Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ramadan in a World Gone Crazy

You can also read the article here.

Evergreen Islamic Center, San Jose, CA

Today, Saturday, May 27, 2017, is the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam. For Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere, the 30-day period is marked by anywhere from 14 to 16 hours of fasting, during which the throat gets parched and the stomach complains as adherents seek to strengthen their acquaintance with the Divine. 

Because the Islamic calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is based on lunar months, Ramadan advances through the seasons by about 11 days every year. So while Muslims in places like Australia will fast several hours less than us, we will switch times in years to come.

For the more than 3 million Muslims in America, Ramadan this year will be different in one particular way: We will be thinking more deeply about the fate of our country and its direction.

During the presidential campaign, then candidate Trump made no bones about maligning Islam and Muslims. “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims,” he said at a 2015 town hall in New Hampshire. “I think Islam hates us,” he said at another time to the media.

He repeatedly promised to close mosques and create a Muslim registry in America if elected. Within a week of becoming president, he signed an executive order blocking Syrian refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, orders that, for now, remain blocked by the judiciary.

Given the history of his inflammatory rhetoric, I was curious to hear what Trump would say in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the first stop of an overseas tour that also took the president to Israel and the Vatican.

In a speech to more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations and their leaders, Trump asked Muslims to “purge the foot soldiers of evil” from their societies. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he observed. “This is a battle between Good and Evil … We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values.”

This was in the spirit of Ramadan, I thought. I nodded in agreement (because that’s what Muslims like me have been saying all along).

But, then, action speaks louder than words! This is what Trump said in a meeting with the Emir of Qatar before the speech: "One of the things we will discuss is the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment because nobody makes it like the United States."

During his stay, Saudi Arabia reportedly signed an agreement to buy “beautiful” American arms worth $110 billion, arms that is likely go toward the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has yielded untold suffering and allegations of potential war crimes that could ensnare the United States alongside Riyadh. It also threatens to deepen the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunni and Shia, making the Middle East even more volatile.

Bu violence has already erupted. A British Muslim of Libyan descent blew himself up with the sole intention of killing children at a concert in Manchester, killing 22 people, including an eight-year-old. In Egypt, extremist Muslim militants forced Coptic Christian pilgrims from a caravan of buses and killed 28. And in Portland, Oregon, a few hours before Ramadan was to commence, a white supremacist ranting against two Muslim women wearing Hijab on a public bus attacked three good Samaritans who came to their defense, and killed two of them.

It doesn’t look good! The sanctity of Ramadan, for Muslims a month of reflection, charity, restraint, self-discipline and compassion, is threatened by extremists everywhere.

Muslims are required to abstain not only from food and drink in this month but also from such vices as anger, impatience, or arrogance. The food part is relatively easy; it is the cleansing of the heart that is harder, particularly in these troubled times.

And while there is no estimate of what percentage of Muslim adults fasts - because fasting is considered a personal pledge between a believer and God – what is undeniable is that mosque attendance goes up dramatically during Ramadan, its social aspect most evident at ‘Iftar’ (Arabic for ‘breaking the fast’) just after sunset.

At San Jose’s Evergreen Islamic Center, we invite neighbors, co-workers, local politicians, police officers and anyone curious about our faith, to our weekend Iftars. Polls show that most Americans who harbor negative opinions about Muslims have never met one. If people can break bread together, we expect hate and enmity to recede. And it indeed does, based on what we have experienced, despite the occasional hate mail and taunts of “go back home.”

Many of the employers I have encountered, moreover, are aware of the demands Ramadan makes on believers and are sensitive to the needs of their Muslim employees. By the time we complete the special nightly prayers of Ramadan called ‘Taraweeh’, for instance, it is often past midnight. That means that many of us have to do with no more than 4-5 hours of sleep per night during workdays. If you find your Muslim colleagues sleepy or slow during working hours in Ramadan, you will perhaps know why.

Indeed, I have found nothing but empathy from colleagues and co-workers. When I worked in the tech industry, my co-workers avoided eating in my presence and gave me space to offer my afternoon prayers. It’s the same in the college where I now teach, where students sometimes ask me to slow down and conserve my energy while I am trying to explain a difficult concept in, say, algebra.

Ramadan is the believer’s gateway to the ineffable and the transcendent, when Muslims make an effort to pay more attention to the little things around us (which often turn out to be the big things), smile from the heart at friends and strangers, make more charitable donations.

So I find myself focusing this year on Ramadan’s message of hope, its rejection of despair, and the generosity of the average American. What keeps me awake is knowing where violence may erupt and who will fall victim to the nihilism of psychopaths. We will pray and be alert, to the extent that it is possible, so that no one who claims to be a Muslim can give Ramadan a black eye by engaging in violence and killing innocents.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

DACA Students Trapped Between Fear and Anger

His parents brought Lopez from Mexico to the U.S. in 2007 when he was 15 years old. They had no immigration papers but managed to find their way to Santa Barbara. “My parents worked as hired laborers but we still had a fairly good life,” said Lopez, currently a student in San Jose who hopes to graduate this Spring with double majors in International Business Administration and Finance and transfer to San Francisco State U in Fall. “But now with Trump as president, everything is up in the air. I cannot walk down the street without looking back to see if ICE agents are about to grab me. They know where I live, where I work.”

How does ICE knows that?

“I am a DACA student (note: DACA stands for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” 
a program started by President Obama in 2012 that protects some undocumented youths from deportation)
 so I can study and work without any problem. But I have to renew my registration every 2 years. That’s when I have to give them my address, where I study and work. They have me in their database.”

But if you are legally permitted to study and work, why the stress?

“The fear is always there. I read stories of ICE agents picking up undocumented Mexicans. With Trump in power these guys have become aggressive. My parents returned to Mexico several years ago. I thought of going back myself but they told me not to because life has become very violent in their village deep in Southern Mexico. They said I wouldn’t last a day.”

I was talking with several DACA students in San Jose whose lives had taken a turn for the worse ever since president Trump took office.

“It’s the uncertainty and the stress and the fear that’s killing me,” said Maria, who will be graduating in a year and hopes to become a dentist. “I come from a mixed family. I have two sisters who were born here, so they are citizens. But my parents are undocumented. I am undocumented. I don’t know what will happen if my parents are deported. Who will look after my little sisters? My family can be torn apart any minute.”

Have you contacted city officials, the mayor’s office?

“Yes, many of us did. We prepared a list of questions like ‘How is San Jose a sanctuary city? What does it mean? What kind of assistance can we get in these safe places? How can you ensure that DACA students can safely exit and return to USA in case of emergencies? If a parent is detained, can the city do anything for the children?’ and so on. The Mayor’s office was friendly and supportive but the best they can do now is to fund some existing non-profits like SIREN and PACT to help us. It will take too long for the city to create its own agency to help us.”

What about churches and synagogues?

“We have heard that many churches and synagogues in the Bay Area have become sanctuaries but we haven’t contacted them yet,” said Valdez, who will graduate next summer and has applied to several medical schools. “Right now we are being cautious. Even though we are DACA, our status can be revoked anytime for any ridiculous reason. It has happened to people I know. The fear is constant. But I will tell you something, I am fed up with fear. I don’t believe in hiding. Why should I have to hide or act afraid? I work hard. I contribute to America like other Americans. I am a good person. The way Trump talks, it’s as if any Mexican or American of Mexican background is a criminal.”

So how do we move forward?

“There is a lack of empathy in this country,” said Valdez. “Most Americans who voted for Trump in the Midwest don’t care about immigration or deportation or the Muslim ban. They want good jobs, good salary, good vacation. They want good healthcare. In fact, it’s only healthcare that will either make it or break it for them with Trump. If Trump fails them in healthcare, they will go against him.  In the meantime, we need to talk with them with respect, with empathy. But they need to talk us too! They complain about jobs Mexicans and others are taking away but they don’t want the dirty jobs we do and our parents do. They don’t want to work in restaurants, in the fields, as cleaners, as laborers. There’s a gap in communication. We need to fill that gap. We need to walk in their shoes and they need to walk in ours. How can we know one another if there’s no empathy?”

Have you faced discrimination at work or when applying for jobs?

“We can’t apply for any federal job, like the post office or the IRS,” said Rivera, who has been with a high-tech company for a year in the marketing department. “Our undocumented status doesn’t allow us. Even in the private sector, we face too much hassle from some managers. If they know we are undocumented, there’s immediately a bias. It’s not true for all managers but definitely true for some. It’s difficult to explain how we know bias. We just know it in our guts. Not all hiring managers are like that. I have a great manager now and I am happy. But it’s a fact, my manager cannot protect me from ICE.”

Do you think America will come out stronger as a nation once this current dark period passes?

Lucia isn’t sure.

“I am not that optimistic. Look at American history. There was slavery, segregation, civil rights movement and all that but racism flourishes, more under Trump than any time in my memory. There were Internment camps. I heard some people openly talking of Muslim registry. But we are told in history books that these are only little bumps, nothing to worry about. We hide them under the rug and say, ‘America, Not Guilty!’ It may look like Trump is losing but unless we change and come together, unless we put law above politics, he may be here for a long time.”

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

President Trump Must Step Down, Or Be Impeached

The firing of FBI director James Comey by president Trump on 9th May unleashed a cacophony of foul play claims redolent of the Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign in 1974, almost 19 months after he was sworn in to his second term. The combination of possible obstruction of justice, hidden tapes and veiled threats in the Comey firing makes the comparison to Watergate compelling.

But all that has been overtaken by what has happened within a week of Comey’s firing. We learned from Washington Post on 15th May that Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office a day after he let Comey go. 

Then, on 16th May (today), New York Times reported that during their February 14th meeting at the White House, Trump asked Comey to drop the Michael Flynn inquiry about possible Russian collusion in the presidential election last year. “He is a good guy,” Trump said of Flynn. "I hope you can let this go."

The president was alone with the FBI Director after he asked attorney General Sessions and VP Pence to leave the room.

John McCain, the senior Republican Senator from Arizona, said about the two latest bombshells: “Trump scandals are reaching Watergate size and scale.”

Talk of impeachment is in the air, along with the demand that Republican lawmakers show some spine and put country above party. America is at a crossroads because the 45th president, by all indications, has engaged in obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense. 

The moment of truth is here. There is no turning back.

A comparison with Watergate and the current Congress offers perspective.

In the 93rd Congress (1973-1975) during Nixon’s second term, Democrats held both the Houses, with 242 Democrats to 193 Republicans in Congress, and 56 Democrats to 44 Republicans in the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee consisted of 38 members, 21 Democrats to 17 Republicans. By law, a simple majority is required for each article of a resolution to pass, including impeachment.

Six Republican Congressmen switched sides to join all 21 Democrats in the judiciary committee to recommend that Nixon be impeached through a Senate trial. The article of impeachment was adopted 27 to 11 in that historic vote, although Nixon quit before suffering through the ignominy.

In the 115th Congress (2017-2018), the numbers have flipped. There are 238 Republicans to 193 Democrats (with 4 vacancies) in Congress and 52 Republicans to 46 Democrats, with 2 Independents, in the Senate. The current House Judiciary Committee comprises 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats.

What is the possibility that history will repeat itself in 2017 or 2018? 

The twin bombshells - Trump spilling secrets to the Russians and asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation - have changed the equation for the president. The combination of arrogance and ignorance, the 'damn care' attitude that has endeared him to his blind supporters, the impunity with which he flouts decency and the Rule of Law, has exceeded all bounds. The 'i' word is being sued more and more, and not just by Democrats like Maxine Waters of California, for whom the case for impeachment is clear as daylight.

Will the democrats have to wait until the midterm elections in 2018 to gain seats in the House to turn the tide? 

Not after the twin shockers. The ancient saying, “The wheels of justice grind slowly but exceedingly fine,” needs updating. When the damn breaks, there is nothing slow about it.

A national character test is upon us.

We like to believe that in America no one is above the law. To underscore our faith in that guiding principle, we add, “including the president of the United States.” It implies that if or when the moment of truth arrives, our lawmakers will put country before party.

Is this still true 241 years after the founding of our nation?

Consider what made some Republicans switch party allegiance during the Watergate hearings.

Caldwell Butler of Virginia explained it this way: “If we fail to impeach, we will have condoned and left unpunished a course of conduct totally inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the American people …”

Lawrence Hogan, from Maryland and a former FBI agent, reasoned thus: “Richard M. Nixon has, beyond a reasonable doubt, committed impeachable offenses in an extended and extensive conspiracy to obstruct justice … The evidence convinces me that my President has lied repeatedly, deceiving public officials and the American people. Instead of cooperating with prosecutors and investigators … he concealed and covered up evidence.”

But it was Peter Rodino, the Democratic New Jersey Congressman and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who summed it up best for the nation: “I have been guided by the principle that the law must deal fairly with every man. For me this is the oldest principle of democracy. It is this simple but great principle which enables man to live justly and in decency in a free society … Our judgment is not concerned with an individual but with a system of constitutional government … Let us leave the constitution as unimpaired for our children as our predecessors left it to us.”

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Unintended Consequences of Hate

You can also read the article here.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The pickup truck was following her. Dr. Sarah felt nervous but tried to convince herself it was just her imagination. He couldn’t possible know she was a Muslim, particularly since she was not wearing the optional hijab, the traditional Islamic head-cover to indicate modesty.

She pulled into the parking lot and got out of her car. The pickup slowed. As she crossed the street to get to her office, the driver, a middle-aged white man, rolled down the window and screamed at her: “Go back home!”

The heat of the man’s hate felt as if it were burning a hole in the back of her head. She ran to the safety of her hospital.

Dr. Sarah was born in Chicago to Muslim parents. After receiving a doctorate in psychology, she began working at a hospital in Silicon Valley in the pain management department as a psychologist, a job in which she has flourished for over a decade. When she reported the incident to her concerned supervisor, she advised her not to drive alone for a few weeks.

A week earlier, an engineer of Asian background, an American citizen, was confronted in the parking lot of a grocery store in San Jose by a driver who screamed: “Go back to where you came from.”

For many residents, the sprouting of bigotry in what is the heart of Silicon Valley, with a diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity rare in the world, is shocking.

“Before, I used to call my friends and relatives in India to ask if they were okay,” said Assemblyman Ash Kalra during a rally organized in response to the growing climate of fear following the election. “Now they call me to inquire if I am safe in Trump’s America!”

Trump has indeed loosened the shackles of bigotry among his supporters, emboldening them to threaten those who don’t look like them, and to hurl insults like, “Go back to where you came from!”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported harassment and threats targeting Muslim women and children in Minnesota, North Carolina, New York and California in just the past two weeks alone. 

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 hate incidents in the ten days after Trump’s win in November. The advocacy group South Asians Leading Together (SAALT) put out a report in January that documented 207 hate incidents targeting South Asians, Muslims and Middle Easterners in 2016. The report noted the climate resembled the months following the 9/11 attacks, and attributed the spike in hate to campaign rhetoric during the 2016 race.

Here in San Jose, police documented four cases
 of crimes targeting Muslims in 2016. There were no cases prior in the years going back to 2011. Experts say the numbers are misleading, and that because victims are often reluctant to come forward, due to cultural or linguistic barriers, or because they are scared, the figures could be higher. 

One of those cases involved the Evergreen Islamic Center, where a letter was received just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday that read, in part: “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.” The letter went on to make reference to Nazi Germany, saying Trump would “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”

Still, despite the rising tide of Islamophobia, something remarkable began to happen among members of the local Muslim community in the days and weeks following Trump’s win. Having learned in the aftermath of 9/11 that a culture of shame and silence only promoted the politics of fear, area Muslims instead started forging bonds with community residents at a grass-roots level.

Several members of Evergreen (myself included) joined Indivisible East San Jose
one of nearly 6,000 Indivisible Groups that sprang up across the nation as a response and resistance to Trump’s presidency.

Meeting once every month, members knock on doors in San Jose’s depressed areas, informing undocumented workers, for example, of their rights if ICE shows up and the availability of free legal help. A few families in dire straits have been escorted to sanctuaries in synagogues and churches. 

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Evergreen teamed up with local Christians and Jews as members of Abrahamic Alliance at a church to prepare meals for the homeless and serve them across town at City Team San Josean organization that helps people struggling with poverty, homelessness and addiction. For many of us, this was our first experience with a soup kitchen. We were shocked to find that in one of the most prosperous areas in the world, there were people for whom a decent meal and a bed to sleep on were luxuries often beyond reach. We realized that more than mosques, we needed to build more soup kitchens and shelters for abused women, including Muslim women.

As remarkable is the growing outreach and solidarity extended to area Muslims from other immigrant
 communities. There have been several marches staged to commemorate the Japanese internment and to draw connections between that dark period in U.S. history and its echo against Muslims in Trump’s time. Meetings were held with Internment survivors who spoke of the importance of resistance.

Then there are the acts of individual kindness.

“Just think about it,” said Peggy, who drove an hour from the city of Santa Cruz with several friends in a show of solidarity with Evergreen following the recent threats. “Would we have even met if it were not for Trump? No! This is the silver lining in the dark cloud that hangs over our nation now.”

For local Muslims, the bridges now being formed in the era of Trump are a case of serendipity, the unintended but cathartic consequences of hate.