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Another Western celebrity is considering converting to Islam.  Liam Neeson, star of Love Actually and Taken, considers giving up Catholicism for Islam. Read the Huffington Post story, here. 

Neeson is not the first to consider converting to Islam.

Cat Stevens, now Yusef Islam, converted to Islam and, for a time, was on the US no-fly list. CBS News:

"Half of me wants to smile, and half of me wants to growl. The whole thing is totally ridiculous," said Islam, whose string of hits in the 1960s and 1970s included "Peace Train," "Wild World" and "Morning Has Broken." He said he was on flight because he was on his way to Tennessee for a recording session.

Islam, a Briton who was born Stephen Georgiou, abandoned his music career after becoming a Muslim. His United Airlines flight from London to Washington’s Dulles International Airport was diverted Tuesday to Bangor, Maine, when U.S. officials reviewing the passenger list discovered he was aboard.

He is back in the music scene and is performing in Doha, Qatar in February.

Snoop Dog is now a Muslim

So is Dave Chappelle

And so is the late Michael Jackson, Mikaeel, who converted to Islam in 2008.

Understand: Misconceptions

Just posted this on VOTAS

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A few days ago I wrote a personal entry about one of the main reasons I am here: trying to help both sides understand each other just a little better.  But, as I pointed out, there are so many misconceptions….   and on both sides. 

A friend of mine from Kentucky asked me the other day “why are you really there? Don’t you want to come home? Aren’t you scared you will be killed?”

I still remember one of my most interesting interactions in the Middle East.  It was not meeting one of the wealtiest businessmen in the world, or even watching as women got the right to vote in Kuwait (although a close #2)… it was a conversation with an educated, smart, free-thinking Qatari woman.

After getting to know me over the course of a few months, she finally opened up to me and asked me all the burning questions on her mind:

Do American women sleep with each/all of their male friends? (a popular plot line in the American movies she sees on the Lebanese channel MBC)

Does every American woman have to do a paternity test to figure out who the father of her child is? (yes, one of the channels carried the Jerry Springer Show… American public diplomacy at its best)

Are there any American virgins over the age of 13? 

That is one extreme example.  But here are some extreme recent public examples of the misconceptions about Islam and the Arab World: 

Lowe’s just pulled all its adds from a TLC show, “All American Muslim”.  

Why?

The conservative Florida Family Association in a statement said it has sent three email alerts, encouraging supporters to email advertisers on the show. “All-American Muslim is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” it said.

On its Web site, the Association posted an email from a Lowe’s representative saying: “While we continue to advertise on various cable networks, including TLC, there are certain programs that do not meet Lowe’s advertising guidelines, including the show you brought to our attention. Lowe’s will no longer be advertising on that program.”

WOW.

Then, there was this guy… an elected official in Tennessee talking about the dangers of having Muslims in the US military:

Ironic that this representative’s comments came a week before a (Christian) man shot at the White House and wanted to kill the president because he was on a “mission from god.”

LA Times:

The man suspected of firing bullets at the White House was obsessed with President Obama and believed that he was on a mission from God when he allegedly used a high-powered weapon to take shots at the presidential mansion, cracking one of the windows outside the Obamas’ living quarters, authorities said.

Homegrown violence/terrorism is actually on the rise. Huffington Post here, political fall out from report in NYT here, and actual report here.  

From the Huff Po story:

"As it stands today, we have been much more focused than at any time in the last 10 years on threat posed by homegrown terrorism," a senior DHS counterterrorism official told The Huffington Post.

Yet analysts who track extremist activity claim that the threat posed by right-wing extremists in the United States is on the rise and that federal law enforcement agencies may not be giving them enough resources or attention.

Right-wing extremist activity increased in 2008 and 2009 and has stayed persistent in 2010 and 2011, says former DHS domestic terror analyst Daryl Johnson, who founded a consulting firm that tracks extremist activity. He produced the 2009 report that created a political firestorm after it warned of a surge in right-wing extremism due to the election of the country’s first black president and the economic recession.

Would like to end with a quote from the Lowe’s story:

Some still expressed outrage at Lowe’s decision. A person using the Twitter handle LawyerAsif, who says in their profile that they are a tax lawyer in Washington, DC wrote to Lowe’s that “your actions did alienate people and you knew it would. Will you next consider KKKs demands to pull ads from BET?”

Understand: Ashura

Yesterday, Monday, December 5, 2011, was the beginning of Ashura, a celebration starting on the tenth day in the Islamic month Muharram.  Ashura is especially important to Shia Muslims, as the day commemorates the life and death of Hussein ibn Ali, the prophet Muhammed’s grandson and a powerful figure in Islam. 

As human nature would predict, after Muhammed died, much political infighting ensued to determine the next new leader of the Muslim people.  Power moved to a few different leaders/caliphs* over the years (the first caliphs having some family relation to Muhammed). 

Muhammed’s grandson, Hussein challenged the legitimacy (and in his eyes tyrannical leadership) of one of the leaders/caliphs in Islam (Caliph Yazid I). Because of this public challenge, he and his followers—dozens of friends and family members, including his infant son—were slain in the battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq.  

Ashura marks the day, around 1,300 years ago, when Hussein and his followers died. In predominently Shia areas (Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, etc.—15% of all Muslims are Shia), men fill the streets and mark this day with a funeral of sorts, a ritual expression of mourning…  complete with tears and self-flagellation.

(Photos from http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)

*chest beating = extreme sadness

*mock coffins = represent those slain

*black clothes = color of mourning

*blood/self-flagellation = … sound strange? some Catholics, including Pope John Paul II did it… 

The blood is not from deep wounds, but from shallow cuts, mainly to the back or to the head.  (My Shia friend told me that the best and safest place is to lightly cut the skin of the head, because a little cut on the skin causes no damage, but provides a lot of blood as a symbol.)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims flock to Karbala, Iraq to remember Hussein and his tragic death.  But unfortunately, especially in the past few years, this holiday has become bloody not because of the ritual, but because of sectarian conflict. 

Yesterday, 28 people died in five bomb attacks in Iraq—55 died in Afghanistan. Clashes in 2008 left 263 dead in Iraq. 

*A caliph is a leader of a caliphate, an Islamic state ruled with sharia (Islamic law) 

Voice: A Libyan Conversation

A series of quotes from a conversation with two Libyan men yesterday evening. These are their words, not mine.

"There are no rules in Libya now, the rule is the gun." 

"Gaddafi designed the Libyan system to fail without him… so that if he left, the whole country would be a mess."

"You see my prayer beads? Now, everyone is wearing them in Libya. Islam is the fashion right now. It is so strange.  Some of my friends are now dressing in the robe and growing beards… everyone is pretending they are Islamist. Bloody hell, you don’t pray to god, you pray to the regime."

Jokingly, “Libyans have two flags, one up, one down… one up, one down.”

"When I ask my friends with their new beards where they have been, they all say they were ‘fighting’.  Ha, ‘been fighting’?… how about ‘been in Japan’?"

The man trailed off, caught eyes with another man in the room, and quickly stood up. With tears in his eyes, he hugged and kissed the other man on the cheek multiple times.  

"Some people, we didn’t know if they were alive or dead after the revolution. Today, I saw my friend, and he is ok… Hamdulilah (praise god)."

Understand: Islamic New Year

My friend J invited me into her home for “a very special couscous” for today.  Tomorrow is the beginning of the Islamic new year, Al-Hijra, the first day of the Islamic month of Muharram.

Holidays, like Muharram and Eid, are based on a lunar calendar and change in date each year.  The calendar is 354 days long, and with the 11 day drift in the solar calendar, all holidays occur not only on a different date, but also rotate seasons (rotates in full every 33 years I believe).

Al-Hijra is celebrated for a number of reasons:

1.) Most importantly to commemorate the “Hijra” or the Prophet Muhammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina (in today’s Saudi Arabia).

From BBC:

It marks the Hijra (or Hegira) in 622 CE when the Prophet Muhammadmoved from Mecca to Medina, and set up the first Islamic state

The date marks the beginning of Islam as a community in which spiritual and earthly life were completely integrated. It was a community inspired by God, and totally obedient to God; a group of people bound together by faith

By breaking the link with his own tribe the Prophet demonstrated that tribal and family loyalties were insignificant compared to the bonds of Islam.

2.) Some also remember the death of Imam Hussein, Muhammed’s grandson, in 680AD during the month of Muharram. Important figure for Shia Muslims.  The annual Shia funeral for him, called Ashura, is coming up in the next few weeks.

3.) Some also remember Muhammed’s son-in-law Ali (married to Muhammed’s daughter Fatima) and his suffering and death.  Also important for Shia Muslims.

Shia and Sunni Muslims celebrate the holidays in different ways, but for many, it passes somewhat quietly….

But the past few days have not been quiet in the region.

Four killed in Saudi Arabia protests, protests in Yemen, and of course the family discussion quickly turned to the chaos Egypt and my trip to Cairo tomorrow for the election….

“Some Egyptians blame the Americans for the new violence. They think thatAmerica supports the military because it doesn’t want democracy in Egypt…   America would rather the military be in power.  Some Egyptians will call you a spy,” my friend said.  “Really, why do you want to go to Egypt now?” my friend asked. “It is dangerous for you.”

“This is the first free election in Egypt,” I said.  “It is historic.”

“It’s not historic if you’re dead.” My friend’s sister snapped back.

Touché.

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We turned back to the meal.  I realized that the Eid lamb and I came full circle:

Killing the lamb (Eid), seeing the lamb dry (Hajj), and then today eating the spiced, dried lamb with foul/fava beans and couscous (Muharram). Delicious. 

LINKS: Eid al-Adha here, Hajj here, lamb on a motorcycle, here, and prophet Muhammed and Lamb Sausage here.

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