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Thursday, March 17, 2011

THE AMERICA I SAW

What was on my mind the day I got my visa to travel to the U.S.? What did I think about America itself? I had an image of a faithless, unfriendly nation and people, a secularist nation that has nothing to do with God, a country with a foreign policy that is all out to hamper Islam and the Muslims.
The way the visa interview was conducted and the amiableness of the officials of the State Department I met in Washington DC before moving to the remaining destinations made me start reconsidering my position with a certain level of scepticism.
‘Why do you want to travel to the U.S., sir?’ The visa officer asked me.
‘I’m a guest of the American government…,’ I answered.
‘Where are you visiting in the States…?’
‘I don’t know, but my invitation letter mentions about five states….’
He and whoever was listening to the interview in the hall laughed. It is perhaps different from the usual way of responding to questions in a visa interview.
‘Can you recall any of the five states…?’
‘Washington DC, I think…’
‘I can see’, the visa officer continued, leaving the other line of questioning, ‘that you are an Imam. Kindly tell me about that verse in the Koran that rebukes corruption and enjoins speaking the truth.’
‘Well,’ I started, ‘you are asking about two verses, actually, and not ‘the verse’. Yes, the Qur’an mentions corruption and speaking the truth, but in two separate surahs and verses; the former in al-Israa, the latter in al-Ahzaab.’
If I had known that this visa interview would be a religious Q & A session, I might have been better prepared and, in that case, have even given the exact number of verses and surahs in response.
‘My Imam’, the visa officer said, ‘collect your visa here tomorrow. Yours is Embassy Collection. And, by the way, preach more against corruption; encourage people to always speak the truth.’
What! Has he spotted any traces of corruption in me, or have I not been speaking the truth? Was this a subtle way of describing the image of some Nigerians in his psyche, given his experience in dealing with an ever-increasing flood of visa applicants, and that people like me should do more in fighting the menace of corruption and deception?
Later, I learnt about the American Embassy, Abuja, having two collection points for successful visa applications - one at Lobito Crescent, somewhere around Rock View Hotel, Abuja, and the other at the Embassy itself for cases like mine and those of government officials.

And with that good counsel, my interview was completed. Is it so easy, as if I was conversing with a friend? Visa interview for the United States of America…? No excessive questioning; no request for bank details – nothing? I’ve witnessed how a few people ahead of me in the queue were asked questions and ultimately denied visas. The nature of their questions was more like what I was told about the hardship in securing the US visa – but not mine. This visa hall will remind you of the day of judgment. You see people with loads of papers trying to convince the officer or prove the veracity of the stories they narrate. These visa officers are so trained that, in no time, they will put such documents to the test, rendering them useless. Owners of such papers would be quivering, moisture running down from their foreheads and sweating in a fully air-conditioned visa hall.
‘Have your papers, sir,’ the visa officer would say to such applicants as failed to prove the validity of their claims, ‘I’m not convinced of your reasons!’
The outcome of the visa interview is clear, on the one hand, by the melancholic expression on the darkened faces of those who failed and, on the other, by the exuberant, jubilant chronicle of the countenances of the successful. And it begs the question, why are people desperate to leave Nigeria by all means necessary to the unknown?
Every part of the trip was highly organised; nothing was left to chance. A halaal meal was requested for all Muslim participants, along with their confirmed reservations for the round trip on Lufthansa Airlines and other local flights we used in the U.S. Guided by a piece of paper with our seat numbers, the air hostesses will start moving to and fro the aisles at meal time, trying to locate us, as they do for young travellers, to serve us our halal meal before other passengers. Of course, there were many Muslims on board, who, as it appeared, had not made any request for a Muslim meal, so they were served what was on the menu like everybody. This was my first lesson on this journey. I, as a travel agent, have never requested a Halal meal for any of my Hajj or Umrah pilgrims on Lufthansa and neither have the pilgrims, for once, ever asked for it. (Although liquor is part of the menu) only halaal meals are served on Emirates Airline on which we carry 90% of our pilgrims; it would be meaningless to request exclusively for what is served to all passengers on board, but I still deem it a serious omission for Hajj/Umrah tour operators not to ask for halal meal for those pilgrims who opt to travel by scheduled, foreign flights.
Many people in the past had said that Islam resided in America, though there were no Muslims, and in places like Nigeria, Islam was absent in the midst of Muslims. Now I know what they meant; the Americans practise the virtues that Islam teaches, though they are not Muslims, and in Nigeria, many Muslims behave in ways opposed to Islam’s tenets; only now there are Muslims in America. Despite traces of Islamophobia, an attendant of Mr Bush’s tyrannical ‘war on terror’, Islam is the fastest growing religion not only in America but throughout Europe. Some Islamic centres I visited include Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, Instilling the Islamic Vision, Mohammed Schools, etc.
I learnt that America is a nation of immigrants, people from myriad nationalities who were attracted by the prospects of a better life and the American dream, who earnestly believed that through hard work and adherence to the law, they could contribute to the advancement of America and be her citizens. And now, the lives of their progeny, the first-generation Americans, have proved them right. Despite incendiary rhetoric about immigration after the sad events of 9/11, America has gained and is still gaining a lot through immigration. Louder voices are calling for the appreciation of the fact that immigration (including the illegal and undocumented) is an integral part of the American dream. Even former Secretary of State Colin Powell envisioned an immigration policy of "secure borders, open doors…” for immigration has made America what it is today.  What lessons are there in this for some states in Nigeria that see immigrants as settlers usurping privileges that are the exclusive preserve of the indigenes? This is not to say that the United States has not its fair share of xenophobia and hostility to immigrants. The only difference is in the government’s determination to curb it and punish offenders.
Immigration has produced a religious diversity in America that can hardly be obtained anywhere else, a religious diversity that defies all secularisation theories. If there is any country that can indeed be described as a multi-religious nation, it is the United States of America.  Dr Dinges, one of our lecturers, calls this ‘a free-market religious economy’. Every religion is represented in one form or another in America. Now I know that America is not a godless country, as it boasts no fewer than 1,500 denominations; two-thirds of Americans say religion is important to them, with many (others) saying something like ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’ – with their level of education and scientific hegemony. Americans spend more than $70 billion annually on one form of religion or another. For the first time in my life, I went into a Jewish temple and engaged a rabbi in religious dialogue. This visit taught me a lot about the similarities between the Shariah and the laws in the Talmud. I witnessed two religious services, one at the Hindu temple and the other at the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That was another opportunity for interfaith dialogue.
The Mormons have a university, Brigham Young University (BYU), Salt Lake City, Utah, a quasi-Christian state in which the doctrines of the Bible are strictly enforced: no illicit relations between male and female students; a dress code is observed on campus (everybody is decently attired – no nakedness in any form); no drugs….; smoking is strictly prohibited in the open and in private; and even tea and coffee are not allowed. This university is not a seminary; Christian subjects are not taught here. BYU is a world-class institution by all standards, equipped with state-of-the-art education facilities, offering almost all courses except medicine, about which Sandra Rogers, International Vice President (of the university), told me that they ‘are working on it’. There is religious freedom as the Muslims are served special meals in Ramadan, and a prayer room (Musallah) is designated for them to offer salaah. Nigerian religion-based universities have a lot to learn from this. Honestly, if my children must study outside Nigeria, rather than take them to Dubai, Malaysia, etc., where they are certain to imbibe the evil habits of drug addiction, debauchery and other vices, I would take them to this Christian university!
 Ms Suzanne Ginsburg, Ustaz Abubakr, and Mr William Toney Seabolt Jr. on the Certificate Day.
Americans are an industrious folk. In all the five states we visited during our stay, I’ve repeatedly seen commitment in people’s movement to and from their places of work, morning and evening. Many people there work in at least two places in a day; if they close from one, they proceed to the other, and so on. Whenever I woke up for early morning prayers, I observed from the window of my hotel room the same faces that I saw yesterday, either alighting from a bus or waiting to board one; the same set of people you shall continue to see going into the metro station, taking coffee or buying a ticket to a destination. This chain of events happens at exactly the same time daily; just look at your watch and the folks you are studying, and you will be saying: ‘Yes, indeed, right on time’! They are ever punctual and hardworking. This is very Islamic. Sadly, I failed to see these Islamic traits in some of my Middle-Eastern business partners and brethren who deem sleep as another form of worship based on an erroneous interpretation of a tradition in which the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, was quoted as saying ‘sleep is worship’. Yes, when we sleep in accordance with the precepts of Islam, we obey the laws that Allah has destined for living things to rest from the tiring activities of the exertions associated with our quest to earn our daily bread. Therefore, the Qur’an sets the night for rest and daytime for subsistence (An-Naba’ 78:9-11) so that no indolent person would hide under the pretext of sleep as worship, languidly remain in bed throughout the day and expect manna from heaven. Unfortunately, many Islamic countries have missed the mark on this plain principle, for in Ramadan, for instance, their citizens are encouraged to sleep throughout the day, from dawn to dusk, for shops, factories and even government offices remain closed during the daytime because of fasting; normal activities resume after the late-night prayers, Taraaweeh at around 9 pm. This is the opposite of the purport of An-Naba’ 78:9-11 referenced above. The aftermath is obesity and slow economic growth. Their seemingly fabulous wealth, one might say, is in spite of this indolence and not because of it. They must remember that several war expeditions of the Prophet (SAW) took place in the thick of Ramadan. Islam abhors sloth and indolence. The Americans are indeed more Islamic in this regard than many Muslims. No wonder then that the Muslim Ummah (community), with all its oil wealth, is centuries behind nations like America in technological advancement.
We had more than 30 appointments for the period of this programme, meeting government officials, organisations and agencies; it was only on one occasion that we waited for about 7 minutes for the arrival of our host, the head of an agency, who had to come late because there was an accident on the way. That was the only time that the commencement of a meeting within the programme was delayed. Other than this isolated case, all meetings were right on schedule! What is familiar to us in Nigeria is for the head to come late. Punctuality is for the everyday people, the masses, but leaders come at the eleventh hour. This is unfortunately inscribed in our attitude and how we do business and relate with one another. For example, fix an appointment with anybody for 10 am and see when he will come. There are two separate times for Islamic functions these days: the speaker has 11am on his invitation letter, while the general public will have 9am. Why? Because people are wont to come late, it is better to announce a false time. What a pity! In America, everyone respects time. Be punctual if you really want to meet them, otherwise they will attend to somebody more serious. This punctuality of the Americans is Islam in action!
I saw people, in the three weeks that we stayed here, walking their dogs very early in the morning before they set out for work. They walk the dogs daily for cardiovascular benefit and for more use to the beasts as they spend the greater part of the day caged or locked within a place when their masters are at work. Rights are not confined to humans; animals also have a protected share in it. When I saw squirrels (in the open, not in a zoo or any enclosed place), at liberty, moving freely everywhere, in parks, the beautiful garden in the fa├žade of the Capital Hill, and even around the lawn of the White House in Washington DC; these gorgeous animals, the admiration of beholders, enjoy themselves unhindered, unharmed and unthreatened by the presence of people, tourists that feed them happily. I said to myself: you are lucky this is America; in Nigeria, you will be in the soup as fresh bush meat!

 
                                                          A Squirrel
This is another Islamic trait here which is in complete variance with what you see today in some Muslim countries where animals are ill-treated. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, mentioned a special place in Hell reserved for a woman who imprisoned a cat till it died of starvation – she neither fed the cat nor freed it so that it could feed itself. (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 1, Hadeeth 712). Therefore, Muslims should teach the world the right way of relating with animals – with tenderness, care and mercy. 90% of the people involved in transporting cattle across the (River) Niger to the Southern part of Nigeria are Muslims, yet they see the ordeal these unfortunate animals go through. They are herded and crammed in trucks in large numbers; their legs are constricted with cables, and the journey may last two to three days if the driver does not have a stopover for another day at places like Tafa, etc. This is aside from the daily occurrence of heartless people (of all faiths in Nigeria) transporting three to four live goats, sheep and whatnot on (okada) motorcycles. Do not even mention the plight of poultry; those are tied together at the legs by the dozen and hung like dried tobacco leaves from the sides of tricycles on the way to the market or from the market!
A visit to Crossroads Urban Centre (CUC) and Catholic Charities taught me that humans share the same characteristics of compassion and the urge to help those in need; Americans are no exception! In Utah, we were informed that CUC ‘is a multipurpose non-profit, grassroots organization’ which allows to organise low-income, disabled, and minority Utahns to be advocates on their own behalf in addressing essential issues affecting the quality of their lives. The Centre also provides direct services to help meet basic survival needs. Through what is called ‘The Charity Basket’, Christians bring their tithe, Muslims their Sadaqah, and others, whatever it is called in their religion (a good example of religious harmony and peaceful coexistence); they pool their offerings into this basket monthly for the support of the needy – groceries, diapers, rice, clothes (new and used), etc. CUC is not a government agency; these items are not provided by the American government. It is the result of the effort of ordinary people like you, and I. 90% of the staff is made up of volunteers; they are not paid for what they do here; they have their job elsewhere but volunteer their time, talent and resources to render service to the needy. After a tour of the building, I was moved to tears, especially the store full to the brim with all sorts of things and seeing the poor, homeless people come to collect their rations. It does not matter who you are, why you want help or whether you have genuine papers to stay in America. You have come for help, and help you will get - no questions asked! Assisting the needy anyway is the slogan. I wondered when this kind of thinking would permeate the Nigerian psyche. One part of me argued that when the Nigerian man is settled and comfortable enough like the Americans, he can think of volunteer work. At the same time, another countered by asking ‘what about the already rich and comfortable?’ Why are some Muslim nations insisting that the recipients of Zakah must have genuine residence permits? Islam is indeed in America!
I asked Sheikh Fuad Adeyemi, the Imam of Al-Habibiyyah Mosque, Abuja, and my predecessor in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) of the United States, about the origin of Al-Habibiyyah’s Food Basket, aimed at helping the poor, and its free Ramadan iftar programme. Imam Fuad said: ‘Wallahi (by Allah), I got the idea from the United States of America during the IVLP!’
Our visit to the Catholic Charities USA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, elicited more tears. St. Elizabeth’s Lodge of CCUSA Tulsa ‘provides transitional lodging, without cost, for working families with children, for an average of four months.’ This lodge comprises two-bedroom, fully furnished flats, similar to what you see in choice areas of Abuja. They are given to working families with a plan for long-term housing, allotting a portion of their income towards permanent future housing. Beneficiaries cut across faith and race. You mustn’t be Catholic or Christian to qualify for the lodge. Other services include feeding the homeless one meal daily, namely lunch. Also, volunteers make this possible. I know it might rankle in the minds of some readers that such an arrangement is merely a proselytization gimmick. To answer that, I ask, what is your effort to have yours as Muslims?
We were at many other charities that offer special services to the homeless, like providing them with a place equipped with lavatories and a large hall where they could relax, watch television and drink tea or coffee. Also, the homeless have access to drawers and lockers for a month to keep their valuables; at the end of the period, they are expected to surrender the lockers if other users need them; otherwise, they retain them for extended periods. Another charity provides shelter for a night by mounting canopies with blankets, etc., in vast areas. The homeless are welcome to this place to spend the night; in the morning, everybody is expected to leave until another night.
Next week, inshaa Allah, I shall write about the difference between the American people and their governments and agencies.


Ustaz Abubakr and Pastor Yakubu Jordan Bowman, Church Administrator, Dominion Chapel International, Abuja.



3 comments:

  1. Salam Ustaz,
    May Allah bless your experience in the USA. I have also been in the UK for the past year and i testify to the truth of your experiences during your journeys. I hope that the readers of this blog will gain alot from your trip and put into practice what they have read.

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  2. Asalamualaikum Ustazh,
    Congratulations for the experience and for attempting to share it with us. It will be forwarded to others, pieces like this can go a long way in encouraging us (Nigerians) to change for better.

    Thank you

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  3. Assalamualaikum Ustazh,
    may Allah rewards u with fridausi.There is the for us re estblish our value system; from the family level throuhgh our schools to work places. if not,progress and success shall elude us. ma aslam. Suleiman,Bida

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