Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mahjabeen Islam Washington Post article on Hajj

The Washington Post
Saudi Arabia-and the world-must take steps to make hajj safer for Muslims

By Mahjabeen Islam January 1 2016
Mahjabeen Islam is former president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.
It has become clear that thousands of hajj pilgrims died Sept. 24 in Mina, Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi government is sticking to its story of 769 fatalities — the number released two days after the disaster. The combined numbers reported by various Muslim governments far surpass this total — Iran alone reported more than 460 deaths — and counts made by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse news agencies exceed 2,000, with hundreds more unaccounted for. Less than a week after the tragedy, the Saudi vice minister of health stated that the death toll had reached 4,173, but the figure was later retracted.
An inquiry was promised, but the prognosis for a speedy and fair investigation is poor. Transparency and accountability are not Saudi strong suits. Still, more than enough is known to draw one important conclusion: Muslims planning to take part in the annual five-day pilgrimage to Mecca should be aware that until better crowd-control measures are put in place, they will be putting their lives at risk.
The hajj is a journey of a lifetime for Muslims and a transformative experience for many people. I, too, had some dramatic experiences during my one hajj and two umrahs (minor pilgrimages), and I treasure those memories. But I wouldn’t go again. Saudi arrogance and hostility toward visitors, especially women, are too great.
Poor preparations of the pilgrims, along with a language barrier, are significant problems. Far too many of the Saudi boy scouts and soldiers who monitor and guide pilgrims speak only Arabic, so the majority of pilgrims from the Muslim world are out of luck. Travel agencies in the various countries are supposed to guide their clients through the steps of the hajj. But a handful of people cannot accompany hundreds each step of the way. And instructions can be misunderstood or forgotten.

During my hajj in 2004, we had been repeatedly admonished to avoid attempting to retrieve lost sandals during the stoning of the devil, or Jamarat, ritual, but I saw my friend do exactly that. She was being swallowed up by a vortex of people, and we extricated her just in time from a deadly crush. The death toll was more than 240, and the moment is forever stamped in my memory. Two years later, during the same ritual, 345 people were killed in a similar stampede. Afterward, international outrage forced the Saudis to reconstruct the entrance and exit to the area, and there were no more incidents. Until September’s catastrophe.

What’s known about what happened is that a panic broke out on narrow streets near the entrance to the Jamarat site, about three miles from Mecca, but reports have been contradictory. Iran and many other countries blamed Saudi mismanagement. The Lebanon-based newspaper Ad-Diyar, citing witnesses, reported that a convoy escorting Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a role in the incident by making some pilgrims turn against the flow of the crowd. Saudi authorities denied this report and instead blamed pilgrims for not following instructions. Other witnesses said closed exits touched off the panic.
It’s clear that some simple, workable steps need to be taken.
The administration of the hajj should be a fully international effort. All Muslim countries should send a large contingent of guides to Saudi Arabia months in advance. These guides should receive ground training at each of the sites where the hajj rituals occur, especially with regard to crowd control. During the hajj, they could then be stationed at important locations wearing colored jackets denoting the country they represent or the language they speak.
Each Muslim country should be responsible for training its pilgrims. A training course on hajj rituals and crowd responsibility should be created by Saudi Arabia and translated into the various necessary languages. Formal hajj training sites should be established in all countries with significant Muslim populations, and a hajj visa should be issued only if a certificate of training is attached to the passport.
The hajj is a pillar of Islam and must be completed once in our lives. But why would any Muslims make the pilgrimage knowing that they risk injury or death? Muslims will not announce that they are boycotting the hajj, for that seems blasphemous and could invite retribution. But as parents and breadwinners with responsibilities to their families, they simply will refrain from making travel plans.
The Saudis have a strong incentive to act. It would be naive for them to think that Muslims won’t think twice before making the hajj until definite, credible arrangements are made to ensure their safety. According to the Al-Hayat newspaper, Saudi Arabia received $16.5 billion from Muslim pilgrimages in hajj in 2012. Saudi Arabia’s main source of revenue is oil. Falling oil prices have contributed to a Saudi budget deficit of $98 billion this year, with a projected shortfall next year of $87 billion. The Saudi intervention in Yemen is costly. Discontent in the royal family and rumors of a possible palace coup have been reported. High unemployment remains a problem. And now a horrific tragedy has struck the hajj. Riyadh can no longer afford complacency.

Muslim countries and Saudi Arabia badly need to conduct a transparent inquiry into the cause of September’s hajj crowd collapse and make swift arrangements for a detailed, international orchestration of hajj for the future. The survival of pilgrims is not all that is at stake. The Saudi monarchy may be as well.

APPNA A Financial Powerhouse With a Mission

Written June 20, 2015

APPNA was founded as a professional organization but has morphed into more than that, most of it unintended, reminiscent somewhat of a rudderless ship.

Along the way, and in some areas, we have achieved a great deal. From a few hundred members we now are in the thousands. But our potential is huge and largely untapped.

At the risk of dating myself I will report that time was that when you rounded at a hospital, you were pretty much the only Pakistani/Muslim on at least five floors of the hospital. Now, rounding on even one patient has you run into at least four Muslim doctors, half of them Pakistani.   

Many mornings I awaken to National Public Radio talking about a particular medical subject and many a time the physicians interviewed are Pakistani-American. How do I know? Some names are unequivocally Pakistani, even if some accents are second-generation.

Many Pakistani-American physicians are not APPNA members. While it is great fun to see friends at the summer meeting and enjoy the mushaira, the banquet and lately Pakistan Day celebrations, we need to change the culture of APPNA and make it relevant and attractive to more physicians. It is estimated that there are more than 15,000 physicians of Pakistani descent practicing in the United States; APPNA’s membership usually stays at around 3000. So less than a third of Pakistani-American physicians are APPNA members.

There may be efforts within APPNA to increase its membership, I just don’t know of them nor see the same old figure of 3000 members increasing. APPNA has a reputation of being the bhangra-Bentley-boasting club and while that holds appeal to a certain segment of Pakistani-American physicians, it has gotten old very quickly to very many.

Perhaps if we change APPNA’s course just a bit, we can achieve much at many levels. If APPNA can become a professional organization concentrating on medical issues and charitable projects here in the United States we can get our Pakistani-American colleagues to jump on our bandwagon. And celebrate the fraternity and commonality of purpose.

APPNA clinics all across the nation, catering to the poor and uninsured, would create a legacy that numerous physicians would want to be a part of. Some free clinics in the United States, run by Pakistani-American physicians are superbly organized and with creation of a business plan, these clinics can be templated and exported to many US cities. With the broad spectrum of physician specialties among Pakistani-American physicians, staffing these clinics should not be a problem. A core of primary care with specialty representation and small pharmacies within the clinics is a totally viable model.

APPNA homeless shelters dotting the nation are another project we can create, sponsor and run. APPNA women’s shelters for victims of violence can be easily planned as well. With retiring Pakistani-American physicians, APPNA senior living communities should be actively worked on.

I am a first-generation Pakistani-American and one of those whose hearts are stuck in Pakistan, and who cry and bleed in sync with it. We are however not as effective in Pakistan as we are and must be here.

I have proposed the Qatra Fund before, based on the saying qatra qatra dary ban jaata hai: drops coalesce to form a river. If all 3000 APPNA members contributed $100 per month to APPNA we would have $3.6 million every year. Dinner at a fancy restaurant for a family of four easily costs $100. And the wonderful foodies that we are, we eat out more than once a month. So the $100 is entirely affordable. If not all the membership and just half contributed $100 to the Qatra Fund, we would have $1.8 million every year. And the millions are cumulative through the years. And with our American projects we would attract more physician members as well.

I have talked to many presidential candidates over the years about this. Some don’t get it. Others want to but while you can see the wheels turning, you hear “it’s really difficult, people don’t even want to pay annual membership”. Which may well be true, we are, after all, a people that have fought over mithai at annual banquets.

We need to vote in executive committee members that want to eliminate the status quo and then help them start and sustain the arduous, but achievable, process of making APPNA a financial powerhouse. And a remarkable, relevant and revered organization. 


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rigidity of the two extremes


The Charlie Hebdo magazine killings have had an immediate fallout and promise to make many serious and enduring changes, none of which will be positive for anyone. I remember the time that the Satanic Verses came out and how deeply hurt and offended I was. A liberal Muslim friend, in full condescension and pity mode, told me to read the Satanic Verses for I would realise how much “a work of art” the book was. I politely declined; reading the excerpts in my local paper was enough to make my stomach turn. Trash cannot be a work of art and I was not contributing to Rushdie’s millions.

And then came the Danish cartoons. I protested by writing a letter to the editor of The Toledo Blade and explained how Muslims love God and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) more than their parents. And satirizing Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is like slugging someone in the solar plexus, and worse. Non-Muslim US friends appreciated the elucidation and empathised with my distress. I am certain I was a whole lot more effective with that one letter than the many threats that I could have sent to Jyllands-Posten. People respond to persuasion, not intimidation.

Muslims on the extreme right as well as the ignorant ones forget that respect for God and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is enjoined upon Muslims. Non-Muslims are free to do what they desire: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). But we got provoked and instead of Rushdie and the Danish cartoons dying their natural deaths, they rocketed to persistent fame. The reason that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was created human was for us to emulate him in everything we do and understand what perfection in a human being looks like. In every arena of living, especially in difficult times, Muslims should pause, reflect and use Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life and sayings as a guide. “What would Muhammad (PBUH) have done?” is a vital question that we must articulate within and it is amazing how the answer is immediate, unequivocal and deeply comforting.

We must also go with stories of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life that have a strong chain of narration. Even the ones that we grew up with that are well established. How the old lady would throw garbage on him every day and when, one day, there was no garbage he went to find out what had happened and found her ill. His kindness totally won her over. He could have killed her on day one. Or the story of the man who decided to urinate in the mosque. The companions of the Prophet (PBUH) rushed toward the man but Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stopped them and advised them to let him finish. He then, without cursing or scolding the man, told him that the mosque was a place for the remembrance of God and asked his companions to clean the area the man had defiled.

Justice and its accurate dispensation are vital concepts in Islam. Evidence is mandated in all contentious issues. Vigilantism and unilaterally taking the law into one’s hands is not accepted. Undoubtedly, Charlie Hebdo crossed many lines and offended Muslims, Christians, Jews and pretty much anyone whenever they wanted to. However, Muslims should have taken the “dogs bark and the caravan moves on” tack. Prior to the killing of the 17 people at Charlie Hebdo, the magazine had a circulation of 30,000. In the printing after the attack, five million copies of the magazine were printed and swooped up the same day. People who might have been neutral or inclined towards Muslims previously, despise us now.

The most tragic part is that, again, Islam has been pulled into a situation that has little to do with it. Columnist Gwynne Dyer writes that the Charlie Hebdo killings are representative of a larger Muslim civil war. Thirsting for power, political extremists who call themselves Muslim, mess with the hearts and minds of economically and socially marginalised Muslims, get them to injure, kill and maim, and fool them into believing that this madness is mandated by Islam. Destabilising Muslim governments and gaining power is their aim. This is borne out by the fact that most victims of this kind of terrorism have been Muslim.

Columnist Robert Fisk also has a captivating take on this. The French colonisation of Algeria and the subsequent massacre of protesting Algerians have bred a seething anger in French-Algerians, whose lot is worsened by their economic situation. The French prime minister alluded to this when he said that there was social, economic and ethnic apartheid in France. Young people marginalised this way are fertile breeding grounds for the planting of extremist ideology and hanging it on Islam.

All this is not to say that the sickening disrespect by the Charlie Hebdo magazine is condoned. What I found even more offensive was the printing of a front-page cartoon after the killings. And this displays the madness of the ultra-liberals. As though satire toward the sacred personalities of all major religions was like oxygen to them and without these hits in very poor taste, the satirists could not go on. The Pope encouraged respect toward all religions and alluded to the sentiment of Muslims who love Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) more than their parents: “If my assistant curses my mother, he can expect a punch in return.”

The loss of one million Iraqi civilians in a war that found no weapons of mass destruction and the decimation of Baghdad, the seat of Islamic civilization, most certainly fuel deep resentment in the Muslim psyche. But more violence is not vindication.

The innocents between the two extremes take the brunt from both sides. Muslims all over the world have to apologise for what they have nothing to do with and reiterate that satire does not deserve death. If Muslims unequivocally condemn the killings per their understanding of Islam, they risk being targeted by the handlers of the Kouachi brothers. Charlie Hebdo remains undeterred by the killings and will serve insult after insult, and the Kouachi types will continue to kill. No wonder Islam promotes taking the middle path and avoiding extremes (Quran 2:143). Whenever a discussion became contentious or futile, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would leave it and say “Wa khairun salama” (Upon you be the best of peace). I am certain he would have treated all of this in the same manner.