Please. Ditch that “Create Your Own Religion” grade school assignment

My kid has an assignment in Social Studies: “Create Your Own Religion.” (This is a similar assignment, so it is clearly a popular one.) I would like to insert an emoji to represent how I feel about this – but I think I would just end up incoherently inserting all the emojis here, and come across as breathless and frantic.

Yesterday, my daughter was required to create a Religion-Belief-Customs chart for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. (I was cranky that Sikhism wasn’t included).

Today, she has to come up with her very own Religion, complete with Origins, Beliefs, and Customs.

Untitled 2Much love and solidarity to my teacher colleagues, but it’s assignments like this that make me wonder if people put any thought into the rationale, the purpose, the impact, and the fallout of these exercises.

This also makes me think about the poor representation of minority teachers in many of our schools.

I wonder if teachers who devise such assignments think about their impact on children like my daughter (a half-White, half-desi Muslim). This is a Christian-majority country, where – despite purported secularism – the idea of Christianity as normative has always pervaded society. A “muscular Christianity” that is hostile – to Islam and Judaism in particular – is becoming increasingly popular.

My daughter lives in an increasingly intolerant America, where it is okay for the Muslim-teen-builds-device-to-detect-islamophobes.jpgCommander-in-Chief to express his hatred of our religion. The political and military record of this country is horribly Islamophobic, and grows more so. The cultural representation of Muslims is abysmal.

In this cultural and historical moment, for a White Christian teacher to facilitate a “Create Your Own Religion” assignment for the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, non-religious, and other students in Grade 6 is simply 🤬😳😱😵🤮😂😒😭. There. Now I’m breathless and frantic.

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From G. Willow Wilson, professional genre-bender, casual gamer, student of religion, author of critically acclaimed books and bestselling comics.

As my friend and colleague Sally Galman says, “most teachers are not equipped to handle the outcomes of such an assignment well.”

What’s most 😂 about the situation is that somebody is probably congratulating themselves on checking off the “diversity” box by requiring this assignment.

Teachers: not everything that relates to diversity is a respectful, appropriate, non-indoctrinating, egalitarian, useful exercise.

For a religious person like myself, raising a Muslim child in the United States, the last thing I want is a “box of chocolates” approach to religion. Religion isn’t an IKEA table that you put together with a set of components. It is life. It is an entire orientation to life.

In fact, if you wanted to school children in the irrationality and the human-invented approach to religion, you’d require them to … create a religion.

“Mama,” my daughter says, mid-assignment, “should I make it one god or many?”

Imagine how much I am cringing inwardly. If there’s one thing we Muslims take extremely seriously, it’s the Oneness of God. A teacher is asking my kid to try on polytheism or whatever like a Halloween-costume. To me, this sounds like borderline indoctrination.

Minority children, in particular, deal with stigma and ignorance everyday, and struggle with the effort of being different. When she told her class-mates about Eid-al-Adha, my daughter had to explain that the sacrifice entailed was not akin to tossing a person into a volcano to appease an angry god. The very experience of religious thought, choice, and agency, for religious minority children and adolescents, is different from what it is for dominant majority group children.

Exercises that ask children and adolescents (and, I’d add, college students) to “try on” different identities are not experienced the same way by all. Youth who experience symbolic violence against their identities on a regular basis may find such assignments and diversity exercises to be painful and unsettling. I have written about the college narrative of being open to “exploring” other identities is capable of being harmful to minority college students. Universities ask new students to “mix” with students different from themselves and explore new ideas, for example. Yet many non-White students have scarcely had sufficient opportunity to comfortably “nest” within their home communities, while many White Christian students have scarcely ever had non-White, non-Christian friends before – or during – college.

My friend and colleague Saadia Yacoob adds, “The problem is that people don’t see religion as a diversity issue.” This is indeed a problem in the American context, where religion – in comparison to race and ethnicity – is unacknowledged in many diversity circles, and is only beginning to be recognized, and that too not very well. I’ve written about how, in American employment, society, and academia, religion is frequently invisible and therefore neglected and/or handled with profound clumsiness.

Teaching about religion in the schools is not only legal but extremely important. Teaching about religion in such a trivializing manner, however, is 🤬😳😱😵🤮😂😒😭.


Via Ken Perrott who is having fun at his blog, which isn’t a teaching assignment: https://openparachute.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/choosing-your-religion/

“Islam is a great country” sums up far too many conversations I’ve had about Islam

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This statement Islam is a great country was made by Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the attorney for the U.S. government, right after he made an argument for a Muslim Travel Ban.

This utterly clueless statement, and the hateful ignorance within which it is bathed and contextualized, has amused many observers. But to be honest, this comment epitomizes a lot of conversations about Islam I’ve had – in academia as well as in lay discussions.
These discussions about Islam and Muslims are framed by laughable definitions, stunningly essentializing assumptions, and utterly ridiculous starting points. The questions that guide these discussions are generated by persons of such acumen as the U.S. government’s attorney in the Muslim Ban case.
And then we, Muslim respondents, are expected to come in and represent Islam to to every person who slept through their General Education college courses.
We must not only clear all the rubbish blocking the cognitive pathways, but we must make every single aspect of Islam, Muslims, global cultures, and world politics crystal clear. And we are expected to do all of this in a soundbyte.
The labor is endless.

American scholarly applicability in the global context

One of the challenges for critical scholars in the US is to remember that analytic frameworks developed in this specific economic, political, religious, & racial context can’t be automatically applied to issues in the rest of the world. Yes, even the theoretical frameworks emerging from the oppressed in the U.S. margins.

The encompassing privilege of America-centric media, publishing, and research can sometimes make us forget the enormous privilege of operating in this context. And this privilege and its accompanying egoism can sometimes make us think our applicability is wider than it is.

When I look at Pakistan- or South Asia-related issues, for instance, I’m stumped by just how difficult it is for brilliant American scholars to get a handle on those issues. And yet how difficult it is for many of them to realize their limitations, because they’re so brilliant on issues related to North America.



Via Eleanor Goldfield, https://www.occupy.com/article/art-killing-apathy-why-we-need-art-political-movements#sthash.C45lL7wq.dpbs

At times when I practice introspection, I feel as if my experiences in health, academic employment, and America have me frozen in place. Beached like a whale. It’s like I have something permanently stuck in my throat. I keep thinking I need to rise above the torpor; change my direction; jump upstream; let it go, jump on a boat, run away, go on vacation, find my head space … something.

But the day to day mundane keeps me on the hamster wheel of inertia, generating everyday inaction. Maybe all this everyday continuity will shake something loose. Then I look around, and realize this is a pervasive reality.

Is it like this for you?

A cousin once stopped praying namaz because, as she said, she wasn’t feeling anything. Her brother told her: “Just get marked present in class. Sometimes that’s all you can do.” And then, when the presence returns, you’ll at least be there. Lazzat or enjoyment, as my Sufi order members tell me, is not the goal. Allah is the goal.

So I keep showing up, right on time, for all my duties. But most activities blend into each other without differentiation. Grey. Most are 3 stars out of 5. It could be worse.

Some people throw up their hands, jump, try to find themselves. I’m not sure what there is to be found.

Maybe just showing up is enough.


Reflections on a proposed Icelandic ban on male circumcision

Here are some excellent (and brief) comments by scholars on the proposed Icelandic ban on male circumcision, with reflections on religious freedom, agency, race, religious belief and practice, immigration, difference, Islam, and Judaism.

30729796_1634271186619892_2824611205291704320_nI look, however, for some additional commentary on the shaping impact of Protestant Christianity on the proposed ban, and I’m not seeing it.

As I argue in Muslim American Women on Campus, in a section titled “Religion Unnamed,” Euro-American secularity thrives on the concealment of historical and deeply embedded Christian notions of religion, belief, and “appropriate” religious practice.

When unnamed, “religion leaks like radiation into cultural spaces” – such spaces as legislation on the bodies of infants born to Muslim parents. Though widely practiced in the United States, for example, circumcision is not a primarily Christian religious practice. Scholars must recognize, name, and correctly label the legislation against a non-Christian practice by legislators of predominantly secularized-Christian background. In such proposed legislation as the circumcision ban, Muslims and Jews become representatives of religion, while the lawmakers who draft the bill become the secular warriors protecting babies from barbarian heathens.Who can fault the humanitarian representative of the religion-free state for saving the individual bodies of infants from their individual parents of a religious background unnamed and unrecognized by the state census?

Secularity becomes a protective veil for cultural Christianity, behind which it operates, against non-Christian bodies, with the power and impunity of invisibility.



Foreign student in America, 1996

September 1996. This is me (on the left), a brand new foreign student in Amreeka, about 22 years ago. My cousin (on the right) dug up this photo from that Labor Day.

30708948_1629598497087161_5180798068802453504_nSee how hungry I look? I’m all crowded facial features. I was in Chicago for the Islamic Society of North American annual convention in 1996, days after flying into O’Hare from London to join the PhD program at Indiana University. I’d been accepted by the program a year earlier, but deferred because I had no money for tuition.

So I bided my time, worked part-time, editing, translating, and managing a Muslim women’s hostel in Brondesbury Park, London, and spending and eating only as much as I had to. I’d just earned an M.Phil at Cambridge University, and wondered if that was the end of my journey. Would I ever get a PhD? Would I ever get a real job? (I should have asked, where will that real job lead me?) 

In August, I got notification about a fellowship at IU (thanks to Bob Arnove’s advocacy). I flew over on a cheap ATA flight. I’d packed a single suitcase with a few nice clothes from Bond Street. They were too formal, it turned out, for America; a PhD classmate described me as exemplary for the jeans-and-t-shirt crowd, but that really just meant I stuck out like a sore thumb, attending an afternoon class in my long skirt from Dorothy Perkins and a moleskin jacket.

I’d yearned to find a home in this new Muslim community. That weekend, I felt adrift. The ISNA convention was sensory overload, and though surrounded by the Muslim American community, I felt terribly alone, because everyone I knew was busy enjoying the convention. I felt more foreign than ever, and really nervous about this new journey. If you look at my fake smile, you’ll see how sad and scared I was. 


Life is like cooking frozen okra

30709012_1629598313753846_7891426429810769920_o.jpgLife is funny.
You pour heart, soul, dreams, nostalgia, and homemade tamarind sauce into bhindi masala made from bags of frozen okra.
You fear that the water content of the frozen okra will result in the deadly disease of bad bhindi – gunky strings of blegh. Lais-dar bhindi. This is not gumbo. This is bhindi. It must be sizzling dry. So you work hard to dry it in paper towels before cooking it.
Then you lovingly shepherd it through high-heat frying and low-heat simmer. Your heart quakes as you wonder, “What if they packed overripe okra? And the bhindi ends up in fibrous strings in the mouth? Which is possibly even worse than gunky strings of blegh.”
But you work through the uncertainty and the doubt. Maybe all your effort will be wasted. Maybe you’ll be failed by the material you’re working with.
Such is life. Such are careers. Such is parenting. You have to work through it, and act like everything will work out perfectly.
PS: The bhindi turned out delicious.

Designing women’s prayer spaces: expansive, open, and front-facing

30414826_1623268484386829_1018598884915544064_nThis weekend I visited the Islamic Foundation mosque at Villa Park. I was attending a Qur’an reading for the soul of Dr. Arif Azam, father of my dear friend Hina. My husband and daughter and I entered the mosque and then separated to go to the men’s and women’s prayer areas. (Ah well, I thought.) When I went upstairs and looked to the expansive women’s prayer space, I thought, well, it’s certainly large.

Then as Hina talked with me and another friend, she said she would go down to say salam to the guys. I thought, oh okay, we now have to go down the stairs in the middle of the building and enter the men’s area via that journey. Instead, she stepped forward to the women’s balcony –

What? I thought, are we going to jump?

Suddenly I realized that the women’s balcony, which jutted forward proudly over the men’s prayer space, also looked outward as to share the light and the front-ness of the main area.

You see, most women’s areas have a back-ness to them. Hide in the back, separated from the main area. This prayer space is open to the glass front of the mosque. So it appears to share fully in the main space (even if it is above and somewhat in the back.)

My friend Hina kept walking. I confess I was disoriented. This is not a design I’ve encountered before. There is a staircase that leads from the FRONT of the women’s area/balcony. I can just imagine some of the people crying out ikhtilaat! danger! Again, there is a front-ness. A fearlessness. There is a defiance about this staircase. It flows down gently into the men’s prayer room, and makes for easy communication and a merging of the entire community. Kids can also go from parent to parent.

Where most mosques demarcate men’s and women’s spaces and block off entire areas, making separate directions and trajectories, this one connects, merges, creates a single direction. With its clever use of clear glass – clear glass – it also creates an illusion of total space, despite the separate areas.

We went down the staircase and our families joined together, we talked, our kids gathered around us. We were men and women and girls and boys in one space, and the world did not come to an end. When we were done, we returned upstairs to complete our prayers.

Oh, and by the way, I heard that the mosque’s award-winning design was the product of a woman’s mind. I’d like to give her proper acknowledgement but am still trying to track down the designer’s name. 30262032_1623268514386826_1558040485166055424_n.jpg