Thursday, February 26, 2009

The "The Emperor Has No Clothes" Series

Needless to say, the list of things I do not understand, comprehend or appreciate is rather lengthy. But it's not my low IQ and naivete all the time. On more than one of these, I am glad to be on the side of those who don't get it.

For example: Starbucks coffee. I just don't get it. Why do people pay 3 to 4 times the average cost of better-tasting coffee? If this was some other issue we would have had a mutiny. A study found that many American college students add an average of $10,000 to their tuition loan over four years thanks to the habit of expensive coffee. All because it's a fad? Fools proudly follow fools each knowing in their heart the taste is lousy.

So after an issue with what we eat, let's go to the other end of the spectrum. The end we don't talk of often, and for good reasons. For all the awareness and desire for personal hygiene, why do westerners not use water for washing themselves after a visit to to the toilet? It seems natural - whether it's, #1 or #2, you want to wash. And I don't mean wash your hands. Wash!!! Get it? I hope so. A physician shared his experience in examining patients. When even the best dressed person got down to the gown, they would often smell. I know, you're cringing. Everyone must know something is not right. What's this obsession with dry bathrooms? Frankly, it err, stinks, everyone knows about it and yet, we pretend everything is OK.

As this company that introduced "wet wipes" would say in its commercial "try us, see the difference on laundry day" - or was it see and smell?

More to come, IA.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Inquiry into American Corruption in Iraq

In an earlier posting I had alluded to BILLIONS of dollars that are largely unaccounted for from America's war and reconstruction operations in Iraq since 2003. Then I read this report in the New York Times which seems to indicate there is some effort to uncover details of possibly the biggest case of theft in human history.

Some thoughts:
  1. This should be a multi-generation investigation. I'll tell you why. All they have to do is follow mid-to-senior level military officers who retire in the next 40 years, particularly if they leave America's shores to retire somewhere else. As they say in such investigations "follow the money" and in this case, following some of these retirees going overseas will take us to the money. My experience in such investigations is limited to reading Sherlock Holmes (sorry!) and yet, I feel confident if we do a preliminary investigation on those officers who have retired early in the last few years, we will be able to find a lot of American tax-payer money.
  2. Here's my rationale for why this investigation should last a long time: Once it comes out that retirees are being followed, many will decide to forgo their plans, leaving the money instead to their children and grand-children. Let's watch them carefully for some time.
  3. America's future depends on its ability to hold its officers accountable. Whatever happened to the days when this country could deliver massive and complex projects under-budget and ahead of schedule? The unprovoked war was shameful and criminal in itself. Its execution has been so badly botched that Americans have never been seen so incompetent and so corrupt in this nation's history. Aside from the unimaginable human tragedy brought upon the Iraqi people, George W. Bush' low, low IQ and Don Rumsfeld's high, high arrogance are the two things that have defined this war. And I believe there has been a "Don Rumsfeld" at every rank and level in this war. While we have seen the consequences of their arrogance, we have yet to see the size and scope of their corruption. Purely on a hunch, I believe there are boxes and sacks full of American currency hidden in all sorts of locations in Iraq and Kuwait. There are billions of dollars in off-shore accounts that these officers and contractors from Halliburton, Blackwater, CACI are waiting to retire and start enjoying. I hope we can catch them and make examples out of them. We need a long-term investigation. We must send a clear message that such ill-gotten gains can never be enjoyed. If your ethic is corrupt, no problem, America's Department of Justice will set it right. I must confess, I am not too optimistic about enough upright Americans left in public service to undertake this operation. But I can pray, can't I?
  4. American military officers and contractors do not have a monopoly on corruption nor is corruption anything new - but recent levels of corruption in American public life should alarm the daylights out of us. Bringing these criminals to justice and doing so swiftly is necessary or our entire culture could spiral out of control. I hope it's not too late, although sometimes I fear it just may be :(
  5. Finally, a silver lining to this cloud. I don't believe there is another nation in this world where an inquiry of this sort was even possible. Which is why I pray that not only may America survive this and prevail in ensuring justice gets done, I hope other nations follow in America's path. Many of you might remember, the long-time Saudi Ambassador to the US was identified as the man who received nearly ONE BILLION DOLLARS in kickbacks. It was all hushed up. Can you imagine what goes on in Saudi Arabia when news of this sort is discovered? I suspect it never comes out. I shudder to think of the sort of crimes that are constantly committed and, if you have the right contacts, you need never fear any consequences. Well, not until you wake up in your graves.

Case for Buying Fresh Produce and Cooking at Home

In American homes, the kitchen has become more of a show-piece than an actual workshop where cooking is a full-time acivity. Families are raised on microwave-ready meals, pre-made sauces and soups. Turns out, those polished cans and colorful labels that promise happiness and health have been hiding much concerning the stuff we have been ingesting.

An op-ed in today's New York Times shares the following from a recent FDA study:

Among the booklet’s list of allowable defects are “insect filth,” “rodent filth” (both hair and excreta pellets), “mold,” “insects,” “mammalian excreta,” “rot,” “insects and larvae” (which is to say, maggots), “insects and mites,” “insects and insect eggs,” “drosophila fly,” “sand and grit,” “parasites,” “mildew” and “foreign matter” (which includes “objectionable” items like “sticks, stones, burlap bagging, cigarette butts, etc.”).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Giving Thanks

The Prophet (pbuh) said: He who does not thank people does not thank God.

You will love this story: and the associated video. Pull out some Kleenex.

Signs of a Maturing Community

If you have ever entered a masjid and thought to yourself, this could be better, then you owe it to yourself to attend this conference.

This is another step in our Thousand Mile Journey...a step worthy of celebration. Alhamdulillah!

A Cancer Called Taliban and Our Complicity in Their Crimes

When I read news like the following, I wonder if there is any explanation for the insanity behind such actions:

Insurgents attacked three government offices in Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 26 and wounding nearly 60. The assault was one of the most complex and daring to take place in the Afghan capital since 2001.

There are more criminals in this than just the Taliban. All of us who fail to condemn it, we are complicit.

Where are the humanitarian Muslims who rush to condemn the insanity of Israel? Where are the rallies, and protest marches decrying the Taliban's brutality? I have yet to read any press releases from ISNA and CAIR. Will this be covered in our Khutbahs tomorow? If you hear one, please let me know. Will we call upon our Lord to rid the ummah of such fitnah?

What can explain mindless actions other than a primitive, tribal culture and civilization?

The irony is, Taliban literally means seekers of knowledge. A second irony is that such fitteen groups think they are acting in accordance with Islam. If we Muslims don't condemn such shameful acts, if we don't do something to counter it, we will be guilty of duplicity, among other things. And our Lord does not like duplicity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Dream The (Worthy) "Impossible" Dream

Perssimists will find all sorts of problems with dreams of this sort. They are part of the problem. We need bold dreamers!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Two Moons in Someone Else's Moccasins

There is this well-known native American saying: “Do not judge your neighbour until you walk two moons in his moccasins.” Looks like some of our American neighbors have strapped on their moccasins and are walking in our paths. Here's a video on the same, encouraging. Interesting exercise, I applaud this effort.

I believe Americans are like people in many parts of the world: hospitable, generous and kind. Americans have one more trait that people in many parts of the world lack: they tend to be non-judgmental. However, the things that have made the world judgmental and nations less hospitable have arrived in America in the form of commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. They appeal to humanity's lesser instincts just as a generation of semi-literate mullahs have in many Muslim countries.

While we don't always need as close an appreciation for how the world appears to someone else as in the experiment above, I do believe it makes us better neighbors, even adversaries, to be sensitive to it. Something as simple as appreciating the other side's perspective can significantly reduce misunderstanding, conflict and even violence.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Whither The Roots of Dubai?

People find all sorts of reasons to love and hate New York city. I too have a list of things I would want to see different in the Big Apple (affordable parking for one). But I marvel at the inspiration and courage that God endowed certain people with to build those bridges and tunnels. Really, think about it. There must have been skeptics and doomsdayers when plans were laid to build under-water highways in what became Holland and Lincoln tunnels? Or to stretch that vast span across the Hudson called The George Washington Bridge? Surely some of the very people behind those ideas must have faced self-doubt? Yet the enterprising human spirit overcame skepticism and doubt and we have the vast, bold statement of human will and ingenuity in block after neat block of steel and glass rising to meet the sky.

I drag New York City in to all of this to make the point that I am, to a fault, a fan of the human spirit of adventure and enterprise.

Yet, despite a dozen trips to Dubai in the last 18 years, and despite sitting through countless infomercials on the Emirate, my take on Dubai ranges from skepticism to nausea.

Don't get me wrong, I admire Sheikh Mohammed's courage. Without doubt, his plan/goal to do something bold to inspire the current generation of Emaratis, perhaps all Arabs, perhaps all Muslims, is admirable. And on that, I will always pray that God may bless us with more people who have such courage. But I will also pray that the courage and desire to do something big should direct as much effort to deepening of the roots (for they provide stability) as to shooting branches, leaves and flowers (for they draw attention and create buzz).

As of now, I feel Dubai is giant tree with lots of branches, leaves and flowers but no roots. It's all held into the ground by some silly super-glue. If you've read Ayn Rand's Atlast Shrugged, you might remember the giant oak tree in the Taggart family's backyard was knocked down by a storm. Remember Eddie Willers' shock when he saw that the tree trunk had been hollow and its roots had rotted away? Dubai is posing to be an oak tree that hasn't taken the time to grow roots and I find that unsettling.

To that extent, I think Sheikh Mohammed is more of a Donald Trump (ouch, I know, sorry!) than a George Washington or Mu'adh Ibn Jabal. Despite the court and cloak of a nation builder, possibly even the zeal and earnest desire to be a nation builder, he's as close as the real world gets to a builder of sand castles.

It is easier to criticize than be the one doing something...and I write this acutely aware of that. But really, isn't nation building a more serious business? Doesn't it need a lot of ground-work, hard work, difficult work in advance of rolling out the catwalks for Armani and Prada?

How do I explain my dissimilar takes on New York and Dubai? First, there is something daringly original and creative about New York. It's hard to admire an imitator. Further, New York had an organic growth. New York had a parallel "human resource" development around it. New York addresses more than just the superficial, thrill & frill needs of the men and women who built it.

Nearly everything newsworthy Dubai is doing must seem superficial to non-Muslims and either makrooh or downright haram to Muslims. Artificial islands? Skiing in the desert? The Qur'anic word lahw comes to mind. The American city Las Vegas comes to mind. Very few American heroes have come from Vegas. Many serious-minded Americans go to see the neighboring Hoover dam and the Grand Canyon instead of the lights and shows of Sin City (believe me, really! :) ).

I don't write all this to deride Dubai. I hope I am wrong - I remain a well-wisher. I hope they have focused on the roots and I just haven't seen them. If you have, please take a minute to point them out to me.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

So We're All Terrorists Now?

An admirable trait in America as a nation is its quest to be a more perfect Union. It does not purport to be a perfect nation, merely one that is trying to get closer to that ideal. In it, there is a confession of falling short, and a determination to be better - two very admirable qualities that continue to serve America well.

Like many immigrant groups (e.g. Catholics, Jews) before Muslims, we are now the target of a massive campaign by a small-but-resourceful group for demonization. Over the years, this demonization technique has been perfected. Yet, the determination of every immigrant group has been able to defeat it. America is and has been the land where the children and grandchildren of immigrant laborers go on to become governors and senators.

A mainstream organization like ISNA has been in the cross-hairs of these hate groups for some time. What is interesting is the technique used. Having created the perception of a link between Muslims and terrorism (towards which many of our own have contributed rather generously), these groups now use innuendos to besmirch the reputation of any organization or individual.

Ingrid Mattson, ISNA's president, spoke by invitation at President Obama's inaugural National Prayer Service. She was very well received by leaders of the various faith traditions based on eye-witness accounts I have heard. I have known and followed Ingrid's work since she was a graduate student at U of Chicago. She represents the best in western and Islamic traditions. Modest, but walking as an equal with the best of the world. But hate groups have been pulling the levers they have put in place to label her as someone with "ties to terrorists." If Ingrid is "linked to Hamas" (which the readers' brains have been conditioned to translate as "Ingrid Mattson is a terrorist"), who among us is safe from such accusations and innendos?

There is bad news and good news in this. The bad news is, we're going to have to face a desperate group of people who have no shame and no ethics and who will try anything to besmirch the good name of Islam and Muslims. The good news is they are betraying signs of desperation. Remember how corrupt cabals with lots of power and wealth deal with a minority that threatens to expose their corruption? First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win. It's a rite of passage for every immigrant group to America as it stands at the cusp of a signifcant recognition. But we have to prove our worth and earn it.

We will have to steadfastly hold to being a just and fair people during this trial that lies ahead. We will have to do the right thing every day and ask our Lord for strength. In the end, I have no doubt as to who will prevail...this country has a fine tradition of that, and my faith assures me of it.

Preparing for the Attack of the Bigots

Fair-minded Americans are especially challenged by Obama's rise to the highest office in the land.

Many like Rush Limbaugh are openly hoping for America's first president with a non-traditional demographic to fail. Cheney recently claimed America is becoming unsafe due to Obama and he is perhaps waiting for his "I told you so" moment should, God-forbid, something bad happen.

The challenge before us is to produce a thousand men and women of Obama's caliber. The man's temperament is extraordinary. The clarity he brings on issues is refreshing. His ability to stand calmly under pressure and smile is unparalleled. Hate-mongers are plotting and hoping for things to fall apart. They want things to go wrong so they will spread fear for as long as they can so Americans do not soon dream of thinking freely when it comes to racial and other prejudices.

Now is the time to prepare. The silent majority has its work cut out for it. If anything goes wrong, the hatemongers will have a field day. Prepare! Be ready!!

Story-Teller Extraordinaire

I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. It's mesmerizing. I normally don't go about buying every famous author's next book. Yet, I knew I would be buying and reading Unaccustomed Earth the moment my eyes fell on the book's epigraph, a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne, that inspired 19th century New England novelist most famous for The Scarlet Letter:

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn out soil. My children...shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

Jhumpa Lahiri has gained much fame, all quite well-deserved, for her two prior works, one of which was made into a movie. The reason her writings hold special meaning for people like me, is because nearly all her stories are inspired by the experience of Bengali-Indian immigrants to the United States. In Namesake she focuses on the immigrant generation. In Unaccustomed Earth she uncovers the life of the children those immigrants had as both embraced America as their home.

As I read one story after another in Unaccustomed Earth, I marveled at the power story-tellers have. Good story-tellers take their readers on elaborate, even transformational, journeys over which readers surrender all control to the story-teller.

Unaccustomed Earth has two common threads running through it: life experiences of Indian-Americans (I should say Bengali-Indian-Americans) and a sometimes-subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle sexual tension that the author builds and maintains throughout her stories (with the exception of two stories). Many Muslims might be a bit uncomfortable because of the consistency with which she holds to the latter theme. A good story-teller can glorify the trivialization of something sacred as well as make fun of the fact that some hold it sacred. Jhumpa Lahiri does both when it comes to that most intimate and sacred connection between two humans. But she does more. She lays bare the struggles of the Indian-American immigrant family from the perspective of one who has had front-row center seats to this show all her life. On things that other readers find simply funny, the reader who has witnessed life from the same perspective as the author will laugh to tears. There is very little pretension, the author does not try to be someone else. The stories are powerful because of their simplicity in both plot and prose.

What will resonate with all Muslims is the struggle between the old and the new. The journey into the unaccustomed earth by the new generation and all the joys and gut-wrenching it entails. I hope many of you will read and enjoy it. I hope somewhere out there are young Muslims who will grow up to tell the story of American Muslims and their foray into this unaccustomed earth.