my time” to a particular cause. People do respect that kind of dedication to a cause.

Of course, knowing how much time a person can commit and really be committed is based upon what you have on your plate of things to do. You have a whole lot like school, work, caring for children or parents, and other sundry items, your time is limited. Yet, when you can commit four hours a week to a cause (this is not including travel time), you will be amazed how you can help an organization accomplish a lot more than without your four hours of time. If you bring skills and talents to the table that can help the organization become self-sustaining, those skills are always welcomed. Even if you don’t think you could be of assistance, you will be amazed at how little experience you will need to do envelop stuffing, to placing leaflets in your neighborhoods, or attending a political person’s meeting and taking notes—all of these things are small commitments that help get a lot done.

Okay, okay, okay, if your life is at a stage where you just don’t have the time, then seriously consider donating funds to the organization—on a monthly basis. I belonged to one organization and had the task of picking up the mail once a week. Doing this for about two years, I had noticed that every two weeks or so, one person would always send an envelope. So I inquired one day and learned the man sent a $25 check every pay check to the organization—that is $50 a month for two years that I knew of, totaling $1,200 and he didn’t demand anything in return. He believed in the purpose of the organization. This is what I call putting your money where your mind/heart/purpose find important.
Now, I’m speaking on real terms here, and my purpose is not to judge anyone on what they do, but I do believe we can sacrifice a little and get a lot done. If you eat dinner out once a week, four times a month, commit the cost of one or two of those dinners out. If you’re being entertained, forego one concert a season or the season tickets you are not going to use, auction them off and send the money to a cause you believe in. Even if you imbibe in cigarettes or alcohol, you can skip a few packs a month—stretching them, or donate the money for a drink or two each week, and send it in. Again, you will never know how much you are helping others help others when you cannot be there to help yourself. And it is more than just a “feel good” statement, it is you working to change the levels of injustice and oppression people are facing, and we can count our blessings we are not the ones in need.

It is also important for those who donate time to help a cause, remember, if you are a novice, you need time to learn about the organization and how it works. Avoid having unrealistic expectations of the organization—no one organization can make the world a utopia. Allow yourself to be guided into the areas the organization believe your skills and talents can be best applied, and remain flexible if you are asked to help in other areas from time to time. These attitudes help make you a valuable asset to the group—good workers have the potential of being good leaders too.

For progressive organizations, you must not squander the talent that may be offered to you. Be honest, realistic and respectful with volunteers—they learn to trust your guidance and will be there when those things are taken into consideration. People who volunteer often ask others they know to help too. You can increase your volunteer numbers when people know you do not waste their time. Building a partnership is the road to success.

Finally, progressive Muslim communities need this kind of commitment from organizations and volunteers. I strongly encourage everyone who can to make a commitment to a progressive Muslim organization in your area. If you do not have one in your area, donate to the national and local organization in your area.

Over the past several years, I have contributed a lot to Muslim for Progressive Values, Though it takes a bit of my time, I still meet my other commitments, and I remain convinced my small contribution helps move our ten principles into the larger Muslim community and MPV will thrive.

Allah promises us a good benefit when we work actively to eliminate injustice and oppression in the world—even if the oppression originates from our misreading of Islam.