Essay - Jen Ponig

Jen Ponig came to Arete by way of Theresa Martin, Arete ’79, ’83, when Theresa was coaching her at Terra Linda High School. Jen was better in cross country than on the track because of her wild nature and this led to three state finals. She placed 7th in division four one of those times. Jen first traveled with Arete on the ’95 adventure, then again in ’99. And in 2005 she hosted the 2005 Arete group in Beirut, Lebanon. It proved to be a wonderful experience. A very curious person, after graduating from the University of California, San Diego, with a degree in political science in 2001, Jen explored different cultures, first living in Italy, then Lebanon until recently. When she lived in Padua she studied at the university in 2000 and 2001. And during the last three years in Lebanon she earned an MA in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

Bill Taylor

What’s worse - the destruction of the Islamic sacred by non-Muslims or Muslims? The cartoons of Mohammed were an affront to the beloved prophet Mohammed and Muslims worldwide, but why is it that these offensive cartoons take precedence over the insolent destruction of Islamic holy sites? I find it more abhorrent that holy places are being destroyed continuously in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

When I left Lebanon in August, to return home to California I was hopeful that the tides had turned, and the aftermath of Hariri’s death, in which calamity, animosity and economic downturn followed was behind us and that Lebanon was ready to move on. Upon hearing about the protest in front of the Danish embassy that got way out of hand, my positive outlook, which was all but an idyllic picture, was shattered. What should have and could have been peaceful demonstrations throughout the world, in order to show the power of unity against the violation of the Islamic sacred, turned into absolute mayhem and destroyed local communities.

The violence of that bloody Sunday in Beirut could have set Lebanon on the brink of a second civil war. Breaking in and setting fire to buildings is the very worst way to deal with frustration and is un-Islamic behavior no matter who or how you interpret the religion. Everything Mohammed has been teaching was disregarded on that dark day. One of the most valued personal characteristics in Islam is modesty, which means assuming humility and humbleness in one’s life.

The prophet Mohammed taught tolerance in the face of ignorance. Muslims have learned the tradition of a woman who used to throw her trash on Mohammed whenever he passed by her house. The prophet never responded in kind to her abuse. Instead, when she failed to attack him one day, he was concerned about her well-being and went to her house to inquire about her condition. Sahih Al-Bukhari, which is a collection of narratives on the teachings and life of Mohammed relates, “You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness.”

The world’s eye already has painted a bad face on Muslims. This kind of fervent behavior actually reinforces this painful image. There are numerous Muslims, who are far from this image, but others have fueled the fire and reinforced this ugly face put upon Muslims. I have realized that in the past four years, since I converted to Islam that my true Muslim brothers and sisters are becoming fewer and fewer. Islam, the religion that connects us spiritually is being abused, and as a consequence Muslims are increasingly becoming divided.

Even though the Lebanese civil war ended fifteen years ago, loyalty and trust between the Lebanese is still a fragile relationship. The exploit of Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims throwing stones at a church in the predominant Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, was in political terms worse than throwing stones in a glass house. Immediately after this episode, Marionite nationalist groups spoke out vehemently against all Muslims in Lebanon.

Thankfully the situation did not spin out of control and the Lebanese had the sensibility to not turn back to its dark past. I hope that Muslims who committed or supported these acts of aggression learn from their religion in the future. “It may be that Allah will establish friendship between you and those whom ye (now) hold as enemies.”

The insult put upon the prophet Mohammed and Muslims worldwide from the Danish cartoons do not compare to the affront by Wahhabi authorities in Saudi Arabia when, after discovering the home of Sayyida Khadija, the prophet’s first wife, in 1989 it was quickly covered over and public toilets were built upon it. In the place where Mohammed received his first revelations people now wash their bottoms. The Wahhabi army occupied Mecca in 1806, “not leaving any religious building, including mosques without demolishing it.” To this day ancient shrines, mosques and holy places are being demolished in the Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam. What shame is this that Muslims can become outraged over some awful, yet silly cartoons, but when it comes to destroying holy sites there is no recognition, no utterance from the Muslim world?
The present antagonism between the Shia and Sunni in Iraq makes the obliteration of the golden dome on the Al-Askari Mosque in the city of Sumarra in southern Iraq an unpleasant reality. The Quran warns Muslims about their splitting into sects. “Ironically, they broke up into sects only after the knowledge (the Quran) had come to them, due to jealousy and resentment among themselves. If it were not for a predetermined decision from your Lord to respite them for a definite interim, they would have been judged immediately. Indeed, the later generations who inherited the scripture are full of doubts.”

The solution to these travesties seems plain and clear to those in the way of the true religion: be like the prophet Mohammed. The quandary is that there are varied accounts and interpretation of Sunna (traditions of Mohammed) and the records of Hadith (sayings of Mohammed). The only saving grace for Muslims is that the message of the Quran is universal. Mohammed Zakariya, one of the leading American Muslim calligraphers commented: “Traditionally, for Muslims, political change has come through violence or coercion, (as it has for most all groups of people and systems of power). This pathology has to be derailed. It is obstinacy – not steadfastness – to defend a view that impedes the public welfare.” Destroying Islamic holy sites destroys layers of Muslim heritage and history; in time this will deform the tradition of Muslims and the way of Islam.

If we cannot visit the home where Mohammed had his first revelations or pray in an ancient mosque where the earliest Muslims prayed, then Muslims would have truly lost a part of the vital connection with their prophet who brought the message of God. At least, profane cartoons can be ripped up, destroyed and ignored, but sacred sites absolutely should not be erased from the existence they came from because they are reminders of the original and true message of Islam.

Jen Ponig
March 2006