Mona Haydar is a poet, an activist, a gardener and an environmentalist. She studied both Arabic and Islamic Spirituality in Damascus, Syria and is now working towards a Masters in Divinity at Union Theological Seminary. Mona Haydar’s “Ask a Muslim” project, aimed at dispelling the rising fear of and prejudice against Muslims in America, has garnered a great deal of attention from national Media outlets. altM columnist, Sofia Ali-Khan, caught up with Mona online after learning that she has returned from a trip to Standing Rock, the site of ongoing protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. altM wanted to know all about the relationship between her Muslim spirituality and her activism.
SAK: As-salamu alaikum, Mona, and thanks for making time for this interview. Thousands of activists, including Native Americans from over 100 different tribes around the country, have gathered at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to protect the land and water in the construction path. The protectors have broad, but urgent concerns about climate change and an outdated reliance on fossil fuels. They are also concerned about the acute threat posed by the pipeline to the reservation’s water supply and sacred sites, as well as the entire Missouri and Mississippi River systems. I first contacted you when I became aware that you were making plans to go to Standing Rock to join the protests. Why did you feel a responsibility to go to Standing Rock and what did you learn from being there?
MH: I believe that every cause is my cause. Every cause seeking justice, equality, peace and love for their community is my cause. I am not separate from my world. When it becomes a more hospitable place for any people, it becomes a better place for us all. When love and justice prevail and are on an uptick, we all benefit from this. That’s just how I operate in the world. So when the call came out from the Sioux tribe for people to come and pray at Standing Rock with the folks protecting water there, I took it seriously.
At first the sentiment was that they wanted only indigenous folks out there. As an indigenously Syrian woman whose people were colonized, I felt deeply connected to this call but felt it was important to let those indigenous to Turtle Island do this noble work and prayer. When they opened their call up to other people, I got there as quickly as I possibly could. “Mni Wiconi,” water is life. That’s true for all of us whether we are capitalists, colonizers or whatever. It’s my duty as a Muslim human to affirm this truth and protect water and earth, to tread gently upon the Earth as the Quran commands.
What I learned from being there was really an emotional teaching: stop wallowing in misery and pity about the election. Do the work that matters. Stand up for justice and love right now.
This is a moment in history like so many other moments. People want to romanticize the past as if all goodness to be done has been done. That’s just not true.
Our world and ourselves are ever in need of betterment and if we want that to transpire, we have to be the ones to do it. And we can. If you saw all the different people who gathered at Standing Rock , you wouldn’t feel defeated or depressed, just hopeful and inspired .
There is such intense pressure on the community at Standing Rock right now. The water protectors face intense surveillance from aircrafts which circle over the camps about every two minutes at very low range. The police stationed there are heavily militarized. I heard veterans talk about how they’d only seen the kind of equipment and vehicles present at Standing Rock while they were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those at the front lines doing little else but praying and witnessing, are being tear gassed, shot with water cannons and subjected to psychological warfare. I don’t know the proper terminology but there are sounds that are set off which are so loud that they disturb a person’s ability to think clearly and make decisions. Beyond how difficult it is to live a camp-like lifestyle (needing to chop wood to build fires to stay warm, not having the luxuries of very simple things like that having an indoor space to rest, a place to shower even after being tear gassed, a bed, the choices of what you’re going to eat every day), life there is constantly in a state of fluctuation, with people coming in and out. The challenges are so many that it’s hard to articulate them all. People who decide to stay there indefinitely are giving up so much. I honor them so deeply, so fully, for their commitments.
SAK: The protectors at Standing Rock raise environmental concerns, but also issues of colonialism and social justice. They argue that the federal government has begun construction of the pipeline across land that was secured to the Sioux people by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, and that the land was then taken by unilateral Congressional action when it became clear that there may be natural resources to be exploited under the treaty land.
The pipeline route was recently relocated from near the city of Bismark, North Dakota, to just north of the Reservation. That relocation was effected, in part, because the US Army Corps of Engineers decided that the water supply for Bismark would be at too great risk from potential oil spills. However, the protectors argue that the new route puts the Reservation’s water supply, and the Missouri River water supply at a similar risk.
The position of the protectors seems to be that to build the pipeline is an act of outright colonization, negating the humanity and the rights of First Nations people to security, health, and self-determination. How do you see these issues of social justice and how is that related to your spirituality?
MH: I am deeply connected to everything and everyone. The DAPL is simply a symbol of the internal oppression and disruption inside of me. When I remedy that, when we all remedy the oppression we commit to our own hearts, we will see things like this begin to disappear. This is both an inner and an outer revolution.
People kept coming into the camp and asking why there wasn’t more protest happening. One person asked righteously, “Is this a protest camp or a prayer camp?” and the elder holding that gathering very unequivocally and calmly said, “This is a prayer camp. Our prayer has and will always be our resistance.” I operate in this same way. The inner struggle is the outer struggle. We must be engaged in the inner revolution if want to see the outer revolution rise and prosper.
SAK: Your commitment to social and environmental justice did not begin with this decision to stand in solidarity with the protectors at Standing Rock. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be engaged in environmental issues?
MH: I became really personally invested in environmentalism as an adult after finishing up university. It felt like a deeply spiritual calling to educate myself about what my impact was as a human being on our Earth. Especially with the privilege of growing up American, I felt super disconnected from the impact I was hearing about in smaller, more “third world” island nations.
I read the Quran from a more personal space and began to explore who I was in relation to it. It’s pretty clear in the Quran, you can be an oppressor or you can be a lover. I wanted the life of the latter.
I heard about this thing called permaculture and soon enough found a community in New Mexico that was practicing its principles. I spent the summer of 2012 there and decided that it wasn’t enough, so I moved to New Mexico at the end of that summer. I lived in that off-grid, solar-powered, permaculture-based, inter-spiritual community through the first years of my marriage and had my first child there. Living in an adobe (made of Earth) hut, not having running water, a bathroom, or a kitchen in my home was a challenge. Learning to build fires, chop wood, being aware of how much water I used (because I had to carry it home with me) and make do with what I had or what I could borrow or trade for was something I relished supremely.
My parents said things like, “We left Syria so you wouldn’t have to struggle and here you are, using outdoor composting outhouses, living without running water in a house made of dirt, at the top of a mountain — so much harder than we ever had it in Syria!” It became sort of a family joke. I moved to the top of a mountain where I didn’t have cell service and lived with the creatures of the wild.
I would say that living at Lama Foundation was my real education in sustainability and environmentalism. It was my springboard. After that my family moved out to the Redwood forest in Northern California and lived in a tiny bungalow hoping to build community in that gorgeous second growth forest. Homesteading is really hard. Like really, really hard.
SAK: Can you define homesteading for readers who are not familiar? Did you feel that you found a way to become self-sufficient and build community in the ways you had hoped?
MH: Homesteading is an alternative lifestyle than the one most us live in American cities. Its philosophy is based in self-sufficiency and living off the land. So the whole “eat local” movement with CSAs and farm shares being more available has made this lifestyle sort of fashionable. Everyone wants their organic produce, free of pesticides and other gross things, but how many people want to get their hands dirty in the soil, tending to this part of life through the entire growing season? Not many. Working the land is very hard work. So many people really underestimate how much work it takes to grow food and tend the land. It’s a gorgeous lifestyle and is really fulfilling, but it is backbreaking and makes it so that you have little to no life outside of watering, weeding and everything else that goes into it.
Homesteading is also a lot about what you do with the food once it’s been harvested. It’s about fermentation, canning and other modes of preservation to make sure that you can live off of what you and the land have produced through the rest of the year, in the off seasons. Lots of homesteaders have goats, chickens, bees and other animal/insect friends that can be a big part of a homesteading operation. Homesteading comes with learning about the wilderness, too. There are so many wild plants that are edible and there are so many things that can be used as medicines and salves. I learned a lot about foraging, harvesting, and using wild native plants while living at Lama Foundation and then again while in Northern California. I learned so much about mushrooms, for instance, that by the end of our time there, I could actually smell mushrooms before I could see them. It was incredible to be so in tune with the land and so tapped into the ecosystem that my senses were focused on survival.
SAK: Now that you are in New York City, working on a Masters in Divinity, you are working to build community in a different way. Can you describe your “Ask a Muslim” project and tell us a little bit about why you decided to carve out time from graduate school and parenting to offer strangers an opportunity to meet and speak with you?
MH: My husband and I had this idea after the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shooting. We were so depressed and felt like the world around us was unsafe. Everything felt like it was crumbling, eroding around us. My heterosexual, white, educated, upper-middle class husband describes that time as the first moment when he understood or experienced real fear. We were afraid to leave the house. He wasn’t sure I should wear hijab anymore. We were in a real pit of depression and knew we had to do something to get out of that slump. We felt like we were waiting for some kind of superman to show up and explain what was going on in the world and do something to make it better. Somehow, this superman character was going to heal some of that pain and transform it into action for goodness.
We realized it was really dumb to keep waiting because no one was going to show up.
We had to act if we wanted to see it manifest in the world – so we did.
My husband, Sebastian, painted up a couple recycled doors with “Ask A Muslim,” “Talk to a Muslim,” “Free conversation,” “Free donuts and coffee” and “Take a flower.” We went out every weekend or whenever we could and just talked to people. We weren’t really interested in talking about Islam or anything religious for that matter. We just wanted to get to know our neighbors and give them a chance to get to know us.
We wanted to demystify something that people regarded as very mysterious: Muslims as human beings. We chatted with folks and so many people walked away saying something like, “Ooh, you guys are so normal.” So often, they laughed while they said this, as if they were laughing at some kind of internal joke. One woman even said to me that I should change my signs to say “Talk to a Human Being (who happens to be a Muslim).” We did it for ourselves and for our community. We did it to replace some of the trauma with love by way of connection, donuts and flowers. It’s a small gesture, I know, but it’s all we could do in that moment and so we did it.
SAK: I understand that in the last several days, John Henderson, Colonel of the Army Corps of Engineers had issued a notice that the camp from which the protectors are working will be dismantled as of December 5, 2016. Is there anything that you would encourage us all to do to support the protectors?
MH: The notice is for the camp that I stayed at, the camp that offered me such hospitality as a lone pregnant woman. The people there were some of the most kind and generous people I have ever come across. This notice was issued because they see the prayer working! It is a sign of the success of the camp. I’m not afraid for the protectors because they’re not afraid. Fear is part of the system that they are opposing with prayer and love. Fear is one of the things that these corporations utilize to subjugate us and commit injustice. Fear is a valuable tool in their armory and they are using it with tactics like this eviction notice. Prayer from a place of hope that is steeped in struggle and marinated in oppression is the most important way to oppose tactics like this. I would encourage everyone with the means and ability to go, to do so as soon as possible. Go there if you can. Go pray there.
If you can’t, pray where you are. Protect the water where you are. Do you know about your local watershed? Do you know about your local government and its interaction with the earth and the indigenous people of your part of the Earth? Educate yourself. Education can be uncomfortable but I promise that it comes with a gratifying sense of connection. This sort of inner and outer work is what we are here for. Pray and act for love’s sake, for yourself and for the world. Every cause is worthwhile if it uplifts and engenders connection and unity.
Update: On December 4, 2016 the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the construction of a key section of the Dakota Access Pipeline, responding to pressure from protectors who have been camping and praying at the site for months, drawing national attention. The decision stops construction on the 1,172-mile oil pipeline just south of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It remains to be seen whether an alternative plan will safeguard the Mississippi and Missouri River systems, and our nation’s indigenous communities. However, today, this is a clear victory for the power of prayer, the protectors, and everyone who supports the transition to clean, safe energy.
More information about Mona Haydar, her projects, retreats, and appearances can be found at monahaydar.com. Sofia Ali-Khan is an altM columnist and public interest lawyer. Her recently viral post “Dear Non Muslim Allies” and the subsequent series can be found at sofiaalikhan.com.