Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Park 51 - to be or not to be?


Learning to live together peacefully again

The first time I heard about the plans for building a mosque at Ground Zero, I had immediately questioned the wisdom of such a move. However, since then, I have had a chance to ponder the deeper implications of this proposal as more details come to light, not the least of which is the fact that the mosque is actually a community center with prayer rooms for Muslims, Christians and Jews, and it is not at Ground Zero but two blocks away from it.

September 11, 2001 will be forever etched in our memories as the day when the world changed forever. The morning of 9/11 began for many like any ordinary Tuesday. For others, who left home with hasty goodbyes hoping to make it up later, it turned out to be a nightmare. A horrified world struggled to make sense of it as confusion, debris and death rained from the sky, while a group of bloodthirsty fanatics applauded. Sadly, as the twin towers collapsed, so did the world view as we knew it. Islam was suddenly thrust into the glare of international spotlight and scrutiny, and a new world order dominated by raw emotion took shape within hours that still continues to color our perceptions nine years hence.

The events that have ensued since 9/11 have also caused us to make many difficult choices, unfortunately many of which have resulted in more death, and fueled terrorism around the world. Consider this: if the little girl who had to grow up with a picture in the frame instead of a warm parental embrace in one part of the world questions her right to that protection, a little boy also mourns a family he lost in the middle of the night to the roaring sound of an unseen enemy that calls itself a freind. Who is responsible for their tragic share and the resulting changed perceptions? Meanwhile, a breed of fanatics swells their ranks around the world taking advantage of actions which reaffirm their stand of a world pitted against their religion.

The serious consequences of this linking of isolated radical phenomenon to mainstream Islam have resulted in detrimental effects evident on several societal levels in the US. On one hand, the American society has become increasingly insecure despite investing heavily in internal and external security, while on the other; alienation of huge sections of its own population is causing a systematic breakdown of societal cohesion – neither of which can help the cause of peace. On the global level, this means fuelling of further hatred and increasing acts of violence against innocent people, Muslim and non-Muslim, deemed guilty through perceived association.

What many patriotic non-Muslim Americans have failed to realize is that 9/11 has done more damage to mainstream Muslims across the world, and especially in the US, than any other single event in recent history. Not only have they not been allowed to grieve the deaths of beloved family members, friends and mentors, and fellow citizens whom they lost on 9/11, American Muslims are also urged to choose between their national identity and their religious preference – a choice no one should have to make in a land that prides itself for freedoms many in other countries can only dream about. Muslims and non-Muslims together must do their share to change this dangerous situation.

For their part, non-Muslim Americans need to stand with the majority of peaceful Muslim Americans - who are being isolated by the rhetoric of hate-mongers - in their endeavors aimed at promoting respectful engagement between different religious groups. They have to acknowledge that the true symbols of American power are the patriotic citizens of this country who have upheld the values their forefathers sacrificed their lives for. The constitution itself would be a useless piece of paper but for the willingness of Americans of all faiths, and no faith, to abide by it. If Americans were to lose that one value, there would be a Pandora’s Box of issues waiting in the wings to challenge everything their country stands for.

Muslims are not confused. They know who they are. Yet, they have not been able to help non-Muslims distinguish clearly between themselves and those seeking violence in the name of their religion. Judging from opposition to Park 51, even the second and third generations of Muslim Americans would seem to have failed to assimilate in their society since any perceived provocation from their community calls for their immediate ouster by their own countrymen. Or could it be because the hate-mongers in this society have been more successful in their manipulation of the psyche of post 9/11 non-Muslim Americans? Why does the average American not recognize that the revival of the ‘us vs. them’ politics and mass hysteria is merely a replay of previously applied strategies fulfilling selfish agendas, and can only result in undermining their strength as one people? Would closer contact between Muslims and non-Muslims remove misconceptions and bring some relief? If yes, can we turn this conflict into a teachable opportunity?

Park 51 may turn out to be the litmus test future generations would evaluate the strength of the American nation on. There is every probability the proposed community center would turn out to be everything Imam Rauf proposes it will be – a center fully devoted to promoting moderate Islam to bring interfaith harmony in a society widely fractured by suspicion and hatred. However, the proponents and opponents of this proposal are well within their constitutional rights to express their views. They must respond to each other with patience till they are able to address and acknowledge each other’s legitimate concerns and rights as citizens of this country.

Whatever effort and time is put into resolving this issue peacefully would be well worth it simply because Park 51 is not about revenge; it is about learning to live together peacefully again.

A version of this article was published in the Radical Middle Way Sept 14, 2010.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Click 'n Connect!

Online social networking is changing our lives in more ways than we realize.

“Online social networking is not just about contact; it is a way of life,” remarked my friend. “Absolutely!” I managed to say between mouthfuls of Hareesa, as we sat enjoying our lunch in the quiet corner of the restaurant I like to frequent for gup-shup or serious discussions. While I savor face-to-face contact with the people in my life, it is sadly becoming something increasingly absent from the lives of a large number of internet users.

Online networking phenomenon took the world by storm in the last decade or so. Real life interactions which required bringing like-minded people together has now been replaced largely by online networking due to the popularity of online websites like Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, FriendFinder, Friendster, Classmates, and networking services like Twitter etc. While previously it was only possible to interact with like-minded people within a certain geographical location, it is now quite easy to live parallel lives in the cyber world and have access to individuals from around the world, shifting the boundaries of what personal information should be shared with the public. Contrary to popular belief, nothing online is ever private!

Online networking is helpful in bringing together friends and family members living in distant places, but also dissemination of information through live updates from newspapers and television pages on sites like Facebook, which allow users to share their opinion about the issue being discussed by posting comments. Posters are exposed to a diverse set of opinions that s/he would otherwise never come across. This also provides an advantage where one can enrich one’s outlook and take a trip into a foreign culture, literally, in the blink of an eye!

However, as with most things, there is a flipside to instant connections. The tangible dangers include identity theft and from predators who befriend unsuspecting users by pretending to be someone else, using pictures and personal information from other people’s profiles. Most online users are not careful when adding friends as the number of friends might matters more than the quality of a relationship. Online harassment can result in psychological and emotional strain. Some incidences reported in newspapers included murders and suicides due to cyber-stalking and bullying. One important tip that police and responsible adults impart are to not befriend individuals whom one doesn’t know in real life and never to meet online ‘friends’ in isolated places.

Social networking is taking up important marketing and business roles as well. Facebook has gained recognition as a business-related site. It is not uncommon for prospective employers and college admissions counselors to look into profiles of applicants to make their decision-making process easier. Sites like LinkedIn provide professional business networking opportunities. Businesses are increasingly applying online portals to promote themselves and to target consumer interests. Job applicants can also use online networking for finding suitable jobs or to share thoughts with co-workers. The importance of portraying a suitable professional image online cannot be stressed enough. The Wall street Journal recently reported in an interview with, Eric Schmidt , the CEO of Google, commenting on how the “young may want to change names in future to escape public record of youthful indiscretions” because "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time…", adding that, based on the information that Google collects, “we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." That is not a very comforting thought!

For Asian populations, the more popular online websites and services include Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter which have a huge following. However, the numbers would be much higher than what they are projected to be now if economic reasons did not prevent huge sections of populations from purchasing personal computers and accessing online portals. According to the advertising page of Facebook, the total number of Facebook users in Asia is 59.6 million, which is about 15% of the global Facebook population. The two main age groups are between 18 – 24 and 25 – 34. The young 18 – 24 year olds dominate in Indonesia, Philippines, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh, this age group constitutes more than half of the Facebook users in their respective country. Similarly, according to a Toronto-based social media analytics company, Sysomos’s latest report on Twitter, Asian countries constitute about 7.74% of the Twitter users worldwide.

Another important function that online websites have taken up is that of matchmaking, which was previously done by family or friends or professional matrimonial services. Now, finding romantic interests online has become the craze for the very young as well as the lonely older age group. Sites like eHarmony,, etc. have gained huge popularity. There are many matchmaking sites now catering to specific groups as well, like Senior FriendFinder, Catholic Match, etc. The online dating websites advertise their services through online search engines and act as social networking sites too. When people join these websites they may add relevant information on their profiles and then are matched with people of similar interests. They boast of a high success rate and attract a huge following, though, just like real life interactions utmost care should be taken when imparting personal information to anyone.

One advantage of online dating is that one can focus on the common aim of getting to know the other person. Eastern populations of South Asia are taking advantage of online networking through websites like Asia, Asian Singles Connect, Indian FriendFinder, etc. In societies where arranged marriage is the norm and is considered more of a union of families rather than just two people, various criteria set by the matchmakers might not necessarily coincide with that of the couple. Yet, there is no data so far to support the success of online interaction versus traditional matchmaking in Asia. Nothing compares to meeting and knowing someone personally. We can click to connect instantly, but forming long lasting and fulfilling relationships demands much more than the superficial bonds formed through social media, which also undermine social skills and the ability to read body language.

Surprisingly, despite the high number of hours spent each day online, young adults remain dissatisfied and lonelier than ever. A recent report called The Lonely Society? Published by a New York based charity called the Mental health Foundation describes that almost 53% of 18-34 year olds had felt lonely compared to just 32% over 55. The report found the reason to be linked to the admission of 1/3rd of these young people who admitted to spending too much time online and not enough in person. Mark Vernon, the author of The Meaning Of Friendship aptly remarks, "For older generations, who have come to it when their friendships are already well established, social networking just makes up for the fact that you can't be physically present all the time," and that, "You've spent plenty of time together in the past, and can understand the nuances of a short email or message. If you've mostly conducted your friendship online, you don't have that resource to draw on."

All said however, like everything else, online networking has its advantages and disadvantages, but the technology of instant contact is here to stay and we might as well learn to use it responsibly and to our benefit. Do you agree? Let me know… I’m just a click away!

SouthAsia, Sept 2010.