Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rallying for Rights

I missed the May 31, 2011, rally to preserve New York City’s HIV-services budget. The Bloomberg Administration’s solution to the current fiscal crisis is to cut funding across the City’s budget (some suggest, fairly). Critics propose raising taxes on the banks that caused the financial crisis, asserting that:

“There’s plenty of money,” said Heather Stepanek, 29, from the Bronx. “It’s not a revenue crisis, it’s a priority crisis.”

Today, June 2, 2011, City Hall faces another rally. New Yorkers are determined not to let Cairo, Casablanca, or Tunis have all the glory! And New York City can show the world what it looks like when a government allows citizens freedom of assembly and opinion—even when those citizens criticize their government and leaders.

The right to education is a human right, a civil right. Literacy is fundamental to the right to education. Citizens cannot function fully within society without being literate. At the very least, they are at a significant and unfair disadvantage without literacy.

Literacy facilitates economic self-sufficiency. With literacy, people are dramatically better able to support themselves. Economic self-sufficiency is laudable all on its own. But it also brings greater empowerment: power to make decisions and choices for ourselves; power to access health care and advocate for our needs; power to leave abusive relationships and stand on our own; power to demand safer sex from a partner or spouse who pays the bills but we believe may cheat (this is a big issue in male-to-female transmission of HIV around the world). Literacy education enables positive change in a society, in people’s economic conditions, and in their quality of life.

The statistics on adult literacy in NYC are clear. The need is great:
38% of New Yorkers are foreign-born (2000 Census).
47% of New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home (2000 Census).
Barely one-third of public school students performed at grade level on the 2001 English Language Arts exams (NYC Department of Education). 
1.5 to 2 million adults in NYC need literacy services. Fewer than 60,000 receive them (NYC Mayor’s Office).

The fact that New York has a sizeable foreign-born population matters because many countries around the world fail to educate their citizens adequately. Morocco, for example, has a literacy rate of 52%. The literacy rate for Moroccan women is just under 40%, which definitely has implications for HIV-prevention, domestic violence prevention, and other issues.

The Bloomberg Administration has shown it cares about these issues. But it needs us, the citizens, to press it to do the right thing. This is what democracy looks like: we are all accountable, not just the politicians and the banks. We all need to do our part.

Will you join me at the rally?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gay Pride, Civil Rights, and Usama bin Ladin

For my last post, Usama bin Ladin’s (Osama bin Laden’s) death spurred me into action. The news has sunk in a bit more, now, and diverse responses to it still stream in from the far corners of our shared Earth. As Gay Pride Month begins here in NYC and having just come back from an LGBT Muslim Retreat, I wonder how to view Usama’s legacy. As a Muslim, I am not defined by bin Ladin. No, the connection I see is all about justice, fairness, and peace.

Most Arabs or Muslims I know did not like Usama bin Ladin or the violent path he chose to pursue the change he wanted to bring to the world (his advocates might say, to right the wrongs he saw in the world). While I am not the Ultimate Judge, I believe he caused great harm, and planned and urged others to do great harm. Yet there are some in the Arab and Muslim worlds who do not feel he was a bad man. Still others believe he is not dead, seeing machinations of Empire and distrusted regimes behind such claims (one news source presents these varying responses and perspectives, pro and con and everything in between, including a Facebook page created by some who proclaim, “Usama bin Ladin is not dead. We are all Usama bin Ladin”).

I try not to judge the man. I look not for what makes us different, but what makes us the same. I try to relate to the commitment to social change and justice that a charitable person might say motivated him. But I come up a little bit short. This is the tricky thing with grand, beautiful, blank notions like “Justice” and “Peace.” Who doesn’t want justice and peace!?? But remember, “God is in the details” (or is it, “The Devil is in the details”?).

At a minimum, as anyone who knows me can attest, I believe Usama bin Ladin’s way is not the right way to bring about change. I am not Omniscient, but I am pretty sure I would not have liked the world he envisioned, nor do I believe he would have wanted me to live in it, anyway!

If one does not like a situation, and believes Justice cries out for its correction, I believe peaceful resistance and change efforts are the better route to follow. Peaceful resistance and change efforts are not easy and in fact may require facing danger, yet they produce more real and lasting peaceful outcomes than violence. If peace is the End we seek, peace must be the Means.

Violence begets more violence, anger engenders anger, revenge incites revenge, and everyone feels justified. Everyone can feel they are the “real” victims. Everyone can point to an earlier source of pain as the reason they are “striking back.” Few will choose to identify with their enemy, to see how they are similar, if not truly, the same. Few choose to see we all are human, we all feel pain, we all face loss. Instead, we use our wounds to fuel our mirroring, self-righteous wrath.

As I wrote above, this past weekend I attended a Muslim retreat housed within a Quaker campus for spiritual reflection. During mealtimes, I chatted with some of the Quakers who live in that retreat community, and was exposed a little more to their values. They truly reminded me of Muslim ethics: simplicity, compassion, integrity, and peace as core values. I heard more from them about the famous Quaker Peace Testimony, which I believe has something to teach all of us and can guide all of us.

The American Friends Service Committee, which is how the USA Society of Friends (or Quakers) put their Quaker values in action, inspires me. As a Muslim, their commitment to justice and peace resonates with the type of Islam I was raised with, and choose to practice (it is not the only way but it is my Way). 

AFSC projects, including their work in Palestine and between Israelis and Palestinians, along with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, all make sense to me spiritually, as a Muslim. These projects show Quakers’ commitment to practice what they preach. Candidly, they seem not to preach so much, but rather to share simply what they believe, what they witness. This jives with another spiritual principle I once learned: if a Way is Right and True, it will be attractive, and need not be promoted.

How does this relate to Gay Rights? Well, first, because Quakers’ peace and social justice values mean they strive for civil rights and equality for all, including for LGBTIQQ people. Muslims also can have this perspective, as the example of the group Muslims for Progressive Values and its individual members attest (they also supported the Retreat).

The Quakers were excited to host the LGBT Muslim Retreat and meet us because they shared an earnest commitment to counter Islamophobia we face as Muslims, and homophobia and transphobia we face as LGBT people. Their anti-oppression framework, their peace and justice commitment, makes it imperative. As I said, they are an inspiring, and Spirit-led, people.

Here in the US, the Quakers have had an impact that we do not always recognize. It was these same Quaker values that informed Martin Luther King, Jr., and the non-violent resistance US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, foundational to so many civil rights struggles that followed it. There is a Queer connection too: MLK, Jr., was trained by Bayard Rustin, a Quaker with an intimate experience of oppression, as a Black, Gay man in America (Rustin served time in US jails for civil disobedience and because the US at the time criminalized homosexuality, not to mention that the Powers-That-Were did not appreciate his pro-peace activism).

Yet the indomitable Bayard Rustin did not permit his heart to become bitter with hatred or twisted by pain. Instead, he shared his knowledge of Gandhian principles and Quaker values of peaceful resistance with MLK, Jr. Rustin is a hero of the Black Civil Rights Movement (he was the main organizer of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, in addition to training MLK, Jr., in peaceful, civil disobedience), though many forget he was Gay. He is a hero of the Gay Civil Rights Movement, though too many ignore he existed.

Bayard Rustin and MLK, Jr., stand as witnesses to the truths that peaceful resistance and committed action have powerfully changed the world before, and can again. The recent, brave experiments in Tunis and Cairo (not yet over) give me hope that ongoing peaceful resistance there will show those who want change in the region that Usama’s is not the only way.

My faith in Islam, like my faith in peaceful resistance, is a conscious choice. Without it, I admit, I might despair. I prefer a conscious commitment to open-mindedness, to peace and reconciliation. Islam says this life can be full of trials, and that the solution to this is to live in faith, do good works, be rigorously honest, and be patient.

As I learned this weekend, forbearance need not mean complacency. We are called to action, led by the Spirit, to reduce our brothers’ and sisters’ suffering. And Usama, my brother, and all those like you, you did not reduce suffering, but only caused more of it.