Thing I would like to tattoo on Bill Maher’s forehead inre: Islam.


That in reply to this.

And if you’d like to see just a little of the endless stream of Muslim condemnation (to which no one seems to listen) of extremist violence, click here.

Book review: ‘My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind — and Doubt Freed My Soul,’ by Amir Ahmad Nasr

my isl@mAmericans have a complicated relationship with Islam. Most of us aren’t Muslim, and even the best-intentioned people often remain ill-informed, the gaps in our knowledge base filled almost exclusively in the wake of violent events.

Amir Ahmad Nasr’s My Isl@m comes as an important corrective, a welcome and important primary document that follows Nasr’s search for meaning and belonging within his own faith even as he uses new tools and technologies to reach out to the world beyond it.

Barely in his late 20s, Nasr has already traveled a remarkable path: Born in Sudan, he was raised in Qatar and later Malaysia, never fully at home in any of the countries to which his family took him — a Third Culture Kid, “a youngster struggling to assimilate elements of my parents’ culture and other cultures in which I was immersed into a third colorful culture of my own.”

The Islam practiced by his family was relaxed and inclusive by Qatari standards but traditionalist and strict compared to what Nasr found in Malaysia. Encouraged by his parents to build friendships across religious boundaries, but taught in school that infidels would suffer excruciating torture in the afterlife (alongside lax Muslims), his personal faith has moved from a violence-tinged fundamentalism to tortured agnosticism, to where he stands today: A Sufi as dedicated to mystic involvement with the divine as he is to reason and cold, hard facts.

The journey might not have been possible, however, were it not for Nasr’s access to and involvement with the Arab and Muslim blogospheres. It’s a world in which he came to play an increasingly visible role in the course of and aftermath to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, writing about and advocating for such subversive ideas as freedom of speech and interfaith dialogue. My Isl@m is, then, as much a testament to the crucial role that the global sharing of information plays in allowing cultural change as it is a tale of one young man’s evolution of thought.

It is not a perfect book. My Isl@m relies heavily on the reproduction of conversations as if verbatim, but these often read as stilted and expository rather than genuine, and later chapters in particular occasionally come across as a live blog of a graduate-school syllabus — interesting in parts, but not as interesting as watching Nasr live his life and synthesize new ideas into something entirely his own.

But there is also much to praise here: a powerful love of the many cultures to which the author belongs, an ability to praise and criticize at the same time, and perhaps most importantly, a strong and engaging voice that welcomes readers into Nasr’s ongoing search, even as he successfully sketches a telling picture of the range and diversity within the Arab and Muslim worlds (worlds which are not, by any stretch, one and the same).

“The sincere pursuit of Truth requires you to entertain the possibility that everything you believe to be ‘true’ or ‘valid’ may in fact be wrong,” he writes. “Everything. Your nationalism. Your religious beliefs. Your upbringing. Your unexamined convictions. Your story.”

Nasr’s ability to provide a clear, nuanced view of a rich and complex world, coupled with his willingness to unflinchingly expose his own halting path, make My Isl@m an absorbing read, one that should appeal not only to readers seeking to better understand Islam’s depths, but also anyone who’s struggled with the titanic clash of cultures that living in a hyperconnected world can bring — which is to say, a great many people, indeed.

Crossposted from The Dallas Morning News.

Clarification: New information in the Shaima Alawadi case.

When I first wrote about the bloody murder of Shaima Alawadi in her California home, I hedged my bets a little, and then called it a hate crime:

…leaving room for the possibility of new information, [I’m] not the El Cajon police, and I can go ahead and make the leap of judgment. Shaima Alawadi was almost certainly killed for the color of her skin, the accent in her voice, and most importantly, the scarf on her head. The way in which she worshiped her Maker. And it just makes me ill.

Apparently, however, new information has in fact emerged, and it does point in a different direction:

Search warrant records obtained Wednesday in the beating death of an Iraqi-American woman show a family in turmoil and cast doubt on the likelihood that her slaying was a hate crime.

Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old mother of five, was apparently planning to divorce her husband and move to Texas when she was killed, a family member told investigators, according to the court documents.

The records obtained at El Cajon Superior Court also reveal Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter, Fatima Alhimidi, who called 911 to report the attack, was distraught over her pending arranged marriage to a cousin.
A search of Fatima’s cellphone records shows that while she was being interviewed by investigators hours after the attack, someone sent the teen a text message that read, “The detective will find out tell them (can’t) talk,” the affidavit states.

Alawadi’s death is no less horrible, no matter why she was killed or by whom, and Islamophobia no less prevalent in this country — but the simple truth is that I jumped the gun, in the absence of information. I regret that very much.

To explain my thinking (not explain away the error of judgment): Initially I hesitated to call it a hate crime, because the presence of a single note, reportedly reading “Go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist,” is not actually enough to go on. I wondered if the note might have been placed there in order to throw off law enforcement.

Then I learned that the Alawadi family had just recently moved to their current residence from Michigan, and read that an earlier note with the same message had recently been found outside the house. Given the family’s apparent relative lack of ties to the area, and the apparent fact of an earlier note, I felt pretty confident, and ran with the hate crime assumption.

But you know, when we assume, we really do make an ass out of you and me. We still don’t have all the information, but we didn’t have all the information when I first wrote about the case, either. The old-school reporter in me was warning against drawing too many conclusions, and I ignored her warnings.

I apologize.

When I learn the results of the investigation, I’ll post them here. And going forward, I’ll look not just once, but twice or three times before I leap. And perhaps I won’t leap even then.

A Muslim mother of 5, beaten to death in her home.

Shaima Alawadi

Shaima Alawadi, a 32 year old mother of five, died yesterday as a result of a vicious beating she received earlier in the week in her in El Cajon, California home. Beaten on the head with a tire iron, she was found in a pool of her own blood by her 17 year old daughter, next to a note that a friend has reported read “go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” Alawadi was an Iraqi immigrant but had lived in the US for nearly twenty years, and had only recently moved to the San Diego area from Michigan. As far as I can tell, the children (aged 8-17) are all American-born citizens. The family reports that a similar note was left on their house earlier in the month, but that Alawadi dismissed the note as a prank. Family friend Sura Alzaidy described Alawadi as “a sweetheart… a respectful modest muhajiba,” meaning that she wore hijab, Muslim head covering, as a matter of course in her daily life.

Unlike in the case of Trayvon Martin, there are (as far as I know) no suspects in the case, there’s no phone record, there are no publicly available facts other than the above. There is a possibility, of course, that the killer actually knew Alawadi and the note was left as a diversionary tactic, and of course, one never knows what the investigation may reveal — El Cajon police Lt. Mark Coit very rightly told the San Diego Union-Tribune: “Although we are exploring all aspects of this investigation, evidence thus far leads us to believe this is an isolated incident. A hate crime is one of the possibilities and we will be looking at that. We don’t want to focus on one issue and miss something else.” This is what I want to hear from law enforcement: A willingness to go where the evidence leads, and nowhere else.

Yet having said that, and leaving room for the possibility of new information — I’m not the El Cajon police, and I can go ahead and make the leap of judgement. Shaima Alawadi was almost certainly killed for the color of her skin, the accent in her voice, and most importantly, the scarf on her head. The way in which she worshiped her Maker. And it just makes me ill.

In a country in which entire police departments feel justified in spying on Muslim Americans across state lines; in a country in which entire communities, across the country, are whipped up into a froth over plans to build houses of worship; in a country in which elected officials feel free to call Muslim faith-based philanthropic events “pure, unadulterated evil” — should we, in fact, be surprised that many believe “Muslim” to be  synonymous with “terrorist”? Should we be surprised that some act on the rhetoric?

There is a clear, shining thread between the murder of Trayvon Martin and the murder of Shaima Alawadi: Both victims represented, in their very bodies and in their very being, something, an otherness, that the majority Americans are taught to fear. I do not believe that most people who say reprehensible things or write off the faith of more than a billion followers as “evil” will bash in a young mother’s head — but I do believe that those who are willing to do so are guided by the scripts we provide.

When we normalize vicious hate, when we normalize violent rhetoric, when we normalize dehumanization – the deranged take their cues. It may well be that you have to be deranged to chase someone down in order to kill them “in self-defense” or to take a tire iron to a stranger in their own home — but the bigotry that guides such acts is normative. It is all around us.

And we have seen this all-too-American hate, this all-too-American dehumanization, before. We saw it in 1943 when Lt. Gen. John DeWitt delared that “we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map”; we saw it in 1960, when white Americans stood on sidewalks howling “Nigger!” at six year old Ruby Bridges; we saw it in 1979, when Sikhs and Mexicans were savagely assaulted for looking like Iranians; and we’ve been seeing it ever since September 11, 2001, when a group of criminals who hijacked a faith as surely as they hijacked those planes murdered 3,000 Americans — Muslim Americans included.

I do not believe that this hate, this dehumanization, is more prevalent among Americans than it is among other humans — but as I wrote the other day, Americans are the humans among whom I live. Americans are the humans among whom I am raising my children.

And we Americans are all too willing to blame the clothing, behavior, or supposed co-religionists of victims for their own deaths. We are all too willing to dismiss our own responsibility for creating, nurturing, and perpetuating a climate that supports those who would commit brutal crimes.

This is on us. If we want 17 year old black boys and 32 year old Muslim women to be safe from humanity’s most horrific side, we have to step up. We have to talk, to tell the truth, to write letters, to educate ourselves, to reach out, and above all, to find allies and build community.

As Dalia Mogahed, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think wrote yesterday: “We rightly accept that anti-Jewish rhetoric can lead to violence. When will we make the same connection for anti-Muslim rhetoric?”


Some more resources:

Muslim responses to terrorism.

Muslim American heroes.

Muslim responses to terrorism.

Update: Yes, this is a re-up, but given the recent discovery that the NYPD has been spying on Muslim students as far away as Yale, it seems rather timely.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the world’s Muslims have been called upon to address the issue of violence perpetrated by other Muslims. On the one hand, this strikes me as unfair — why on earth should person A have to explain person B’s behavior? — but on the other, it also strikes me as pretty human. That day of horror seared us all, and for non-Muslims, the question seems to boil down to: “Hey Muslim person, why I shouldn’t fear you?” Unfair, perhaps, but human.

So, I often write, here and elsewhere, in defense of Islam and Muslims — or, as I see it, in defense of the American values of equality, liberty, freedom of religion, and so on. I have a Masters Degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and have read and reviewed several shelves-worth of books about the faith and the lands in which Islam is the majority religion, and all this provides me with some useful background. But bottom line: I’m not Muslim, and can’t represent the faith.

Actually, even if I were a Muslim, I doubt that I could “represent the faith” — I don’t imagine, for instance, that I can represent Judaism, Jew though I may be. But of one thing I am certain: As I don’t represent Islam, neither do al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

The voices of extremists may be the loudest emerging from the Muslim people, the ummah, right now — or: these voices may be the best amplified by our fears and the people who have reason to feed them — but they don’t represent the ummah.

And here we arrive at my point: Don’t trust me — trust the Muslims who say so in their own words.

Consider first this passage from Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed:

Only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified”…. Contrast this with data taken the same year [2007] from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.

And then consider the following, a small (very small) compendium of Muslim responses to extremism that I have found. You’ll note that some are recent, and some date back — because even though we don’t hear much about it, the world’s Muslims have been continuously condemning extremist violence for some time:


Report finds that radical American Muslims are not terribly prevalent. Or competent.

Color me shocked.

Professor Charles Kurzman, of the  Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at the University of North Carolina, released a report Wednesday that found that radicalization among Muslim-Americans is “relatively low,” and has been on the decrease since 9/11.

Kurzman also points out that many of the suspects in 2011 “appeared to have been limited in competence.” In one arrest of a Muslim-American for terrorism-related charges, for example, Emerson Begolly, “a 21-year-old former white supremacist who converted to Islam and posted violent-sounding material on the Internet” was tricked by his mother into meeting with FBI agents outside of a restaurant. He then tried fight them off by biting them. In another case, on his way to attack a local Shia mosque, Roger Stockham bragged about the his plan to a bartender when he stopped in to a bar for a drink.

“The limited scale of Muslim-American terrorism in 2011 runs counter to the fears that many Americans shared in the days and months after 9/11, that domestic Muslim- American terrorism would escalate,” the report concludes. “The spike in terrorism cases in 2009 renewed these concerns, as have repeated warnings from U.S. government officials about a possible surge in homegrown Islamic terrorism. The predicted surge has not materialized.”

I wish I had a job that would justify me doing a comparative study of all the kinds of extremist violence perpetrated in this country on an annual basis. I’d like to see how, for instance, the 1 ,002 hate groups tracked by the Southern Law Povery Center compare to extremist American Muslims (individuals or organizations).

If you’d like to know what most Muslims (American and non-) think about such extremism, I gathered some statistics and statements here (spoiler alert! They’re pretty solidly against it).

h/t TPMMuckraker

In which I blaspheme: Monotheism’s biggest failure.

Ok, that’s kind of a grand statement. Maybe I shouldn’t claim to have uncovered the single biggest failure of the world’s monotheistic faiths. But for my money, it’s certainly right up there.

As readers of this blog are surely aware, I believe in God.

I furthermore believe that God is loving and good, and that when we say that we’re made in His* image, we mean the best of us. “Our better angels” are, to my mind, those parts of the human spirit that fly up to meet their Creator and attempt to express His love, His goodness, on this earth.

I also believe, in what I take to be a very Jewish sense, that God is everywhere and yet nowhere. We are not God, but reflections of Him. He can be found in our homes and in our hearts, but He is neither in the heavens nor in the depths. He is not corporeal, and when we speak of His arms, or His voice, we are only making use of the only tools we have to imagine the unimaginable — yet should I call upon Him, His is the still, small voice that is as near as my child’s breath, as she whispers in my ear.

God is ultimately unknowable, because He is so entirely Not Us. Bigger, Grander, More Powerful beyond measure — how can it be otherwise, when He created the world and all that’s in it? And yes, I believe that the Big Bang was an act of God, and I honestly cannot understand how the one could possibly contradict the other.

What is God not, then? Where did monotheism get it wrong?

On the “perfect” part.

I don’t believe God is perfect. I don’t believe God is all-powerful, and I suspect that He is not all-knowing. I cannot, and continue to believe that He is loving.

There is too much broken and wrong in this world, too much pain and too much horror, for me to believe that our Creator has the power to fix it, and yet chooses not to.

But that’s what the world’s three biggest monotheistic faiths would have us believe. We try to explain it away — in Judaism, many say that God does only good, we just don’t always recognize it as such; some say that we call down upon ourselves the world’s horrors with our behavior — but I think that most believers choose not to think about it too much, because if we do, the whole thing shatters at the feet of a starving or murdered child.

The failure, then, is not simply in getting something so crucial so badly wrong — it’s in creating a system that demands that God’s creatures find a way to believe something truly terrible. Perhaps if we posit a Satan (in which I do not believe, but for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and posit) we can lay the world’s woes at Satan’s feet — but then we’re positing a genuine rival to God. We’re saying that there’s someone else out there, as powerful or nearly-as powerful as God, whom God is unable to defeat. Because if God is loving and can save us from Satan’s evil hands — why the long game? Why not just be done with it?

It’s  my experience that when people in the West reject God, they’re more often than not (not always, of course, but pretty often) rejecting organized religion, and more to the point, organized Western religion’s vision of a God who is all-powerful, and yet isn’t overly concerned with starving, bloodied children.

So here’s our choice: God – all powerful, perfect and all knowing? Or loving?

I’m sticking with loving.

(And to those who would argue that I’m going pretty far out on several limbs simultaneously, I can only say: Why do you think they call it “faith”?)


*I’m comfortable with the English-language cultural convention of referring to the Divine in the male singular, but I don’t for a minute think that S/He/It is actually anything like any human. 

Jerusalem: The Biography – review

My review of Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News.

(Shorter review: It’s genuinely marvelous, and should be required reading for anyone with any interest in the city).


Special Contributor

Some places live and breathe on at least two different planes: the physical, and the notional.

“New York” is more than pavement and politics, for instance. It’s also – particularly for those who will never step foot on that pavement – an idea, a vision. “This isn’t New York” can be compliment or curse, but the reference is only rarely to the city’s infrastructure or tax code.

Jerusalem is such a place – yet its reality is much more than merely bifurcated.

Almost since the city’s foundation, Jerusalem has existed as holy relic, political fulcrum, way station to conquest, and glittering prize for every major civilization with a toe-hold west of Baghdad.

What “Jerusalem” meant to a 19th century Syrian, for instance, is very different from what it meant to a 18th century Englishman, or a Jew fighting Roman or Jordanian occupation. Not to mention the city’s 21st century partisans: politicians in Washington, Palestinians in Amman, Jews in Chicago, Russian Orthodox Christians in Moscow, the European Union parliament, the Israeli and Palestinian governments. All have something to say about the city, all have influence on its daily affairs, and, frequently, each knows precious little of the full sweep of Jerusalem’s actual lived history – or each other.

In the monumental Jerusalem: The Biography, author Simon Sebag Montefiore digs through millennia of evidence and anecdote to find the beating heart of a city long pressed into service as a battering ram against competing narratives. There are myriad Jerusalems, it seems, but the stones and hills are the same, all resonating with the prayers and dreams of millions of very different people.

“So a history of Jerusalem has to be a history of both truth and legend,” Montefiore writes. “But there are facts and this book aims to tell them, however unpalatable to one side or the other…. The city’s past is often imaginary.”

While the sheer work involved in putting together a work of this scope is dizzyingly impressive – from King David through the Roman empire, Arab conquest, Crusades, Napoleon, British Mandate, up to the 1967 Six Day War – Montefiore’s even greater accomplishment is Jerusalem’s sheer readability.

On every page, the reader is gripped with unfolding drama, joy and sorrow, as empires rise and fall, each certain it has achieved some kind of permanence, each leaving rivers of blood in its wake – and (in one of the book’s more unsettling constants) bodies and/or decapitated heads on or around Jerusalem’s city walls, literally up to and including the mid-20th century British.

As Montefiore writes, however, Jerusalem has also always been “a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people who defy the narrow categorizations that belong in the separate religious legends and nationalist narratives of later times.” One group builds, the next destroys, those who come after use bits and bobs of what remains to build something new – again and again and again.

The book isn’t flawless. For instance, the author makes clear that the Montefiore family played an enormous role in shaping modern Jewish Jerusalem, but in a distracting lacuna, never mentions his own place in the family. Furthermore, there are occasional inaccuracies – from the ritual observance of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, to the 2000 Israeli-Palestinian Camp David peace talks – that stick out in a work so otherwise finely tuned.

But inaccuracies fade into the background in the face of Montefiore’s otherwise masterful wrangling of centuries of fact into blood-and-bone human epic. A hugely ambitious effort, clearly produced with real love for the city and its people, Montefiore’s Jerusalem should be read by everyone and anyone who would dare to venture an opinion on the city, or its future.

Emily L. Hauser has written about the contemporary Middle East and Muslim world since the early 1990s. She blogs at

Marty Peretz & Grendel’s mother. Same-same.

Beowulf & Grendel's mother.

Someone on Twitter reminded me today that I actually once discussed Grendel (the monster in the Beowulf story) and Marty Peretz (an Islamophic monster in modern letters) in a single breath.

I had no recollection of this at all, but it sounded so much like me that I googled “grendel peretz emily hauser” — and lo! There it was! On Balloon Juice.


A) How much do I love the internet and the Google subset of the internet? OMG, soooo much!

and B) This so amused me that I had to share the actual comment with you. Behold:

Monsters are not always monsters, not in every waking moment of their lives. Grendel’s mother loved him, and that’s why she came to avenge him. She was still a monster.

Which is to say: I loathe Marty Peretz, and made rather a stink about it when the anti-Muslim shit hit the fan. But it is possible that, in addition to being a loathsome xenophobe and racist, he is generous to a fault with those he likes, and possibly also good at cards. Who can tell.

Seriously. Who else do you know who would do such a thing? I’m a special snowflake, I am.

For your Beowulf/Grendel needs: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (the Seamus Heaney version), Beowulf (a middle-school appropriate re-telling) and Grendel (a re-telling from the vantage point of the monster). And yes, I really have read all three — I read the second one out loud to the boy, and will read it to the girl in a year or two. Geek is as geek does, my friends!

h/t @HoldenDCat

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