South Asian Unity: A Priority for India and Pakistan

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Like everyone, Muslims are saddened and horrified by the recent Mumbai attacks. However, unlike everyone else, Muslims find themselves defending their religion from stereotypes, misconceptions, and bigoted accusations. It’s not an easy burden to live with — especially in Western countries like the United States — when the media not only scrutinizes and vilifies your religion, but also criticizes you for “not doing enough” to speak out against radicalism.

What’s worse is the division I’m seeing within the South Asian community, Indians and Pakistanis in particular. I was shocked and appalled at the excessive amount of anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani bigotry written in discussion boards of South Asian internet forums and group pages on Facebook. Not only are fingers being pointed at Pakistan, but also at the religion of Islam, which has been accused continuously for teaching “hatred” and “waging war” on non-Muslims.

First, why is Pakistan being blamed when there is hardly any evidence? As we have seen in the last eight years, jumping to conclusions has resulted in foolish and deadly consequences. The fact that Indian authorities almost immediately accused Pakistan of being behind the attacks indicates that they deny and dismiss the possibility of homegrown terrorism. Tariq Ali, who is a Pakistani novelist, historian, and political campaigner, recently pointed out that the Deccan Mujahedeen — an extremist militant group based in India — made a claim to the Mumbai attacks. In his article on “Counter Punch,” Mr. Ali writes:

“The Deccan Mujahedeen, which claimed the outrage in an e-mail press release, is certainly a new name probably chosen for this single act. But speculation is rife. A senior Indian naval officer has claimed that the attackers (who arrived in a ship, the M V Alpha) were linked to Somali pirates, implying that this was a revenge attack for the Indian Navy’s successful if bloody action against pirates in the Arabian Gulf that led to heavy casualties some weeks ago.”

When I looked at my local newspaper, the article on the Mumbai attacks used the following words to describe Pakistan: “volatile,” “rival,” and “archrival.” And I’m sure many of us remember President-elect Barack Obama warning Pakistan that if they are “unable or unwilling” to fight terrorism, then the U.S. will invade the region (which they already have under the Bush administration).

This hostility and antagonism towards Pakistan is irresponsible. For one, Pakistan has been fighting Taliban militants in North-Western Pakistan since 2004, and according to “Times Online” Pakistan has lost about “1,000 soldiers fighting militants in border mountains that have never come under the control of any government.” Thomas Houlahan wrote a brilliant piece for “The Middle-East Times” titled “Pakistan: Separating the Facts from the Myths” where he criticizes the media for reporting a lot of misinformation about Pakistan. He writes:

“Pakistan has lost more civilians in the war on terror than the United States; Pakistan has lost more troops killed in fighting insurgents than every foreign contingent in Afghanistan combined. These facts fly in the face of the misinformation bandied about that Pakistan is soft on terror.”

Houlahan has also pointed out that “more than one in four insurgents killed in the Afghanistan/Pakistan insurgency (4,500 of 16,500) has been killed by Pakistani security forces.” Last night, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Asif Zardari, appeared on Larry King Live and stated that Pakistan had no involvement with the Mumbai attacks. Furthermore, Zardari insisted that he looked forward to building peaceful relations with their Indian neighbors. Despite these facts and condemnations by Pakistani officials, one must question why the media and even the newly elected President of the United States are skeptical about Pakistan’s commitment to the “War on Terror.” Pakistan has been doing America’s dirty work since September 11th, 2001, and has suffered on several occasions for it. We seem to have forgotten about the recent Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan on September 20th, 2008.

To see this kind of division and hostility take shape among every day Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, and others is discouraging and unsettling. None of us are responsible for what happened in Mumbai and none of us are trying to justify what happened, but when the media starts to influence our fellow South Asians into thinking that “Islamofascisim” or “Islamic Jihad” is simply about killing non-Muslims, particularly Hindus and Jews, then it is imperative for us to engage in mature and civilized dialogue. Because of the fact that a Jewish Center was attacked in India, many perceive this attack to be an “attack on the West,” but what’s so problematic about this assertion is that it completely ignores and overlooks the real factors involved.

Before I continue, it is important to understand that I am not justifying what happened in Mumbai or anywhere else. It’s not about justification, it’s about understanding, and only through understanding can we find the root cause of the problem and develop real strategies to solve them. Rather than chanting war slogans like “Bomb Pakistan!” why don’t we ask intelligent questions as to why an atrocity like this happened? If there is anything that I expect the West and other nations to learn, it’s this: Bombing another nation will only make matters worse; it radicalizes people and creates more violence. This is evidenced clearly in the Iraq war.

Has anyone bothered to ask, “who were the militants” or “who was in that hotel” or “what drives such people to attack innocent people?” Many right-wing pundits will simply say these militants are driven by the teachings of Islam. This kind of ignorance generates mythologies. Mythologies such as “Hindus and Muslims have been fighting for centuries.” Really? Since when? Widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims didn’t start until the 19th century. Prior to that, Muslims, Hindus, and others enjoyed coexistence in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. This is not to say there wasn’t any violence – of course there were under particular Muslim rulers – but for the most part, large scale violence between the communities occurred after British colonialism. Other mythologies formulate, such as “Jews and Muslims have been fighting forever.” Again, since when? Much of the antagonism and wars between Muslims and Jews started during and after the creation of Israel. Prior to that, Muslims and Jews coexisted for centuries, especially in Jerusalem. Before Muslims ruled the city, Jews were exiled out of Jerusalem. Muslim leaders like Umar ibn al-Khattab and Salah Al-Din invited the Jews back into the city (may God be pleased with them).

Without understanding the struggles of Muslims in regions like Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even India, we won’t be about to solve the problems. But what’s frustrating for many Muslims is that the media only uses the word “terrorism” for one group of people: Muslims. In 2002, over 2,000 Muslims were massacred in the Indian State of Gujarat, while hundreds of Muslim women were gang raped. The worst part is that the government was complicit in these horrible crimes and many of the victims have yet to receive justice. Where was the mainstream western media when those atrocities were committed? Did we hear the media call the assailants “Hindu extremists?” Over 200,000 Muslims were butchered in the Serbian genocide against Muslims in Kosovo, but the Serbians were never called “Christian terrorists.” When over 700,000 indigenous Palestinians were forcefully evicted out of their homes by the Israeli military, the Israeli soldiers were never called “Jewish terrorists.” When Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, the media neglected to report that he was a member of the extremist “Christian Identity Movement.” The Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings never provoked people to point fingers at a religion or even use the word “terrorist” to describe the shooters, but if the perpetrators were Muslim, you could count on the media to label them “Muslim terrorists.”

So why does the media ignore horrible acts of violence when they are committed against Muslims? Why does our government refuse to make efforts to understand why terrorism occurs in the first place? What is probably more disturbing than anything else is government-sponsored terrorism because it hides behind the guise of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “justice.” When things are made more systematic and acceptable, the more chances it has of being unnoticed.

Lastly, more than anything, Indians and Pakistanis have to stop pointing fingers and blaming each other. We can’t allow that kind of hatred and prejudice to present itself in our communities. We have to stand together, ask the right questions, and find the root cause of the problems. Only then will we be able to effectively prevent horrible atrocities – committed by all groups of people – from happening again.

Salaam, Namaste, Sat Sri Akal, Peace.

~Broken Mystic~

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You Cannot Believe Without Questioning

There is no doubt that Barack Obama dominated the first Presidential debate against John McCain. Obama was confident in his responses and he completely hammered McCain with a solid plan for improving the U.S. economy, while McCain looked tense and countered with unsubstantial responses. Most notably, perhaps, was how McCain didn’t make eye contact with Obama once, which I interpret as being incredibly disrespectful and immature. As other political commentators and analysts have pointed out, McCain’s debating style personalizes the differences between both candidates. In other words, by not making eye contact or addressing Obama directly, McCain reaffirms his self-perceived dominance over Obama, but he also alludes to Obama being his “opponent” (or even “enemy” according to the Bush Doctrine’s your-either-with-me-or-against-me sermon). Obama, on the other hand, looked at McCain directly and even addressed him by his first name, “John.” Obama even looked into the camera to address the viewers, which I believe earned him a significant boost in the debate.

But there are issues to discuss and question, especially for the Muslim community. There can be no argument that Muslim-Americans have been stigmatized ever since September 11th, but even more so after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When both candidates talk about the “spirit of national unity” after September 11th, this may be true for most Americans, but it is certainly not true for the Muslim community. There have been over 3,000 reported incidents regarding discriminatory acts, hate crimes, and prejudice towards Muslim-Americans, and neither of the candidates have spoken about it. Obama seemed to allude to it during the debate when he mentioned the world’s perception of American has changed significantly as a result of the wars, but he didn’t mention the repercussions Muslim-Americans have experienced and still endure.

When it comes to Iran, Obama is right in his approach of strong diplomacy, while McCain wants to paint Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel and the West. While Obama pointed out that Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not the most powerful man in Iran, he didn’t point out another key fact and that is this: Ahmadinejad never said “wipe Israel off the map.” This is an over-used slogan for war – you repeat it enough times, it becomes true. The Guardian’s article “Lost in Translation” cites four different translations – which include professors, the BBC news network, the New York Times, and even the often anti-Islamic and pro-Israel news station called MEMRI – and none of the translations contain the word for “map.” What Ahmadinejad actually said was, “The regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” The Iranian President was clearly referring to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands, which has created a lot of Arab and Muslim bitterness and antagonism towards Israel and the West. This is an extremely important issue that the West needs to understand if they are truly interested in establishing peace in the Muslim world. Obama seems more likely to acknowledge this issue, while McCain seems determined on attacking Iran since its acquisition of Nuclear Weapons is such an “existential threat.” I wonder if McCain bothers to think about how many countries in the world, especially Muslim countries, feel threatened by the U.S. possessing nuclear weapons. I do not support Ahmadinejad or any of his views, but the truth of the matter is that the U.S. has no right to invade or bomb Iran. I feel it would serve a great benefit to both candidates, as well as to the people of the world, if they actually watched Ahmadinejad’s interview with NBC news anchor, Brian Williams.

When the issue of Pakistan came into the picture, McCain accused Obama of wanting to invade the country. “You don’t invade an ally,” McCain said, “You don’t do that.” Obama responded and stated, “No one said anything about invading Pakistan.” This may seem to debunk McCain’s accusation, but Obama continued and said that there needs to be more U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Al-Qaeda forces are “in those mountains.” He also said that if Pakistan was not willing to cooperate, then the U.S. would intervene and take out Al-Qaeda. The problem with this tactic is that it contradicts Obama’s foreign policy with Iran. Obama has stated before that he will hold a congregation of all the Muslim leaders and discuss with them what needs to be done. Communication is essential in building strong alliances, and lack of communication is the reason why there is so much tension between the East and West. And yet, despite his aspirations for strong diplomacy, Obama’s statements towards Pakistan are hostile and accusatory. His tone and choice of words vilify Pakistan, which unnerves Pakistanis and generates suspicions about Obama’s intentions. Pakistan has lost a lot of soldiers while combating extremist factions and doing America’s dirty work. Pakistan has been disrespected by the American press numerous times, including in a political cartoon where a dog was labeled “Pakistan.” Every Pakistani knows how huge of an insult “dog” is.

What troubles me is when I see my fellow Muslims reducing themselves to the exhaustive “terrorism” rhetoric. “Terrorism” is a word used by contemporary politicians and the media to describe only one group of people: Muslims. Consider the Virginia Tech shooting, or the Amish school shooting in 2006, or the Church shooting in Missouri, or the Omaha mall shooting – were the perpetrators ever called “terrorists”? What about Ariel Sharon, who was responsible for massacring thousands of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps? What about George W. Bush who is responsible for the deaths of thousands of U.S., Iraqi, and Afghan causalities? Despite how they terrorized people, the answer is “no,” they are not called terrorists. But if they were Muslim, don’t you believe the media would pounce on that and label them “terrorists?” Obama should not be concerned with putting pressure on the Pakistanis or threatening to attack them, but instead, he should be focusing on building an alliance with them and understanding why the extremist factions are opposing Pakistani leadership. These extremist groups identify with the Palestinian and Iraqi struggles, and therefore they oppose any affiliation or cooperation with the United States because the U.S. government funds the Israeli military and also has soldiers stationed in Islamic countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also reports that President Bush secretly approved orders in July of 2008 to permit American Special Operations to carry out ground assaults in Pakistan without approval from the Pakistani government. Without taking these issues into consideration, neither Obama nor McCain will fully understand why violence ensues in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I agree with most of Obama’s policies, including his policy on cutting taxes for the middle class, and making college and health care affordable for citizens, but this doesn’t mean that I cannot criticize him. I know there are a lot of Muslims who support Obama, but you shouldn’t hesitate to say he is wrong on certain issues like Pakistan. Don’t be afraid to disagree – no one is perfect, and that includes politicians and world leaders. I will not blindly follow someone, and no one else should. For eight years, we have been criticizing the Bush administration and calling those who support him as blind followers, so the last thing we want ourselves to become is blind followers of Obama. Like everything in life, we cannot believe in something unless we ask the right questions first.

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” – Malik Al-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

Salaam/Peace

~ Broken Mystic~

Rudy Giuliani’s Islamophobic Remarks

As I was driving home from school the other night, I tuned into NPR and listened to the various speeches at the Republican National Convention (RNC).  I found most of the speeches to be pretty typical and generic; nothing out of the ordinary or spectacular.  Sometimes, I really don’t understand how some American citizens (or citizens of any country) can be so trustworthy of politicians who constantly glorify the candidates they favor.  I understand support, but when you glorify someone, you paint such a perfect image of them, as if they are saints, super-human, or without faults.  And in the realm of politics, who would want to elect a leader who admits his/her flaws?  We want to vote for perfect people, right?  After all, that’s what leaders are “supposed to be,” right?

When we glorify people, we are subsequently erasing their flaws and humanity.  We are making them equivalent to Prophets (depending on your interpretation of Prophets) and even, to God Himself.  We don’t see them as human beings like ourselves; instead, we perceive ourselves as inferior, incapable, and imperfect compared to the leader.  This is why we turn to them, because we believe they possess traits, characteristics, and skills that we lack within ourselves.  This is the brainwashing of politics that I absolutely despise.  Even some of the greatest leaders that I admire like Salah Al-Din and Haroun Al-Rashid had flaws.  In fact, I admire a leader more so when he/she admits his/her mistakes.  Malcolm X for example was never afraid to announce his mistakes, and his actions reflected the kind of leader who was open and receptive to learning and improving.

As my thoughts wandered on these issues, I heard loud applause and cheers when the former Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, walked on stage.  At first, he made the expected remarks and criticisms of the Obama campaign, and he even encouraged the audience’s disrespectful mockery of Obama’s experience.  A few moments later, Giuliani made remarks that reminded me why I sometimes feel so insecure living in the United States.  For four days in Denver, the Democrats were afraid to use the term “Islamic terrorism,” he said loudly, while the audience booed at the Democratic party.  “I imagine they believe it is politically incorrect to say it. I think they believe they will insult someone. Please tell me, who they are insulting if they say, “Islamic terrorism.” They are insulting terrorists!”  Thunderous cheers and applause followed.

As I was driving past the street lights, the gas stations, the department stores, and the neighborhoods, I felt so disconnected from everything; like I didn’t belong.  I felt like I couldn’t recognize anything for a moment.  I couldn’t help but feel discouraged, powerless, and subordinate.  The fact that thousands of people agree with Giuliani’s statements is probably the most disturbing thing to me.  It represents how prejudice, intolerance, and ignorance exists in a significant portion of the United States.  It’s too obvious for people see how the word “Islamic” automatically associates terrorism with the religion of “Islam,” and yet, Giuliani is able to follow up with some ridiculous statement that doesn’t make any sense at all!  “They are insulting terrorists”?  First he mentions “Islamic terrorism” and then he says it insults “terrorists.”  All he did was omit the “Islamic” part in the last sentence!  How hard is it to see the hypocrisy, the manipulation of words, and the brainwashing?  How hard is it to see the Islamophobia?

No, Mr. Giuliani, saying “Islamic terrorism” insults the 5-7 million Muslims living in the United States, as well as the estimated 1.4 billion Muslims around the world.  It not only reinforces misconceptions and ignorance about Islam, but it also implicates that terrorism is only conducted by Muslims.  When the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Omaha mall shootings occurred, the shooters were not described as “terrorists.”  When some Israeli soldiers bulldoze Palestinian homes, harass and murder civilians, or launch rockets into Lebanon, they are not called “terrorists.”  When some American soldiers rape young Iraqi girls, torture prisoners, and deliberately kill innocent civilians, they are not called “terrorists.”  But you can surely count on the fact that if the shooter of Virginia Tech was Muslim, the headlines would have been labeling him a “terrorist.”

As the RNC crowd cheer and applauded Giuliani for these remarks, I felt so outnumbered and hated just because of what I believe.  I felt so hated just because of who I am on the outside and on the inside.  These kind of fear tactics and word associations are what generate divisions, hatred, and violence.  It doesn’t help our society at all, especially with the way our foreign policy is now.  If you support the Republican party and Giuliani’s statements, how do you answer for this?  How can you prove to me that his remarks don’t promote Islamophobia?  How can you assure me that this will not trigger more hate crimes, stereotypes, and discriminatory acts that Muslims, including myself, experience?

Politicians say they are right with us, the people.  They say they understand the hardships and struggles that we endure.  They say they know what it’s like to pay for high gas prices or search exhaustively for a job.  They say that they’re by our sides, but the truth is, they’re not.  They don’t present themselves as fellow commoners or citizens.  They present themselves as perfect and flawless people.  They present themselves as all-knowing entities who can make declarations, laws, and judgments in a disturbingly Divine manner.  They present themselves as gods.

~ Broken Mystic ~

American Politics: No Place for Headscarves

This is a little overdue, but I need to write about it anyway. Last Wednesday in Detroit (June 18th), during Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign, two Muslim women wearing traditional headscarves (commonly known as “hijaab”) were refused to sit directly behind Obama’s podium. The Muslim women, Hebba Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel, were accompanied by their friend Ali Koussan, Aref’s brother Sharif, and a young lawyer, Brandon Edward Miller. The three men were asked by a volunteer for the Obama Campaign if they wanted to sit behind Obama; they replied in the affirmative but mentioned they were with friends. Upon seeing the Muslim women, the volunteer explained to the group of Muslim attendees that “because of the political climate and what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with Muslim Americans it’s not good for her to be seen on TV or associated with Obama.”

I wonder if the volunteer really knew what is “going on with Muslim Americans.” Hate crimes and discriminatory actions towards individuals of Muslim, Middle-Eastern, and South Asian descent have escalated on an annual basis. Along with the Human Rights Watch, the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) observed that prior to 9/11, forty-eight hate crimes towards Muslim-Americas were reported in the United States, but in the days following the terrorist attack, that figure skyrocketed dramatically to 481. Reported incidents of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Muslims amounted to 602 in 2002, 1,019 in 2004, 1,522 in 2004, 1,972 in 2005, and 2,467 in 2006 (CAIR). The context of these hate crimes and incidents consist of murders — including non-Muslim individuals with a South Asian or Middle-Eastern background — physical and verbal assaults, and numerous cases of vandalism directed towards Mosques, convenience stores owned by Muslims, and homes. I wonder if this volunteer for the Obama Campaign knew about the Sikh father who was shot to death at a gas station because he was mistaken for being a Muslim. I wonder if this volunteer knew about the countless Muslims who have been killed and brutally beaten just because of their religious affiliation or ethnic background.

Hebba Aref, who is a graduate student of Michigan Law School, expressed her disappointment at the rally. “I don’t want to be called something I’m not, but I felt like… everyone was treating this accusation of being Muslim as though it were some sort of crime or sin,” she told reporters.

As Obama delivered his message on unity among races, Aref described her difficulty in hearing his words. “As he’s saying it, I’m thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, I was obviously … profiled and discriminated against an hour ago.”

It is frustrating for me, a Muslim American, to hear about these (seemingly) endless incidents of prejudice towards Muslim Americans. If it’s not “good” for a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf to appear on television with Obama, then is it not “good” for the hundreds of Muslims to continue their campaigning for Obama? Aref said: “I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to… the message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.” So where they do the Muslims belong in this campaign? Ah, I know! Let’s put them at the back of the bus!

Seriously, it’s like one of my friends telling me that they don’t want to hang out with me or be associated with me just because I’m wearing a necklace that says “Allah” in Arabic, or because I’m wearing an Islamic T-shirt. It’s even more frustrating how Islamophobia is being used to disrupt Obama’s campaign. As many of you know, Obama has been accused of being a “secret Muslim” just because of his family’s background and his middle name, “Hussain.” It’s really scary and disturbing how there are actually people out there who believe this. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” showed clips of West Virginia voters calling Obama a “Muslim,” a “non-Christian” and as eloquently put by one woman, “he’s a Hussain, and I’ve had enough of Hussain!” Another woman said, “He is of another race, and I guess I am a little scared of his race, because we have so much conflict with ’em.”

I understand the complexity of this matter, and I am sure it is very difficult for Obama to balance things out without scaring the right-wing extremists or offending Muslim-Americans. On the bright side of things, Senator Obama contacted Ms. Aref and Ms. Abdelfadeel via telephone and offered his apology. In response, the two Muslim women wrote the following letter to the Obama campaign:

At the rally for Senator Obama in Detroit on Monday, June 16, two volunteers denied us seating behind the stage the Senator would soon take. The volunteers informed us that we were not allowed to sit in that area due to the hijab, the headscarf that each of us was wearing.

This incident was unfortunate and extremely disappointing. Senator Obama has called us each to personally convey his deepest apologies and acknowledge that this was inexcusable. We both immensely appreciate the Senator’s phone call and his commitment to remedy this issue. We commend him for displaying qualities befitting an effective President. We acknowledge that this injustice has been taken seriously and that Senator Obama does not tolerate discrimination against Arabs, Muslims or any community. We are assured that he and his staff are committed to upholding the principles of justice for all peoples and bringing about change we can believe in. The infringement on our rights occurred and has been addressed; now we are ready to move forward. We will continue to support Senator Obama in his campaign and wish him the best as the race continues.

Obama follows up with a statement through his Senate office:

I reached out to Ms. Aref and Ms. Abdelfadeel this afternoon. I spoke with Ms. Abdelfadeel, and expressed my deepest apologies for the incident that occurred with volunteers at the event in Detroit. The actions of these volunteers were unacceptable and in no way reflect any policy of my campaign. I take deepest offense to and will continue to fight against discrimination against people of any religious group or background. Our campaign is about bringing people together, and I’m grateful that Ms. Abdelfadeel accepted our apology and I hope Ms. Aref and any who were offended accept my apology as well.

I personally accept the apology by Senator Obama, but at the same time, I think the two Muslim women should be offered to attend another Obama rally and be permitted to sit directly behind him and appear on television, as they were intended to. What do you all think?

I just think that these incidents are very insulting towards the Muslim community and I think it’s really important for American politics to confront this issue openly. I hope this recent story increases more awareness about the stigma Muslim Americans are facing in the post-9/11 era. I was surfing the web and found this blog entry written in response to the incident by Daisy Khan, a Muslim American Woman:

“One day, we may see American Presidents, male and female, wearing turbans, yarmulkes, and hijabs. Our nation’s foundation rests on a legacy of diversity and respect for difference, and Senator Obama’s person, candidacy, and message reflect this very legacy. Perhaps some of his staffers and volunteers need to step back and reflect on exactly why they work for this historic campaign.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Salaam/Shalom/Shlama/Peace

~ Broken Mystic~