November 25, 2013

Nine years?

Isn't it sad that on the 9th anniversary of this blog, I'm content posting content I wrote years ago?

I had some good material prepared for the third part of the I.LEAD review.  I wish I finished that while it was still fresh.  Sigh.

High Hopes

I wrote this editorial back in August 2005.  I'm reposting it because I like the helium metaphor here.

There was a time, not too long ago, when many of us were indifferent to current events and had little interest in world politics and policy. One dreadful Tuesday morning, all of this changed. All the days to come preceding that Tuesday would bear changed that no one could ignore. Battle lines were being drawn, and many of us reluctantly took sides. This month, the lines became more pronounced when the London transit system was attacked twice.
The Muslim response was as it has always been: several organizations issued statements condemning the bombing. In theory, the unity of the Muslim ummah in condemning the attacks should be a sign of hope. In reality, the condemnations have become predictable and mundane. Unfortunately, whatever hope and optimism that emerges from the Muslim response tends to fizzle and become irrelevant the next time the Muslim community comes under attack.
The difficulty is that today we are inflating our hopes with helium; they rise only until the surrounding environment changes, at which point they burst and crash to the ground. As the pressure increases, our optimism wanes and ignorance and prejudice prevail. Outwardly, we have not done enough to make generalizations about the Muslim community seem irrational and baseless.
That will only change when we take it upon ourselves to become true ambassadors of the deen. Today, we are “that Muslim guy in the corner office”, or “that group of Muslims that usually sits at the back.” In truth, we are supposed to be the representatives of the Quran and Sunnah, and Allah has put us where we are for a reason. If we uphold the sunnah truthfully, then any attacks against Islam can never hold water.
All this, of course, is easier said than done. It comes in a hadith that “the believer who mixes with people and endures any harm that they cause him has a greater reward than that believer who does not mix with people, and does not endure the harm they cause him.” Hence, when faced with these difficulties, we should take solace in the fact that they are not going unrewarded.  Ultimately, hope for our community and our future will be born on the backs of those who will always push on in the face of adversity.
"Inflating our hopes with helium".  That was a good line.

March 20, 2013

I.LEAD Part Two: Play to your Strengths

This is why I'm writing again.

Every person has been made different, with different skills and talents.  Not everyone is going to be a scholar, and not everyone is going to be a doctor.  It is a blessing of humanity that we're not all wired the same way, otherwise the world would struggle with imbalance even moreso than it already is.

At the I.LEAD conference, not every speaker was a scholar.  Some speakers were not even all that eloquent.  But eloquence isn't necessary for delivering a message, really; it is more a function of passion and conviction.  And in my case, it was the ineloquence of a full-on rant that woke me up.

That rant would be the speech delivered by an author of childrens' books, who bluntly expressed her opinions on parenting, societal and peer pressure, and mosque administration (more on that later) without holding anything back.  She was animated, at times crass, but above all, convincing in her delivery.  She clearly expressed her opinions, and spoke audaciously about issues that we would normally keep silent about.  And she found her place in the world as a storyteller, her writings as genuine as her speech.

For a few years, I was misplaced as an alternate khateeb at my then-local musallah.  This also happened to be during a period in which I was writing fairly regularly here on this blog as well as the local Muslim newspaper.  While I tried preparing every time for my khutbah, more often than not my speech ended up being more related to something I had blogged about earlier that week.  Whatever research and preparation I did, whatever great speech I listened to and wanted to repeat, I was never able to express very well.  But whatever I had written came out naturally in speech as I stood before the small congregation.

Writing, then, was the better fit for me; I accept now that I wasn't very good at the research or the attempted emulation of speakers I've enjoyed listening to.  And even after years of inactivity, writing remains as the most productive creative outlet at my disposal.  Hence, the best way for me to get personal benefit out of the I.LEAD conference would be to put it down on paper, so to speak.

This was the second major theme I gleaned from the days' events.  Too often, we miscast members of our communities into roles that are not suited for them.  We scoff at the non-traditional ideas that come from our youth, and relegate them instead to mundane tasks.  We raise our children to be doctors and engineers when their real talents have not even been discovered yet.  And we are disappointed when our expectations are unmet, without even considering whether those expectations were at all reasonable.  We fail to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in ourselves and our communities, and then wonder why things aren't moving  forward.  No matter how much we smash away, the square peg won't fit into the round hole.

Everyone has their talent, their skill, their one thing they can do better than anyone else.  And as a society, each individual has a role to play.  But our narrow views on family status and community responsibility blind us from those hidden talents.  We lose sight of what we can become, and assign ourselves to roles we don't fit.  And once anyone starts down that road, struggling down a path that they're not suited for, confidence breaks down and we fall into dejection and depression.  So much potential wasted, and so many hearts broken.

As a parent, this is my lesson: encourage my daughter in whatever productive pursuits she finds herself in.  Find ways to channel her talents into positive contributions to society.  This can't be forced, she has to discover herself what those talents are.  The responsibility of the parent is to provide some guidance, but let the child show what she can really do on her own.

Parenting was a common theme throughout the conference, as youth engagement begins first at the home.  The four A's, as articulated by Dr. Yassir Fazaga: affection, attention, acceptance, and appreciation.  Love and play with your children, and give them the right attention; too often, we let cartoons and internet raise our children, and then wonder why we don't recognize them later.  Accept who they are; it may not be what we anticipated, but it is what Allah chose for them, and in that there is surely some wisdom.  Appreciate what they do; if we learned to look past our own biases, we would be amazed at the talents Allah has placed in our children and youth.

As an individual, I need to do more with what Allah has given me.  We all do, with whatever gifts we have been given.  I think I know now what works for me, but this is really a journey of constant discovery, and my role today may be different than what is planned for me tomorrow.

Once we know our own strengths, it becomes that much easier to individually contribute.  But bringing that recognition from the personal level to the community level is extraordinarily difficult.  The mosque should be the hub for that community growth, but rarely is nowadays.  What I learned from I.LEAD about the rise and ruin of the mosque will be the topic of the next post.

March 18, 2013

I.LEAD Part One: Identity

I'm not generally a "conference" guy as I've written before, but I acknowledge that they have a place and a purpose, and that they do have the ability to change lives.  This isn't even an exaggeration; I'm sure most readers know at least one person whose life was deeply changed by the various Islamic conferences that take place around North America.  While I rarely found them personally beneficial, they can certainly be a means of promoting the greater good.

Nothing of this magnitude had been attempted in Ottawa before, at least to my knowledge.  This was not for lack of interest or enthusiasm; the local community has grown considerably and is blessed with a number of Islamic programs and organizations.  It was not for lack of unity either; recent years have seen the various Islamic organizations in the city come together in ways that seemed impossible a decade ago.  In fact, it may have only been for lack of physical space - it was only within the last couple of years that Ottawa had the facilities to host something of this scale.

In short, this was the right time for the city to take this on, and that must have become apparent to the early organizers.  Thus began fourteen months of effort to make the vision a reality, through the coordination of hundreds of selfless volunteers.  I hadn't even heard about the event until a few months ago, but the hype grew considerably in the final weeks to the tune of nearly 3,000 in attendance this past Saturday.

The title "I.LEAD" stood for "Islam: Learn, Engage, Achieve, Develop", with the official theme as "YES: Youth Engagement and Support".  I don't intend on repeating exactly what was said during the various lectures, but rather to comment on what I personally learned and understood.  So in the Irrelevant Opinions version of the days events, I extracted three separate themes, the first of which is "Identity".  I'll address this here, and insha-Allah the next two in separate posts.

The concept of Muslim Identity in the West is something that has always interested me.  One of the lectures was entitled "Can I be both Muslim & Canadian?", which I thought could have been an eight second speech: "Assalamu'alaykum.  Yes, you can.  Thank you."

But of course, it is not that simple, and this question is considerably more difficult for others than it has been for me.  Many people feel they have to choose between conformity or cultural isolation, resigning themselves to the belief that one can't have the best of both worlds.  Dr. Jamal Badawi addressed some of the obvious challenges, speaking of terrorism and how the media portrays Muslims.  It is an unfortunate reality that many are turned away from religion because of the negative media portrayals, but Dr. Badawi encouraged others to build the confidence to transcend those portrayals and challenge the stereotypes.  Many of the speakers and volunteers were the product of Dr. Badawi's da'wah efforts, a testament to the resonance of his message.

Others such as Dr. Yacoub Mahi spoke more about the personal choices one has to make to identify oneself, through social, intellectual, and spiritual frames.  Leaving aside how others may view a Muslim Canadian, how should one view oneself? For each frame of reference, he provided a structure for building closeness to Allah, and how one can bring value and honour into ones identity through this nearness.  On the other hand, he argued, one devalues himself - socially, intellectually and spiritually - when they seek recognition from the ghairullah.  This personal approach spoke more directly to me, as I've never been one to care for the media  portrayals anyway.

Perhaps nothing is more central to ones identity than the leanings of ones' heart, and this is what Shaykh Riad Saloojee focused on.  The heart is not bound by the geographic constraints of national citizenship, and thus can be in any state in any place.  A heart that yearns for nearness to Allah is a pure heart, whether it be residing in Canada or Madinah, and one that yearns for the world will be eternally unsatisfied wherever it exists.  Thus, it should never be a matter of deciding between being Canadian or being Muslim; it is only a matter of deciding between a heart that seeks purity or one that succumbs to corruption.  Spiritual purity and corruption are not products of the country we live in, but are rather products of our aspirations.

My appreciation of this conference was driven largely by the diversity of viewpoints on topics such as this.  It was not a conference that promoted a specific way of thinking, the audience was free to interpret it however they liked as I am doing now.  Some may argue that this was a very "soft" approach, avoiding the controversial topics that keep Muslim hearts racing.  No matter; controversy is overrated, and an inclusive approach is a better way to capture the hearts and minds of large gatherings like this.

Ultimately, discussions of identity are very personal, and thus the debates and arguments are largely internal.  This is perhaps why this topic is often neglected; introspection doesn't get people excited.  But ultimately, if one wants to change a society, one needs to change oneself.  And to change oneself, one must know oneself.

Once we get past the internal struggle, the external struggles follow.  The next two themes fall in the latter category.  Stay tuned.

March 14, 2013

Like Flies on the Windshield

This poor, neglected blog is being peppered with spam comments.  Every time I get an e-mail notifying me of a new comment, I get a little excited that perhaps there are still people stopping by, and that perhaps I should write again.  Instead, I'm provided a link where I can apparently buy cheap pharmaceuticals.  No thanks.

The internet as a whole is becoming boring, everyone repeating the same jokes or arguing over the same things.  It doesn't matter if you've super-imposed your unfunny joke on top of a picture we've all seen a thousand times, there is still nothing amusing about it.  It pains me to see how incredibly popular this is; it is a slap in the face of anyone who has struggled to find an audience on the grounds of trying to be original.  Creativity is dead.

When blogging was still popular, the internet was a much more interesting place; regular people had the freedom and latitude to write whatever they wished, and the loose social networks that built around them were vibrant and fun.  I miss a lot of that.  Today, social networking is being shoved down our throats but only because a detailed "social graph" is a valuable marketing tool; there is nothing natural about the friend suggestions that pop up, and I don't believe people start actual friendships on that basis.

Learning today that Google Reader is shutting down is also disappointing.  I'm sure that the handful of real people who comment on this post will have found it from their old RSS feeds, just as I have found the occasional blips of content on blogs I used to enjoy in the past.  The technology was there to provide "really simple syndication" - to allow anyone to develop their own content and publish it in a way accessible to the masses.  The emphasis today is no longer on publishing, but on sharing.  140 characters at a time, leave the actual content to the media.  RSS is now a forgotten technology, and thus the unique content it exposed will also fade away in time.

The internet is becoming boring, repetitive, and predictable.  Like the decline of television, all over again.