Today’s 30 Days of Love prompt is one very close and dear to me. It asks that we find out more about the Muslim communities living in our towns and cities, the Muslim Americans who work in offices with us, go to school with us and with our children, are ‘us’: America.
This is a picture of ‘us’ — my dear friend Soha, with whom I worked at Oklahoma State University. Soha is from Egypt, but has lived in the US for many years. Her husband is faculty at OSU, and she is finishing up her doctorate. When Americans talk against Muslims, when the media says incredibly offensive things about Muslims, when politicians posture at the expense of American Muslim citizens, this is the face I hold in my heart as ‘Muslim.’ My dear friend Soha.
Right after I was married — many many years ago — I moved with my husband half-way around the world to North Africa, to Algeria. Eventually I would be living in the middle of an Algerian neighbourhood in Algiers, my best friend Saliha across the hall. She had 10 living children, 3 still-born. Affianced (as they say in French, one of her two languages) at 13, married at 14, she lived in the almost the same floor plan apartment we did. She had two bedrooms instead of our one, but otherwise the tiny kitchen w/ the two-burner stove was the same. She didn’t have a refrigerator until we left, and sold her ours for a song.
Her concern for my childless state deepened when I tried to explain I was on birth control, as we were newly married. She politely refused to believe me. “No man would let you do that,” she demurred. “But it’s okay — I won’t tell.” She herself had to get her tubes tied secretly, with the birth of her last child. The victim of gestational diabetes, she would die w/ another pregnancy, the doctor told her. “But if my husband knew, he would throw me out and take my children,” she told me. No wonder she didn’t believe me.
This kind of life is light years away from Soha’s, teaching at a prestigious American university. But neither life is familiar to most Americans: not the lives of my Muslim friends in Algiers, or in Saudi Arabia, where I lived for several years. Where my youngest son was born.
Nor here in the US, where Soha’s son & daughter attend good Stillwater schools, and she & her husband are academics much like I was. So many similarities to exclaim over, and the differences fascinating, not frightening.
We miss so very much when we cut ourselves off from difference, fearing it. Fear often leads to hate, which eats at the hater, and may well kill the victim. What if we do everyone a favour, and try to get to know more about the ‘other’ Americans in our diverse country? What if, as Christina Warner, campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder notes, we “don’t … wait for discrimination to define our responses. Instead, we can build diverse communities that celebrate our respective traditions now, making our communities safer and more inclusive for the future”…?
In Oklahoma, for example, the Oklahoma Humanities Council is co-sponsoring a series of discussions called “Muslim Journeys: American Stories.” All over the state, groups will come together to learn about Muslims in America, and the vibrant religious & cultural heritage they bring to the American story. Given that all our families at some point journeyed to arrive where we are today, why not welcome the incredible diversity that is America today? How cool would that be? And how much would all of us gain?
America loves prisons. “Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000.” So says the Centre for Global Research, at least. I believe them.
Today’s 30 Days of Love prompt is that we consider how to better welcome formerly incarcerated Americans into society. Maybe we should look, first, at why we jail so many in the first place.
Too few Americans are aware that private prisons only make money if they’re full. Ergo, there’s pressure to put folks in jail. And too few Americans know that African Americans are jailed at a 6/1 ratio compared to whites. Or that “[f]rom 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people…. and[t]oday, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.” We don’t look very ‘civilised,’ do we?
In Oklahoma, we especially love to put our women in prison: “there were 127 female prisoners in 2012 for every 100,000 female residents, the highest incarceration rate in the country and up from 122 in 2011.”
And all of this costs us right at $70 BILLION annually. To ruin people’s lives over, quite often, non-violent crimes. Because in many states (see the discussion at 30 Days of Love) men and women with arrest records alone — much less cell time — are automatically eliminated from even interviews for job. And with the lessening of safety nets for their dependents, entire families are condemned, even after sentences are served, to poverty.
I don’t know how to fix this. But I do know that I vote carefully, bringing my engaged Buddhist social conscience into the ballot box on every vote I cast. I don’t vote for men and women — or parties — who make imprisonment a big part of their campaigns. In Oklahoma, the same bag of marijuana that you can buy legally in Colorado can get you a lengthy prison term. Again, condemning you and your dependents to a life difficult to sustain in health. And I don’t believe in prisons for profit — forcing arrests to make money??
That’s not right. And it certainly isn’t loving.
Inclusion is a big deal to me (I know — so many things are!). Perhaps because I grew up on the outside, often looking in. Maybe because my family is pretty polyvalent. And maybe because it IS important. Every voice needs to be acknowledged, listened to, and paid respect.
For whatever the reason, when I saw today’s prompt for 30 Days of Love, I could relate: how do we know when we’re included? What makes us FEEL included?
Despite my appearance now — nice middle-aged white woman of privilege 🙂 — I grew up odd kid out. White kid in Việt Nam, or Thailand; new kid over & over; white chick in the Middle East (where only the prostitutes looked like me 🙂 ). I didn’t fit in, and it was obvious. I’ve never forgotten. I actually left university — at least in part — because there wasn’t any literature by my friends: no black or brown or many women writers being taught. I love literature — and did then, as well — but where was Eldridge Cleaver (whom I had to find on my own), or Richard Wright? Where was Maude Meehan or May Sarton?
Then when I applied for my doctorate, there wasn’t a single woman teaching in my area of concentration. So I didn’t go at that time. It wasn’t until there was another woman that I applied. Why would I want to go somewhere no one looked like me? How could they possibly know my life? Get my work?
Next, in my graduate work, I was a ‘returning student.’ Re: older than the rest of the bunch. And when I found my ultimate university job, I wasn’t a ‘real’ academic: I directed a federal grant. Not tenure-track, but administrative and teaching. Never mainstream — always an outlier.
This is my father, who served in three wars: WWII, the Korean War — from when this was taken — and the Việt Nam Conflict. He served in multiple theatres (China, Korea, Việt Nam, the Battle of the Bulge, Germany, France, et al), sustaining several major injuries. When I was a little girl, I used to trace the deep scars on his calf, where a bullet entered and exited. He eventually retired as a light colonel (Lieutenant Colonel). Just this winter he was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.
My 2nd sister also served, Việt Nam era, Army. A lifer, as we say, retiring as Staff Sergeant. My 3rd sister served in the Air Guard. My nephew was Army. My father-in-law Merchant Marine (which had the highest fatality rate in WWII). My husband was a Việt Nam DMZ Marine. Uncles and cousins served at Annapolis, at the Pentagon, overseas, and locally.
In other words? The military is a BIG part of my family culture and tradition. But I’m a pacifist by calling. That may seem incongruous, unless you consider what happens to those who serve: they often die. And then there are the fates far worse than a clean death: death on a battlefield, POW status, PTSD, major disability… All too often, our vets sacrifice far more than their lives.
The thing about the armed forces is that you always knew they would take care of you. You had GI bill, and GI benefits, and VA medical if you needed them. You had a VA loan for a house, and other benefits PROMISED you by the government, in return for which you often gave up your very sanity. Certainly in my family, we understand the devastating impact of PTSD. Not to mention fragmented families, dislocating moves, and the other challenges to military life.
PTSD wasn’t identified until Việt Nam’s vets began to manifest it in far more visible numbers than WWII’s taciturn veterans. Even though my beloved Aunt Bonnie would tell us how CD, her son, was never the same after his service on Iwo Jima, and in the Pacific theatre. And my father would tell me that all wars were the same: men died, and those who came home never forgot it. It’s been that way, Jonathan Shay reminds us, since Achilles & Odysseus.
This is all by way of saying that today’s 30 Days of Love directive involves connecting to those who serve(d). Not only honouring them with words, but with our welcome into our wisdom traditions, with care for the injuries they have sustained on our behalf. And with respectful recognition that they have been warriors — something not all traditions are comfortable with. That’s okay, because if you support our veterans, then you are verrry careful where you send them. Because many will DIE. And their families will suffer whether or not they return. That makes me a die-hard pacifist.