Saturday, December 31, 2016

It's Going To Be Good

What a difference a hate mail can make!

On the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, November 23, the Evergreen Islamic Center (EIC) in San Jose, CA, received a hate mail that set off a chain of events that not only diminished the haters but in the most moving and celebratory way, reaffirmed our faith in America. I have written about the overwhelming support we received from our fellow-Americans from near and far in an article in the San Jose Mercury News, so I will not repeat the details here.

What I want to focus on is the gathering of over 400 Americans at EIC on Sunday, December 11 – Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, atheists and, of course, Muslims -  to denounce hate and Islamophobia and express solidarity with us.

Speaker after speaker invited the writer(s) of the hate letter to meet Muslims and overcome their prejudice against a minority of Americans (about 3 million in a population of about 330 million Americans). Rabbis, priests, reverends, clergies, young and old took to the stage to invite Americans to celebrate our common humanity. “There is enough love to go around,” declared the president of EIC, and so true it was!

Supervisor Dave Cortese reminded the gathering that San Jose was one of six metropolitan areas of the world lauded and emulated for its religious harmony. Mayor Sam Liccardo reiterated his vow to make San Jose a sanctuary city for undocumented workers and students if Donald Trump’s government attempted to deport them.

Symbol of support from Shira Goldman of Tarzana, CA

Imam Tahir Anwar quoted Martin Luther King, Jr: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 

That 400 people of different faiths had given up the leisurely pleasures of a Sunday afternoon to travel to EIC and spread the message of love was a testament to the greatness of ordinary Americans.

Perhaps the most moving remarks came from Reverend Kiley of the Silicon Valley Faith Group who said, “I see the tapestry of this community with deep belief in love.” He then quoted a poem by Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

The year 2016 will go down as one of the most traumatic in history. The plight of refugees, the deaths of innocents, the accelerating pace of global warming, all capped by the election of an unexpected and unpredictable candidate to the highest office in America has put most of us on edge. 

But despair is the hallmark of the weak. It is in our power – ordinary Americans driven by a sense of duty, responsibility and love – to overcome policies that challenge our bedrock values. Things will not fall apart; the center will hold for it is the best among us who are full of passionate intensity while the worst lack all conviction.

Paraphrasing the Beatles: Take a sad year and make it better.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Generous Americans Teach Us the True Meaning of Thanksgiving

(You can also read the article here.)

On the day before Thanksgiving this year, the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose, CA, received a postal mail that contained these lines:
“There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump. He is going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.”
After some deliberations, the EIC board contacted the police on Thursday, November 24, Thanksgiving Day. Within minutes, law enforcement officials rushed to the Center and offered to provide extra security for the community. Local Priests, Rabbis and elected officials condemned the bigotry and assured us of their support.
As word of the hate mail spread through TV, newspapers and social media, support poured in. Our initial emotions of shock and distress gave way to hope and courage, and we realized anew how fortunate we were to be living in a country where ordinary citizens were united by the common goal of justice and freedom for all.
There is clearly a strong correlation between the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States and the spike in hate crimes directed against Muslims and other minority groups. More than 100 anti-Muslim incidents have occurred across the country and more than 700 incidents targeting different minority groups have been documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center since November 8.
We are not afraid that bigots and hatemongers, emboldened by Donald Trump, are coming out of the woodwork to threaten us, although we remain cautious and vigilant. Ours is a land of law, and even though the law is sometimes bent by the wealthy and the powerful in their favor, we are confident that no one is above the law. Remember the case of the late President Richard Nixon, who had to resign in disgrace in 1974 to avoid certain impeachment.

Jews and Christians gather in front of Evergreen Islamic Center, San Jose, CA,
on Friday, December 2, 2016, to express their solidarity with Muslims.
Far from frightening us, this hate mail has, in fact, given us a renewed sense of mission when the ‘new sheriff’ begins his presidency. We are heartened that mayors and presidents of colleges and universities across the country have declared their cities and campuses ‘sanctuary spaces’ for undocumented workers, students and their families.
But ultimately, our faith in our country comes from the numerous messages, emails and cards we received from neighbors and strangers.
“As a Christian,” wrote Vance, “I am taught that above all else, ‘love thy neighbor.’ I want to extend my love to your community and want you to know that many Christians, like me, stand in solidarity with you.”
Miriam wrote that “not all Americans feel the way the hateful people do. I am a Jew and I support you, my cousins. Love and peace, we are all 1!”
Holly assured us that “I will do whatever it takes to help protect your first amendment rights.” Stacy reminded us that “there are many of us in San Jose who do not feel the way the haters do. We welcome you for the diversity and the rich culture you bring to our lovely city.”
Davida was sad because “here in Bay Area we think we live in a sanctuary of unity but unfortunately that is not the case. I pray for peace and understanding for all in this uncertain time.” And this from Marina: “I have heard some people talking about a ‘Muslim registry.’ Many Americans have said they will register as Muslims regardless of their faith, as many Danes under Nazi occupation wore yellow stars. I, too, will register as a Muslim if that time were to come.”
Muslim-Americans could not have learned more vividly the true meaning of Thanksgiving were it not for our generous fellow Americans. We are truly blessed.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Students Ponder A Grim Future Under Trump

I teach mathematics at a college in Northern California. In the tests that I give to my students, I always include a question that deals with the ‘big issues’ of life, such as, “Name three things that make your life meaningful,” or, “Are you afraid of death? Why or why not?” or, “What are your core values? Are you spending your time in college that reflect those values?”

Students frequently open up to such questions, something that obviously doesn’t happen when they are solving quadratic equations or constructing confidence intervals. Their responses help me better understand them as unique individuals, which help me become a better teacher.

In my recent test, composed a week before Nov. 8 and given on Nov. 10, to two classes consisting of about 90 students, my question was: “If something could happen right now that was highly unlikely, or even impossible, that would make you unbelievably happy, what would that be?”

I never connected the question to the presidential election, whose ‘foregone conclusion’ of Hillary Clinton’s victory I shared with millions of my fellow-Americans.

Was I ever wrong!

Apart from a few students who wanted to win the lottery and a few who longed for one last heart-to-heart with a departed loved one, most of the responses reflected the raw, angry and anguished thoughts they had about Donald Trump’s victory and what it meant for America.
Ruth expressed the common sentiment shared my Mario, Robert, Erik, Aurora and Andrea: “I fear for my safety and for the health of my country with Trump as President. If only the election gave a different result!”

Claudia wrote: “If only Hillary became the president! I am shocked how racist my country is. I had no idea! It saddens me how this country has so much hate in its heart.”

Cristina was outraged that America missed a golden chance to break the glass ceiling. “Imagine, the first female U.S. president! And we blew it!”

Lopez was sure that the reckless Trump will do something that will get him impeached. “A zebra cannot change its stripes,” he wrote. “Trump will be forced out of the White House because of what he does.”

Joanna was wistful: “If only Bernie Sanders ran!” Many students were angry that Hillary did not choose Sanders as her running mate, or that she did not use him as much as she should have in her campaign. “Sanders would have appealed to working-class whites in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” wrote Katie. “With Trump, I am scared for my family and friends, for people of color, for women, Muslims, immigrants and disabled and other minorities.”

Trisha was despondent and wished she had done more. “I regret not fighting harder for Bernie Sanders during the primaries. I should have spent more time advocating online, phone banking to other states, and inviting respectful dialog with those who had reservations about Sanders’ policies and positions. If by some miracle the presidency went to Hillary who won the popular vote, I would cry tears of joy. We must get rid of the Electoral College. What a useless relic from the past! Under Trump, we are about to enter a period of legislative uncertainty in terms of environmental protection. We need as many well-informed citizens as we can get who will act on behalf of the planet’s well-being, rather than its potential for profitability.”

The unfairness of the Electoral College weighed on the minds of Alondra, Clement, Sanchez, Zamora and Mendoza. “We brag about our democracy to the rest of the world,” wrote Mendoza, “but look what we have in our own country. A majority of Americans wanted Hillary to be our president. Instead, it’s Trump and his third wife who will occupy the White House!”

Acosta was filled with regrets too. “I regret not calling my family and friends in Florida to vote for Hillary. I regret our country’s decision. If I could make it right, I would ask for independents to be excluded from the ballot. I am also mad at the millions who did not vote. What were they thinking?”

Olivia felt it was more a case of Hillary losing the election than Trump winning it. “Hillary ran a flawed campaign. She spent the last Election Day with wealthy entertainers. That couldn’t have gone down well with angry jobless whites in rural America. I think she became arrogant.”

The theme was echoed by Fisher, Jessica and Clark. “I disagreed with everything Trump said,” wrote Fisher. “But there was no denying he was speaking his mind. With Hillary, it seemed like a production from Hollywood! No spontaneity.”

Liz took a particularly grim view. “My favorite subject is history. And I can tell from my studies that when a nation chooses a very bad leader, that nation is in decline.”

Irene was as heart-broken at Hillary’s loss as everyone else but she also took the long-view. “Hillary’s win would have made us lazy. We would expect her to do everything right and not pay any attention. Trump’s victory means we must prepare for the long fight. We will be more active and engaged. That will be a good thing for our country.”

Most angry was Patrick who would have nothing to do with the logic of working-class whites who voted for Trump. “I belong to a white working-class family here in Silicon Valley. My dad works at two temporary jobs. I have to work part-time to cope with high costs of rent, food, gas. I know what that pain is. But basic human decency counts too. Respect for others count. Respect for women count. Humility counts. How can we elect someone who is against these values? Is it only about money?”

What impressed me most was how impassioned students were about an election they deeply cared about, and how articulate they were, even though they were pressed for time. Don’t forget, this was a test in which they had to work their way through some fairly complicated statistical problems!

How do we move forward? The most eloquent response came from Erica, who wrote: “In my dark days I find strength in the words of Martin Luther King. Last night, after I had cried my heart out, I looked up these words: ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rabindranath Tagore Was the First Musician to Win the Nobel Prize for Literature

(You can read the article also here.)
Bob Dylan - Rabindranath Tagore
The decision by the Swedish Academy to award Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" was lauded by many and lamented by a few. But there was universal acknowledgment that the Academy had broken new ground by awarding the Nobel “for the first time” to a singer-songwriter since the French poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme first won it in 1901.

Mainstream media announced the news with its usual insouciant hyperbole. “It is the first time the honor has gone to a musician,” declared the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “Dylan became the first musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.” According to the Washington Post, “Dylan … is a groundbreaking choice by the Nobel committee to select the first literature laureate whose career has primarily been as a musician.”

That Bob Dylan is being lauded as the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature would have amused Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath who won the Nobel Prize for Literature over a century ago in 1913.

Tagore’s literary output fills 26 volumes but to the 200 million Bengali-speaking people in Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal, as well as to the diaspora, his timeless appeal stems more from his 2000+ songs, of which he was both the lyricist and the composer, than from his poems, short stories, novels, dramas and essays. At the time of his award, his songs numbered about a thousand.

So what explains this ignorance or indifference?

The main reason, of course, was that Tagore wrote in Bengali, not as popular or powerful as English, the lingua franca of discourse across cultures and national boundaries. But as the late great Bengali sitarist Ravi Shankar wrote, “Had Rabindranath Tagore been born in the West he would now be as revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.”

To which we may add, “and Dylan.”

But there is probably another reason that also contributed to Western media’s ignorance about Tagore: Cultural (some may call it civilizational) snobbery.

It is the assumption that any new idea in science, art, technology, medicine, literature and yes, music, begins in the West and flows down to the East. The East may have a monopoly on the ‘exotic’, (after all, the Beatles did visit India for inspiration, didn’t they?) but when it comes to what truly matters, there’s no contest: West wins hands down.

How many Americans, for instance, can name one or two leading writers, poets, playwright or musicians from, say, the subcontinent? I once asked my students here in San Jose, California, and was rewarded with blank faces and some snickers.

Yet ask any adult Bangladeshi or Indian or Pakistani about leading American writers (past or present) or singers and they will rattle off names like Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dylan, Beyonce and Taylor Swift.

There is no justification for this cultural imperialism, (dare I call it hubris?) particularly when information about any culture or society is only a click away. The only requirement is curiosity and respect for the ‘other.’

Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, according to the Academy, "because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West." 

What the Academy was referring to was the collection of Tagore’s poems knows as “Gitanjali” or “Song-Offerings.” It was published in English translation in London in March of 1913, and by the time the award was announced that year, had been reprinted ten times. The reference to “a part of the literature of the West” turned out to be wishful thinking at best!

The Bengali-speaking Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics and a passionate Tagore fan, has tried in recent years to revive interest in Tagore in the West but found himself preaching mostly to the choir. “For many years,” he wrote, “Tagore was the rage in many European countries. His public appearances were always packed with people wanting to hear him. But then the Tagore tide ebbed, and by the 1930s the huge excitement was all over.”

And that’s where Tagore remains, forgotten in the West except to a few connoisseurs.

That’s a pity, for with a little bit of patience and an open mind, Americans can also acquire a taste for Tagore, particularly for his songs. Just type “Tagore Songs” or “Rabindra Sangeet” (music of Rabindranath) on YouTube and you will get thousands of hits of songs sung by leading exponents of this distinctive genre (including some by Tagore himself) that continue to captivate Bengali-speaking people around the world, seventy-five years after his death.

Bob Dylan richly deserved his prize. I confess to a soft spot for this poet/singer because he sang several of his classics in the “Concert for Bangladesh,” (“Blowin' in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”), organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the Madison Square Garden in New York on August 1, 1971, during the height of Bangladesh’s War of Independence. 

It is not far-fetched to hope that Dylan’s award will spur interest in the first singer-songwriter who won the Nobel Prize for Literature one hundred and three years before the American genius did. The Government of Bangladesh can also help by instituting a Tagore Award, to be given out every four years to anyone making a breakthrough in Interdisciplinary Research, be it in the Sciences or in the Arts, in honor of one of the most prolific and protean geniuses the world has ever seen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Honor Killing and Misogyny are Two Sides of the Same Coin

(You can also read the article here.)

We are horrified by honor killings and rightly so. That’s why when Pakistan, a country where the practice is prevalent, passed a tough law against it on October 6, we cautiously rejoiced. Perhaps now the killers of daughters and sisters in societies afflicted with this deadly vice will be brought to justice.

A day later, we learned of remarks Donald Trump made in 2005 to a group of admiring toadies on a studio bus about the apparently irresistible attraction he exerted on women. 

Married in January of that year to his third and current wife Melania, he boasted in language unprintable in a family newspaper how he could grope women at will because of his celebrity status. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” was how he summed up his ways with young, and always white, women.

Pakistan and the United States are two starkly dissimilar countries, yet the two events show that misogyny transcends both border and the GNP. Treating women as less than human, 
- main reason for honor killing - and treating them as sex objects - main reason for sexual assaults - are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

Consider the statistics.

In addition to hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults every year, on the average, about 500 women are killed annually in Pakistan over perceived damage to ‘honor,’ which includes marrying against family’s consent, elopement, socializing with men, and ‘crimes’ of passion and ‘immoral’ behavior, as defined by men.

The new law mandates life imprisonment for convicted murderers. It has come under attack from some sections of the clergy who accused the government of trying to impose ‘Western Values’ on a Muslim country. But it has also been welcomed by Pakistan’s Human Rights advocates who hope it will bring about a cultural shift in their society.

The critical test will be whether the government has what it takes to enforce the law in Pakistan.

Although statistics vary, according to a study by the ‘National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey’with support from the ‘National Institute of Justice,' over a million American women annually are victims of sexual assault, rape or attempted rape. According to another survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities, in four years of college, more than one-fourth of undergraduate women at a large group of leading universities said they had been sexually assaulted.

What adds to these chilling numbers are the victims of sex trafficking who often go undetected and unreported.  According to the ‘National Human Trafficking Resource Center,' in the first six months of 2016 alone, about 4,000 sex-trafficking cases have been reported in the U.S. (Worldwide, the estimate is over 20 million annually). 

One of the main enablers of sex-trafficking is a web-based company called ‘Backpage,’ about which Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General who is running for the U.S. Senate in the November election, said: “Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.” 

Harris issued a warrant that led to the arrest of Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage, on felony charges of ‘pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping.’

It happened on the same day that we learned of Trump’s infamous tape.

“Women’s rights are human rights,” declared First Lady Hillary Clinton at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995.

It is true that our awareness of the violence of honor killing and misogyny since then have increased but real progress in these areas have been painfully slow. Far too many men worldwide, educated and uneducated alike, continue to treat women as chattels and far too many women continue to be victims of men, often paying with their lives. Far too many men take pride in their propensity for objectifying women while denying it outright. We just witnessed this in the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump when the Republican nominee repeated what has got to down as one of the most Orwellian lies of all time: “Nobody respects women more than I do!”

Honor killings by powerful or conservative families in many poor countries, and sexual assaults by powerful men in many rich countries, with the lucrative business of
sex-trafficking flourishing in rich and poor countries alike, are driven by the same factors of power, lust, cruelty, greed and insecurity. We must use a combination of enforceable law, exemplary punishment and education to ensure that women enjoy the same privileges of freedom, dignity and honor that men like Donald Trump seek to destroy with their action.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the Millennial Vote

“I poured my heart and soul into Bernie Sanders’s campaign,” a 24-year-old student told me. “Now I really don’t care. Clinton and Trump both repulse me.”

Millennials, between the ages of 18-35 and numbering about 76 million, are a powerful voting bloc. But many are still trying to come to grips with the trauma of a Sanders-less presidential election and are thinking of wasting their vote as a protest of some sort. That would be a colossal mistake, for they can play a critical role in propelling Hillary Clinton to victory over Donald Trump in this most consequential of elections.

Why should millennials vote for Clinton? It comes down to the intersection of their passion with Clinton’s policies in three E’s: Education, Economy and Ecology. They should carefully consider where the two candidates stand on these issues, reject false equivalences, and vote accordingly.

Education: The most contentious issue here is the staggering 1.4 trillion dollar student-loan Americans currently carry, a number growing by about $3K every second. Neither candidate has promised to forgive the trillion-dollar debt but during the primaries, Clinton countered Sanders’s assertion to make college free for everyone by saying that his numbers just didn’t add up. However, Clinton has made college affordability – directly tied to student debt - central to her policy. She would give families making up to $125,000 free tuition at in-state public colleges and universities to help middle and working-class families.

If Clinton’s plan does not thrill millennials, they should be even less thrilled by Trump’s because he has offered no details about lowering college costs and reining in student debt. One can still get an idea of Trump’s educational philosophy from his for-profit real-estate training college that defrauded more than 5,000 consumers out of millions of dollars. Even the former Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney said, “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.”

Economy: What concerns millennials most is how the candidates will address the needs of over 45 million poverty-stricken Americans.

Clinton will invest in creating well-paying jobs in “infrastructure and manufacturing, technology and innovation, small business and clean energy,” and combine that with affordable housing and greater access to preschool and high-quality child care. She has asserted that by expanding Low Income Housing Tax Credits, her policy will help over 11 million American households currently spending more than half their income on rent.

Clinton has not convincingly articulated where the money will come from and what sacrifices Americans will have to make to turn her policy into reality, other than that the rich will face greater taxation. She must offer more details, for nothing turns off millennials more than vague promises and empty rhetoric.

A major reason for Trump’s rise is that he has tapped into the economic angst of a significant number of white, working-class Americans who feel deprived of a decent life because of, as they see it, the flood of immigrants and the vanishing of traditional jobs. But if Clinton is short on details, Trump is even more so, except where, in contrast to Hillary, he has promised to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Leading economists have taken apart his argument that ripping up international trade agreements will help struggling American workers become magically prosperous. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has pointed out how a trade war with China, for instance, will destroy more jobs than it creates.

Ecology: The dictionary defines ecology as ‘relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.’ What threatens to undo this relation and balance is climate change, manifested most starkly in global warming.

Clinton accepts the scientific consensus on global warming and supports the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions, just as she supports the Affordable Care Act and has even proposed to extend it to include an additional 10 million Americans. She has promised to put in place industrial practices that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 percent in 2025 and put America on a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050.

In contrast, Trump has vowed to cancel the Paris pact if elected president, just as he has threatened to repeal the Affordable Care Act that will cause 20 million Americans to lose medical insurance. He has called global warming a hoax. His exact words: “It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a moneymaking industry, okay? It’s a hoax, a lot of it.” He also said that action to limit carbon emissions ‘is done for the benefit of China.’

So there you have it, millennials. Trump is flamboyant and monopolizes mainstream media because he can titillate, provoke and outrage. Hillary, on the other hand, is perceived as cold, harsh and angry. But don’t be fooled by appearances. Ask yourself, who is better qualified to get the job done? A demagogue who lies and cheats and is clueless about national and international affairs, or someone who is flawed but who began her life as a young attorney at the Children’s Defense Fund and made the welfare of children and families the guiding light of her life, who is patient, intelligent, and has a proven track record as befits a president? Know this too, that if Hillary Clinton doesn’t light your fire, it may mean that your fire is already lit. The question is: who will keep it alive?

The answer should be obvious: Hillary Clinton will and Donald Trump won’t.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

A Muslim-American's Open Letter to Donald Trump

You can also read the article here.

I write this open letter to you as a Muslim American whose loyalty to the United States is at least as unwavering as your obstinacy in insisting that we are the enemy.

Here's the truth, Donald.

150 years after the Civil War, we are locked in another kind of conflict that is yet again revealing the values that define us as Americans. What you have consistently and conclusively proved is that, in every sense of the word, you fall short of these values.

Let me set the context. 

On April 30, 1864, during the dark days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, wrote to his general, Ulysses S. Grant to inspire him and rally his troops to preserve the Union. "You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this," wrote Lincoln, "I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it. And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you." 

Contrast this with your own mocking disdain of veterans like Sen. John McCain, a fighter pilot who endured horrific torture during the Vietnam War. "He's not a war hero," you claimed. "He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured."

But nowhere has your disrespect for soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our country, and their families, been more stark than in your wanton battle of words with the parents of fallen soldier Captain Humayun Khan, killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2004.

At the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia in July, Khizr Khan, father of Humayun Khan, outraged by your proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, demanded to know if you have ever even read the U.S. Constitution. "You have sacrificed nothing and no one," he told you in front of thousands of delegates and hundreds of thousands more watching.

When Khizr Khan pulled out a copy of the Constitution from his pocket and offered to lend it to you so you would know what words like "liberty" and "equal protection of law" mean, you knew it would be one of the most iconic moments in this momentous election. 

You had to respond.

And so you did, in the only way you know how; through a combination of misogyny, ignorance, bigotry, arrogance and vindictiveness that has become your trademark. 

You aimed your derision first at Ghazala Khan, wife of Khizr Khan, who stood silently by, an image of her late son displayed above the crowds before her, as her husband listed your glaring failings.

You insinuated that she was an oppressed woman who was not allowed to speak. "His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say," you said.

You compared your “sacrifices” in building your business empire to that of Ghazala Khan, a Gold Star Mother, someone who you, in your bigoted ignorance, could never imagine would roar back against your insinuations. 

In an opinion piece in one of America's leading newspapers, she explained that she was silent because she was still traumatized by her son's death. Her husband did indeed ask her to speak but she simply couldn't, and it didn't matter because, as she wrote, "whoever saw me felt me in their heart."

Still, despite your shameful rhetoric and woeful shortcomings, it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate your candidacy. Psychologists tell us that in uncertain times some people are drawn to demagogues who promise them certainty. It was so with Mussolini and it was so with Hitler. 

And one of the fundamental lessons of statistics is that the improbable can happen because the improbable is not impossible.

But I say this with confidence that a majority of Americans will reject your message of hate and intolerance. They will find you wanting in thought, action, habit and character, as defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny."

Donald, come November you will come to understand the wisdom in these words. 

Until then, I want you to know that I join not only my fellow Muslim Americans, but all minorities and mainstream Americans -- white, black, brown, rich, poor, religious, atheist, struggling, striving -- in rejecting your politics of hate and bigotry, and in upholding the values that have made this nation what it is today.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Blueprint for Muslim-American Activism

(You can also read the article here.)

In his powerful and propulsive speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia last week, former President Bill Clinton made a compelling case for Hillary Clinton’s presidency. 

As a Muslim American, however, I was most captivated when he said, “If you are a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.”

I heard in those words a blueprint for action that has been missing in the discourse of Muslim Americans. If we can act on this blueprint in this consequential election year, it can empower us to control our destiny and help shape the destiny of our country.

The first order of business for us is to stop wallowing in self-pity.

We cannot help Democrats win and make a future together - the overwhelming majority of the registered voters among the 3 million Muslim Americans are Democrats - if we waste time collecting grievances. Yes, Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from coming to America. Yes, Newt Gingrich wants to “test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported."

But for every Trump and Gingrich, there are many more politicians and our fellow-Americans who condemn their bigotry and xenophobia and offer their support for us.

Unfortunately, by focusing more on the former and less on the latter, many of us assume the default mode of passivity. For many Muslim Americans, political activism begins and ends with making an occasional subversive post on social media. It is time we realized that keyboard warriors rarely accomplish anything, while grassroots activists accomplish much, even if at a great cost.

I found it telling that at the DNC, many speakers, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, quoted and alluded to Theodore Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who does actually strive to do the deeds … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Muslim Americans must refuse to be timid souls (a synonym for grievance collectors) and fence-sitters during this election year and throw themselves whole-heartedly into the arena.

This demands that we engage in the kind of activism that can be cathartic for us and transformational for our country.

This also means that we must do whatever it takes to help Hillary Clinton become the President of the United States even if we have serious disagreements with her on serious issues, because the alternative is too nightmarish to contemplate.

We cannot just talk the talk. We must also walk the walk. Literally. We have to walk the precincts. We have to knock on doors. We have to work the phones. We have to register unregistered voters and organize rallies. We have to train ourselves to be articulate in making the case for our candidate. There are lots of undecided voters out there who can have a disproportionately large impact on the outcome of this election. If each one of us commit to convincing only one undecided or apathetic voter into voting for Hillary Clinton, we can not only help her win, we can also change our mindset about our ability to make our society more inclusive and just.

In today’s America, it is tough to be a Muslim American. Anti-Muslim sentiments, fanned by Donald Trump and his likes, continue to frustrate and frighten some of us. We are numbed by the terrorism of Muslims who give our religion a black eye. Think of the mass killings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas (2009), Tsarnaev Brothers at Boston (2013), Mohammed Abdulazeez at Chattanooga, Tennessee (2015), the Muslim Bonnie-and-Clyde-duo of Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Mailk at San Bernardino, California (2015), and Omar Mateen at Orlando, Florida (2016).

But we cannot use these horrific events as an excuse to sit on the sidelines and watch a demagogue tear apart the social fabric of our country. For inspiration, we need look no further than Khizr Khan, father of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty, who challenged Donald Trump at the DNC to read the U.S. Constitution and understand the meaning of words like ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ By this singularly symbolic act, he showed how a Muslim American can influence countless hearts and minds across our nation and around the world.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Reversing Bangladesh's Descent into Anarchy

(You can also read the article here and here)

Bangladesh is slowly but surely descending into anarchy.

The time to reverse the descent is now, or it may be too late.

The carnage at an upscale eatery in the diplomatic enclave in the capital city of Dhaka on 1st July, in which twenty hostages, mostly foreigners, were killed with cleavers and long knives, was only a continuation of the butchery of about 40 secular bloggers, university professors, gay rights activists, writers, publishers, foreigners and members of religious minorities, including Shia and Sufi Muslims, Hindus and Christians, since 2013.

The virus of extremism and religious fanaticism is rapidly spreading, infecting a segment of the population that includes estranged and affluent educated young men in their teens and 20's who hate openly and kill wantonly.

ISIS, the death-cult organization, has taken credit for the carnage. Latest reports suggest that the seven young attackers were driven by the nihilistic goals of ISIS, although they probably received military training from homegrown terrorist organizations like Ansar
al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.

It is a tragedy of gigantic proportion that the Wisconsin-sized nation of 160 million, held up as a symbol of Muslim moderation not too long ago, has become a pawn, perhaps even a player, in the deadly game of global jihadism.

What can Bangladesh do to reverse its descent into the abyss and restore its reputation as a moderate nation?

First, the government must acknowledge that terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida have planted themselves in Bangladesh, with local fanatics ready to respond to their evil messages with extreme violence. One can fight the enemy only if one identifies who the enemy is. Last month, the government arrested over 11,000 people in a supposed crackdown on terrorism but critics, national and international, complained that many of those arrested were supporters of opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that Prime Minister Hasina is determined to undermine under any pretext.

Second, the conditions that foster the growth of jihadist movements must be eradicated with as much fervor and foresight as the jihadist movements themselves. For Bangladesh, this means giving up its obsession with the past and focusing more on the future.

ISIS-inspired killers in Bangladesh did not grow in a vacuum. A major factor in their rise has been the government’s relentless pursuit of Bangladeshis responsible for war-crimes committed during the nation’s bloody war of independence in 1971. While most Bangladeshis supported the idea of their trial, what was not acceptable was the utter lack of transparency of the so-called “International Crimes Tribunal” established in 2010. There was nothing ‘international’ about the tribunal. Filled with party hacks, it resembled a kangaroo court more than it did any genuine dispenser of justice. The tribunal hanged several members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, including its leader Motiur Rahman Nizami in May this year. This helped radicalize some Bangladeshis who were convinced that Islam itself was under siege by Sheikh Hasina’s government, despite the fact that the prime minister is a devout Muslim herself.

A corollary of this unfortunate development is the opportunity it has given ISIS looking for soft targets around the world after losing territories in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that it has found one in Bangladesh where general lawlessness, corruption, nepotism, violence and partisan politics have combined to make it a prime target for terrorist organizations.

As an American of Bangladeshi origin, I have been visiting the country of my birth every year for the last several years. The reason for my visit is to be with my octogenarian mother battling several physical ailments. Prophet Muhammad taught that paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers. That, combined with respect and gratitude for the woman who instilled in me the importance of having a purposeful life, used to fill me with happiness every time I boarded the flight from San Francisco on my way to Dhaka.

In the last couple of years, however, my attitude has changed. For one thing, it just isn’t safe there anymore. Anything can happen. Family and friends warn me not to venture outside after dark. News of kidnapping, killing, mugging, bombing and assorted violence fill the daily media. For another, the disintegration of the civil society is too jarring to accept. The opening line of the national anthem of Bangladesh reads: “My Golden Bengal, I love you.” For the common man, that Golden Bengal of yesteryear has degenerated into a cruel and callous country where trust, security and honesty seem quaint relics.

The day after the attack in Dhaka, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave a speech in which she said: “We will turn Bangladesh into a peaceful state by eliminating the terrorists from their roots. No conspiracy can hinder our advancement.”

For the sake of Bangladesh, and the world, we can only hope that the Prime Minister will take rational, practical steps to keep her promise, instead of resorting to policies mired in the past and driven by the idea of revenge.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Playful Pugilist with a Purpose

(You can also read the article here.)

In May of 1989, Muhammad Ali made a surprise appearance at a community dinner of the South Bay Islamic Association of San Jose, California. It took us about three seconds to change the program and make him the keynote speaker for the evening. Ali spoke slowly, between a rasp and a whisper, and although time has dimmed my memory of the details, I can still recall the essence of his message: Take it easy. Enjoy life. Don’t take yourself too seriously but don’t forget you have a purpose in life as well.

Ali holding Ayesha Rahim, 4-year-old daughter of the author,
during his May, 1989, visit.
Those who knew Ali only through his hyperbolic self-promotion would have found his mix of play and purpose strange but that was Ali. Beneath the bluster was a serious soul who thought deeply about race, responsibility and justice and how they shaped him into who he was.

Aware that he was blessed in the sweet science, Cassius Clay (later to give up his “slave name” to become Muhammad Ali) was determined to make it his ticket to success but on his own terms, a daring dream in the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s. When he beat Sonny Liston against all odds in February of 1964 (eighteen days after the Beatles first landed in America) to become the heavyweight champion of the world, white America was stunned but a wide-eyed world embraced the genius of a fast-talking, fleet-footed heavyweight with lightning-fast hands.

For the following two decades, Ali would take us on an emotional roller-coaster ride. When he won, we won; when he lost, we lost. Fight fans will forever debate who the “greatest of all time” is but can anyone dispute that Ali at his best will remain peerless? Even past his prime, Ali could summon that rare intestinal fortitude to beat the fearsome Foreman and Frazier, although at a terrible physical cost.

The confluence of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War convulsed America but transformed Ali into an icon. He spoke truth to power long before politicians turned the phrase into a platitude. From “I have seen the light and I am crowing” to “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali opened raw wounds in the psyche of America, provoking hate and anger that in the end proved cathartic for our nation.

Ali’s unique brand of humor eased his acceptance. His punchy poems made us laugh at a time when laughter was scarce. After he had won the light heavyweight gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960 and received a hero’s welcome in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali and a friend walked up to a restaurant in his hometown one rainy day.

Waitress: “We don’t serve Negroes.”
Ali: “Well, we don’t eat them either.”

Drawn by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, Ali had become a Muslim in 1964. Following a falling out with Malcolm X that he was to regret later, Ali gradually gave up on the supremacist ideology of the Nation and settled on mainstream Islam.

Ali found strength, serenity and purpose in his faith but he wasn’t immune to vice. He could be cruel inside the ring - Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell - and unfaithful outside. Ali never sought to idealize his life, however, and publicly acknowledged his moral failings. He was as devoted to his two out-of-wedlock daughters as he was to his nine children from four marriages.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as Ali watched the terrorist attacks unfold on TV at his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan, his confidant Howard Bingham asked him how he felt about different religions. Replied Ali: “Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams. They have different names, but all contain water. Religions have different names but all contain truth.” In my three decades of attending prayer services in mosques throughout America, I never heard an Imam summarize our common humanity in such compelling words. He would later affirm: “I wouldn't … represent Islam if it were the way the terrorists make it look.”

Today’s generation, weaned on social media and celebrity idiosyncrasies, may find Ali’s legacy hard to fathom. That’s a pity. Ali was the real McCoy. He transcended boxing by standing up for his belief even though it cost him the best years of his career. Racism scarred his soul, traumatized as he was at 14 by the fate of another fourteen-year-old named Emmett Till. But his intolerance was for the sin, not the sinner. Meeting with both triumph and disaster, he came as close as anyone to treat the two impostors just the same.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

San Jose Sharks: Redemption After a Quarter-Century of Heartbreaks?

Plain, old-fashioned justice demands that San Jose Sharks win the Stanley Cup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins won the Cup in 1991 and 1992, powered by the legendary Mario Lemieux and ably supported by Jaromir Jagr. In 2009 they won it again, led by Lemieux's protege, Sidney Crosby.

Three times have the Penguins etched their name into NHL history.

But the Sharks? In the 25 years of their existence, not only have they never won the Stanley Cup, they never even reached the final, in spite of a profusion of talents. 

How come?

Because individual talent is never enough. If there is no chemistry at the highest level, if there is no catalyst that can holistically unite the talents, it is bound to be one heartbreak after another.

And that's what happened to the San Jose Sharks, and to their long-suffering fans.
But the new Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, hired only in May, 2015, seems to have found that elusive ingredient that prevented the Sharks from reaching their full potential. In his very first year, with deep changes in player roles and an altered philosophy about playing the game at its most elemental level, he has brought the Sharks to the penultimate match-up.

It's about time.

Of course, what stands in the way of the Sharks winning the ultimate prize in NHL is Sidney Crosby and company.

It falls on the shoulders of the two Joes, Thornton and Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and youngsters like Thomas Hertl to check (literally) Crosby, Malkin and friends to deliver the goods.

Sharks have to match the Penguins in speed, power play, hustle and hand-eye coordination and then have something left over to win.

And the only way they can do that is to win at least one game in Pittsburgh as they open the series.

It will be tough but it can be done. The Sharks flounder so badly at times that a fan has difficulty believing it is a team that contains world-class players. But when they play to their strength and to their natural abilities as a cohesive team, no one can stop them. When Martin Jones, the Sharks goalie, is in his groove, the puck stays put.

But a Penguins fan can make the same points and conclude that Pittsburgh will win the Cup for the fourth time in its Lemieux-laden history.

So what does it all come down to? 

Surely the thunderous win by the Golden State Warriors against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 'Win-or-Die' Game 6 in Oklahoma City on May 28 - a win for the ages mostly due to the impossible heroics of splash brothers Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry - will be hugely motivational and inspiring.

But in the final analysis it will come down to one advantage in which the Sharks are peerless in the NHL this season.

Facial hair.

Ultimately, it is the team with the most facial hair that will hoist the Stanley Cup in June, 2016. 

And that will be the hirsute San Jose Sharks.