Sunday, October 21, 2007

Two different religious symbols should be embraced, not feared

Dogs and Rabbis

A religious symbol can make you feel warm and fuzzy or scared and threatened - depending on your associations with it.

I came across two people last week who aim to help others overcome their fears of a pair of disparate symbols: the Muslim head scarf and the Hasidic rabbi's beard.

The first is a college student who is inviting discussion of the hijab worn by some Muslim women.

The endeavor, first reported by Religious News Service, was launched by a junior at the University of Missouri who has proclaimed this Friday as National Pink Hijab Day. The hijab unsettles some people who associate it with extremist Islam.

A pink hijab helps soften the image, said the student, Hend El-Buri, and often leads to discussions about why Muslim women cover their heads. It's not at all about extremism, El-Buri insists. It's about modesty.

"Muslim women want to be judged by their character and intelligence and wit rather than their physical beauty and their bodies," she said. "The hijab gives women a really, really strong sense of identity."

National Pink Hijab Day is aimed at fostering interaction and also is raising money for breast cancer research. This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and hijab day participants are being asked to donate at least $5 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a nonprofit organization dedicated to breast cancer research.

"This is a good way to see that Muslim women care about the same issues," El-Buri said.

El-Buri, who is 20 and grew up in Columbia, Mo., began wearing the hijab in middle school. She found back then that wearing pink attracted friendly questions. She decided to take the concept nationwide with the help of Facebook, the social networking Web site.

The response has been overwhelming. More than 7,000 people have signed up to participate - including Muslim men who said that they would wear pink kufi caps. Many Muslims who do not wear the hijab or the kufi, as well as many non-Muslims, have pledged to wear pink ties or pink ribbons that day as a sign of solidarity.

El-Buri has also prepared a downloadable poster on Facebook that says: "Do you have questions about my hijab? Ask me on Oct. 26!"

The other idea, involving the rabbis, emerges from a question-and-answer column with the provocative headline of "Dogs and Rabbis" on, the Web site of the Lubavitch Hasidic group.

"Why are religious Jews scared of dogs?" a questioner asks. "Whenever I walk mine past an observant family, all the kids hide behind their mother's skirt in terror. Is there some curse on dogs?"

The columnist, Rabbi Aron Moss, a Hasidic rabbi from Sydney, saw a parallel. "While many observant Jews are scared of dogs," he wrote, "many unobservant Jews are terrified of rabbis."

"There's something in common between dogs and rabbis that makes us both objects of trepidation. And it's not the facial hair."

Moss went on to speculate that it's simply the fear of the unknown. Orthodox families tend not to have dogs, he said. "Perhaps it's a cultural thing, but other than the odd goldfish, pets are rare in observant communities."

But that's no reason for fear, he added. "Both dogs and rabbis are loved by those who know them, and instill fear in those who don't.

Encourage your kids to play with friendly dogs, the rabbi said. And stop and say hello to a rabbi, he suggested. They don't bite.

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