the finer points of islam and a joke about a person’s anatomy

17 Jalal 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man”

Earlier this week I read a quote attributed to a hard-line Iranian Muslim cleric that said “Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes”

A woman from Indiana responded with a “modest” proposal that seems to be touching off a worldwide firestorm.  Jen McCreight, a student who writes a blog called “Blag Hag” wrote that if what the Iranian cleric says is true, they “should be able to test this claim scientifically…Time for a Boobquake.” 

McCreight continued, “On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that’s your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I’m sure Sedighi [the Iranian cleric] can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn’t rumble. And if we really get through to him, maybe it’ll be one involving plate tectonics.”

I saw one comment on the page which pointed out that Islam as a religion itself should not be judged by that quote, that the cleric is an extremist and not within the mainstream of Islam.  I agree–as a Baha’i I believe both in the legitimacy of Islam and the equality of men and women.

While modesty has its virtues, it shouldn’t be rammed down the throats of unwilling people, nor should it be enforced by fear-mongering. (Iran has been subject to many deadly earthquakes, and Teheran, like L.A., is waiting for the “big one.”)  Many people have argued–legitimately, I believe–that the original intent of Muhammad was to actually minimize the objectification of women, and many believe that Islam, in its purest form, actually empowers women.  While I know that many Muslim women wear the veil out of a sincere desire to do so, it is also true that many women are forced to veil when they would rather not.  There are many Muslims who believe that the veil is actually not sanctioned by Islam, but instead is a rather extreme response to a Quran passage.  Ultimately, the very real oppression of Islamic women is probably a reflection of the practitioners of Islam in certain parts of the world, not a reflection of Islam itself.

While the Iranian cleric’s statement is extreme, it is, in many ways no different than people in this country who claim that women who are raped are responsible for what happened to them because of the way they dressed.  Not only does this oppress women and let the rapist off the hook, it is also demeaning to men, as it depicts us as sex-starved animals unable to control ourselves.

Now, as a writer, I need to somehow make a smooth transition from discussing the finer points of Islam, to what McCreight refers to as “a boob joke.”  There seems to be no easy way to do this. 😉

As I write this, there are now 145,000 people on Facebook who have said that they will participate in this event.    McCreight has been interviewed by the largest newspaper in Canada, and an Irish radio station also requested an interview.  Then CNN picked it up on its “This Just In” blog.  And in Washington D.C., BBC Persia will cover a noontime “Boobquake” gathering at Dupont Circle, which means that coverage of this event will spread all over the world, including in Iran. As McCreight wrote in a subsequent post, “Seriously, Internet, you scare and amaze me sometimes.”

I say all power to them.  

1991 revisited through my journal

10 Jalal 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Definition of Sound, “When A Lion Awakens”

This is second in a series of posts about re-reading my journals and revisiting the years in which they were written.

I had come home from the Global Walk for a Livable World in November 1990.  During almost all of 1990, I lived in a mobile intentional community ranging in size from 80 to 130 people. The sense of community, connectedness and unity for a cause was wonderful, and I came home from the Walk feeling very happy and energized.  For the most part, the Global Walk was a world without walls, as we were outdoors and away from cities most of the time.  We were used to being able to see long distances–over valleys, mountains, and plains the earth seemed so big and so alive.  And then came city living…

I had looked forward to moving back to Chicago. I fell in love with the city all over again during my visit there over Christmas 1989. Toward the end of the Walk I began to write about my dreams for my new life in the city–reconnecting with old friends, working as a community organizer, living in an interesting neighborhood, etc…

The year 1991 felt like a bucket of cold water being dumped on my head. 

I wrote a lot about the coming of the first Gulf War.  The war lasted a total of 40 days or so, and compared to the wars we have now, it ended up being a minor blip.  But before the war started, we had no idea to what extent things would escalate out of control and turn into the World War III we’d long feared.  A protest march I’d participated in right after the outbreak of hostilities painted a picture of how the world looked like to me at that point:  “I remember when we were walking from Balbo Drive to Michigan Avenue the news hit us [that Tel Aviv had been hit by bombs].  I remember holding Karola’s hand and not being able to speak for several minutes.  I could see the pained expression on her face.  We walked silently while others chanted (many had not heard the news).  Finally I said, choking back tears, ‘I’m finding it hard to shout right now.’ Karola responded, almost in a dreamy state, ‘We’ve got to.  We’ve got to continue’.  I had an empty feeling in my stomach and it felt like another large chunk of the skyscraper we call civilization had fallen off and come crashing to the ground. We turned onto Van Buren Street under the el tracks from Michigan Avenue and a police car was moving slowly in front of us.  The blue light was flashing in front of me, partially blinding me, and turning the world around me into fragments, and the chants and shouts seemed to do the same thing–they became distant and I felt like I was in a world that was no longer real and disintegrating before my eyes.”

I went through a job search that lasted about six months while living with my parents.  I did lot of informational interviews with local community organizers and activists, sharing with them my experiences.  I got a few job interviews, but I often felt like I was caught in networking cul-de-sacs.  I also got a sense of cynicism and burn-out from many of the people I spoke with. 

Finally, I decided to broaden my search to include other not-for-profit organizations such as charities.  The first charity I spoke with–Catholic Charities of Chicago–landed me a job as a volunteer coordinator and organizer of their Tag Day event (where people solicit donations at street corners around the area for a cause–in this case senior citizens.)  But I entered a work environment completely different from the one I’d experienced on the Global Walk. I had a short time to figure out my job and carrying it out.  I wrote “I am trying to invent the wheel while simultaneously driving on it at 75 m.p.h.”  I found myself caught up in politics often not of my own making.  Nevertheless, I did well on the Tag Days project despite the difficult situation.

In the summer of 1991 I moved to a quirky apartment on Southport Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.  I basically got along all right with my roommate and I liked the neighborhood.  But it was an adjustment being in the city–more so than I’d imagined.  As I wrote in my journal, “I am now surrounded by four walls, and my world looks very different–and limiting.” 

I tried many ways to fill the emptiness I saw in my life.  On May 24, 1991, I wrote a short journal entry that would over the long run be prophetic:  “My life’s goals are becoming more more clearer now.  A community.  Community of close people transcending the traditional boundaries we put between ourselves, living in harmong with life and spirit, working together for a common good.”

Then on one windy evening in late August, I heard the wind rushing outside my apartment and felt immediately called to walk outside.  As I watched the drama play out among the clouds in the moonlight, I began to once again feel like the earth was alive, and I felt like celebrating as I walked.  As I wrote in my journal about the experience, the word “Pagan” came out of my pen for the first time.  Within a few months, I had joined a Pagan group in Chicago.  I actually found myself quite surprised at how much happiness and joy I felt towards the end of the year–I’d finally felt like I’d reconnected with a part of myself.  

my independent investigation of truth

14 Baha 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Green Day, “American Idiot”

I was drawn to the Baha’i Faith in 2007 for a number of reasons.  The first and most important reason was a series of spiritual experiences over the years that made it feel like I was being guided to the Faith.  Equally important was the positive impression I’d long had of Baha’is, a positive impression that went back all the way to 1988.  And some of the books I read in my efforts to learn about the Faith really resonated with me.  

One thing I realize now is that as I was leaving the Mahikari organization, I still felt the need to belong to a spiritual community, and the Baha’i Faith seemed to hold some of the tenets of Mahikari (indeed, more than one person has alleged that Mahikari founder Kotama Okada stole some of his ideas from the Baha’i Faith–without attribution.)  The Baha’i Faith felt like Mahikari without all of the foul-smelling baggage.

My feelings about the Baha’i Faith are still very positive, but my devotion to the Baha’i Faith is not really strong.  I’ve gradually come to realize this while attending meetings where we would discuss attracting new people to the Faith.  I’d sit and listen at the meetings and find myself feeling quite sad for no apparent reason. 

I began to suspect that my negative experiences with Mahikari were feeding these emotions.  So I asked a good Baha’i friend of mine to meet with me for coffee so that I could talk about my experiences with Mahikari.  I felt that the process of talking about them would give me some clarity, and that she might be able to see some things I didn’t see.  

Then, to organize my thoughts, I took several sheets of paper and made a list on each sheet of paper.  The lists consisted of 1) what values, spiritual and otherwise, have consistently been important to me over the years 2) what initially attracted me to Mahikari, 3) my initial negative gut feelings about Mahikari, 4) why I chose to get involved with Mahikari despite those negative gut feelings, 5) what I did for the Mahikari organization, and 6) the negative experiences that ultimately caused me to leave the organization.  

Then I met with my friend for two hours, and it was very powerful to talk about my Mahikari experience.  I still have a copy of a color photo book the Mahikari organization sells, and I used it to give my friend a visual image on top of narrative I was giving her.  Her response to the things I said and showed here were interesting.  As I showed her the enormous temple, shrine, and museum in Takayama, Japan, she wondered aloud how Mahikari could have gotten all the money it needed to build these enormous structures.  Even more interesting, she used the word “abuse” to describe some of the experiences I was describing to her–a word that I would not have used at all. 

I found this list-making and experience-sharing exercise to be very illuminating.  Indeed, I strongly recommend this for any questioning or ex-member of Mahikari, or anyone else trying to come to terms with a religion they are questioning or have left.  In my case, I was surprised by the number of things that ultimately made me leave the organization–two sides of a sheet of paper were actually not enough to include everything.  

Based on this narrative, it would seem that drinking the Kool-Aid the Mahikari organization offered me left me with a sour stomach that for now, and that makes it a challenge for me to digest even healthy spiritual teachings and experiences.  It could have been worse.  I have always had a bit of a rebellious streak which, in the case of Mahikari, served me well. While I was a dedicated member of the organization, I never quite stopped questioning things, and as such, was able to avoid some of the spiritual traps that I saw other Mahikari members become ensnared in. Indeed, I take some devilish pride in knowing that a few Mahikari staff members and senior members were even scared of me because of my willingness to question things. Compared to many former members, I think I came out relatively unscathed.

I burned out after thirteen years of fundraising and promoting good causes. There is a part of me that has become cynical, jaded, and automatically suspicious of any effort–political, charitable, or religious– that claims to be for “the common good,” or “making a difference in the world”–those particular phrases for me have the nutritional value of skim milk and iceberg lettuce.  I realize that this is not an entirely healthy attitude, but it points to some other things I feel I need to work on.

So, yeah, I’ve got some things I need to work on and figure out.  

As far as the Baha’i Faith is concerned, I must make a strong distinction between Mahikari and the Baha’i Faith.  There are things about the Baha’i Faith I’m not entirely sure about, but the Baha’i Faith has never raised any red flags.  By red flags, I mean things that feel really strange, weird, and questionable.  Throughout my entire tenure with the Mahikari organization, I saw many red flags spring up, and pretty soon they became so numerous that I realized I couldn’t trust the organization any more.  

I need certitude one way or another in my feelings about the Baha’i Faith, and I feel that the only way to do that is to immerse myself more in the Writings.  I have a number of writings by Baha’u’llah that I have yet to read, and many that I certainly have not absorbed.  As I read, I want to take notes, and highlight things that resonate with me, as well as things that I question.  I should also continue my study in the Ruhi series–right now I am at the end of Book Two, but have been stuck on Book Two for two years.

That such an independent investigation of truth is encouraged in the Baha’i Faith is a good thing.  I look forward to seeing what I find out.