Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Republish: How St. Valentine Led Me to Islam

[Saylor's note: Originally distributed February 14, 2008.]

How St. Valentine Led Me to Islam
By Corey Saylor

Twenty years ago today I gave a girl a Valentine's Day card. Her name was misspelled. We were high school seniors.

I was a mere month out of drug rehab, where I was placed due to a daily concoction of marijuana, alcohol, LSD, PCP and other chemicals.

During the previous four years, I had developed a bad habit of breaking into cars and generally taking other people's things. A former girlfriend had carved my initials into her wrist with a razor blade and then cut the veins. She lived. On more than one occasion I had woken covered in my own blood, urine and vomit with no clue where I was or what had led me there.

The girl, who I had known since the tenth grade but not really interacted with, had her own history. She was from Afghanistan. She was in Kabul, the capitol city, when the Soviets invaded. She went to school one day to find a whole new set of teachers, who idolized communism. She threw rocks at occupiers and had assault weapons pointed her way. Her core memory of her family's escape from the war is looking at her longtime nanny running after their car begging for a chance to say goodbye. For security, her parents had told no one of their plan.

She responded to my card with a book on Islam, her faith. I tossed it aside with a comment about religion being for weak people.

When I later read the book I found it appealing. Islam's approach to life, essentially do your daily prayers then go live your life and try to make the world brighter was pragmatic and simple.

I embraced Islam two years later.

I went alone to her parents to ask their permission to marry her. During the dinner- an intimidating setting of her mother, father and me-I was served lasagna (not expected Muslim world dish) with superheated cheese in the center. I managed not to spit it out as it inflicted second degree burns on the inside of my mouth.

My culinary heroics worked and I received their blessing.

We had a religious marriage ceremony while we were still in our teens. Shortly after the ceremony, her father had me in their backyard digging a ditch with a pickax in the cold. He was illustrating the consequences of anything less than my best when it came to his daughter.

My wife’s first encounter with my world involved meeting a friend of mine whose father had just been angrily ramming this friends head into the family ceiling. The stream of cursing was impressive. The idea of a father inflicting that kind of abuse on a child was totally alien to my wife. It was common among my friends.

One of my first encounters with her world was at a dinner party in her parent’s home. Men and women were in separate rooms. I saw the men eating while my mother-in-law and a couple other women cooked. I drew my own conclusions and vocally refused to eat until the women did. I was taken aside and made to understand that the women had already eaten.

Giving her that card has opened me up to a number of such assumption changing encounters.

I have been told go back to your country, on the assumption that any Muslim must be a foreigner. I have been complemented on my excellent English, following the same assumption. My life has been threatened, on the assumption that as a Muslim I must have had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks.

I have been identified for extra security screening because of who I was traveling with, on the assumption that someone who looks foreign is more likely to be a threat than white Americans such as Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bombing), Terry Nichols (Oklahoma City bombing) or Eric Rudolf (Olympic Park and abortion clinic bomber).

Embracing Islam probably saved my life; I had a rather wide range of unreasonably self-destructive behaviors that faded under the faiths message of respect for life. Certainly it made me a better citizen, if you do not count speeding, I am law-abiding. I no longer steal. I no longer abuse people. I do work I believe serves the public good.

That is not the image of the Muslim convert you get on television these days.

Today, I will give my wife the exact card I gave her twenty years ago, misspelled name and all. This time, I am Muslim and not asking her to be my Valentine. I am expressing my appreciation that in response to that very card she helped me to a faith that gave me back my life.

Republish: Eight Points for Political Empowerment of American Muslims

[Saylor's note: Originally distributed in January 2008.]

Eight Points for Political Empowerment of American Muslims
"Peace hath her victories No less renown'd than war."- John Milton
By Corey Saylor

The model of advocacy used by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) connects the vigilance and expertise of paid professionals with the energy of a volunteer community. Thanks to God Almighty, CAIR's method of unified action has a record of results.

"... (T)he Council on American-Islamic Relations has emerged as a vigilant force against discrimination against Muslims."
(Source: East Valley Tribune, 1/19/2008)

"It was overwhelming, their support."
-Host Gator Co. President Brent Oxley after CAIR supporters "swamped" the web host with "literally thousands" of complaints about Right Wing Howler, a blog whose author expressed support for the sentiment "...we need to kill all Muslim kids. Starting now." The web site was shut down.
(Source: St. Petersburg Times, 12/20/2006)

"Already fighting on behalf of American Muslims is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, as it is commonly known. The organization...has developed a reputation for being something of a pit bull in protecting the civil rights of Muslims."
(Source: The Indianapolis Star, 9/04/2005)

This advocacy model encourages Muslims to use the system to stand for their rights, values and to inject their voice into our national political dialogue.

Point 1: Hold Fast to Your Faith
Do not compromise your ideals. Hold fast to your values. Good civic works involves compromise, but know and adhere to your moral and ethical "red lines."

Point 2: Prove that You Can do the "Heavy Lifting"
Each local community should prove to its neighbors that it can turn out Muslims to interfaith banquets, political rallies on issues of mutual concern and on Election Day. This is action. People respect it.

Point 3: Form More PACs, Connect these PACS
A Political Action Committee (PAC) is a group organized to elect or defeat public officials or to oppose legislation or policy. America's Muslims will benefit from forming more PACs that can participate in local and national elections. While these PACs should have the independence to act as they choose, a coordinating body that can help connect the organizations to share best practices and, when wanted, assist in paralleling work on issues of national concern will be empowering.

Point 4: Insist That Elected Officials Do More Than Simply Show Up
Friendships are welcome and beneficial. However, your bottom line with elected officials must be a track record of action - votes, hearings, public statements - in support of your issues. Substantive support for your issues is more important than face time, number of visits to a mosque or something done a long time ago. Civic work is about making things better for you and your neighbors. This can range from negotiating a less expensive trash collection contract to opposing warrantless eavesdropping. If everyone is smiling at the meetings, but the trash still sits uncollected on the corner, you have not achieved your purpose.

Point 5: Connect with a National Muslim Organization of Your Choice; Support Local and National Muslim Public Affairs Organizations Financially
Our growing institutions are understaffed. Consider giving them more financial support. Your contributions should be tied to the organization providing you with professional service, results and incorporating you into a unified body of activists.

Point 6: Don't Expect an Immediate Place at the Table; Don't Accept a Permanent Seat Away From it
When you are new it is perfectly reasonable for others to "sound you out." They will see if you deliver on promises. They will frequently hold back to ensure that partnering with you will generally reflect well on them and help advance the issues they advocate. However, once you have accommodated this then you have the right to be part of the policy making process.

Point 7: Pursue a Career in Public Affairs
Our community needs more journalists, people working on Capitol Hill, in state government or any number of other places of civic service. Try volunteering for a political campaign.

Point 8: Seek Mentors
Japanese Americans have an experience that in many ways directly parallels ours: they were blamed for an attack on this nation. The civil rights movement is immensely important to understand effective advocacy and draw inspiration. The list is endless. Seek to learn from those who have succeeded already; it cuts the learning curve immensely.

Republish: Time for a Home Front Surge?

[Saylor's note: Originally distributed prior to the 2008 Presidential election's primaries.]

Time for a Home Front Surge?
An American Muslim asks presidential candidates: How will you wield your greatest asset, the American people, in our conflict against extremism?

By Corey Saylor

In 1941 Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mind behind the Pearl Harbor surprise attack, was asked about the course of a possible Japan-U.S. conflict. He replied: "I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years."

Responding to Japan's Pearl Harbor attack President Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous "date which will live in infamy" speech the day after the attack, said, "No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory."

In August, 1996, Osama bin Laden showed considerably less respect when outlining his thoughts for an Al-Qaeda-U.S. conflict. Referring to a 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, he said: ".you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you. Clinton appeared in front of the whole world threatening and promising revenge, but these threats were merely a preparation for withdrawal."

Bin Laden followed his taunts with attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole and, another date which will live in infamy, September 11.

Responding to the 9/11 attack President George Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, said to the nation, "Americans are asking, 'What is expected of us?' I ask you to live your lives and hug your children."

This response is not working, this is not the second or third year-it is the sixth. Bin Laden still runs wild. The righteous might of the American people was channeled into "living your lives."

Bush's recommendation unfairly places the burden of winning the struggle against extremism primarily on the shoulders of our military and their families. Finding the struggle less of a burden are several corporations which profit greatly from armed conflict.

So here is a simple, yet unaddressed question to those who wish to lead us: what will you do to better tap the time, treasure and talent of your greatest asset in the war against extremism? Is it time for a home front surge?

Thinking About Gaza

[Saylor’s note: I have asserted many times my belief that America playing a lead, balanced role in solving the Israel-Palestine conflict is vital to our national security. It is far to easy for Al-Qaeda and other anti-American forces to point at the Enormous suffering of average Palestinians and then try to exploit the very natural human response from any person of conscience to their own nefarious ends. Read the below opinion and decide for yourself if the situation in Gaza helps or hurts America’s cause.]

Gaza's shocking devastation
A Canadian Jew's visit to the territory left him ashamed by what he saw
By Harry Shannon, Special to the Hamilton Spectator
Aug 14, 2008

I had expected conditions in Gaza to be bad, but I was still shocked at the devastation when I went there in July.

Last month my companion and I entered Gaza at the Erez crossing through a modern building reminiscent of an airport terminal. After questioning by the Israeli border police, we left the building and had a kilometre walk to pick up transportation.

It was as if we had travelled to another planet. The sandy track is surrounded by the blown-up remnants of Gaza's former industrial district. Rubble stretching for hundreds of metres lines the route.

Even on the main road through Gaza, driving is a slalom course around potholes. The air reeks of burnt oil and stale food from exhaust fumes (cars rely on used cooking oil for fuel.)

There are not many cars on the road, anyway. Donkey carts are common.
Despite the 35 C temperatures, drivers don't use air conditioning in cars so they can save fuel.

Every so often, the smell of sewage fills the air. Lack of treatment facilities means that much of it is dumped raw into the Mediterranean.

We went first to a children's hospital on the edge of Gaza City. The hospital director and doctors described the conditions. Of 100 beds, 40 were occupied by children with bacterial meningitis, an extremely serious disease.

There's a shortage of basic medicines and supplies, even simple things such as alcohol swabs.

The hospital has three ventilators; only one is working. Israel won't let in spare parts for the others.

The working machine is for a "hopeless case" who can't be taken off. Meanwhile, patients who could benefit have no working machine.

There are many cases of malnutrition -- for example, children nearly a year old weighing 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds). Their families can't afford the special formula they need to improve.

Because of lack of equipment and qualified personnel, there is no radiotherapy and limited chemotherapy in Gaza.

Treatment for many conditions can only be obtained in Israel. Physicians for Human Rights -- Israel reports that, despite the ceasefire in the last few weeks, emergency medical cases are still refused entry into Israel, where they could have life-saving treatment. PHR has documented many cases of people dying before they are treated.

Indeed the proportion of patients denied exit from Gaza for treatment has increased since last year.

PHR will soon release a report on "medical extortion." Some sick Palestinians are interrogated at the Erez crossing and asked to become informants or collaborators as a condition of permission to leave Gaza for medical treatment.

After leaving the hospital, we travelled to the southern end of Gaza. We stopped at the Rafah crossing, the border with Egypt. It was closed, as it is most of the time.

A cluster of people were waiting, hoping against hope that they would be allowed to cross. Egypt is under pressure from both Israel and the U.S. not to open the border, and in any event, they do not want large numbers of refugees to flood in.

We drove into the city of Rafah, which has come under bombardment by the Israeli military. A huge number of buildings have been severely damaged or completely destroyed.

For street after street, barely any building is untouched. Makeshift shacks of corrugated metal and cloth sheets are now homes for those who have lost their housing.

We returned north along the coast road. The beauty of the sea view contrasted sharply with the rest of what we had seen.

After passing the Ash-Shati refugee camp, we went by modern hotels. They wait in vain for customers. The Gazan economy, devastated by Israel's border controls, continues to languish.

My sister and her husband are Orthodox Jews living near Tel Aviv. They are outraged at Israel's behaviour, especially the restrictions on sick patients needing to leave Gaza. My brother-in-law, a former chair of family medicine at Tel Aviv University and a specialist in medical ethics, has complained publicly about this.

As a Jew, I, too, am ashamed and disgusted at what is happening. Yes, Israel needs security. But what is happening goes far beyond security needs.
Israel's actions amount to collective punishment, forbidden under international law.

I am ashamed that the Harper government has tilted toward unconditional support for Israel against the Palestinians.

The current policy is unconscionable, as anyone who visits Gaza can see only too well.

Harry Shannon is a professor of clinical epidemiology and bio- statistics at McMaster University, and a member of Independent Jewish Voices. He lives in Dundas.


As an addition, here is an excerpt from an article written by my former colleague, Arsalan Iftikhar. It matches my own sense of the current state of affairs in Gaza:

I have condemned the knuckleheads of Hamas for targeting innocent civilians and
not laying down their arms (a la The Irish Republican Army) to highlight the
moral impurity of Israel's occupation. Instead, their own moral impurity is transparent as we sadly watch these knuckleheads and the crooks of Fatah resorting to bloody fratricide where each throw another off high-rise buildings causing bloody mayhem on the streets of Gaza, whilst their poor women and children go hungry.

Furthermore, targeting a 9 year-old child in a Sbarro pizzeria is always wrong, period. Two wrongs do not make a right.

I have condemned the knuckleheads of Israel's government. Like our own American right-wing, the Likudnik extremists have completely monopolized the sociopolitical discourse from the majority of peace-loving Israelis. Even American conservative grand-daddy Robert Novak
recently echoed Nelson Mandela's sentiment by calling the situation 'worse than apartheid' in
The Washington Post. I doubt that anyone would dare call Robert Novak an 'Anti-Semite' or that Nelson Mandela lacks moral authority to designate anything as 'apartheid'; especially since his 27-year imprisonment effectively introduced the term to our human collective.