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Friday, March 27, 2015

"I Want to End Hatred": Emmie, a Muslim-American Woman, Speaks

Woman in red by Zombiey
Scholarship demonstrates that identity is fluid. Identity as a Muslim, even as a jihadi, is no less fluid than any other. Anjem Choudary is currently the poster boy for Muslim extremism in England. Earlier in his life, he was "Andy," and he liked to drink beer and chase girls. Mosab Hassan Yousef is the son of a founder of Hamas. Missionaries converted Yousef to Christianity, and Shin Bet recruited him to spy for Israel. Hamza Yusuf, called "the West's most influential Islamic scholar," grew up as Mark Hanson, an American Christian. Nabeel Qureshi, a Christian minister and author, was raised as a devout Muslim, son of Pakistani immigrants. Evangelist David Wood, Qureshi's school friend, played a key role in his conversion.

In New Jersey, I recently saw a girl wearing a long black jilbab, that is, an ankle-length coat, and hijab, or head covering. At the same time, she was carrying a handbag emblazoned with an image of Betty Boop, the cleavage-baring, miniskirt-wearing cartoon apotheosis of flirty femininity.

I am Catholic and I a fan of Western Civilization. I believe in free speech, free inquiry, and freedom of conscience. I want these values to triumph primarily through dialogue, not violence. Living in Passaic County, home of America's second largest Muslim population, I understand the border Muslims straddle between warring worlds.

In this interview, readers will encounter Emmie, a young lady who in many respects is very much like many American Muslims I know. Emmie is a twenty-something writer. Her immigrant parents are Sunni Muslim. They are devout, pray five times daily, and performed a pilgrimage to Mecca. Emmie is currently dating Rob, a non-Muslim, American man.

Before our interview, I meticulously planned questions on Islamic doctrine. Emmie showed little interest in doctrinal questions. Emmie wanted to talk about food, love, family, fashion, and sex. During the course of our interview, Emmie sometimes identified as a Muslim, and sometimes not.

"When I say 'I'm Muslim,'" Emmie said. "I'm not the same Muslim as the hijabi walking down Main Street in Paterson. I'm not the villains that terrorize nations. I'm not the Muslim that I used to be. I'm Muslim because I come from the culture, but I'm not Muslim because I no longer believe in the ideology. Maybe I'm my own kind of Muslim. Maybe I'm not. I like to think of myself as just Emmie."

Emmie described her religious upbringing. "When I was a child, I asked my mom, 'What's sin? How do you define haram? Like, if I pick my nose, or not listen to tete (grandmother), is that haram? Haram and sin mean the same thing. Then there's halal." Mention of halal, the Arabic word for "permissible," took Emmie to her favorite subject, food. "We also use halal to talk about food. We will say, 'Can we go get some halal tonight in New York City? I'm really in the mood for halal.'"

I asked, "What did your mom tell you about sin?"

"'Number one, you know in your gut when something is bad. You know you feel good when you do something good. You feel good after you pick your nose, but you should use a tissue.'"

I asked Emmie if her mother's words struck her as true.

"No," Emmie said. "I know now it's complete bullshit. We are socialized. People accept religion unquestioningly. Because God says it is. We are taught religion just like we are taught racism, 'Oh, those people look a certain way.' I just don't want to be fed information any more. I'm done with learning by listening and by taking notes. I want to learn by doing. I'm ready to make my own mistakes."

"Religion is a double-edged sword," Emmie said. "It makes sense of what doesn't make sense. It answers big questions. Yes, we have science, but is it possible that a higher being made everything? Religion gives us hope, safety, security, and warmth. Religion assures us that there is life after death. Religion lets us look forward to heaven, or 'Jannah' – paradise in Arabic. It makes us not afraid. But that's what makes religion a weapon.

"Most Muslims, even those who claim to be religious, have not studied the Koran. I've looked at the Koran in English. I can't read Arabic too well. There are three types of Arabic, colloquial, which is what I speak, what most Arabic speakers speak, formal Arabic, which is spoken by news anchors, and Koran Arabic. They are so different. The Koran is so complex. There are people who have been studying it for years."

Emmie insists that Muslims should take a more text-critical view of the Koran. "When educated people read literature, we analyze it. I would like to ask Muslims, 'Do you really think there is a God and do you really think he would not want us to take his book with a grain of salt? Do you really think that when you read 'Let's make war blah blah blah and wreak havoc,' do you think that is acceptable?"

I asked Emmie why she is no longer sure she is a Muslim. She immediately began to talk, with great passion, about food.

Botanica San Lazaro: Students Respond to a Visit

My Shamans Witches and Magic class took a field trip to the Botanica San Lazaro in Clifton. I asked students to write their reactions. I found their responses so interesting I'm posting some excerpts here.

"I felt happy with all the resources they had. It was to the point where I started to cry when I went upstairs and found the yoga / Buddhist room. I know for sure that my friend and I with some other friends will come back again...I did not feel inferior for believing in those beliefs like what E. B. Tylor would say. I felt equal to every human who entered the store."

"Who knew that being in a small room can change a lot of things and change your perspective on life? Even though it was a small place, it was filled with many different beliefs, filled with items that are very powerful and have so many spiritual entities."

"I personally found the store to be a tad creepy because I hadn't been exposed to that environment before...this experience opened my mind in realizing that magic isn't weird. It's really no different than praying to a god."

"Sir James Frazier [sic] believed that magic, religion, and spirituality were the practices of barbarians, but I believe that the very existence of the botanica proves otherwise. People from all sorts of religions and all different walks of life go to the shop, your average Joe and quite possibly people like doctors and businessmen. The store welcomes these people and is a space where no one is judged for their beliefs. All that go to the Botanica are equal within its walls. "

"The field trip was not at all what I expected it to be. I imagined a place much darker, more like an evil place, but it was actually opposite: welcoming. [the owner] wasn't scary and didn't try to sell us anything but instead explained how the candles work for different people.

He explained you can't just buy a money candle and light it and expect money... your money might come from success instead of believing you'll just get it...although I really don't believe in magic it was an interesting shop of sacred things, candles, oils, and I learned interesting things. I really liked that no one that worked there tried to force their beliefs on me or force me to buy anything. I was able to sit back and learn. ... overall this was a unique experience that I will never forget and made this class feel  more real, like more than just a class."

"I was thoroughly impressed with the Botanica in Clifton. Its wide selection of books, ingredients, icons, and tools were all I could ask for. After some browsing, I began to ponder on Frazer's law of homeopathic and contagious magic and was able to apply this knowledge to classify objects...musical instruments such as a rattle make the same noise as the rain, the law of similarity became applicable and thus came to the conclusion that a rain dance with the rattle would invoke the skies to produce rain. There were also many components that fell into the category of contagious magic such as crystals, seed bracelets, and other objects that require touch in order to work.

The thought processes that conduct magical rituals, incantations and words are far more advanced than Sigmund Freud believes and writes in his work. It requires immense logic and critical thinking as well as pure human and natural power to even comprehend the principles of any sort of magic. The primitive people of which Freud does not know everything about had the strangest influence of spirits and Gods in order to create these laws and complex rites of the magical world. How could Freud truly understand people and principles that follow God(s) if he cannot fathom faith himself? ....the staff of the store ... provided the wisdom and positivity I needed for my own spiritual quests."

"The trip to the botanica has been one of the most interesting and eye-opening experiences I have had. It is incredible to see such a mix of cultures and beliefs together in one place. There is one thing, however, that stands out across all the different belief systems. That is the faith given to such things that we saw in the the candle won't just do it; it's all in the mind. It's omnipotence of thought. It is believed; therefore it is real.

The same thing happens with a stone that I bought. The stone represents strength and clarity ... Do I believe it? No. Do I think the man was right, that the spirits were calling and guiding me to buy it? No. I believe that the rock was beautiful and I just really l liked it because it is my favorite color, green. Maybe because I do not believe in its power, it will  not work for me.

There are so many figures that Freud would have had in his office, to remind himself that he was above them all. Every culture was represented. I will go back to see what I can learn."

"I arrived at the store after everyone had left and didn't stay long. Immediately, I had a bad vibe...Do you want to confuse your enemies? There's an oil for that! It seems very much like sympathetic magic, perhaps because the herbs which create the oil are like the qualities they represent.

I have a hard time believing these oils work. If one believes burning herbs like sage can clean spirits from a home, then so be it. I personally think the shop could do with some spiritual cleansing, ironically. Perhaps through working with the dark side, the owner has opened up his doors to free-roaming spirits of all kinds...I do think anyone can be vulnerable to certain tendencies when the door is already opened. I may go back to the store with my friend who claims she sees spirits...Freud would call my friend schizophrenic in an instant. I find myself in the middle, which perhaps means my interest in the supernatural represents my lack of evolution, even as an atheist."

"I was completely overwhelmed upon walking into the store. I have never seen such a wide assortment of artifacts and icons. I was so shocked that they had it all mixed together like that, but happy about it as well. Once he started explaining to us the spiritual connection behind everything it felt just right because personally that's how I view religion.

We all worship the same God, we just give him different names. And that's where we got it wrong in my humble opinion. I saw a vast amount of things, most of which I knew not their uses. : soaps, salts, baths, rocks, all labeled for some emotion or deity. Shermer said intelligent people are creative, well to come up with rituals that call for any number of the items present there in order to pray to your god or procure something is pretty creative.

I feel most of the men we've studied thus far would roll their eyes at a shop like that and shrink back in disdain. But who are we to judge? I don't believe in pretty much anything in that shop to assist me in being spiritual, however I don't see myself as better than any one customer who walked in. Most of the books weren't in English, however they seemed very insightful and interesting if not foreign in concept to me. Frazer would say all of it was for lesser people because educated people don't believe in such nonsense, but truly, what's the harm? Believe what you want to believe."

"I first picked out a crystal which caught my attention. Crystals are viewed to have metaphysical properties such as protection. I feel as if this can be related to the notion of animism which we have discussed in class. The stone is thought to have living qualities and its energy, through touch, is transferred. This is also like contagious magic...while I was skeptical, it did seem as if many synchronistic events continued to outpour. For example he took one look at me and told me I shouldn't eat red meat. I am a vegetarian. he calculated from our birthdays what gods we should worship. Mine is Yemaya. "

"The first thing that I noticed when I entered the store was the smell of incense. It brought to mind vigils and rituals, like the one described in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. ... the sale of so many kinds of plants, and the presence of so many customers during our visit, really drove home just how prevalent belief in the powers really is. It struck me as odd that there was little to no stock regarding Gaelic and Nordic faiths, but upon reflection it makes sense, as adherents to those faiths are not as prevalent in the U.S. as elsewhere. I hadn't expected to see it so crowded, as this part of New Jersey is, at first glance, more "orthodox" in faith. My favorite item was the "evil be gone" air freshener. If only it were that simple."

"I remember seeing a lot of female figurines that represent Goddesses. the male figurines that I saw were smaller and less detailed than the female ones. When I was why the male ones were smaller and appeared to be less significant, the store owner told me they were merely used for voodoo and "spells of a carnal nature."  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mammy, Gone with the Wind, and My Sister Antoinette

Growing up the youngest of six kids in a working class family you inherit many hand-me-downs.

Four older brothers are the reason I am wearing men's underwear right now. I just got into the habit. Men's sneakers, men's sweat pants. My bra is not a man's bra.

Of course when I inherited something from my beautiful older sister Antoinette that was special. It was a certifiably female item!

Antoinette is a passionate reader and I inherited many books from her: Trapp Family Singers, Little Women, and of course the giant, Gone with the Wind.

Antoinette read it first, then I read it. She saw the movie first, then I saw it. We spent about a year wrapped up in it. We would discuss the characters during car rides and before we fell asleep at night.

They say that you should always have the key conversations with your loved ones before time takes them away from you.

So, today, I had to ask. "Antoinette, did you LIKE Scarlett?"

"Oh, yeah, I LOVED her!"



"She was a horrible human being! She married two men she didn't love!"

Antoinette: "Women do that all the time. They're very self-centered. I've never been a real fan of women."

Me: "Melanie was very kind."

Antoinette: "I really didn't think of Melanie much."

Me: "But you loved *Scarlett*!"

Antoinette: "Well, I loved her at first, but then ... you know who was really my favorite character?"

"Who?" I asked, thinking of sensitive but wimpy Ashley, sensitive but doomed Melanie, swarthy and manly Rhett ...

Antoinette: "Actually my favorite character was Mammy. I thought she had a lot of grace and dignity. She was the only one who impressed me. She was a very nice person. She took things in hand that needed to be taken in hand. She loved Scarlett and would do anything to help her out. And she was graceful in doing it. She was a lovely person. She was a rare gem."

"I think she let Scarlett push her around too much."

Antoinette: "Well, what could she do? She was black. That was then. Scarlett was her boss. She was the only one who actually showed any dignity."

My sister and I had this conversation on Monday, March 16. I had my computer in my lap and I was actually transcribing her words as she was speaking. I visited her again Wednesday, March 18. That visit was hard for me. There were people there I would prefer not to have to encounter. Nothing happened, except on the inside. I visited my sister again yesterday, Friday. She was not able, yesterday, to have the kind of conversation we had on Monday.

It's hard to watch your loved ones go through this process.

Challenge to Atheists

A question for Atheists, at least the Atheists invested in the myth that Nazis were Christians but Christian Enlightenment Scientists were something, anything, utterly the opposite of Christians.

Capital A Atheists like Michael Shermer in "The Moral Arc" and Steven Pinker in "Better Angels" claim that humanity is improving because humanity is casting off religion and practicing reason.

Reason all started, Atheists claim, during the European Enlightenment in the 1650s – 1780s. All of a sudden, Europeans stopped being religious and bad and started being smart and good.

Many of the Enlightenment thinkers Shermer cites in "Moral Arc" were in fact devout Christians, although Shermer often doesn't mention this. Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Renee Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Galileo, Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, George Lemaitre – the Big Bang theory's originator – these key scientists and many more were Christians. Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was a devout Catholic. He is called "The Father of Modern Chemistry." Lavoisier was guillotined by that famous expression of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution. When men turn Reason into their God, they become very unreasonable.

Dr. Pinker in "Better Angels" says that the Nazism and Christianity were "melded" in a "syncretic faith," that "Christian clerics and their flocks were all too happy to sign up, finding common cause with the Nazis in their opposition to the tolerant, secular, cosmopolitan culture of the Weimar era."

In fact, of course, the Nazis persecuted Christians from the beginning, especially Catholics. See here and here. The Nazis announced in so many words that they hoped to eliminate Christianity. See here. And the Nazis were inspired by, and justified their actions with, scientific racism, Atheism, neo-Paganism and nationalism. See here. In short, the whole Nazism = Christianity meme is a big lie. See here.

How is it that self-professed devout Christian scientists – especially the Christian scientists who contributed to the Enlightenment – are somehow NOT Christians and NOT influenced by Christianity, but Nazis, who said in so many words that they wanted to destroy Christianity ARE Christian?

Not waiting for an answer. Capital A Atheists make stuff up. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Ninety Minutes in Heaven" God Is In the Everyday: Book Review

"90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Life and Death" describes a horrific accident that ended the life of Reverend Don Piper in 1989. Piper was driving on a bridge over the Trinity River near Houston, Texas. An 18-wheeler driven by a prisoner with no license crossed the divide and rammed Piper's compact Ford Escort head-on, at an impact speed of 110 miles per hour. Piper's Ford looked like Godzilla had stomped on it – there is a photo in the tenth-anniversary edition of the book.

Four different medical professionals checked Piper for signs of life, including a pulse, and pronounced him dead at the scene. They covered his body with a tarp. They didn't even bother with an ambulance; they ordered transportation to take his corpse to a morgue. Emergency responders left Piper alone for ninety minutes and tended to others, none of whom were hurt enough to go to a hospital.

Traffic was backed up. A Baptist minister got out of his car and asked for permission to pray over Piper. Permission granted, Dick Onerecker prayed over Piper, and began to sing a hymn. Piper began to sing with Onerecker. Onerecker shouted to emergency responders that Piper was alive. They rushed Piper to a hospital.

What they did not know is that Piper had spent those ninety minutes in Heaven. The book describes Heaven very briefly. Piper says that he did not experience what many near death experiencers report. He did not experience leaving his body, floating above his body, or traveling down a tunnel. Piper says that one second he was driving his car; the next second he was in Heaven. Piper reunited with departed friends and relatives, and saw a brilliant and beautiful light, and heard exquisite singing.

Piper did not face a decision about whether or not to return to earth. Equally quickly and without transition, Piper was back in his body. He says he felt no pain at first, but at a certain point in the ambulance, he regained sensation, and the pain was so horrible he begged for pain-killers, which the emergency personnel could not give him, for fear of losing him. He has been in pain ever since that day in 1989.

Piper points out that four medical professionals determined that he had died instantly in the accident, and reviewing his injuries and the photo of the accident, it's easy to see why. Further, Piper says that had his heart been pumping for those ninety minutes, he would have bled to death, his injuries were so extensive. He reports that his experience of Heaven was the most real experience he's ever had.

The bulk of the book consists of a very straight-forward and unadorned account of Piper's recovery from the accident, and how his Christian community responded to him. Piper's injuries were extensive. He was in bed, flat on his back, hospitalized, for an extended period. He was placed in an Ilizarov device to help his body replace one of his leg bones, which, it is guessed, was ejected out of his body into the river below the bridge (since this large bone was never found at the accident scene.)

Piper has lived with constant pain ever since the accident, and there is much he cannot do. He reports, for example, that if someone pats him on the back, he is likely to fall forward, because his legs lack the structure to break his fall. He can't change the position of his elbow or hand on one arm. If nothing else, this book speaks volumes about how much pain people have to endure. One can't read this book without wishing that medicine had developed better pain management.

The other prominent feature of the book is the account of how Piper's Christian community gathered round him and supported him in over-the-top ways. A family took in his daughter. Church members visited him daily in the hospital. Thousands of people on prayer chains prayed for him. Piper appears to be surrounded by one of the most supportive Christian communities one could imagine.  

What most recommends this book to me is its ordinariness. One might think that a book about dying, going to Heaven, and returning to earth would be chock full of arcane wisdom and complicated answers to life's big questions. "Ninety Minutes in Heaven" is not like that at all.

"Ninety Minutes in Heaven" is a very, very simple book. The sentences and the chapters are short. The vocabulary is very basic. An eighth grader could read this book and not miss anything.

The scenes, conversations, and characters of "Ninety Minutes in Heaven" are scenes, conversations and characters that you could experience yourself. A man is in an accident. His body is mangled. He's in horrible pain. He recognizes that he will never have the same body again. His two sons recognize that their father will never teach them to play catch, or fish, or dance, or fix a car. Maybe not even tie a tie. The man becomes horribly depressed. He is sullen and he hurts those trying to help him. Even so, his fellow parishioners refuse to give up on him, and continue to be kind to him.

The man recovers enough that he can walk. He shows kindness to others who have suffered the same injuries he has suffered. He inspires those who are dying of cancer, and parents who have lost sons and daughters in the military. He urges them to have faith in Jesus Christ. They heed his urging, and they find peace.

That's *all* that happens in this book. Piper underplays his experience of Heaven. He emphasizes his imperfect, painful, confusing, mundane, earthly experience.

There's an old story. Tourists arrive in Hell. They see tables set with exquisite, gourmet meals. Yet all the denizens of Hell are starving. The problem is that the only forks they have are very long. Hell's diners spear the food, but can't bring it to their mouths.

The tourists then travel to Heaven. Again, tables set with gourmet meals. Here, the diners are fully satisfied. But! The tourists notice that Heaven also is equipped only with very long forks! The tour guide explains, "In Heaven, we feed each other." 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Praying for a Miracle for My Sister. The Monkey's Paw

My mother was a peasant immigrant from Slovakia. She was pregnant nine times. I'm number nine. She lost three babies to miscarriages. In America, the streets were paved with houses inhabited by rich people who needed cleaning women. That's why they brought over Slovak peasants like my mother.  

My mother often worked two full-time, minimum-wage, manual-labor jobs when I was a kid. Try explaining the welfare state to any Bohunk immigrant of that generation. Feh. Their strength and endurance are legendary. Strong like bull.

I had five older siblings, four brothers and one sister. I was dyslexic and much more aural than visual. I absorbed everything I heard like a sponge. All my siblings, whether they knew it or not, where my teachers. I could fill a fat volume with what I learned from my sister, from how to kiss, and why I had to overcome my disgust at doing so, to life's big questions.

I pass the house now and wonder, how did we all fit in it? All my brothers are over six feet tall, muscular and larger than life. My sister and I are both tall, big-boned women.

The house is tiny. One bathroom for eight people. ONE BATHROOM!!! No extra sink or anything. I housesit for a married couple and their bichon frise. They have five bathrooms – that I've found. There may be one I haven't stumbled across yet.

I could stand in the middle of our kitchen / dining room / laundry room and practically touch the walls with my fingertips, it was that small. And yet we all fit in there, with laundry hanging over head, and Tramp under the table.

One night in that kitchen my sister told the story of the Monkey's Paw. This was decades ago. TV was still black and white, at least ours was. There was no such thing as pressing one for Spanish. The Vietnam War seemed as endless as it seemed pointless. UFOs had recently been sighted over the Wanaque Reservoir. I didn't realize it at the time but that was all part of Cold War mania. This was decades ago.

Antoinette was very verbal, and a good writer. Nobody thought I'd ever write anything. Nobody ever thought I'd learn to read. Nobody thought much of me at all. In a way invisibility was my superpower. Everybody said everything in front of me. I memorized it all.

And so one night Antoinette told the story of the Monkey's Paw.

Mr. White receives a magical monkey's paw from India. White is told that it can grant three wishes, and its previous owner used his final wish to wish for death. In spite of that dire omen, White makes a wish – money for the final payment on his house.

White's son Herbert is killed in a machinery accident. White receives the mortgage money in the form of a death payment on his son.

Mrs. White wishes her son would come back to life. There is a knock at the door. Mr. White realizes that his son, returned to life, would be hideously mutilated from the machinery accident. White uses his third and final wish to wish his own son dead again. He answers the door – and there is no one there.

I remember that story. I remember that dark, dark night in the small, crowded kitchen, fringed by our hanging long johns and nightgowns, drying on the line stretching from hallway to exhaust fan.

I remember my sister Antoinette's supreme elegance, her worldly wisdom, her knowledge of life's twists and turns of which I could only dream. I remember being in awe of her.

I vividly "remember" Herbert, his twisted and blood-spattered body waiting just outside the kitchen door.

I remember a sense that that story had smudged the opalescent surface of life's bubble for me, and that nothing that would ever occur could ever remove that smudge.

I've been asking you since May, 2013, to pray for a miracle for my sister.

You can find those posts here and here and here.

I'm going to reveal a secret. This entire time, I've been "hearing" loud and clear that that miracle would not be forthcoming.

And I would say, that may just be my own negativity. God can do anything.

And I would remember that night in the kitchen, and my sister telling the story of the Monkey's Paw.

Maybe some things do have to happen.

I got an email this afternoon that informed me that it won't be long now.

I am more sad than I can say.

Please pray that when the time comes my sister experiences much peace, and no pain.