Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Red Dress Playlist: "What if God was One of Us?"

A few weeks back, I started a self-improvement project, inspired by Jenny Lawson, the Great Bloggess.  To read about the origin of my project, look here.  For the short version, each week I will set out to conquer something that is holding me back from being the person I want to be.  A relationship, a memory, a fear. . .anything that makes me less than I am.  I will attack each challenge wearing my red dress as a cape for inspiration and as a symbol of the superheroes we all are inside. My goal is to undertake the daunting task of taking one crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable woman and molding her into a productive member of our crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable society.

Muslims.  What does that word do in you. . . to you?  What images come to mind when you hear the word "Muslim"?  The Qur'an help aloft?  The World Trade Center collapsing?  The American flag being burned in effigy?  I am not distant from these preconceived notions, but feel the need to address them and reconcile my reactionary thoughts with my faith as a Christian.  Passing along the hate-filled e-mails, posting anti-Muslim videos and articles, and swearing vengeance may be cathartic, and may be common and expected behaviors for people with no religious affiliation, but it is not acceptable behavior for anyone who has a belief in a Higher Power and a spiritual connection to the world.  Besides, as someone with a well-established "screw you, I can think for myself" type of mantra, relying on conspiracy theories and misinformation to form my beliefs is not really an option.  Concerning Muslims, I was tangentially tolerant; no real feelings or emotions one way or the other.  So, I decided that it was time for me to form some of my own opinions; to do some "homework" and ensure that my beliefs were in alignment with my faith.  So, I asked my friend Rachel if I could join her for worship at the mosque in Southwest Portland.

Since I was feeling a little nervous, I asked my friend Kelly to come along with me as she is the one person I know with more balls than brains and will therefore go along with my random dickery.  Rachel asked us both to bring scarves to cover our heads and I dressed in what would have been appropriate at my church.  Of course, as I tend to dress like an aging game show hostess, my wardrobe choice proved to be highly inappropriate.

Kelly got to the mosque first and called me on my cell.  "Dude, I am dressed WAY wrong.  I've gotta go home and change".

"Umm, I'm wearing sequins and heels.  Do you think that's OK?"  I asked.

Kelly laughed (or was hard to tell).  "Yeah, that should be fine. . .you'll be the perfect example when they preach about WHORES!  Seriously, Jen.  These people look uber-conservative."

"Shit", I muttered. "There's no time to change.  We'll have to wing it."

When I pulled into the parking lot and saw the people filing in, I understood Kelly's concern.  Women were arriving in the most beautiful and colorful outfits.  Long tops, covered arms and legs, and scarves so snug to their faces that not a hair was showing.  Kelly looked at me helplessly but as "Let's not do this" does not exist in my vocabulary, I told her to nut up and we made our way to the entrance.

"Are you visitors?" we were asked again and again as it was glaringly obvious that everything about Kelly and myself screamed DOES NOT BELONG!  We met Rachel at the door and she led us past the dining hall to the Cleansing Room.*

*I'm sorry for the lack of pictures, but photography was forbidden so I'll do my best to describe the mosque's interior.

In the Cleansing Room each body part is washed in sequence (hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, faces, hairline, feet, and ankles) and an associated prayer is uttered with each washing.  If, during the process, you need to use the bathroom or if you touch a member of the opposite sex, you must start the cleansing process again.  This is a very clean group of people.  Rachel then took us along the side entrance to the women's area of the mosque.*

*In 3/4 of the mosques in America, the women and men are separated.

We removed our shoes and donned our scarves.  Mine was pretty damned pathetic and just sort of draped the back of my head like a retro-Catholic schoolgirl but there were spare robes and scarves for Kelly and me to borrow so that all of our requisite body parts were covered.  We sat in the back of the women's section with Rachel, who answered our questions and explained the rituals.

The imam (literal translation: "man in front") led the prayer sequence.  While standing and bowing, the individual prayers are rote; when the forehead is on the ground, the most humble position to Allah, personal prayers are offered.  After about 30 minutes of prayer, we filed out to the dining area to feast.  Men entered through one door and women and children through another.  Tables were lined up down the center of the room, dividing the sexes.  The women at my table were gracious, engaging, and friendly, and although most were Middle Eastern, they represented a myriad of cultures and ethnicities.  We talked about what brought them to the U.S., their native education, how their children adapted to the American schools, and how they struggled to separate who they are as Muslims from the destruction caused by extremists.  Every question we asked was answered openly and honestly and there was not one moment of tension or discomfort.

This looks exactly like what we were served.  That food was cray-cray good, yo!

After dinner it was time for Round Two of evening prayers.  Kelly was tired and getting cranky so she said goodnight and I prepared to reenter the prayer room.  As it was, I never made it as I got caught up in conversation with one of my dining companions; a young woman from Jordan.

"We are a peaceful people"  she said softly, "9/11 was not a fair representation of the Muslim faith...we are called to live in peace above all things."

I was curious as to the differences between her faith and mine.  To a Muslim, Mohammed is the Final Messenger of promise by Allah and spoken of by Jesus.  Unlike The Christian faith, the Muslim religion is one of law and politics rather than just a religious methodology.  In the U.S., we separate politics, law, and religion; Islamic nations blend all three -- they are inseparable.  So when one suggests burning the Qur'an, it is as though they were burning the American flag, the Bible, AND the Constitution.  When people suggest that the U.S. will only allow a mosque at Ground Zero when "they" allow a church in Saudi Arabia they do not fully understand the dichotomy.  Our democracy stands independent of our religion; it can still exist with many forms of worship inside of it.  In Islamic countries, Islam is the government and the religion and is not tolerant of different ideologies.  For Muslims emigrating to the U.S., this can be a difficult adjustment.  They can bring their religion, but must find a way to separate it from their laws and political views.

"I know that many people hate us" my dining companion bluntly stated "but we are not all terrorists.  People have done horrible things based on the Bible as well but that doesn't mean Christians are bad people either.  It is not the authors of the Books that are the problem -- it is the readers of the Books."

As we were speaking, an older woman approached and whispered to me, "Please cover your pretty hair, your bangs are showing. And please place your feet on the ground; your ankles and legs are showing and you are distracting a man.  This is a courtesy in our mosque.  Thank you very much."  I apologized and quickly covered myself.

As the evening drew to a close, I thanked my hosts, gave Rachel a hug, and drove home deep in thought.  How well had I thought of Muslims before my visit?  Not very well.  It is neither fair nor accurate to point to a radical sector of a group and assume that the entire group displays those traits. We all have our fanatics.  Hitler cut and pasted the Bible to suit his needs just as Osama Bin Laden quoted the Qur'an verses about war and not the ones espousing peace and the dictate to never take an innocent human life.  Bin Laden did not speak for the millions of peaceable Muslims any more than Hitler spoke for most Christians.  So, how do I repackage that information and fit it into my Christian beliefs?  I can only govern my own thoughts and actions.  I can take the time to learn about other cultures and religions; I can show kindness in the public arenas, respect and yearn to understand divergent faiths, and draw upon our similarities to stop the misunderstandings and prejudices.  The commonalities are there if you just look for them.

I don't see my visit to the mosque as the "end goal" to this week's Red Dress Challenge.  The end goal is to continue to communicate with honor, and to live in peace with different cultures and faiths.  Who knows?  They might actually see something irresistible in me as well. . .besides my ankles.



Gia said...

Hmmmm, interesting! I can't believe you let your ankles show. Harlot.

jk, jk. I agree completely that horrible things were/are done in the name of the Bible and Christianity - it's really no different than terrorism.

Fearless Fibro Warrior said...

Bravo for you!

It always amazes me how people can stand in judgement without truly understanding what they are judging.

That took guts to do, and intelligence to share.

Andrea said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. It must have been incredible to get that truly inside peek.

Jen said...

GIA - I'd have added a picture of my elbows if I didn't think it would cause a lustful riot. ;)

FIBRO - I learned more in one evening than in a year of theology classes.

ANDREA - It WAS incredible! I'd really like to go back.

Monika_MG said...

Thank you for posting this Jen. I believe that the greatest diservice we can do to ourselves and those around us is to judge everyone by the actions of some. We are not responsible for the actions that happened before us just as children are not accountable for their parents actions. We must learn, acknowledge and seek to understand in order to help prevent injustices for reoccurring... in some instances we may need to stand up for those wrongly judged to help break the cycle.

I applaud you on your post and on the information you have shared. Underneath it all we are all just humans trying to live the best way we know how.

Mandy said...

Thank you for doing this, Jen. My brother-in-law is a Muslim-- and one of the KINDEST, MOST GENTLE men I have ever known. One of the attorneys I work with is Muslim as well. He's very smart, very well-spoken, and, again, just as sweet as pie. I am one of the few people that always believed Islam to be a peaceful religion. As you stated, many Christians have done evil things in the name of "God", but that doesn't make those things right.

One thing that your post taught me was that Muslims are virtually unable to separate their religion and government. I thought your analogy of the Bible, flag and Constitution was a great explanation. It had never occurred to me that their religion and government were one in the same. It explains a lot.

Please tell your friend that there is a southern gal who is appreciative of her bringing you with her to the mosque so you could help educate the rest of us. And if you ever visit again, please tell them that we don't all think they're evil and we appreciate that they don't think all Christians are evil either.

Pish Posh said...

I think this is a wonderful post - and I know what you're getting at here... but I don't think it's fair to say that it's common/expected for people with no religious affiliations to behave that way. I think it's far less likely that people with no religious affiliation would behave that way; that hatred seems to almost totally come from people *with* religious affiliations. Maybe I am misunderstanding how you put it.

Anyway, I know we disagree sometimes. So there's that :)

I know what you're getting at an I applaud you for saying it and for taking brave and admirable steps.

Great post!!

Pish Posh said...

Perhaps I shouldn't have said anything. It's just that I consider myself atheist but very moral. Where I live, I constantly hear people describe atheists as "immoral people" who are "expected to act like heathens" and so on. And I think one of the reasons some people become atheists is because of what people to do in the name of religion.

But I didn't mean to take away from what you are saying. Honestly - I admire you so much. This was an amazing and admirable post.

I also like "random dickery" - you always have such a way with words :) lol!

Anyway, I hope others spread your post around because it is a great story.

I tell my students that thinking that Bin Laden represents most Muslims is like thinking the KKK represents most Christians.

And the only way we are all going to understand each other is by taking steps and being awkward and asking questions. Usually it will end well.

My students are also studying diversity right now and I always ask them - how do we become more tolerant of "diversity"? They reply "be open-minded". But, I say, what does that MEAN?

I think your post is a wonderful response to that question.

Jen said...

MANDY - I will tell my friend Rachel what you said. :) She converted to the Muslim faith 5 years ago when she met and married her husband, Amir. Sadly, her father did not wish to learn more about the faith and severed all ties with his only daughter. It breaks my heart that he could act this way without even understanding the beauty of the religion and without bothering to know Amir and what an amazing man he is.

PISH POSH - No worries, it's pretty damned hard to offend me. :) What I meant to say is that people who call themselves "Christians" and then go around judging and acting superior have it all bass-ackwards. Believe me, some of the most moral and spiritual people I know do not believe in a Higher Power and some of the most devout churchgoers I know are complete assholes. I love that you're teaching the kiddos about diversity. growing up in hippy-dippy Eugene we were told to embrace diversity until it was coming out of our asses. It was pretty easy to do considering EVERYONE in Eugene, Oregon was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. ((face palm))

Tiffany said...

Well said. Christ commanded us to love our neighbors. The Good Samaritan story is focused on Samaritans being known as unclean & half-breeds; those who started out following the law and God of Abraham but didn't really stick to the Jewish faith. The bigotry between these two people groups was enormous, but Jesus pointed out the goodness in both as well as how unloving and unforgiving the Jews were being. He never said that it was cool for the Samaritans to follow other gods, but he did tell the Jews to love them anyway.

I love that you did this, told us about it, and resolved to have a goal of showing something irresistable in you (which I'm assuming is the love of Christ).

injaynesworld said...

What an interesting person you are, Jen. I'm enjoying getting to know you through your writing and, just as terrorists don't represent all Muslims, I may have to admit that Ann Coulter doesn't represent all Republican women. ;)

Jen said...

TIFFANY - More irresistible than my saucy ankles? I THINK NOT! :)

JAYNE - OK, you literally made me laugh/snort Spaghetti-O's on my keyboard. (Yeah, I eat that crap...don't judge) I'm a Republican and I love the shit outta Ann Coulter and my future Baby Daddy, Dennis Miller. Dennis I love because he is a GOD and masters obscure references at a level I can merely aspire to, and Ann Coulter because. . .well, she's W-A-Y more conservative than me, and occasionally makes me flinch, and sometimes her FOX News diatribes make me yell "Bitch, NO! You did NOT just go there!" but you know what? She speaks her mind without giving a rat's ass about what's politically correct and 'Hollywood Accepted' and ratings-approved and if you hate her for it she probably won't lose any sleep at night. For me, that makes you a total fucking rock-star, no matter what you believe. The confidence to be yourself 100%, KNOWING that it will have you ostracized like Marla Maple's at a premiere screening of "The First Wives Club" tells me that you have some majorly clanging brass balls, so snaps up, Biotch! ;)

Jen said...
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gengen said...

This was a great post! I was brought up a Catholic and am a very spiritual person. One of the things I loved in college was taking classes about all these different religions.

It always saddens me when the actions of the few color how we see the many. There are radicals in many religions and political regimes, but this doesn't mean that all who hold the same beliefs are also radicals.

Thanks for putting this positivity out there! People need to be better informed so they can come their own conclusions!

Jen said...

GENGEN - I am SO jazzed that you learned this theological knowledge as an undergrad. I wish my grad students could learn from you. :)

Carrie - Cannibalistic Nerd said...

Great post, Jen. It sounds like several people really appreciated the chance to talk about the misconceptions with someone who was gracious enough to go visit them at their place of worship. That alone says a lot about your willingness to listen.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a brilliant post. Brilliant as in actually shining.

What a great way to really get a feel for a different belief. I don't have a problem with any religion - but I don't necessarily know much about them either.

Thank you for sharing.

Jen said...

CARRIE - I can't believe that I was actually scared to ask the questions I had...the women I met had been waiting like MAD for someone to ask so that they could speak their minds and share their amazing faith. It was the experience of a lifetime.

BOZO - That was my goal as well: not necessarily to remove a negative stigma, but to get the information necessary to form my own opinions, free of the media and political biases.

Jo said...

Wonderful post and as always, beautifully written! Thank you so much for sharing this experience with us, Jen!
(And you can pass on that another person in these United States does not blame the whole group for what the idiots did)

Leauxra said...

It was wonderful that you did this. Trying to understand is scary.

Brett Minor said...

I did my undergraduate studies at a Bible college and my Non-Western Religions class required in depth studies of other religions, including attending worship services.

I picked Buddhism since I was considering moving to Burma and visited a Buddhist temple and did many of the things that you did. I got to sit and ask questions and try to understand it.

It was a great class and experience.

Handflapper said...

I really admire you for undertaking this project. Hate invariably stems from fear, and fear comes from ignorance. If we would all muster the courage to face our own ignorances, the world would be a much happier place. Ovation for you!

Jen said...

JO - Thanks, Jo. I will tell my friends. :)

LEAUXRA - It was scary indeed, but I was more afraid of what I DIDN'T know. Ignorance is deadly.

BRETT - My theology courses were some of the most interesting ones I took as an undergrad. I would have majored in it but I'm a heathen, soooo....umm, no.

HANDFLAPPER - Thanks! :)

Chillin'Villain said...

All Muslims of Middle Eastern descent are terrorists, just like all black "Chritstians" are clones of Al Sharpton.....*rolls eyes*

I don't really consider myself to be particularly religious- I've pretty much been ruined of organized reigion by a multitude of 'God-fearin' folk'- but I would really like to try this Challenge! I've always had an interest in learning more about different cultures and religions.

Kudos for doing this...YOU ROCK!

Tainted Fibers said...

You just get better and better! This is a FABULOUS post. I am reminded of a former past at my (Methodist) church. He wanted to lead a class on understanding the Muslim faith. You can imagine how that went over with the older members. He never had the class. I would have went. I hold the belief that unless you know what you are talking about, then don't. If you are willing to read and KNOW WTH you are talking about, I have respect for your opinion. If you go off half cocked, then I ignore you. And try my best to not call you out on your ignorance. I would LOVE to share this on my blog. Do I have your permission?

Jen said...

CV- do the Challenge with me! Let's start a Revolution!!!

FIBERS- of course you have permission; I would be truly honored.

Chillin'Villain said...

You bet I will! I'll look into it this week!!! I know there are a traditional mosque and synagogue in a nearby town. I'll reach out and get started there. Thanks for the nudge to get me involved :-)

P.S.- Please forgive my previous typos!!! Holy Crap!!!! What the hell is wrong with me?!?! What's shameful is that I actually 'proof-read' my comments before I hit that Magic Orange Button.

I promise...I'm capable of spelling...I loathe my "peers" for their ubiquitous use of txt spk...

Jen said...

CV- no worries; autocorrect has been dicking me over lately so I spell like Dan Quayle on Ambien. Meh...

WeezaFish said...

Very interesting post, made me think too. Thank you. You ankle flasher you.

Stacey Myers said...

Wow! Your project just gets more and more interesting. Good for you for pushing yourself to see all the sides.

L-Kat said...

This is awesome of you! I wish more people would take the time to get to know/understand other religions, lifestyles, etc. I think we'd all be more tolerant.

Suniverse said...

How fun!

I was raised Muslim, and as my parents get older, they are becoming more and more devout, but they're o.k. with me marrying a non-muslim and having a daughter who is an atheist. Actually, when the husband [who was raised Catholic] and I were getting married, we debated getting married by our Imam, but ended up going non-denominational because neither of us are religious at all and it would have felt false.

Which many people cannot grasp - it's as if once you identify as being Muslim/raised Muslim, you are automatically that forever. I try to explain that there are Muslims who are like Easter/Christmas Catholics, but it's hard to explain.

Jen said...

WEEZA - I am an ankle whore.

STACEY - This project has taken on a life of its own. At this point I'm just along for the ride. :)

L-KAT - I invited several people to attend services at my church so they could compare but no one accepted. Think they thought I was trying to convert them or something.

SUNI - Heh-heh, we always called them C & E Christians. My friend Alex says he isn't Jewish, he's "Jew-'ish'"; Hannuka and Yom Kippur only. ;)

Elizabeth-FlourishinProgress said...

There are many, many, many reasons I like you. I like you because you are brave. And funny. But this....this just tops it. I like you because you are open and receptive and never judgy and truly full of love in all the right ways

Jen said...

ELIZABETH- Thank you, Elizabeth. I am full of love for you too! :)

Jennifer Clark said...

Good on ya, Jen! That was a courageous thing to do. And thanks for sharing. I have a friend in the State Department in Kabul and I worry quite a lot about him. It's helpful for me to understand a bit more of Islam. Also, you must have some sex-y ankles!

Jen said...

JENN C _ they're nothing compared to my kneecaps. Rawr!

Brooke said...

I spent five weeks in Jordan, Syria and Egypt. It was the most amazing time of my life. To never feel threatened, harassed. To know I could walk through a souq or like you did, cover up and go into a mosque was was exhilarating. I never felt scared. Nothing physically alarmed me. I love the people and the culture and would go back to Jordan in a heartbeat (sans any current violence of course).

Your blog post means a lot as I think it is western women who will lead the understanding and tolerance for the religion and culture of a misunderstood group. I'm even thinking of converting myself.

Thanks Jen!