Saturday, October 24, 2009

Renaissance in America

In a nation that is reeling from natural disaster and war, I think it is very timely to consider dialogue on promoting an American Renaissance. What is an American Renaissance, you ask? Wasn't the Rennaissance a period of artistic and cultural rebirth in Europe during the middle ages? How can we adopt such a cultural movement in America and how does the word renaissance apply to us? America is a perfect place for such a movement. Why - because of its rich history and overall good standing in the world. We can do much today to build on the historical infrastructure in place in America today to produce substantial artistic and cultural progress throughout the nation. To do this, we need to examine several major historical points. Let's go over them:

1. The Culture of Migration - America is a country that is built on migration - as is the continent. We should reflect on the culture of migration to provide more insight into our way of life today and how we can go about becoming better people. The Jewish migration is especially unique - Jewish culture did much to enrich the current cultural and artistic fabric of America and produced some of its leading figures. Since many Jews sought asylum in America, we must define the experience in historical terms. Irish, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern are all part of the same fold. How can we gather all the historical patchwork of these bygone generations to knit America a new cultural quilt that is worthy of a renaissance standard. To this extent, we might also devote a special section on American anthropology.

2. Slavery and African-American Equality - we need to examine this closely. African Americans are the backbone of our common heritage, culture and history. How can we look at America and fully ascertain the advances of African-Americans and create a new appreciation for African American art, culture and history and the enormous contribution of blacks to democracy that shines like a beacon throughout the world.

3. Native American Culture - nothing fascinated me more than Native American culture in the United States. These are indigenous people and we must preserve their heritage in its totality. The simplicity, the plainness, the creativity, the common sense, the bravery, the pride, the mystery and the pragmatism of the native tribes has long inspired me and will continue to inspire future generations. This important aspect of American history should not be neglected with the passage of time but celebrated in a way that not only considers the American view but offers a more holistic anthropological perspective.

4. The Legal System of the United States - the legal system of the United States, and the stature of the Supreme Court and for which it stands, is admired throughout the world. We need to study the legal system in a holistic way? What has transpired in the last 300 years or so? How can the system of jurisprudence in America advance human progress and produce more justified and justifiable laws that can be corroborated with the laws of other nations. Perhaps, we may be inclined to consider a jury that is full of Twelve Happy Men rather than Angry. How can we sum up the important legal precedents that have shaped much of our life here in these great states - should we should establish specialized schools that can gather this information so that our legal concepts continue to develop in a way that is worthy of a Renaissance seal. I hope so.

5. Literature in America - the history of literature in America is vast. Why can't we establish schools that study the history of literature and produce informed, positive inquiry on the value of literature to human progress. Who are the great writers, playwrights, novelists and poets and how have they advanced American values in their work that can now be passed onto future generations in a concise way. How can this bring us closer to higher knowledge, being and ultimately, God? This work is greatly needed.

6. Education in America - I formerly studied at Teachers College, Columbia University. I relished the opportunity to study at such a reputable institution. Why - because the entire college was devoted to one goal - promoting education and was founded by such Newtonian giants as Dewey and Butler. Why is their work important to us today? How can we preserve their legacy and build on their achievements? Who are their progenitors and how can we better define our long-term commitment to education. We must turn the soil once more to till the ground.

7. Religion in America - what has been the advances of religion in America? How has tolerance increased throughout the years? How can Christians, Jews and Muslims and peoples of other faiths gain mutual understanding and importantly, embrace one another in a positive way. How can this lead to a religious Renaissance?

8. Science, Math and Engineering in America - we were the first to land on the moon. America has boasted some of the leading scientific inventions by prominent thinkers such as Einstein and Edison. How can we build on the scientific advances of this country and bring this knowledge across the globe - how can we teach green building initiatives to other nations and allow them to embrace and utilize that knowledge to advance their societies in the ways they see fit. We must reflect on past scientific progress and assess how science, religion and culture can coexist and establish a proposed commission that can define science in transcendental terms to universalize, restore and unify our existential dreams.

9. Agriculture in America - how has American agriculture transformed human society in our time? How can we study agricultural advances and develop ways of assessing the impact of current agricultural methods that include farming and mass production. Since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, can we produce an updated study on our commmitment to agriculture - and emulate the ways of the wise farmer. This should help us to better quantify and account for food production in the United States much in the same way as oil production in Arabia and help America feed the world.

10. Technology - technology is a great part of our lives. Technology governs much of our existence and daily work. How can we use technology better and utilize technology in the most beneficial way and preserve also, the value of the technological content that is transmitted through these means. We must not let technology override our desire to harness technology for the overall good. We don't necessarily want a society that resembles the war-torn overture to the movie Terminator. Let's use technology wisely and perhaps then, history will be kind to our renaissance effort.

Let us reflect on these ideas and keep these goals in mind as we move forward to renew America during a time of crisis. Let us also remember the agents of the former Renaissance who brought us so much art, culture and humanity to form a new Renaissance that embodies that same spirit. I hope the people of America will take heed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Very Simple . . .

1. Faith
2. Hope
3. Courage
4. Love
5. Friendship
6. Will
7. Beauty
8. Strength
9. Knowledge
10. Destiny
11. Trust
12. God

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Purchase College . . . A Good Choice for the Aspiring Student

I've been meaning to devote a personal blog to SUNY's Purchase College. I was there on a visit a short while ago and was very impressed by the school and all it had to offer. Having undergone privatized college education, which was very expensive, I have a keen interest in low cost educational choices for young adults. Further, as a long time educator, I have met with many students who dropped out of school at an early age - which, always makes me wonder whether they might be intimidated by college altogether or that their families cannot afford higher education - and they feel overburdened or embarrassed. This is a great concern for all Americans. And you can't blame them - as someone who has incurred exorbitant debt as a result of his higher education experience, the feeling is mutual. Among other things, alternatives to a private college education include CUNY and SUNY. I have family members who have attended both CUNY and SUNY schools and they have fared nicely in their professional lives. Purchase College seems to stand out most in my mind. It is nestled quietly in the hills of Westchester County, which is only a short distance from New York City and it boasts a large, sprawling campus with modern facilities. Mind you, I was only there for a short while and it did leave a strong impression. Moreover, if you're interested in the arts like me, Purchase is the school for you - to pursue your artistic goals at a reasonable cost. It's a great commuter school for New Yorkers and likewise, founded by a famous New Yorker, Nelson Rockefeller. When you enter the campus, you will first notice the ample parking space and queer, contemporary garden sculptures. The campus welcomes you warmly and unlike other colleges, it's not too overcrowded or cluttered with buildings and annexes but formed mostly at the juncture of a long undulating path that takes you through the heart of the campus and provides easy access to all the major buildings. I was most impressed by the fact that the school houses the Neuberger Museum of Art, a contemporary museum that delivers diverse arts education and cultural programs throughout the region. You can only think of all the ways a fully operational teaching museum on campus can do for the up and coming student. This is a wonderful aspect of the college. Aside from the overall aesthetic appeal of the campus, there is also a Performing Arts Center, which serves the entire region and is a perfect venue for students to collaborate, perform and take part in numerous cultural events. This is WAY better than sitting around in a residence hall or student lounge and provides a wonderful outlet to enhance the overall educational experience. Looking back, this would be unimaginable when I attended college. In short, Purchase is a great choice for many students who are interested in arts and humanities subjects and worth a visit for the would-be college grad seeking a quality four-year education. What I like most about Purchase - is that it can nurture the student during a formative time in their lives and provides a unique platform to elevate the educational experience through a greater focus on a single academic discipline, thereby promoting that desired area. More power to Purchase!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Five Pillars and The Pursuit of Happiness . . .

Islam's five pillars have always intrigued me. As a Muslim, I have found that these fundamental concepts of the Islamic faith, while obscure and unknown to many, have recourse to the American Constitution . Thus, as American Muslims we can create a life here in America that is both unique and dignified in an American sense. Let's outline the five pillars quickly. Important to mention here that the five pillars are key elements of early childhood education.

1. Profession of Faith
2. Five daily prayers
3. Giving of alms or charity
4. Fasting during Ramadan
5. Hajj or the Blessed Pilgrimage

How might you ask does this coincide with the rubric of the American Constitution. Let's examine closely. The profession of faith is a serious matter. Born Muslims are simply accepted as Muslims and converts "profess their faith" by reciding the Shahadah. How does this relate to the Constitution? Foremost, the Bill of Rights provides for freedom of religion and other freedoms. The profession of faith easily fits the mold. One might liken this to the Ten Commandments - that may have also inspired the framing of the Bill of Rights. Moving along - five daily prayers - this is a tall order if one lives in America. Firstly, there is never enough time in the day for the average American to take time out to perform such a rigorous ritual. Working Americans can be hard pressed to live up to these standards. However, the Constitution does not deny us this right in any way - but remember also that it does not praise any faith and quite understandably, seem arcane and agnostic to the religious and spiritual observer. This is a great challenge for any follower - to affirm their faith and impress upon a historical governing document a lasting glorification of religious rites - the sword of faith rises from the grave tearing the strands of parchment asunder - or in this case illuminating. The Consitution seems to invite religious struggle, which is also consistent with faith matters. After all, it never denies religious freedom or expressly or specifically condemns any religious practice. Thus, we are compelled to take part in citizenship. Fasting, pilgrimage, and charity all coincide with natural Constitutional rights and we come to know that life in America is defined either by faith or democracy. When Rudyard Kipling writes, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," we may be disheartened by the conundrum of democracy but reassured that faith is not limited to carvings on stone walls. The National Constitution Center and Museum in historic Philadelphia is a worthwhile resource to study the Constitution at more length.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Visiting Georgia

I visited Georgia over the weekend. Augusta - on a business trip for the fist time. For the most part, the city lived up to its reputation and altogether, took my breath way. It was an enchanting place and a highly diverse region - and for me my first look at the historic South. While I've traveled far and wide, I have never been below Washington D.C. and thus, Augusta was virgin country for this invariably northern soul. While I was there primarily to visit a historically black college, my experience of Augusta was amplified by a stay at a historic hotel called the Patridge Inn. You must know that my trip was short and I hardly traveled in the city at all and so, the hotel was a lively adventure in and of itself. From its large verandah overlooking a historic road called Walton Way, I was mesmerized by the simple charm and decor and the warm skies, that recalled grandiose images of history in my mind and heart - I could hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice bellowing through the pastoral expanse of the horizon, declaring freedom for the black race - and Lincoln's abolitionist sentiment carved into the bedrock. While this was strongly evident, it also produced an overwhelming sense of the racial divide - perhaps justified or caused by my own displacement as a New Yorker who was suddenly gone with the wind. No matter - the feeling was palpable - the historic hotel seemed to recall the wealth and prestige of a golden age in America but also showed the splintering racial divide in its historic structure. What was it? The hotel employed both white people and blacks. There was even a Mexican-American working as a manager - neatly dressed and highly professional. But no one talked unless talked to. Thus, the spirit of the city was lacking. There was an eerie quiet in the denizen halls - no laughter, no pats on the back or jovial hellos among the hotel staff - just going about daily business and never crossing that invisible line of the racial divide - lest a delicate social balance be disrupted. Interestingly, the Nationals are played here that bring a commercial hype to the state and indeed, golfers who participate are both black and white. Perhaps too my impression was colored by the fact that I was there visitng a largely black college. While I was greeted warmly, I could sense that all was not well in Augusta or that the old racial dust had settled and that life had neatly folded away as a lawn chair in the back of a cluttered garage full of bygone memories - could it be the half-smile of the hotel clerks or simply the perfection of their craft or the overwhelming hospitality, which seemed perfectly natural and exemplary of Southern hospitality. The experience was both haunting and hopeful. What if Augusta was founded by Buddhist monks, Hindus or Moslem conquerors - would it be the same place that it is today? Would it still boast the Nationals that are largely governed by whites in a historically black region with a tradition of slavery? Then during a night of jazz at the hotel, things for me came more into focus. Here on the same verandah where I could hear history speak, was an all-black Jazz band with a black male lead singer - I assumed this man was a long-time Augustan resident and I wondered whether he might indeed, be descended from slaves. He was a great singer and his all-black entourage formed a great band and for me recalled a golden age of blues and black music in the South. I sipped on a glass of Pinot and laid back on the couch, taking it all in. I was not alone. The audience on the terrace was mostly white. Young white people - some of them business professionals with Christian values and a love of beer and music - all well dressed and well groomed - either vacationing or just stopping by for a relaxed evening had gathered peaceably on the terrace to enjoy the calm atmosphere. Then a great oddity - a young white woman who was with several friends including white males - commenced to dance where the band was playing. This woman was white - and in an all-white party, it seemed very odd that she would approach such a large, black man in a historically segregated state - and take up the stage in such a brazen way - I sensed something was wrong when the singer seemed to hedge at her advance. The outnumbering of whites to blacks was alarming for someone like me who has for long enjoyed the diverse communities of New York. It was somewhat disturbing and showed that racial tensions can still come into play in the state albeit, they are very toned down thanks to all who reside there, especially young people who are co-existing in a peaceful manner - it's quite an accomplishment for the young lady with the derby hat, if you ask me. But how do we truly embrace fellow man in the historic South without fear, uncertainty or confusion. Indeed, much of the South is largely Catholic - and there is common ground, common belief and common values. Are whites condemned to be divided by the color of their skin forever or is this the start of a beautiful rennaissance in the South where whites and blacks can co-exist happily and share economic growth, prosperity, love and fairness. I'm sure alot more remains to be done to achieve such an absolute goal. How can faithful men of other religions assist this process. What is God's view of this matter? I scratch my head when I ponder the question - in a city where blacks are undervalued, underpaid and perhaps altogether, undereducated how can they advance their lives and gain universal respect and hegemony? Education is one answer - while the historic quest continues to improve the situation or at least shun the spirit of segregation or any physical, emotional, or metaphysical trace of that period, it can stil linger but to an indomitable American spirit, present a hope that one day, we will achieve redress, reconciliation, remuneration and reatonement in a post-segregated society. While the words, "free at last" echoes throughout Georgia with an unmistakable historic resonance, how do we set about being truly free? The poem In School Days by Whittier comes to mind, "still sits the school-house by the road, a ragged beggar sleeping; around it still the sumachs grow, and blackberry-vines are creeping".

Thursday, October 8, 2009

$1B Debacle - Go Figure

The title is a worth a thousand words. How can a country squander $1B in government aid towards health reform. As a long time professional in the grants and contracts industry, I am appalled by this scandal and shocked that it may happen in Canada, a country long-held as a refuge for immigrants and praised for its all-inclusive, universal health programs. When it comes at the heels of Hollywood's glorified praise of the Canadian health system in Michael Moore's Sicko, one almost feels cosigned by the same title. Canada has long-been the front-runner of healthy lifestyles and health and medical administration and perhaps, it got carried away with its leading image. All that government aid did seem justified when one considers the goal - to create holistic, electronic health records for the province of Ontario through a program that boasts a catchy moniker, EHealth. Why not the would-be consumer asks? However, because of untendered contracts, poor regulation, unregulated price control, expensive consultation and a whole host of other problems, a public travesty has now unfolded. Procurement procedures are very tightly controlled in the U.S. and rightfully so - that competitive bidding and other such initiatives don't spiral out of control. In the audits that followed the scandal, it almost seems that the program failed only because of too much government aid that led to the misuse and misallocation of funds by the glamor-mongers of industry who by all accounts, seemed to suck the funding dry. The fly buzzes at the ears and we realize that this is the cause of human error, greed and lack of economic diligence and accountability and perhaps, overinflated professional egoes. While Canada is at the forefront of the health industry, perhaps it might benefit from partnership with American firms, who are more capable of broader regulation, have sound consulting capabilities and considerable training in this field, all in order to give Canada a leg up with its EHealth initiative that now stands out like a black eye and a sore chin in the global community.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Food for Thought . . .

From time to time, I will post articles that I have written in the past for a variety of news media that address important topics in education, spirituality, religion, politics and the like. This article was first published in the Yemen Times in January 2004.

Title: Ancient wisdom for the 21st Century

I sought a soul in the sea, and found a coral there; beneath the foam for me, an ocean was all laid bare” – Rumi.

In these uncertain times, when Muslims are increasingly coming under fire for their religious beliefs, it might be useful to look back at some of the more tolerant teachings of our faith, particularly those espoused by Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Although Rumi is too often dismissed as a heretic, by some of his more orthodox critics, his life and works show just how Islam can be a tolerant faith that encompasses the complexities of life with a mantle of unbridled love and compassion. Given our current state of affairs, it is unfortunate that we could not carry on the legacy of men like Rumi, whose teachings could have prevented much of the woes that we suffer from today, both temporally and spiritually.

In “Signs of the Unseen”, Rumi gave us our first introduction to metaphysics, which if understood properly can do wonders for the reaffirmation of faith. Taking examples from the outer world, Rumi eloquently reaches the depths of existence and illustrates just how God can permeate down to the molecular recesses of our creation, giving meaning to the Quranic verse, “Have they not reflect on the kingdoms of the heavens and earth and the things that God hath created.” The following are five examples of how Rumi illustrates the relevance of God in our daily lives, which Muslims today, can astonishingly benefit from even nine centuries after the poet’s death:

1. In order to defend the common Sufi proclamation of “I am God”, which borders on the blasphemous for some Islamic clerics, Rumi defines the statement to be rather a sign of humility, likening it to drowned man who surrenders his individuality to the greater movement of the water. “We are like bowls floating on the water,” he says. “How the bowls go is not determined by the bowls but by the movement of the water.” His other example is that of the lion and the gazelle. As long as the gazelle is fleeing the lion it is distinct in being, like the man who turns his back to God, but as soon as the gazelle is captured, its individuality is obliterated and only the lion’s existence remains. Similarly, when a man succumbs to the power of the Higher Intellect, he too ceases to be an individual but becomes part of the greater being. This concept of complete capitulation may explain why Jesus is purported to be the first Sufi and explains why Catholics have come to consider him as God literally.

2. A second indication of God’s preeminence over man is illustrated by Rumi’s notion of the veil. All manner of trades, according to Rumi, like tailoring, building, harvesting, astronomy, medicine, etc. are found within man and “not under some mud clumps.” Therefore, in order to lift these veils and attain higher knowledge, one must first be attuned to the source of that knowledge. For Rumi, man can never be self-taught because even when Cain killed Abel, a raven had to show Cain how to bury his dead brother.

3. The preceding point is further elaborated by Rumi’s illusion to the shadow. It is Rumi’s understanding that as our shadows resemble us is some shape and form, we are shadows of God and resemble him in some or all of his attributes.

4. Being a proponent of the mystical approach to God, Rumi tells us not to focus on coincidental, which he compares to the scent of musk, which ceases to exist when the actual musk has evaporated. The knowledge of bodies and knowledge of religions are distinct for Rumi, because while one is to only see the “flame and light of a lamp” the other is to burn in that same flame and light of the lamp. “It is like a ray of sun shining into a house. Even though, it is a ray of sunlight it is still attached to the sun. And when the sun sets, its light will cease. One must, therefore, become the sun in order for there to be no fear of separation.”

5. After 9/11, for all those people who could not understand how God could allow such evil, Rumi’s answer is very simple. God wills motivations for evil in man’s soul as a teacher wills ignorance in the student, or the baker wills hunger for the people. But the baker does not wish the people to remain hungry lest he cannot sell his bread. Similarly, God wills evil so that he can teach us the meaning of good. He further illustrates this point by comparing the thief or murderer who is hanged to a model citizen. Both are preachers, in Rumi’s examination, because both preach a message either by being hanged or by living a good life.

For those of us who stand on the precipice of faith and are unable to make that crucial leap forward, Rumi’s wisdom can show us that the kingdom of God on earth is in fact all around us. Rumi’s ability to extract deeper meaning from ordinary experience can give us more enlightened view of the world and our situation at present. Instead of being reactionary as many Muslims are today, Rumi offers us an alternative to the way we normally view our circumstances and process them in our minds so we maintain a more accurate perception of a given situation. So while we are forever plagued by misguided judgments in the political arena, it might be wise to pay Mowlana Rumi back another visit at least for the sake of auld lang syne.