Friday, January 26, 2018

Run, Nadrat, Run!

How White Supremacy and Islamophobia Under a Republican President Created a Muslim Marathoner Girl

By Nadrat Siddique

One recent MLK Day, I experienced deja vu in the park where it all started. I was at Burke Lake Park in VA, engaging in what I thought was an appropriate activity in honor of the great civil rights martyr: an 8K race billed as the “Keep Moving Forward” 8K Trail Run. I had hoped for a race in DC or Baltimore, organized by a Black rights or civil rights organization, with which to mark the occasion. Since I couldn’t find one, I opted for this. Proceeds from the event benefitted United Community Ministries, not at the top of my list of organizations to support. But then beggars can’t be chosers.

I attended high school entirely during the Reagan years, and proudly wore the hijab for the entirety of my middle school and most of my high school. In 1979, I experienced a life changing event: a visit to Iran following the Islamic Revolution there. I was 11-years old at the time, and accompanied my father, Dr. Kaukab Siddique—a freelance journalist and maverick whose work, albeit lacking formal recognition, would come to influence the Islamic movement in the U.S. for decades to come—to the Islamic Republic. Together we witnessed the power of the people to topple Shah Reza Pahlavi, a dictator armed to the teeth by the U.S. government, his monarchy and that of his father supported by the U.S. for decades. The Shah operated by imprisoning his political opponents, who were often brutally tortured by SAVAK, the secret police closely aligned with and trained by the CIA. Eventually the Iranians had enough, and took to the streets in a bloodless revolution, literally stopping the Shah’s tanks and troops with their bodies.

As a young Muslim girl growing up in a non-Muslim country where I was consistently treated as an outsider, I was particularly struck by the confidence, near swagger even, of the young Iranian college women. Dressed in unconstraining black headscarves and tunics, which they wore over elegant flowing pants loose enough to facilitate a round-house kick, the female college students walked with confidence and carried automatic rifles, holding their own. I was in teenage awe, and when I returned to the States, I deliberately adjusted my rather generic style of head-scarf to a style which more closely resembled that of the Iranian students.

At the time, we lived in the homogenously White DC suburb of Annandale. Each morning, my sister, who is two years my senior, jumped out of bed around 5:30 AM, ran to shower, then put on her silk blouse, designer jeans, and makeup. She styled her hair perfectly, checked herself in the mirror, and made her way to school very early, so she could be there before most of her peers. She was on the photo journalism club, a member of the student government, and every other school club imaginable. Sleek and slender with a model’s body, she was a runner who, much to my envy, ran at least five miles a day. With her dark hair, long lashes, and exotic beauty, my sister mesmerized nearly every guy in school.

While my sister was already on her way to our school, each morning, I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed. I put on my dark-colored hijab and loose-fitting shirt, and made my way to the same school. On a good day, I would make it there just as the school bell rang. More often I would be there a few minutes late, or not at all.

No one forced my sister to dress as she did. And no one forced me to wear the hijab.

My sister and I attended the nearly homogeneously White, upper middle class Annandale High School (AHS). She was an upper classman, and I had just started there. There were no other evidently Muslim students. There was an Iranian boy named Reza, whom I suspected was Muslim. But he looked and acted White, interacting without qualm with his White peers and teachers, but redirecting his gaze immediately if we made eye contact. So, I did not pursue conversation with him. In any case, my communication skills as an adolescent were nil, and I would hardly have known what to say to him if we had conversed.

The persecution started soon after I began school at AHS. I do not recall how it started. Granted, not only I wore Iranian style hijab, but I brazenly displayed a poster of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, whom I greatly admired for his stance against what I viewed as an imperialist superpower, in my school locker. I viewed both the wearing of the hijab and the display of the poster as First Amendment protected-actions.  Hence I did not think it should make me the target of violations of my civil rights.

Yet, every day, fellow students, often White males who were much bigger and older than me, would hurl ephithets of “Blue nun,” “ayatollah,” or “raghead” at me. “Get that rag off your head,” they would jeer, savagely yanking my hijab or slapping me on the back of the head. Very often these sorts of interactions occurred in the school stairwell or hallway soon after I arrived at school. Unfortunately, they were but a prelude for what was to come during the course of the school day.

Without realizing it, I developed strategies for dealing with the bullying. At times, I would arrive in class as early as possible and take a seat in the part of the classroom where I thought the bullies were least likely to sit. At other times, I would get to the class as late as I could without missing the attendance roll call, to minimize the time between student arrival and teacher arrival, and therefore the “bullying window.”

In some classes, the persecution was worse than in others. The classes with the most “freedom,” i.e., allowance for the students to physically move about, were the ones I dreaded the most. Off these, Earth Science was perhaps the worst. The bespectacled, bearded, hippie-looking Caucasian teacher was particularly inattentive. The students could wander about the classroom, under the pretext of looking at the aquariums, terraniums, and other displays set up by the school’s Science Department. And that gave them an opening to yank at my hijab.

A pair twins, Denise and Robin Wright, were among my classmates in Earth Science. Both were very beautiful per the Eurocentric ideal, and very physically fit. Denise had highlights in her hair. Robin’s hair was so black, it was almost blue, and her lips were always perfectly made up in red lip color. Robin gave me a proverbial pat on the head, telling me I had beautiful hair, and why did I have to wear “that thing on my head.” She thought it horrible that my father made me wear it. She would tell him—on my behalf—what he could do with it, if she had the chance.

It was my very first semester of high school, and my first crack at a real science class. Needless to say, I fell flat on my face, earning an “E,” and was ordered to retake the class in summer school. With such a start, I marveled in later years that I was able to undertake and effectively complete a degree in a hard science—biochemistry—at a competitive American university.

Physical education (PE) class was by far the worst. On the first day of PE, the school screened us for multiple scoliosis (MS). All of us girls lined up in long lines that spanned the length of the gym for the screening, waiting to be seen by the nurse practitioner and her assistant. I had no understanding of diagnostic screenings, or why they were done. I had poor posture, accompanied by a very negative body image. By the time I got to the front of the line, I had convinced myself that the spinal curvature of my slouch was an indicator of MS. (It wasn’t).

Not having a clue how to nourish myself, I indulged in the heavily meat- and sugar-laden diet of my family home with abandon. As a consequence, I had the typical rotund desi build, and was very uncomfortable with the idea of having to undress in front of other girls. On top of that, there was the Islamic prohibition against disrobing, including in front of those of the same gender. I was shocked that the other girls seemed to think nothing of it, bantering and carrying on in the nude, as they changed and showered together in the locker room. Loathing the concept, I feigned illness or injury, and got exemptions from PE class whenever I could. At other times I would simply hook the class. Even when I was physically present, I would stay in the girls’ locker room during PE class while the other students ran around the fields or played handball, volleyball, softball, flag football, and other sports. Amazingly, I made it through that first year of PE, earning a “P” (for “Pass”). But, the following year, I missed so many sessions of the dreaded class that I received a failing grade, and had to re-take it during summer school.

Eventually, the girls’ locker room became my cave. I would frequently seek refuge there even when it wasn’t time for PE class. I hated lunch almost as much as I hated PE.  In the cafeteria, bereft of the political correctness provided by adult monitors, some of the wildest behaviors occurred. Kids would indulge in salacious talk as a matter of course. The bolder or stronger ones would concoct cruel pranks to play on smaller, weaker, or more susceptible students. They would bully, hit, sexually harass, or subject such students to epithets.

To escape the horrors of the cafeteria, I would come to the locker room and sit very quietly. I never cried in response to a set of circumstances which I realize in retrospect would have left many girls sobbing, screaming, or reporting the perpetrators. And although I came from a highly educated family—my father held a PhD and my mother a Master’s degree, and and at least six aunts and uncles held, or were in the process of completing medical, engineering, or RN degrees—no one suggested to me that what I was experiencing was a gross violation of my First Amendment rights. Nor did it occur to me, a child of 14, that I could have taken AHS to court for these violations.

In the locker room, I would sit and eat the high-fat/ high cholesterol lunch prepared by my mother. If anyone entered the locker room —they rarely did during the lunch period—I would freeze like a terrified animal, in the hopes of remaining unnoticed. Only later did the oddity of eating lunch in the semi-dark of the locker room, and its implications for my incipient eating disorder hit me.

History class gave me a glimpse of alternatives to hiding or persecution. There too, at the beginning of the class period, as the students were taking their seats and before the teacher got there, there was persecution and taunts about the hijab. In the class were two tall skinny White boys, one with sandy brown hair (named Tim), and another with dark brown hair (named Kevin). In blue jeans, boots, and with chiseled good looks, they were the epitome of cool, and had the respect of the class. And—for some inexplicable reason —they defended me regularly. In response to the bullying, one or the other of them would tell the youthful tormentors, “Come on, man. Leave her alone. That’s not cool.”

Only later did I find out that these two were flunkies, which was why they were so much older and more informed than the rest of the students.

The class was taught by a stylish young woman with auburn hair, named Sallie. She found out about the persecution, and admonished the perpetrators that it was my right to wear the head cover. Very quickly, the perpetrators blended into the woodwork.

A few weeks later, we were all standing in the hallway during a fire drill. Taunts and whispers about the hijab had started when Sallie walked by. I was happy to see her, and thought she might defend me as in the past. My heart sank when she told me, “I’m sure you have beautiful hair. You don’t have to hide it all the time, you know.” Sadly, she said it in front of some of the tormentors.

The bus ride to and from school was where some of the worst abuse occurred. Since there was only one adult present, and about 30 kids, all unmonitored, they could do what they wanted to me. One of them would slap me in the back of the head. Then, when I turned to identify the perpetrator, they would cover for each other, pretending they had no idea what I was talking about. Or they would apply one sharp backward yank on my hijab, which I had tied tightly underneath my chin. The tight knot alone prevented the removal of the holy garb. But—the daily ordeal convinced me that I was surrounded by enemies.

Sometimes the persecution continued even after I got off the bus. I would walk purposefully, holding my head high, in the direction of my house. Sometimes a bully or two would follow me for a short distance, muttering things about the head scarf. Perhaps fearful of being observed by adults now that they were out in the open, they did not pursue me for any great distance.

One day, the bullies—I wasn’t sure how many, because I refused to look, or do anything that revealed fear—followed me further than usual into the town house complex. One of them came bounding up, and tried to kick out my knees from behind me. Fortunately, I was walking with a sturdy, balanced gait, and although my knees partially buckled at the impact, I did not fall down. Another kid who rode my bus, fearful I was about to be beat up, yelled, “Run Nadrat! Run home!”

I did not look back. And—I did not run. Innal hokmo illah lillah.

Eventually, the attempts to forcibly remove the holy cloth became too much for me. I would deliberately miss the bus, and then my mother would have to drop me at school. I felt badly, that I was adding to the burden for an overworked, frequently exhausted mother. And—from the single conversation I’d had with her on the topic, I knew she did not support my wearing the hijab. This made asking her for a ride even more unsavory.

On the sole occasion when I raised the topic, the conversation went as follows:

Nadrat: “Ami. They pull my scarf.”

Mother: “Pull it back a bit, then they won’t do it” (meaning I ought not wear the hijab in such severe fashion, far down on my forehead, and perhaps allow a bit of hair to show as she did with her Pakistani-style hijab).

Deeply chagrined at what I felt was justification for the bullies pulling my hijab (ie the style in which I was wearing the holy garb, was eliciting the attempts to forcibly remove it), I never mentioned it to her again. I also did not bring it up with my father, expecting that my mother would advise him of the situation if she thought it important enough. (She didn’t.)

My mother would drive my little brother to his elementary school, drop me at my high school, and finally make her way to her part-time job. One day, I decided I would walk. Henceforth, I neither burdened my mother with requests for rides, nor endured the purgatory of the school bus.

The only problem was getting out of bed. Leaving the house in the early morning hours, when the sky is still dark, and—if it’s winter—it’s cold outside, is anathema to any 14-year old child. But rushing to a place where one will inevitably be persecuted makes it even less attractive. Hence I would stay in bed as long as possible, until my mother came to my room and told me “Stop hibernating like a stupid, fat bear.” This only added to the perception of my mother as wholly lacking in empathy for me. And—it cemented the very negative body image I already had. Since I typically woke up late, I had to hurry to make it to school before the first bell rang. The idea was to sneak in before that happened, so as to attract as little attention (and thus elicit less persecution) as possible. So I had to walk fast.

At first, a slow walk was all I could muster. I lumbered along through the woods on the short cut to school. I was a bit out of breath, my ill-fitting jeans were tight on me, chafing against my thighs, and I was sweating. As the weeks went on, I walked slightly faster and felt better. Initially, I walked only to school, taking the bus on the return. Eventually, I started walking home as well. I would hurry along, hoping to beat the school bus home, thereby avoiding any encounter with the persecutors. Although I did not realize it at the time, this caused me to walk ever faster. My fitness was improving gradually. And some mornings, I would wake up very late, not wanting to go to school at all. When I finally left the house for school, it was at a trot. I trotted through the woods in my hijab, tight jeans, and long shirt, book bag on my back, wishing I was going anywhere but to school.

By the time I entered the 11th grade at AHS, I had further refined my technique. I would leave the house in the morning as if going to school. Instead of school, I headed for a patch of bushes on the periphery of the housing development. The bushes were substantial enough to shield me from view, but sparse enough to let sunlight through. Somehow I found great comfort in them. I would lie there, sometimes dozing off, until such time as I imagined both parents had left the area. Then, I would get up, dust myself off, and head to a nearby trail I had discovered. By this time, my family had relocated within Annandale. We now lived in a townhouse off Braddock Road. Nearby was Burke Lake Park. Fortuitously for me, the trail I had found led to it. I would walk at a good clip, arriving at the lake by noon. The lake was spectacular, and I grew to be in awe of it, letting my imagination run wild. I would dream of paddling the huge, glistening lake by canoe, or throwing out a fishing line and pulling out a very large, shiny fish. I felt great comfort in spending the day by myself in the wilderness. It did not occur to me that anything could have happened to me, a young girl of 15, alone in the park for hours each day. I felt a Force protecting me there, and I was certainly much safer there than at school, where there was only hatred and bullies.

Not far from Burke Lake was Wakefield Park, a recreation center which included a swimming pool and tennis courts. Sometimes I would spend part of my day there, watching kids in their swim classes. Then I would make the hour-long trek home. My sense of timing remained sorely lacking, so sometimes I left the park too late, necessitating a jog to beat bus, bullies, or my parents’ arrival home. Amazingly, the running was getting easier, and I was moving more quickly and with confidence.

Occasionally I would forsake the park for the city. At age 15, I had a political consciousness far beyond my years. I attributed this to the fact that my father, to whom I’ve always been close, was a journalist, writer, and political activist. He was a long-time opponent of the Bhutto dictatorship. In point of fact, Bhutto had threatened to jail him if he dared return to Pakistan. Instead my father had chosen self-exile.

One of his first jobs in the United States was with the Muslim Students Association (MSA), the largest and most reactionary Muslim organization in the U.S. at the time (it later became known as the Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA). My father was editor of MSA’s news magazine, called Islamic Horizons. In violation of editorial policy, he dared to criticize the Saudi dictatorship, as well as other repressive Arab regimes. The MSA, whose major underwriter at the time was Saudi Arabia, rapidly fired him. But—they could not silence him.

Needless to say, much of the talk in our household was of a political nature. As a consequence, I too, became very political, and my activities in the city reflected that. But first—with Annandale being so remote and inaccessible—I had to catch a bus, followed by a train, followed by another bus to get to the action.

By age 16, I had joined the youth wing of the Socialist Workers Party and regularly travelled to the city by myself, using public transportation. The oddity of an ostensibly sheltered Asian Muslim teenage girl, traipsing around some of the most downtrodden areas of Washington, DC, never occurred to me at the time. As with my visits to Burke Lake Park, I felt much safer in the DC Hood than in the White Supremacist trap of AHS.

Lying about my age to the socialists, I hooked school to attend their meetings, as well as those of various anti-war and solidarity organizations.  I liked the SWP’s rhetoric, against U.S. backing of dictators in places like Iran and Nicaragua, and their support of liberation movements like the FMLN, FSLN, and the New Jewel Movement. They were very accepting of me, hijab and all, and appreciated my youthful enthusiasm for their various campaigns. Under their tutelage, I read the Marxist theories propounded by V.I. Lenin, studied the techniques of labor organizer Farrell Dobs, and marveled at the sacrifices of the socialist leader (later political candidate), Eugene Debs. I also worked on the campaign to stop the deportation of a Mexican labor leader named Hector Marroquin.

One day, I was campaigning with the socialists at a Black high school in the heart of DC. Our tactic was to stand outside as classes were letting out, and offer students copies of the party’s newspaper, called “The Militant.” But for a short while, we were inside the school building, waiting for classes to let out. The bell rang, and students proceeded from their penultimate class to their final one. I was shocked to see that some of the students were young Black Muslim girls in hijab. Even more shocking was the fact that no one was harassing or belittling them. In fact, their (entirely Black) peers seemed to be treating them like equals, and as if everything was normal!

In Spring of 1985, I hooked school near daily to work as a student volunteer in the national office of the April Actions Committee. The office was run by activist Michelle Tingling-Clemens, who later became renowned in the DC activist committee for her principled stance for DC statehood, among other issues. It was also at the April Actions office that I met Luci Murphy, a local jazz legend and activist who would become a role model and mentor for me. The office coordinated a diverse coalition of groups, which cut across racial, ethnic, social, and gender lines, bringing them together for an April march for “Jobs, Peace and Freedom.” The experience enlarged my horizons, gave me confidence in dealing with the public, and helped formulate some of my current world vision.

Time flew by, and before I knew it, I had missed two-thirds of the classes I should have taken that school year. Fortunately for me, the parents never asked how my school day went, or what I had learned at school that day, so I continued to flourish in the safety of Burke Lake Park, or at the April Actions Committee.

Then one day, there was a knock on the door, and it was the truant officer. Only then did my parents realize something was amiss. Needless to say, I had failed the 11th grade, and would be taking it again.

Our family moved to Perry Hall, a Baltimore suburb, in conjunction with my father’s job. There, I had a fresh start. After five years of wearing hijab completely unsupported and in a hostile environment, and yet refusing to remove it, I felt I had won that battle. Temporarily, I set it aside in favor of a kaffiyah. And—I wore a black tee-shirt saying “Question Authority” to class.  Amazingly the kaffiyah did not elicit quite such hatred as an actual hijab. (The “Question Authority” tee, on the other hand, did raise the ire of some teachers.)

In keeping with the tee’s message, I daily questioned what I regarded as “the establishment version of history” in my humanities classes. In April 1986, the U.S. bombed Libya in violation of international law. The strike killed Colonel Qaddafi’s daughter. The next day, I clandestinely placed fliers decrying the bombing in the students’ lockers. The administration announced over the PA system that the fliers in no way represented the views of the school, were in fact anti-semitic, and that anyone with information on the culprit ought come forth.

Despite these minor clashes with the PHHS administration, I had a more positive view of school there. And, although the persecution had ceased, and there was no pressing need, I continued to use running as a mode of transportation, at least one way (usually on the return, from school to home).

Perry Hall High, for some reason, placed me a PE class with entirely obese students and smokers. The class was tested for their mile times on the high school track. Other than a very fit girl who happened to be a smoker, I was the only one able to meet the minimum requirement (in fact I was significantly faster than the requirement).

As a result of doing well on the one-mile test for PE class, I developed an affinity for the Perry Hall track. I would frequently run on it after school even when I didn’t have to. And- I would nearly always run home after school, books and other belongings in a backpack on my back. It was a liberating feeling.

That fall, while my parents were away, I participated in my first race, a fun run at White Marsh Mall. I was not very fast, and looked nothing if not dumpy in the few photos I found of that race much later. But that did not stop me. Shortly after that, I did the very hilly Zoo Zoom 5-Miler (at the Baltimore Zoo). I had just begun to run, and would not stop until I had done dozens of 5Ks, 10Ks, and 10-milers. I did my first half marathon (13.1 miles) in 1992, five years after completing high school.

In 2007, as I wrapped up a long, drawn out biochemistry degree, I toyed with the idea of running a marathon. Throughout high school, when I had an exceedingly low self-concept, regarding myself as fat, dumpy, and unattractive, I’d admired Grete Waitz, Ingrid Christianson, Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter—all world class marathoners, and all very white. There were no Pakistani women marathoners for role models. Pakistani women simply weren’t lean and fast, And they weren’t crazy enough to run such ridiculously long distances. Neither—by all appearances—did African women, or any other women of color. So, in this arena at least, there were no shoulders to stand on.

After two years of convincing myself that running 26.2 miles was within the realm of possibility for me, I ran my first marathon in 2009 in Harrisburg, PA. I did not hydrate or replenish electrolytes properly in that first marathon, and so “hit the wall” at mile 21. That forced me to stop running, and, feeling a tinge of disappointed at getting so close, but yet missing the mark, I walked the remaining 5 miles of the race. But, as I result I was challenged to do another marathon. And then another. That year, after Harrisburg, I ran the Rehoboth and Charlotte marathons.

The following year (2010), I did the Washington, DC; Frederick; and Omaha marathons. Omaha was my first time running the 26.2 miles in under 4 hours, but that has rather become a standard for me.

Last spring, I ran the Boston Marathon in the name of Pakistani woman neuroscientist whom the U.S. unfortunately holds political prisoner on trumped up charges, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. That was my proudest moment ever, not because I was running Boston—I’ve qualified for that many times prior, but elected not to run it. Rather, I was so pleased to run in her name, that of an outstanding, innocent Pakistani Muslim woman of great achievement. She deserves to have a marathon named after her. And—she deserves be released, immediately and unconditionally.

This past fall, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, my 34th time doing the 26.2 mile distance.

On Martin Luther King Day, as I visited Burke Lake Park, an adult athlete about to run the MLK 8K, the memories from adolescent days spent there came flooding back. As a young girl, I had experienced isolation, loneliness, and the need to flee persecution. But, I had been certain of, and determined to defend to the hilt, my identity as a Muslim and my right to wear the hijab. At that time, I had only a superficial awareness of the civil rights movement. Even White High Schools like the ones I attended mandated that students watch a movie on Dr. King on MLK Day. The students did so reluctantly, many of them rolling their eyes with evident resentment or contempt for the film’s subject. So I was aware, at least, of the popular version of Dr. King. But—I had never heard of Freddie Hampton, George Jackson, Jonathan Jackson, Assata Shakur, H. Rapp Brown, Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, and others who had made immense sacrifices for true freedom for all people. At the time, I had known only that my right to wear the hijab, something ordained by the Creator, was being denied. But as I soon found out, Black people in this country were experiencing far more serious violations: They could be shot by police, merely for walking or bicycling down the street; strip-searched in public view by police; beat to death for not wearing a seat belt. All these were daily violations experienced by Blacks in a country which claimed to extoll Dr. King.

Once slow and lumbering in that very same park, I took first place in the 8K that Martin Luther King Day. And I did so again the following year. As I thanked the Creator for the gift of running, I realized that a furnace of persecution could be a means to open my eyes to natural alliances.

© 2018 Nadrat Siddique

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Khutbah on Prayer and Some Thoughts

By Nadrat Siddique

Last Friday, I visited Dar ul-Hijrah for juma'ah prayer. The mosque is a very large establishment mosque, frequented by a good mix of Indo-Pak, Arab, African, and American worshippers. The khutbah was by one Br. Ahmed Hassan, and the topic was "The Importance of Salah" ("salah" is the formal Muslim prayer). The youthful khateeb expressed himself well in both English and Arabic, and the khutbah was, at surface level, a beautiful one. Unlike some others I’ve heard, it was easy to follow and not at all soporific. He spoke on how the prophets (A.S.) throughout time were commanded to pray, and that while other pillars of Islamic faith, such as hajj, or zakat, could be forgiven at times, salah was an absolute requirement. However, the khutbah remained very academic, as Hassan did not tie it in to anything real, practical, or relevant, instead quoting beautiful, flowery Qur’anic verses instructing each Prophet to pray. He did this masterfully in Arabic and in English.

He did not address prayer's role in organizing the community, its role in shaping the Muslim identity, or most importantly, its affirmation of the Oneness of God. It is not trivial that one bows down in the prayer to one’s Maker. This is a physical affirmation of “Innal Hokmo Illah Lillah” (“Authority belongs to Allah alone”), and as such, a negation of all other authority, including human authority. Hence the very act of prayer can be a challenge to the prevailing power structure.

At the same time, the prayer strengthens the Muslim for all possible trials and tribulations which may arise in daily life, as well as in the course of confronting human authority. “Thee alone do we worship; Thee alone do we ask for help,” is the oft-repeated refrain of the Fatiha.

Following the juma’ah prayer, some friends and I went to Bamian, an Afghan restaurant near the mosque. To my amazement, Imam Hassan, whose “pie-in-the-sky” khutbah I’d just heard, was seated at a table very near us, along with three cohorts. I longed to ask him: Did he know of the recent U.S. bombing of his country? (I guessed that he was from Somalia.) And—was he aware of the U.S. bombing/ intervention/ neo-colonial occupation of numerous other African and Muslim countries? Further, did he know that in 2016, the U.S. dropped 26,172 bombs on Muslim countries including Yemen and Libya? Out of respect for another imam whom I greatly respect, who was seated at my table, I elected to play the good little quiet Muslim girl, and didn't accost the imam with these burning questions.

“If you know, why do you keep quiet about it, and fail to use a single second of your khutbah to speak the truth on these matters, given the command to the Muslim to do ‘amr bil mauroof’ and ‘nahi unal munkari’ (enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong)?” I longed to ask him.

“It is too political, sister. And the masjid doesn’t get involved in politics,” is the standard answer I get to similar questions. On the Last Day, is that what they will tell their Creator, that their brothers and sisters were being bombed, killed, raped, imprisoned, tortured, starved—but they kept quiet about it, because it was too political? And Allah ho alam.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Spirit of Ramadan

By Nadrat Siddique

I had the most incredible iftar the other night at Cheesecake Factory (Inner Harbor) with my friend, N. She is a beautiful, young, Pakistani-American who wears hijab, even living and working in a very red neck area. Very earnest and honest in everything she does, she has been going through some trials and tribulations in her life. It was quite late, and we were seated outside, sipping our hot chocolates/ iced coffees, admiring the Baltimore skyline silouetted against the harbor, and catching up on events in our respective lives. The service was very slow, and the waitress seemed determined to ignore us, after our day-long fast.

People who were not patrons of the restaurant occasionally passed close to our table. One of these was a homeless Caucasian man. Emaciated and bedraggled, he walked with some effort. He mumbled something as he passed our table, but did not ask us for anything. My friend and I discussed for a moment the sorrowful condition of the man, and pondered how to help him. I lamented that I had only $3 cash on me, relying instead on my debit card. N said we should buy him dinner.

Then, before I could blink, she left the dinner table. First, she chased down our elusive waitress, and ordered a basic meal for the homeless man. Then, she ran after the homeless man (he had moved quite a distance away) to find out how else we might help him. She returned shortly with surprising news: The man declined the Cheesecake Factory meal. They treated him badly there, he said. And- he was very cold and needed to go indoors somewhere and get warm. A cool breeze was blowing over the water. It felt lovely to us, who were well nourished. But- I could see why it might feel unpleasantly cold to someone who had not eaten a proper meal for days, and had been sleeping on the streets.

N quickly caught up with the waitress again, and cancelled the order. She and I both apologized profusely to the waitress. Given the hour, and the fact that most restaurants in Baltimore close ridiculously early on weeknights, we were at a loss of what to do. "You did the best you could. Allah knows your intent was to help him," I told my friend.

By now, the two White women at the neighboring table were intrigued. They complimented N on her efforts, and expressed surprise at the homeless man’s unwillingness to accept the profferred meal. Even the waitress, who had been quite cold toward us previously, was bubbling with compliments for my friend's generosity and caring.

I leaned over and whispered to N: “It looks like you just did some da’awah inadvertently. Alhamdulillah.”

A short while later, the homeless man reappeared. This time, we invited him to sit at the table with us. Under N’s questioning, he shared his story with us. His name was Michael, and he was a Muslim, although his family was not. He wasn’t from Baltimore. He had come here to do some construction work, but his work partner had scammed him, and taken off with his few belongings. He had asked numerous mosques and churches for help, but none of these were forthcoming.

N asked Michael if he had a home. He did, in West Virginia, where he’d lived with his mother prior to coming to Baltimore.

“Maybe your mother could help get you home?” asked N.

“She is paralyzed. So she can’t really work,” said Michael.

“Well you shouldn’t have to sleep on the street, if you have a home,” said N. “We will try to get you home.”

We paid our bill. The rest of our iftar evening was spent trying to buy Michael a bus ticket home, a bit of a chore, since he didn’t have ID (everything had been stolen from him by the partner), and we couldn’t simply pay for his ticket on line..

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Running the Boston Marathon for Pakistani Women’s Rights

(Or in particular, for the rights of an outstanding Pakistani woman political prisoner)

April 22, 2017

Letters to the Editor
The Boston Globe
PO Box 55819
Boston, MA 02205-5819

Dear editor,

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist, once attended MIT on full scholarship. She completed studies in biological sciences, and went on to do her PhD in cognitive neuroscience at Brandeis University, successfully completing it despite being in an abusive marriage (with a Pakistani from whom she later divorced). Her PhD focused on helping dyslexic and otherwise learning disabled children. Today she languishes in a U.S. federal penitentiary, a political prisoner for whom tens of thousands of Pakistanis demonstrate regularly on the streets of London, Karachi, Islamabad, and Peshawar.

I am a Pakistani woman athlete who has run 31 marathons in nine years (including seventeen sub-4 hour marathons). The case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, who had adopted Boston as her home for over a decade, was so compelling that I could not run America’s oldest marathon except in her name. So, on Patriots Day 2017, I ran my first Boston Marathon in an attempt to draw attention to the egregious human rights violations against this innocent Pakistani Muslim woman.

As I stood in the Boston Commons on race morning, waiting with other runners to board the bus to the race start in Hopkinton, I could picture the slight and slender Aafia among the other doctors, scientists, and health professionals who were among the 27,000 athletes running Boston this year. Instead, Aafia occupied a tiny holding cell at the United States Penitentiary at Fort Worth, completely cut off from her family and community, her health gravely impugned by 14 years of political imprisonment.

She was arrested in Islamabad in a joint U.S.-Pakistani intelligence operation in 2003, one of many innocents caught up in a broad net of politically-motivated, arbitrary, or misplaced arrests during the “War on Terror.” At first, Aafia’s captivity was kept a secret by her captors. This lasted about five years. In flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention, Aafia’s captors refused to acknowledge her presence within the prison system, allowing them to act with complete impunity towards her. She spent part of her captivity at the U.S. Air Force Base in Baghram, Afghanistan, where she was known as “Prisoner 650.” During this time, Aafia was denied proper medical treatment, and repeatedly tortured and raped.

Two of Aafia’s young children, Ahmed and Mariam, were arrested and imprisoned along with her in violation of Geneva Convention stipulations on the detention of children. Like Aafia, they were not entered in any prison registry. Much later, Ahmed and Mariam were released and ordered not to reveal anything about their captivity.

In 2008, Aafia’s captors finally acknowledged that they were holding her, and she was sent to the U.S. to face charges. Her trial was held in a Manhattan courtroom beset by fears of terrorism. She appeared in a wheelchair, displaying signs of having been tortured. Bizarrely, the 110-pound, 5’2’’ Pakistani neuroscientist was charged with the assault and attempted murder of seven U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan.

Despite grave contradictions in the prosecution’s case, and clearly exculpatory evidence in Aafia’s favor, she was convicted and sentenced to 86 years.

On Monday, I ran the Boston Marathon in honor of Aafia, who did so many great things while in Boston. The front of my race tee-shirt bore her image with the words “Free Dr. Aafia.” The back of the tee read “Prisoner 650,” a reference to the early period of Aafia’s captivity when she was held secretly in Baghram. Throughout the race, I met many wonderful race volunteers and runners who were students at MIT. I wondered how many of them knew of their government’s abuse of a Pakistani woman scientist who had sat in the same classroom as them.

Aafia’s case is a glaring example of the government’s disregard for due process, human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, prisoners’ rights, and children’s rights. It is my hope that women’s rights groups and civil libertarians in the U.S. will call for her release. These groups have vociferously and consistently opposed the oppression of Muslim women and girls in cases like that of Malalai Yousufzai, the Chibok girls in Nigeria; and in cases of honor killings. If they are act on principle and not politics, they must speak out for Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.

-Nadrat Siddique

We Did it for Aafia

By Nadrat Siddique

Training for a marathon (26.2 mile race) is a months-long process, very different from casual running for fitness.

In the lengthy preparation for a marathon, many things can happen to derail one’s training:  With 8 weeks left before the 2017 Boston Marathon (held in April), I developed a looming shin splint. I addressed it immediately, switching over to walking and low impact workouts at the gym for about three weeks.

Then, with 7 weeks left before Boston, I woke up one morning with shingles (I had chicken pox as a child). This lasted about two weeks.

Then, about 5 weeks before the marathon, my 26-year old stepbrother passed away. His sudden and tragic death deeply affected the family, and for me, brought back many memories of the death of my child, Hanzela, who died a SIDS death in his second month. At that point, I decided I really did not feel up to running Boston, either mentally or physically.

A week passed, then two, and I saw the mother of my dead stepbrother (my stepmum) heroically carrying on the motions of life, despite the passing of her beloved son, and I toyed again with the idea of running the illustrious marathon.

At this point, I’d run 31 prior marathons, and qualified for Boston many times. At the risk of sounding cocky, I had little to prove! The original—really the only—reason I’d wanted to run the race was to bring attention to the plight of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist nabbed in a joint U.S./Pakistani operation in Pakistan, raped and tortured by her captors, and ultimately sentenced to 86-years by a kangaroo court for a crime she clearly could not have committed. It particularly sickened me that neither the Pakistani government, nor any of the major Muslim organizations in the U.S. were actively seeking her release from what was a clearly politically-motivated and flagrantly unjust imprisonment. If I ran the Boston Marathon—held in the city where Aafia, a top scholar at MIT and Brandeis University—had excelled both scholastically and spiritually—it would have to be in her name. Once again thoughts of running Boston entered my head.

There were only two weeks left before the Boston Marathon when a tiny lump I’d had for three years on the side of my neck suddenly became inflamed. It turned out to be an inclusion cyst which developed an abscess. I tried ignoring it until after the marathon, but it only got larger and more inflamed. Then on Monday of the week prior to the marathon, I had a minor surgery for the cyst. Three days later (Thursday), I did a 15-mile run on a favorite tree-lined trail, with the gash on the side of my neck from the surgery, to see if I was up to the task of a marathon. I felt fine afterwards, and was egged on further to attain the seemingly unattainable.

On Saturday, I jumped in my car, packing little but my marathon outfit and some food items (I am a picky eater), and took off for Boston, arriving around 1:00 AM. The next day was Sunday, and I took the Boston subway to the mandatory bib number pickup at the John Hynes Convention Center, prayed a lot, and did little else.

Then, on Monday—Patriots Day in Boston—I ran the Boston Marathon wearing my long-sleeved black “Free Dr. Aafia Siddiqui” tee (prepared for me by brothers from Masjid Al-Islam in SE Washington, DC). I was the only Pakistani woman in the field of approximately 37,000 runners, and finished the very hilly course in 4 hours 4 minutes, despite high temperatures during the mid-afternoon race (Marathons are ordinarily held in the early morning to decrease the possibility of heat injury among the athletes. But in Boston, the runners in my “wave” did not start running until about 11:00 AM, and we did not finish until about 3:00 PM. I saw many runners being carried off in stretchers, likely as a result of the very warm weather. According to the organizers’ website, 810 people were unable to finish the race; the Boston Globe reported that 2,000 required medical treatment during or after the race.)

About an hour after finishing the race, I was in my car, and on the way back to Maryland, composing letters to the Boston Globe on Dr. Aafia Siddiqui in my head as I drove. I reached Maryland safely at 3:00 AM. God is Great.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Jamaat al-Muslimeen Decries Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman’s Political Imprisonment and Death in Captivity

Press Statement

Nadrat Siddique
Jamaat al-Muslimeen National Majlis-e-Shura member

February 18, 2017

February 18, 2017, is a dismal day in the history of the United States, even by its own genocidal standards. On this day, Islamic scholar Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as “the Blind Sheikh,” died a political prisoner of the U.S. government.  To multitudes of Muslims the world over, he will be viewed as a martyr of Islam. The American mainstream might better understand Muslim sentiment if they considered how they might feel if Pope Francis—or another beloved religious figure— was imprisoned in a Muslim country, allowed virtually no contact with constituents, followers, and family, and then left to die a slow painful death from untreated (but treatable) medical conditions.

A visionary, Dr. Abdel Rahman articulately and consistently spoke out against the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak decades prior to the Arab Spring, insisting that the resources of Muslim countries, including Egypt, be used for the betterment of those countries--and not be pilfered by Western Powers or multinational corporations. These basic and seemingly logical demands were rewarded with imprisonment and torture by the Egyptian regime.

Fleeing the Egyptian regime’s torture, Dr. Abdel Rahman sought political asylum in the U.S., which he viewed as a land of freedom of expression, and whose laws he repeatedly emphasized must, in accordance with Islamic rules on guest-host relations, be respected by all Muslims who sought asylum therein, including himself.

Far from being accorded freedom of expression, he was brought up on trumped up charges, tried in a climate of utter fear and emotion, and, in 1995, convicted of conspiracy to bomb New York landmarks, almost entirely on the word of an informant who was paid over a million dollars.

Although he undoubtedly knew he was facing decades of jail time, he stood before the Court, unafraid of all but the Creator. His final words before being marched off into the American Gulag were a telling: “Fuzto Be Rab-e-Ka’aba” (“By the Lord of the Ka’aba, I have succeeded”).

The blind, elderly, diabetic scholar of Islam was detained and held for over 20 years under what can only be described as conditions of “Cruel and Unusual” punishment. Since he could neither see nor speak to his captors (he was blind and spoke no English); was barely allowed a monthly phone call to his family in Egypt; and was held in solitary confinement, he no doubt suffered all of the psychological trauma associated with long-term solitary captivity. On top of that, his advanced stage diabetes went untreated for months on end, until its effects, including gangrene, were irreversible, and he was finally relocated to the Butner Medical Center in North Carolina, where he would ultimately die. His family’s hunger strikes and appeals to the (post-Arab Spring Egyptian) regime of Muhammad Morsi for his repatriation to Egypt were fruitless, and Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman—loved throughout much of Egypt and the Islamic world—died alone, a slow painful death from diabetes.

The long-term political imprisonment and death in captivity of Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman seems part of a trend by the U.S. and its proxies to silence all independent, vocal, and effective Muslim leadership, and in particularly those who hold the title of imam, a position of high honor and respect in the Muslim community. It seems that the only imams of major mosques permitted to operate freely are those who kowtow to the government; bandy American flags on Muslim religious institutions; welcome video monitoring of their mosques; and encourage or allow censorship of their own words and those of their constituents by the authorities—clearly compromising their faith, as well as American principles of: "Separation of Church and State.”

The death of a renowned and respected Islamic scholar under such circumstances is an abomination. Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman’s treatment in captivity clearly violated both American laws on the treatment of prisoners (set out in the Bureau of Prison regulations), as well as numerous international laws. Jamaat al-Muslimeen decries Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman’s political imprisonment on trumped up charges, and laments his tragic death under clearly dehumanizing conditions.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Thoughts of Leonard Peltier on Eid

By Nadrat Siddique

In addition to being Eid ul-Adha, September 12 is Leonard Peltier’s 72nd birthday. Even though he’s not a Muslim, he made an Abraham-esque sacrifice for the oppressed Lakota (Sioux) people in 1975. His sacrifice stems from his participation in the American Indian Movement (AIM) camp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Peltier is Anishinabe (Ojibway), and not of the Lakota tribe or Pine Ridge. Hence his actions could be considered rather self-less and internationalist (or at least intertribal). AIM was an national organization fighting for the rights of indigenous people throughout North America. In this context, it came up against both corporate greed and the corrupt local tribal councils which did the dirty work of the corporations. Like many movements which fight for self-determination, human rights, and against the seizure of their peoples’ resources by U.S. and European multinational corporations, AIM was quickly labeled a “terrorist” organization by the authorities.

The camp on Pine Ridge was established to protect the local population from the reign of terror being enacted on them by the puppet tribal council of Dick Wilson. (Indian reservations typically have neither city council nor mayor; instead tribal chair and tribal council are the nearest equivalent). As a Pakistani, I would compare Dick Wilson’s reign of terror to that conducted by the Pakistan Army in Waziristan. As in Waziristan, many Pine Ridge residents were driven out of the area, while others lived in daily fear of the regime over an extended period of time. Many of Dick Wilson’s opponents wound up dead, and it was believed they were murdered by Wilson’s goon squad. Day-to-day life was totally disrupted in Pine Ridge (as was life in Waziristan by the Pakistan army incursions), hence AIM was called in to protect the local people.

It was only as a result of his presence on Pine Ridge that Peltier could be charged with the murder of two FBI agents--a crime which all the evidence, including undisputable ballistic evidence, shows he did not commit. And so Peltier, nearing 40 years of incarceration, continues to languish in an American prison.

This Eid Day, please pray for Peltier, and for all other victims of the American system of Injustice.

© 2016 By Nadrat Siddique

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Passing of a Community Mother—Muneera Afifa

By Nadrat Siddique

May 20, 2016
Burtonsville, MD

Today I attended the janaza of a very old and dear friend, Muneera Afifa. Idara-e-Jaferia (mosque) very kindly hosted the services. Immediately after juma’ah prayers, the janaza (funeral) prayer was held. The scene at Idara resembled a reunion of Jamaat al-Muslimeen members, former members, and associates. I ran across Sr. Yasmine Abdul-Jalil; Sr. Fatimah Abdullah and Sr. Hamdiyah, both from Philadelphia; Sr. Amatullah; Sr. Safiyyah Abdullah; and Sr. Sumayah Nahidian and her daughter. Then there was Sr. Najah; Sr. Zainab Kareem; and Zainab’s son Natheer Kareem. There were others who looked familiar but whom I could not immediately place. Br. Mauri Saalakhan of the Aafia Foundation had cancelled a speaking engagement in New Jersey to be there. Br. Saifuddin Waliullah of Masjid Al-Islam and Br. Khalid Griggs from North Carolina were there. Jamaat al-Muslimeen Ameer Dr. Kaukab Siddique, a long-time friend of Muneera, was not physically present as he had a juma’ah khutbah to deliver at Masjid Jamaat al-Muslimeen in Baltimore, but had sent condolences with his daughter (this writer).

We met, wept, and commiserated with each other, and then left in a miles long funeral procession for the cemetery. The interment was held at the Maryland National Memorial Park in Laurel, MD, where Idara-e-Jaferia holds a section specifically for Muslim burials.

Muneera was a leading member of the DC chapter of Jamaat al-Muslimeen c.1978 – 1985. I remembered her being at every Jamaat meeting, along with her close friend Yasmine Abdul-Jalil, whom she knew from the Islamic Party. Yasmine—along with her then husband, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil—hosted many of the meetings in their Silver Spring home. She had given Muneera shahada, and the bond between them was tight.

Muneera was lively, outspoken, and down-to-earth, attending Jamaat al-Muslimeen meetings with her three small children, Sulaiman, Nafeesa, and Atiya, whom she did not hesitate to breast-feed during the meetings. The organization’s platform included racial and gender equality; permissibility of women’s leadership over men (contingent on their respective taqwa-levels); anti-imperialism; and internationalism. Muneera encompassed all of these tenets. A Black Washington DC, native, she appeared regularly at Jamaat al-Muslimeen protests at the Egyptian Embassy (against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, known for his torture of political opponents); at marches through poverty-ridden DC projects (carrying the revolutionary message of Islam to local communities); at pickets of the Saudi Embassy (calling for an end to the monarchy there); and at Jamaat al-Muslimeen local and national conferences, which relied heavily on her organizing skills.

“Patience and perseverance,” qualities of a Muslim mentioned throughout the Qur’an, were regularly mentioned at DC Jamaat meetings. And Muneera exemplified these traits, despite going through many trials and tribulations at various points in her life.

To me, she was a tower of strength, unflinching in faith. It was the era before political correctness, and I was then attending Annandale High School, a mostly White school in affluent Fairfax County (just outside Washington, DC). There were no other evidently practicing Muslims at Annandale High at the time, and I met major harassment for my adaption of the hijab. At the time, hijab was not the norm in my family—my mother wore it nominally; my sister, my aunt, and my grandmother wore it not at all—and support for my decision to publicly identify as a Muslim was nowhere to be found. As daily persecution against me at Annandale High, including physical attacks by ignorant, corporate-media informed youth, increased, I looked to Muneera. She gave me unconditional support for the path I had chosen, and an affirmation far beyond that of a mother. Somehow, she found the time and energy to be there for me, even while being the young mother of three small children. And- as I heard repeatedly at the janaza, I was not the only one for whom she did this. As a fellow janaza attendee told me, Muneera was the mother to an entire community.

As I stood in the cemetery thinking of the pivotal role Muneera had played during my teen years, and the selflessness with which she’d given of herself, tears rolled down my cheeks. The Iranian clergyman conducting the graveside ceremony went on at considerable length in Arabic—which most of the attendees clearly could not understand. He offered durood as-salaam to the Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) family, including the twelve imams. Oddly, he could not remember or pronounce the name of Muneera’s father (Glover Collins), in his opening statement.

By this time, Muneera’s daughter Nafeesa and son Sulaiman were completely inside the (open) grave with their mother’s body. They adjusted and re-adjusted their mother’s body, until Muneera lay on her right, with head towards the ka’aba. (In an Islamic burial, the body is buried directly in the ground enshrouded in a white sheet, and no coffin is needed, other than perhaps for transport. Family members are encouraged to perform last rites themselves, rather than relying on an undertaker.)

Upon completing the task, Nafeesa emerged from the grave with shovel in hand, and asked the women to move forward, as they were to approach the grave first, to offer prayers, or to symbolically throw dirt on the body. A pile of dirt had been placed on a nearby cart by cemetery workers. After heaping several shovel-fulls of dirt over her mother’s body, she offered the shovel to the women watching. Several of the women, including the stylishly-dressed Fatimah Abdullah from Philadelphia, were grabbing up handfuls of dirt from the pile, and placing them in the grave. However, none stepped forward immediately to take the shovel from Nafeesa, perhaps because it was rather large and unwieldy. I stepped forward, and took it, placing several shovel-fulls of dirt over my beloved friend’s body, memories of the years in Jamaat al-Muslimeen with Muneera flooding my consciousness. I would have continued in my reverie, but Nafeesa reclaimed the shovel from me, and offered it to the other women, before turning it over to the men. The men then completed the job of covering the body with dirt.

Nafeesa was the heroine of the day. The burial ritual over, she stood before the crowd, speaking with grace, clarity, and without breaking down. She thanked the attendees for the outpouring of love shown her mother, and for their support of her and her family. I remembered Nafeesa as a small child, dressed by her mother in dark-colored hijab similar to the one she wore now. She had flowered into a poised, self-confident, and beautiful young woman. I knew that her mother would be proud of the manner in which she presided over this, most difficult of ceremonies.

Imam Khalid Griggs, of the Community Mosque of Winston-Salem, poignantly detailed his life-long friendship with Muneera. He mentioned how she would energize any Islamic project with which she was involved, and how it was hard for her to refrain from becoming involved any time she heard of positive Islamic work being done.

The last time I saw Muneera was at a gathering for Palestine (Quds Day) in Washington, DC. It was Ramadan and well into the fast, and everyone was feeling its effects. Traversing the crowd to get to me, Muneera greeted me with her characteristic loving embrace. From the time frame described by family members, she may have already seen the onset of the disease which ultimately took her life. But there she was, undaunted, by heat, fatigue, and hunger, a Black woman standing up for Palestine. May Allah forgive her sins and grant her Paradise.

© 2016 Nadrat Siddique