Monday, August 22, 2011

Ramadan in Amherst: Celebration of Community and Concerns Over Intolerance

I am remiss this year in noting the start of Ramadan.

A belated, then, but no less heartfelt wish for the holiday.

I will simply quote the greeting sent out by Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI)
To all of our Muslim friends and colleagues, Ramadan Kareem!

May we all enjoy the blessings of health, prosperity, happiness and peace into our lives and may we all multiply it and share with others as well! 
My post last year included this explanation of the sacred month:

I was already intending finally to catch up this week and post my greeting, but I got an additional and unexpected prompt from a nice front-page piece in Friday's Amherst Bulletin. In "Ramadan Ritual: A small but devoted Muslim congregation gathers in Amherst," Ben Storrow describes the history and character of the local community and its mosque.

He also reminds us of the controversial and failed attempt by the mosque to acquire larger quarters in a former Christian school on Harkness Road in 2010. (Although I had just joined the Select Board at the time and the issue was not under our authority, I myself followed that controversy rather closely, through all the relevant documentation as well as news reports. I saw the plans for the structure as well as the complaints.) Neighbors—including the town of Pelham just across the municipal line—protested that there would be an intolerable increase in traffic, parking problems, and hazards to pedestrians. Admittedly, the issue was somewhat complicated: the road is used as a cut-through between two major thoroughfares; there is no on-street parking, and there are no sidewalks; responsibility for some aspects of both road maintenance and traffic enforcement seemed to need clarification. Still, there were mechanisms to resolve those questions, ranging from simple consultation between municipalities to site plan review requirements under our Zoning Bylaw.

And anyway, I've driven that road often enough. Why the former Christian school did not produce the same dread results, or why the hordes of people who come to visit the famed lilac groves along that street each spring—likewise a seasonal blip rather than continual change in traffic patterns—were not similarly odious to the abutters is something I could never quite wrap my head around.

As in so many such cases in Amherst, abutters generated plausible objections to a seemingly reasonable proposal, and everything ground to a halt. Was the proposal in fact more flawed than its advocates had anticipated? Were the abutters just engaging in selfish NIMBY-ism? Was there something darker at work? It is hard to draw definitive conclusions. All I know is that the Muslim community felt singled out and stigmatized, the victim of prejudice and disingenuous arguments. As Ben puts it in the article:
It withdrew the proposal after meeting substantial opposition from neighbors who voiced concerns about the impact the mosque would have on traffic.
The objection came as a surprise to members of the congregation, who expected members of the liberal Amherst community to be more open to the move, Hazratji [President of the Mosque's Board of Directors; JW] said.
"In our opinion those were not legitimate concerns," Hazratji said. "We tried to reach out to the neighbors, but people came to the meetings with lawyers and that told us we were not going to be accepted."
During the controversy, members of the congregation were targeted on the Internet with Islamaphobic remarks, Hazratji said. And members of the inter-faith community who supported the move began receiving anonymous mailings replete with anti-Islamic rhetoric, he said.
Many mosque members interviewed said that the slurs people endured in that instance is evidence that Islamophobia remains a persistent concern in the Valley, a region that prides itself on its cultural tolerance.
"Ever since I was little that word was a thorn in my side. You tolerate smell, you tolerate pain, you don't tolerate people" said Bushra, 36, of Amherst who was born in Pittsfield to Palestinian parents. She asked that her last name not be used due to her fear of prejudice. Recently, she said, she was called a "towel head" while walking a street in Pittsfield with her infant niece. Unlike many of the congregation's female members, who don a hajib only in the mosque, Bushra also wears a head covering in public.
"We always find ourselves constantly having to defend our Americanism, which is really tiring," she said.
It is sad but no longer surprising to have to read that.

I was honored to be invited to attend the opening of the Hampshire Mosque in its current location in the Carriage Shops some years ago, and I still recall the event well. Mostly, I recall the fellowship, and the clear presentation of Islamic ideas on the divine, the nature of worship, and the duties of human beings to one another as well as the deity.

However, I also recall, equally well, the relative paucity of communal representation. To the best of my knowledge (my memory could be faulty), there were no town officials there, certainly not in a formal capacity. And more surprisingly, there was almost no one from the local academic community—certainly not from the vocal Middle East activist contingent, which often warns about the dangers of Islamophobia. Instead, the guests were ordinary citizens who came primarily from the local Christian and Jewish congregations or interfaith dialogue groups, and the like. The latter fact in itself was heartwarming; it just would have been nice if others had been there, too. Perhaps Mr. Storrow's piece will help to inform and interest the public.

One of the problems is that, for all our vaunted commitment to multiculturalism as an ideology or a policy, we know very little about other cultures. In fact, most of us know precious little about the diversity of our own American or "western" society (and when I talk to students about the Middle Ages, I always include Islam as a crucial element in our western heritage). How many Christians, for all the talk of a (largely spurious) "Judeo-Christian tradition," really know anything about Judaism as it understands itself? How many Jews really have more than a superficial knowledge of the dominant Christian culture? (How many have ever bothered to open a New Testament?)

In last year's piece, I noted that I had been charged by the Select Board with developing some guidelines on how to shape the public calendar in light of the varied religious needs and customs of our diverse population. I also included links to digital calendars for Jewish and Muslim holidays. It's a small start, but a start nonetheless.

Tomato, Tomahto

Speaking of multicultural knowledge, I cannot resist gently pointing out one little slip in the otherwise admirable newspaper article.

It is highly unlikely that "many of the congregation's female members" would "don a hajib" "only in the mosque"—or for that matter, anywhere else. Indeed, it would be utterly inappropriate. A "hajib" was a government official in medieval Muslim Spain and Egypt. The writer presumably means: "hijab," or woman's head-covering.

Then again, it's the same mistake that President Obama made in his famed Cairo speech, so it can happen to the best of us.

We're all just honestly trying to learn more about and from one another.

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