License to Kill

I was wrong. Or at least partially wrong. gun-constitution-2

Last July, in the wake of the Aurora theater massacre, I contended that the uproar over gun rights it had provoked was misplaced and that the important national conversation should be about mental health care. While that truly is an important national conversation, the events in Newtown, Connecticut have served to sharpen the focus on a discussion over gun rights which is overdue and sorely needed.

The President immediately engaged this issue, culminating in his signing a myriad of executive orders proposed by his blue-ribbon gun control panel. Now, action on those orders and “legislative suggestions” will be hotly debated in Congress over opposition from the gunmakers lobby (in the guise of the NRA) and a debate over the second amendment.

The Second Amendment

The second amendment to the constitution states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Any reading of this text must be enjoined with a sense of historical perspective. This amendment was written for a fledgling nation with no standing army whose peoples had just succeeded in armed insurrection against their government. In that situation, to disarm the people would have been akin to disarming the state, leaving it totally defenseless.

Today, in the face of history’s largest professional standing army and state controlled national guard troops, this point is moot. For those who are so distrustful of our government that they would like to reserve the right of armed insurrection, I would remind them that it is no longer the romantic ideal it was in post-colonial America. Today, we simply refer to it as treason.

But there is a clearer and more important point here that overshadows the others. The first three words of the second amendment read “A well regulated…” Even our founding fathers realized that if we are to codify a right to bear arms into our constitution we must allow and even mandate the regulation of these firearms. Even for those who oppose gun control legislation on the basis of literal interpretation of the bill of rights, and persist in the near diefication of our founding fathers and consecration of our constitution, the need for firearm regulation could not be more plainly spelled out.

Slippery Slopes

Another argument against gun control legislation stems from the fear that such regulation would start us down a slippery slope towards the prohibition of privately owned firearms. However, I believe this argument is short sighted.

If the goal is safe and legal gun ownership (as it should be) there is no better tool to achieve this than regulation of gun ownership. Licensure and background checking, biometric devices and trigger locks do not infringe on an individual’s right to keep or bear arms—they enhance those rights. By weeding out criminals as well as those without requisite training in gun safety, such regulation would remove any remaining social stigmata towards legal gun ownership and allow law enforcement to better track and confiscate those weapons likely to be used to harm others.

In my state of California, we require drivers safety courses, licensure, and insurance before someone can operate a motor vehicle—a tool designed to transport but with the ability to kill. Yet, none of these things are required for ownership of a gun—a tool designed with the express intent to kill.

Slippery slopes can also slant both ways.  Many opposed to gun control legislation advocate for arming teachers as a tactic to combat school shootings.  Such fortification of our schools would simply shunt our societal vulnerabilities to other venues such as malls, movie theaters, and even churches.  Eventually, we will end up in a heavily armed society, where each citizen will be virtually expected to carry a firearm simply to avoid victimization. Such a society would make us no safer, and would simply serve to verify the adage that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.  That is a slope I am deathly afraid of sliding down.

Rights and Regulation

The existence of a right does not preclude its regulation. Freedom of speech is regulated to exclude libel, slander, and speech inciting public harm or violence. Freedom of expression does not allow for violence towards others, and freedom of religion does not tolerate human sacrifice.

Guns are designed expressly to kill.  Though they are (and should forever remain) legal, this plain truth demands that they be regulated with a commensurate degree of severity.  Certain fundamental protections must be put in place as the violence in our society escalates. Licensure for gun ownership must exist and be requisite on gun safety training and background checks. When a gun license is administered to an address where a child resides, there must be a stipulation for a locked ammunition cabinet and a separate trigger lock. Consideration should be given to requiring gun owners to show proof of insurance in order to provide a financial disincentive to irresponsible use. And finally, those firearm accessories designed specifically to promote the indiscriminate killing of human beings, such as armor piercing bullets and high capacity magazines, should be banned except by an exceptional licensure mechanism.

Since the horrendous attacks of 9/11, our nation has struggled with a fundamental balance of civil liberties and societal security.  The current discussion is merely an extension of the same question.  None of these measures as I described would infringe on a law abiding citizen’s ability to keep or bear arms. Critics will also argue that none of these would have prevented Columbine, Aurora, or Newtown. But I’m not interested in how we could have prevented the last massacre. I’m interested in preventing the next one.

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Ramadan Mubarak!

It has been a long time since I posted in this space, life seems once again to have gotten in the way of artistic expression (such as it is).  Now that Ramadan is on the horizon (quite literally), life promises to get only busier, and inspiration less frequent.  Last year, I was asked by my good friend and prominent blogger Aziz Poonawala (of City of Brass fame) to write a little about fasting during Ramadan.  The result was a humble essay which nonetheless summarizes many of my thoughts regarding the fast.  I have reproduced it here for my own readers.

Why do I Fast?

Every year around this time, as I begin preparations for Ramadaan in my personal and professional lives, I am asked that perennial question: “Why do you fast?” I am asked this by colleagus, friends, peers, and even myself. Of course, fasting is only one of the many manifestations of the rituals of Ramadaan, but as the most dramatic, it often attracts the most attention. Having observed the Ramadaan fast for twenty five consecutive years, I have answered this question every year multiple times. Each year, however, I find my answer to be slightly different than the year before, perhaps a testament to my changing attitudes, maturity, and station in life.

Having asked and answered this question many times myself, I have also heard a myriad of different answers. On the one hand, there have been complicated discussions on how the fast serves as a nexus between body and soul, an intensely physical act of the body which is meant to affect the health of the soul. On the other hand, there is the simple “because it says so in the Quran”. There was even once an interesting analysis on the importance of periodic depletion of hepatic glycogen stores. However, none of these answers can encompass all aspects of the fast. Just like every facet of a diamond reflects a different color leading to its brilliance and beauty, so too does every facet of the fast play an important role in understanding its importance.

Over the years of asking and answering the question, certain themes have emerged which serve to illustrate the importance of the fast in terms and ideas which are universal and easily understood regardless of culture, education, or religious affiliation.

A real, true, feeling of accomplishment.

The month of Shaaban (the month before Ramadaan), usually passes in a fog. Ramadaan looms in the near future and is coming forever closer. Thirty days of fasting and prayer, during the Los Angeles summer at that– it seems impossible. When I describe it to my friends, it seems impossible even to me. When I lie in bed at night, it seems impossible. As I make my preparations, it seems impossible. And it may prove to be this year, but I doubt it. After all, I have been doing this for 25 years consecutively and it has not been impossible yet. Somehow, one day at a time, I make it through. When Eid comes, I reflect upon the last month and inevitably wonder how I could have done it–it immediately seems impossible again. A challenge of this magnitude, requiring this degree of discipline and sacrifice, and met consistently by most of the community makes other wordly challenges pale in comparison. What can really seem more difficult than the fasts of Ramadaan? With that feeling on Eid, there is a real confidence that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. That my success at a task is only limited by the priority I give it.

The priority I give it.

Those people who can fast easily try to tell me that fasting does not affect their daily lives. That they can go on and do anything they would do if they were not fasting. Some even try to convince me that they can accomplish more, because they feel lighter, or have more time. I hope that’s true for them… But it is surely not true for me. During my Ramadaan fast, I have to constantly make choices. I have a limited amount of energy and strength, and I have to continually evaluate my every action to make sure it is something worth my energy expenditure. Or, is it so important that it is worth missing a fast to accomplish? The fast of Ramadaan forces me to prioritize each and every one of my actions with respect to each other, and with respect to the fast itself.

One of my passions is training in the Martial Arts, a week without a training session and I feel a true sense that I am missing something. And yet, is it more important to me than my faith? On any regular day, riding the endorphin high of a great workout, I might wonder. But Ramadaan crystallizes the answer that was within me all along, as I realize that missing a day of fasting just so I can train is incomprehensible. Most of us in the Western world are faced with a very real decision during Ramadaan about how much time to take off from work/school. And the answer is different for each individual. But within that answer lies each individual’s personal priorities, laid bare for them to reflect upon… and isn’t that one of the major advantages of Ramadaan–reflection?

Reflection.

What is it about the hungry state that makes me more pensive? Perhaps, denied of the energy I normally possess, and forced to budget my strength continuously, I turn inwards. The power of reflection is a potent side effect of the Ramadaan fast, if not one of its main intended effects. With every hunger pang or dry swallow, I am reminded that I am Muslim. Not only that I am Muslim, but that I afford this part of my identity a very high priority in my life, whether I normally realize it or not. It seems that the fast serves to throw one’s internal spiritual landscape into sharp relief, to be examined with painful veracity.

Fasting makes me realize that I believe in a hereafter, in a world view greater than Earthly pleasures. Mankind rules this earth. Uses resources freely, hunts to extinction, and dominates his environment and all living things. That is a simple fact. But who will control such a creature? And how? By reminding him continually that we don’t need all of the resources that we use. We don’t need to eat quite as much as we do, or hunt until there is no more. That the hunger pangs we feel for 1/12th of our lives are felt by others for their whole lives. That the world is not our pleasure palace, to spend our days doing whatever feels good at the time and moving on. This constraint on our basic bodily function, self imposed, reminds us continually that it is not all about the “here” and the “now”. Just as the confidence imbued by Ramadaan carries throughout the year, so too does this basic humility.

What’s the purpose of the fast? Perhaps it is meant to be different for everyone, like a Rorschach ink test for the soul. And perhaps it is meant to change over time, as one’s outlook on their faith and their place in it changes. But what is definitely true is that the Ramadan fast holds the potential for spiritual growth for everyone, regardless of age, culture, or level of education. And it also helps deplete hepatic glycogen stores.

 

Good Grief

Moslem Tov?

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a bar mitzvah ceremony at a conservative temple here in Los Angeles.  I am well known to many in the congregation due to my profession and I was greeted with warmth and acceptance, despite my Muslim faith.  Although this was not my first temple service, it was the first I attended that fell on Shabbat.  As such, it was the first time I participated in the full religious ritual.  The result was a transformative experience in many ways.

The similarities were eerie, almost like practicing Islam in another dimension.  The sermon was basically about a favorite Muslim topic–tawhid (but as it related to Moses and Aaron, a different subject for a different time).  The head coverings, the segregation of men and women (though not as strict), and the bowing during prayer all evoked images of Muslim services.  Since we share a common heritage, it will come as no surprise to those versed in history or theology that our services have so much in common.

At first, one thing I found a little surprising was the emphasis on holocaust remembrance.  While I am reasonably familiar with the inhuman atrocities committed during the holocaust, I was initially taken aback by the emphasis placed on the holocaust during the services.  After all, my thoughts went, this happened seventy years ago in a far away land, and most of the younger people in the room had never actually met a victim.  Did they really need to perseverate on it so much?

Three words  from my wife caused perspective to crash down upon me, however, as she whispered to me “It’s their Karbala”.

Karbala, of course, refers to the infamous massacre at Karbala, Iraq perpetrated 1400 years ago on Husain ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed (SA).  It is commemorated regularly to this day by Shi’as (such as myself), especially during the Islamic month of Muharram.  It is mentioned at almost every Shi’a service, and often evokes almost uncontrollable expressions of grief, even today.

The power of grief to unite and galvanize a community is second to none.  The massacre of Karbala and the holocaust share this trait in common.  Both are grotesque acts of violence, willfully perpetrated on innocents.  Both of these events are used to unite, and indeed define, their respective communities.  Most historians consider the massacre at Karbala to be the coalescent moment of the Shia movement, which had actually begun a generation earlier.  Similarly, while the modern Zionist movement was in existence long before World War II, the holocaust served to coalesce the movement into a definable and concrete entity.  Even the events of 9/11 can be understood in a similar fashion, as they served to unite the country like very few times in our history. Unfortunately, along with the patriotism, they also awoke the xenophobia which long lived under the surface of the American psyche.

Grief is the ultimate expression of love.  Without love, there can be no grief.  And thus expressions of grief help us to realize the love we harbor inside ourselves.  The grief that we feel serves a true barometer of our internal value for the lost, a barometer immune even from self-delusion.  In this way, grief serves as a true reflection of our soul.  To grieve with someone is thus to share a special bond with them, a bond between the souls.  In this way, shared grief can unite a community like no other single experience.

The holocaust is a trauma on the Jewish experience which will never, and should never, heal.  Much like the effect of Karbala on the Shi’as, the holocaust unites the Jewish people, and even defines them in a very real sense.  Thus, it will very likely be remembered and commemorated 1400 years hence, much as Karbala is today.  The critical observer will find many differences between these events, however.  They would be correct in doing so.  But I would endeavour to focus on the similarities instead, as collective grief is one of the common bonds of humanity which unite us.  With my wife’s simple but profound sentence at that moment, I was privileged to share in that grief; and at least for a moment I became one with my Abrahamic brothers.

 


All-American

For many generations, Islam lived under the surface of the American psyche.  It was long recognized as a presence in the United States, but it was content to ignore and be ignored.  Its adherents were never  singled out simply because there was no need to know who was Muslim and who was not.  This was America so why should it matter, after all?

All of that changed on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001.  There were other terrorist incidents before that day, and there were others after.  But none rival the events of that day in their sheer grotesqueness.  Islam suddenly became equated with terrorism, murder, and general “otherness”.  Numerous discussions ensued about whether the Muslim faith was even fundamentally compatible with Western Civilization.  With rare exceptions, these discussions were spearheaded by non-Muslims and ignored the fact that for many generations Muslims had already proven by example that their faith was compatible with the “West” by living and thriving here.

During those crucial days, the American Muslim community had a responsibility to stand up and lead those discussions as the most qualified people to do so.  Out of fear of retaliation and ostracization, we shirked that responsibility and let that narrative be driven by others with their own agendas.

No longer.  I am honored to be a contributing author to a  new book entitled All American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim (White Cloud Press, 2012).  This work is the follow up to the wildly successful I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.  The book, like its predecessor, is a collection of essays by real Muslims who have real, practical stories which incontestably demonstrate by experience that being Muslim is compatible with being American.  The best part about it is that each of these authors has shown this in a different way.  That is, there is not just one way to be Muslim and American; the areas of intersection are so vast, there are in fact many ways.

My own essay deals with my extensive positive interactions with the Jewish people.  I am honored and humbled to be included in the same book with the likes of Congressman Keith Ellison,  accomplished author Wajahat Ali, and prominent blogger (and dear friend) Aziz Poonawala.  But mostly, I feel gratified that my voice is being heard and hopefully helping to drive the discussion to more realistic ground.

The book can (and most definitely, should) be pre-ordered on Amazon to ensure availability.