Tag Archives: islam

What Do We Know About Islam?

“Terrorism” “They are terrorists” “Allah akbar” “The Taliban”

 

These are some of the responses I have been getting every day as I have been public speaking at my local high school.  My high school.  Where things change slowly and ideas even slower.  I have spoken at the high school or community group probably 15 of the 20 days I have been home.  In speaking with the high schoolers, I always lead in with the question, “what do we know about Muslims?” knowing full well the immediate, unflinching response.  Do they realize that they are labeling my host mother, Kadja, as a murderer?  That they are therefore unquestionably sure that my host brothers, who love to play soccer and currently are studying Physics and English at the university in Dakar, are going to pick up machine guns and attack innocent people?  No, they don’t realize this.  They do not mean to offend my host family and friends who I have grown to love and admire.  They don’t know little Kadja or Mamoudou or Amadou Diallo.

(Disclaimer – these only represent MY experience living in THIS SPECIFIC Muslim society in the Fouta region of Senegal and does not represent EVERY Islamic part of the world.  I merely hope to give an example of an Islamic society that will never make the news due to its’ lack of newsworthy ‘excitement’. I simply hope to demonstrate an alternate truth to the same reality)

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There are no Muslims here in this community, from what I can tell.  My own family has lived here now for 16 years and, for most of those years I would not have even known what the difference would have been.  How would any of these high school kids ever have had the experience of knowing anyone who was Muslim in order to know whether or not their prejudice is correct?  All they see on television is extremism, violence, warfare, and yelling politicians – riling us all up, scaring us, urging us to keep the terrorism away from our front door.  It’s no wonder they are scared.  Certain news channels, if watched consistently, can be very successful at building up ideas in the shape of truths in the minds of many Americans who may not have the financial means or prioritization to see and experience things outside of their comfort zones and understandings.  We cannot blame the effects of fearmongering on those whom it effects.  They are the result that does, however, perpetuate the act.

I have presented my experiences in Senegal to many different high school groups: Advanced placement students, drama class, culinary class, ROP childcare, AVID, computer/technology, English, US History, Spanish, and students chosen for the exchange program to Italy (to name a few).  Each of these classes represents a unique group of students from both extremes of privileged to the very disadvantaged.  The conversations were positive and eye-opening experiences for everyone involved – mostly me.  They brought me back to reality and allowed me to, once again, see my experience through the eyes of an American citizen.

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My presentation changed depending on the audience and class curriculum to keep it relevant and relatable, but some key components stay consistent.  Through these presentations, it has become evident to me which aspects of my experience are the most important to discuss.

Consistent Topics:

  • Stay involved in high school, go to college or find a way to contribute positively to society
  • What is Peace Corps and what are the basic aims of international development?
  • Development in Senegal and throughout Africa – shocking as it is to many, I had electricity, clean running water, and phone/internet service in my village. Not all of Africa lives in thatched huts.
  • Africa is a diverse continent made up of 54 different unique countries
  • Food! Everyone wants to know what the daily meals consist of if McDonalds is not the norm
  • The toilet situation and lack of toilet paper
  • Senegal is a Muslim country (95.4% according to Wikipedia). This is the topic I probably spend the most time on because it is both relevant and necessary when discussing anything about my experience in Senegal.

 

Back to the classroom…

“Ok, terrorism…?  That’s what certain news tells us about Islam?  That they’re all terrorists?” I lead… “Yea!” says the overly boisterous one in every class, always eager for sniggers from his buddies sitting around him.

As a product of this area and predominant way of thinking, I had similar concerns about non-Christian faiths, because I had only known one lifestyle.  You can probably guess my hesitations and my parents’ extreme anxieties about me, a very obviously white female, going to live in a predominantly Muslim country for two years of my life.  However, after living there and experiencing what was the most amazing, wonderful, and life-changing two years of my life, I cannot even fathom how wrong the current perpetuating stereotypes are that cover this huge religion in blanket statements and assumptions.

Granted, terrorism is real and affecting the world, but the people who are perpetrating these disgusting acts are the only ones from this entire global population who are ‘exciting’ enough to make the news.

Turns out this kind of news-worthy excitement is not necessarily a good thing.

Case in point: Senegal.  When I found out my Peace Corps placement was Senegal, I was immediately a little let down because it is not a widely known country to us here in America.  I had to google it, myself.  I would have been much more excited to have been assigned to go somewhere more flashy, like Kenya or South Africa.  These countries are places I have heard a lot about.  They make the news.  I see them on TV and in movies.  These places are exciting.  In retrospect, however, I cannot be thankful enough for ending up in a place that allowed me to learn about another culture, another religion, another worldview, in the safety and security of a politically and violently unexciting country.  Excitement came in more fulfilling ways.  I was not caught in the middle of any political strife or evacuated due to military coups.  Instead I was excited by breakthroughs in language and cultural understandings.  I was excited through my ability to learn about my own religion in the context of another.  To have open, honest, and respectful conversations about differences of understandings and beliefs.  I was excited to be seen as a person and not as my viewpoints, be it religious or political.  I was never labeled as ‘the Christian’ as we would label someone in our society, “the Muslim who works with me” “the Muslim guy in the office,” etc.… I was just Coumba (sometimes white person Coumba), but never “Coumba who does not agree with polygamy,” or “Coumba who eats pork and drinks alcohol.”  Just Coumba Demba Thiam.  Daughter of Kadja, who lives in the house of Hamath Thiam.

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As a female in a Muslim society, I covered my head.  This had multiple benefits: showing respect to the religion, marking me as a woman as opposed to a child, it kept the sun and heat off my head, and also allowed me to get away with not washing or needing to style my hair much.  Really, so many benefits, and few, if any downsides.

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As a female in a Muslim society, I never felt threatened walking alone.  I just never did.  My skin attracted enough attention, but the attention was never violent in any way.  I could walk at night, even in urban areas, and never feel in danger.  Maybe I was lucky, but I never had any instances of aggression towards me the entire time I was there.  This is much more than I can say walking around the streets in America.  Even in the quaint, sleepy town of Red Bluff, I would never dare to be out alone on the streets at night.

Living in a Muslim society, I never felt as if my possessions were in danger.  I only locked my door if I was going out of town overnight or for multiple days.  During the day, I could be in some town miles away, but I never locked my door.  It was common knowledge that I owned a computer, camera, clothes, a bike, and probably much more money than most people, and yet I never thought twice walking away from my room – the screen door barely latched, the purple curtain ruffling in the breeze.  Even after locking the metal door to leave for a few days, I always left my key with my host mother Maymouna who would keep it in a secret, safe place (even I don’t actually know where she kept it).  If there was an emergency, she would be able to access my room.  That was more important.

Living in a Muslim society, violence was extremely low.  I did not actually see any violence the entire time I was there except for the occasional quarrelling among transportation ‘aprantees’.  Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”

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The mosque of Mbolo Aly Sidy! Centered in the middle of the village, can be seen from the villages on either side.

What do we know about Islam in a place like Red Bluff, California?  Not much, if anything more than what is shown on TV.  The point I am trying to convey is that there is another side to every story.  Question what you see on the news.  Make your own informed opinions.

 

(Side note: after writing this, I was speaking in an alternative education high school and got an answer unlike any I had received previously.  I asked, “what do we see on TV about Muslims?”  The student who spoke up in the second row said, “Propaganda.”  Then ensued the most honest and boundary-pushing conversation of them all.  I was proud of them for the questions they asked and their general sincerity and respect.  I walked away with a new respect for a group of kids who would otherwise be labeled as ‘troubled’.  I call them: astonishing.)

 

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The Other Side of Islam

The mosque of Mbolo Aly Sidy!  Centered in the middle of the village, can be seen from the villages on either side.

The mosque of Mbolo Aly Sidy! Centered in the middle of the village, can be seen from the villages on either side.

This piece is specifically from my view; from my specific experience here in my village of Mbolo Aly Sidy, Dept Podor, Region San Louis, Senegal, West Africa. My view is based on what I have seen and how I have experienced the surrounding culture of which I live. I do not claim that it has any weight anywhere other than outside of my personal experience. I also do not claim to know very much about Islam and please forgive me for any slight misinterpretations or gaps of knowledge. I am reporting everything as honestly and accurately as I have experienced them.

Batane munal fof ko alhamdullilahi – the future of every patience is thanks to God.

If an American student were to be asked to name a pertinent Muslim, they would probably name Osama Bin Ladin, maybe Sadam Hussein, Mouammar Kadhafi, or Jihadi John. These are the ones we see on TV, they are the only Muslim faces and names that are shown to us and without further research into the religion they would be all that we know. This is a terribly one-sided story, however. What do these people have in common? They are misconstruing Islam and the Qur’an. They are using their power, in the name of Allah, to push an understanding of Islam that is not supported by Islamic scholars. The majority of Muslims do not consider these people as practicing in the correct way in which the Qur’an teaches. A piece of literature by some of the most prolific Islamic scholars, (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/Open Letter. identifies how, in many ways, these dictators and terror groups have violated some of the deepest teachings and practices of Islam, going against what most Muslims know to be correct. The Islam that we Americans see in the media is an Islam of violence, of hate, and misunderstanding, but the Islam that I have experienced for the past year has been one of peace, love, and generosity.

“Avoid conversations about religioun. Avoid conversations about politics,” said Peace Corps Administration. This seemed like a valid and simple suggestion, as religion and politics are topics I rarely discussed and previously felt I have very little standing to take sides in. However, religion and politics in Senegal (especially Northern Senegal) are so tightly intertwined with daily life that they have become one in the same. Avoiding discussing these things is avoiding daily life: impossible.

Ada julat?’ (Do you pray?) They ask. Answering this is not simple for me. It is hard to say that I was raised Christian, but if I were to define my faith, I would claim Christianity. Religion to us is such a personal matter. It is something that we know or meditate on inside of ourselves, and we know personally where we stand whether or not we openly admit or discuss our beliefs (or lack of). Here, however, I have been forced to look deeper inside of myself to define, in Pulaar, my religious identity. Do I pray? I answer “Yes, I pray like the Christians pray.” This is often quite confusing because typically the view is that Christians don’t pray, or pray much too infrequently (compared to the five times a day prayers of every dutiful Muslim, an opinion which I cannot at all argue). They often then ask for me to recite ‘our’ prayers, which is where I stumble. Should I recite the Hail Mary? Our Father? Or should I say a prayer that I might say in my head? In the end, it all would be English and therefore incomprehensible for the most part. I explain that ‘our’ prayers are not necessarily recited but more of a dialogue with Allah (or God – same thing). They then ask how he responds. Difficulties arise also when the public schools take time off for ‘our’ holidays such as Ascension, which I know nothing about, or when asked why I am not fasting during lent. They’ve got a point: I am ignorant to my own religion, let alone theirs.

Even though religion is a personal matter to those of us in our American culture, the Christian teachings still push us to worship together in a communal place at least once a week. This could really simply be seen as a less extreme form of the Islamic teachings of communal worship. Islamic prayers are done five times a day, if possible, in a communal area, in solidarity and usually in unison. This is obviously speaking specifically from a predominantly Muslim country where public prayers are commonplace and expected. The location is irrelevant; you pray where you are/can.

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

One of the many LARGE mosques in the very religious city of Tivaouane, Senegal

Side story: I was in a night bus to Dakar and sunset was falling as we drove across the Fouta towards the capitol. We had stopped at one village for longer than seemed necessary and there seemed to be nothing happening, so one man decided to take the opportunity to get out of the bus to pray his evening prayers. He washed his hands, arms, feet, and head and proceeded to pray outside of a closed-up boutique. The bus, on it’s own agenda of course, began to pull out of it’s stop. The man, deep in his prayers, did not at all react, his attention fully upon his meditations. The passengers on the bus, however, all came to his defense and every single one of them was up in arms shouting as soon as the bus began to move. The bus of course stopped and waited for him to finish his prayers, and the passengers began to joke about him. “Oh, he who is praying there? He must be a Ba (last name).” Upon which all of the Diallo’s (joking cousin of the Ba’s) agreed. The Ba’s, however, had different rationalizations. Then the Sy’s/Sow’s/Ly’s/Thiams got into it, placing their own bets against each other until finally the man got back on the bus, his prayers and meditations complete, to the entire bus interrogating him about his last name. He was a Niang. Everybody was disappointed about the lack of ability to tease him about that as well as for making everybody wait for him, but no one was mad. Prayers are acceptable and expected anywhere, anytime.

The communal focus on prayers goes further than that; the communal focus extends to life. Life is better if it is shared with others. Houses are large with many family members. Boys in the family have designated rooms or sometimes houses of their own within compounds where their eventual wives move into to live with their family (hope you like the in-laws!). Everyone eats together and if there are ever guests or even passers-by, they are invited and included as well. Food, no matter how much of it is available, is always better when shared, and there is almost always more than enough to go around. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the culture – sharing. It is assured that no one is ever in need; no one is lacking something that another may have in excess.

Sharing, in the Islamic context, goes farther than just sharing between families, friends, etc. It extends to giving. Giving to the poor and needy is not just important, but one of the 5 pillars of Islam. The needy, it is said, are obvious. The ones truly in need (those not looking to do bad things or buy drugs with what they are given, etc.) are apparent. There is also a group called Talibe, or students, who begin as young boys, sometimes as young as 4 and 5 years old. They are sent to a Koranic school with an imam, or teacher/professor of the Qua’ran who they live with and learn from for sometimes many years until they either leave or master the Quran. These boys, to learn humility, are sent to beg for alms and sometimes for their meals. This is all very dependent on the conditions of the Dara, or school, and the imam himself. These boys, as seen through the eyes of a Westerner (aka me) seem at first to be a huge problem! A human rights issue! From our eyes it seems horrific that these children would be sent, shoeless, penniless and dirty, out on the streets of often busy, dangerous cities to beg for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and alms to bring back to their Maribou/imam. These boys, however, play a large part in the religion and are an important part of the community. They provide an outlet for alms. I have even found myself looking for them at times when I have leftover bread or food that I don’t want, I find myself thinking, “ok, where is a Talibe, I need to give this to them.”

An important Chierno comes to visit our house

An important Chierno comes to visit our house

I realized that religion was something I could have real meaningful discussions about, openly and honestly. My first eye-opening conversation was one I had quite some time ago, when my language skills were not great. A Chierno, or Islamic Imam, came to our house and stayed as a guest. He was a friend of my host father’s and very well educated in the teachings of Islam. I was very intimidated speaking with him. I knew there were similarities between our religions so I ventured to ask him to explain them. I realized that asking questions is not offensive; quite the opposite. I asked him so many questions; we ended up some of the last few awake that night, discussing our religions with complete mutual respect. By admitting my complete lack of knowledge about religion, I have been able to learn so much by being open and nonjudgmental. By humbling myself to the level of a student, or Talibe, I have been able to have so many interesting conversations and gained so much respect though my increasing levels of understanding.

The culture of Islam in Senegal is that of peace. It is that of love. It is that of solidarity. I have found it thousands of times more accepting and inclusive than any culture I have ever experienced (in my limited experiences). I feel accepted, included, and well-fed at all times in this culture. I have yet to see a fight get violent, yet to see anyone get beat or maimed, yet to feel completely disrespected as a woman.

Our local Chierno (left) Samba and my good friend and Pulaar teacher Abda Anne on the right.

Our local Chierno (left) Samba and my good friend and Pulaar teacher Abda Anne on the right.

Barki’Allah

This is a culture of peace.

Jam tan, santé Allah