Saturday, September 15, 2012

my State Dept trip

Hi everyone, I returned yesterday from my State Dept trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Over the course of 12 days, I spoke to varied audiences consisting of college students, community members, NGO workers, professors, and local government officials; people at the poverty level, people from the upper class, and everyone in between.
A large part of the discussions focused on breaking down stereotypes about being a Muslim in the US. I was often asked if there are mosques in the US, and whether Muslims are able to practice Islam freely, wear hijab, hold any type of job, etc. I explained that being a Muslim does not interfere with one’s ability to get an education or a job in the US, and that the US protects every individual’s right to practice his/her religion freely. In America there are Muslims in every aspect of US life- doctors, lawyers, artists, even government. And that in the US, achieving one’s goals is done via education and on the basis of merit.
I also spoke to the audiences about the fact that Western and Islamic values are not at odds, as some might think. I also spoke about the misunderstandings that happen when people confuse Middle Eastern culture with Islam- Islam is a religion that does not subjugate women, but rather empowers them and affords them equal rights.
When speaking to poorer communities in Cambodia, I focused on the importance of education and stressed that education is key to establishing oneself and can better not only that individual’s situation but can in fact uplift the entire community. The villagers in Battambang told me that it costs $2 a day for their children to commute to the nearest public school, and that this is out of budget for them. They said that unless the government can offer a scholarship, they prefer to have their children work on the farm and earn an income, rather than spend money on education. The purpose of my visit was to let them air their concerns about the cost of education, but to also give them needed inspiration and motivation to prioritize schooling for their children and to help them find a few practical solutions to get their kids to school. Waiting for a handout from the government is not an option- and in the long run, will not lead to the kind of upliftment education can bring.
In all the events, I asked audiences to feel free to ask me questions- I allotted much time to let people speak their minds to me and I feel that this was instrumental in resolving misunderstandings. It was only by allowing individuals to challenge me with questions and by letting them bring up the issues and questions important to them that we could make progress and truly learn from each other. Sometimes people became passionate about their views and this always led to very interesting, lively discussion.
At one event in Chiang Mai in Thailand, one of the audience members- a middle-aged Muslim Thai man – began to get upset because he felt that Americans – as a group- are unrepentant about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and that, unequivocally, we support our government’s actions and motivations. I addressed his comments by first telling him to please realize that America is a multi-faceted society with people who have a variety of political leanings. People protest every day outside the White House to show their displeasure with the actions of their government, and to simply assume that all Americans are smug and self-serving is as unfair as assuming that all Muslim men are terrorists.
Some audience members wanted to talk about hijab. Are women able to wear hijab freely in the US? Do all women in the US wear it the same way? Others had questions about gay rights and Islam in America. Still others wanted me to talk about Muslim holidays in the US; violence against Muslims; arranged marriage; etc.
People were happy to have a chance to speak and interested in my answers to their questions. After each event, people approached me and told me that I had given them a different perspective. Many people thanked me for giving them the chance to participate and I was overwhelmed by the positive response.
 I knew, before leaving for this trip, that although I was officially the one who would be offering perspective and a glimpse into the lives of others, that I would gain these things multifold. People told me they were glad I had come to speak to them, but I am grateful to each of the almost 900 people who assembled and listened and spoke to me. I say or think “alhamdolillah” dozens of times every day, and this trip has only reinforced my belief that dozens is not nearly enough. I am grateful that I never had to choose between education and food. I am grateful that as an American I can practice my religion freely, that I can speak my mind, that I have been given the chance to affect positive change. I am grateful to the people I met on this trip who welcomed me and gave me perspective and fed me and entertained me and, especially, challenged me. Alhamdolillah :)