Me and Omar and some other folks were flogging a horse to death over at Umar Lee’s website on the topic of immigrant muslim culture in the US. We managed to agree that [American] muslims should be

accepted as authentic Muslims without having to turn away from our cultural heritage, and there is plenty in that heritage that is not haram

and that

immigrant muslims need to realize that Islam is bigger than their own culture of origin and all us muslims have an equal claim on Islam and where it goes from here

, while allowing that immigrant muslims have a right to maintain and perpetuate their culture in the US to the best of their ability and not assimilate into the surrounding society if they don’t feel like it. Great! That was more difficult than I could have imagined, but common ground was reached on a point or two and all is good.

There still seemed to be this idea though, that mainstream American culture did not just have lots of things that are not haram, but that it is somehow equally as good as or better than traditional muslim cultures from an islamic point of view. I don’t want to start talking about my culture is 10 points better than your culture or some other nonsense like that, but I think when people talk about culture in generalities, it misses some of the specific benefits of specific cultural practices from an Islamic point of view, that we can compare and learn from. What I’m getting at here is that culture is a code of behavior: in the case of islamic cultures in general, the code of behavior is, in many though by no means all aspects, an implementation of the sunnah of Nabi Muhammad, saws. That’s what it means to say it is an islamic culture: it is one in which the patterns of dress, manners, art and architecture, family relationships, and so on, have been impacted by an awareness of Islam. With that in mind, I think it is fair to say that those aspects of an immigrant culture that are in correspondence with the sunnah are better than those same aspects of culture in America that are not in correspondence with the sunnah, from an Islamic point of view. What am I talking about? Let me give a small example:

Malays eat with their hands. Americans eat with fork and spoon. We all know, as muslims, that our Beloved Prophet, saws, ate with his hands, and licked them afterward, and he told us that those who love not his sunnah are not of him. That is a clear indication that even such mundane and seemingly unimportant aspects of life like eating our food, there is a Prophetic way to do it, and we should follow it. Malays, in their culture, have internalized and made rote the Prophetic way of eating their food, and it doesn’t matter if a Malay has completely forgotten that it is sunnah when he does it, it is still praiseworthy and carries a blessing with it that God will reward him for in the Hereafter, with every bite he eats. Of course it would be better if he took that bite with the intention of fulfilling the sunnah – the reward would be greater – but it does not take away from the fact that he has committed a good deed, and our Lord, who is Most Generous, will reward him for it. So, in the very mundane and not terribly important area of dining ettiquette, we must conclude as muslims of the Ahl as-Sunnah that Malay culture is superior to American culture.

Now, I’m not an anti-fork&spoon crusader, I’m not saying eating with a fork is blameworthy or wrong, and I’m not saying that Malay culture has the ideal implementation of the sunnah. Allah’s Beloved licked his fingers when he was done, while that is considered bad table manners by Malays. So nobody’s perfect and we can all do better. But wait, I’m just getting started.

A little while ago, I was in Singapore for a function at a mosque, and afterward, a meal was served. In the US, you could just imagine the scene after Eid prayer: everyone goes out of the prayer hall, takes a styrofoam box off a table that has an individual portion of lamb and rice inside, and eats it with a plastic spork while standing around having small talk. Contrast that with this: platters of food were brought out, with one heaping mound of rice and three different kinds of meat in gravy poured on top. These platters were put on the ground, four or five men sat around each platter, dug in with their hands, and ate that mound of rice until not a morsel of food remained, and then licked their fingers. A guy would be like, pass me some lamb, and the other guy would use the hand that had just been putting food in his mouth, tear some meat off the bone, and place it within reach. When we were just about done, a guy came over with a platter that still had some food on it, and was like, those guys couldn’t finish, and unloaded the mess of rice and meat onto our platter. Brothers and sisters, that meal pushed me to the limit of what I can tolerate, and I’m sure I’ve got American readers who are nauseated just thinking about it. But the fact is is that meal accomplished a half-dozen sunnah deeds that would not be accomplished in an American setting:

  • Eating food with the hand
  • Licking the fingers
  • Sitting on the ground while eating
  • Many hands touching the food
  • Finishing every bit of the food and not wasting
  • Encouraging brotherhood: It makes you close with your brother the way standing shoulder to shoulder in salat makes you close: You are in fact and in deed close to him. There is about six inches between your head and his as you crouch over the food.

Each and every one of those things is a blessing on the participants in that meal, that God will surely reward them for in the Hereafter, Inshallah, and you would miss out on that if you were to say, “I don’t get my eat on like that – I’m an American muslim.”

Hang on, I’m not saying American Muslims in America have got to adopt this implementation of the Prophetic Sunnah. But if we are serious about developing a new culture in the US that is both fully American and as close to the Islamic ideal as practicable, then that means finding some American way to implement the communal meal that hits all the Sunnah actions that the Singaporean way does, but still satisfies our cultural preoccupation with germs, personal space, and not letting our hot dogs touch our potato salad. If we can’t do that, if we cop-out and say we’re going to let that sunnah go, brother, it doesn’t work with our American-ness, then we have to be willing to admit, that in this particular area, however small and unimportant it may seem, our culture is not as good Islamically speaking as theirs. So, is there a way to do it? Sure! How about this: Platters of organic veggies with lo-fat ranch dressing to dip! Bowls of potato chips that everybody just reaches on into! Great big platters of Freedom Fries, with bowls of ketchup on the side! Just don’t forget to lick the salt off your fingers when you’re done.


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Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. Salam! Yes, that poor horse got it too hard 😉 Your example of the meal was interesting. I remember as a teenager doing the same and the feelings of tight community were nice. But, a little older and more learned I hope, I have to wonder how much bacteria and viruses I might be transmitting by licking my fingers and plowing it back into the platter, even though one should only take food from the part closest to him…

    But, I look at it from a different perspective, perhaps on a scale that is too large for one individual. While I as an individual take some comfort in the ways of other muslim cultures, I also feel that those cultures sometimes hold muslims back. Like, I see how Western cultures mostly produce clean cities, predictable traffic, security (at least for people in the West; maybe not so much for others), prosperity (ditto, but not always). Then I contrast it with the attitudes I’ve enountered in Muslim countries and just shake my head, “they want a khilafat again but thier culture causes them to act in ways that they can’t even do business without cheating each other and not think twice about it.” This mostly applies to my experiences with Arab cultures and South Asians. From what I’ve seen, SE Asian muslim cultures usually seem to be on the plus side of things and manage to do pretty well in the rough and tumble modern world and hold thier own. Not so in the Middle East, I think.

    PS, another Muslim veteran freinds of mine recently tried to move to Johore with his wife.

  2. I see how Western cultures mostly produce clean cities, predictable traffic, security (at least for people in the West; maybe not so much for others), prosperity (ditto, but not always). Then I contrast it with the attitudes I’ve enountered in Muslim countries

    Well, that’s an attitude that bears some reflecting on, IMHO. What is lacking here is any kind of cause and effect. Are you sure America is as prosperous as it is because our culture is more righteous than everyone elses? I think that’s what is known as American Triumphalism, and I don’t see a difference between that and saying we are right because we are mighty. Might does not make right. Moreover, I’m a hard sell for that kind of argument, because I grew up in the City of Detroit, a city that exemplifies almost every single thing that is wrong with the USA. It is not clean, it is not secure, it’s roads are deadly, it is impoverished and it is among the most, if not the most racially segregated city in the US. Are we Detroiters not American enough? I’m not trying to harsh on your worldview here, but I would suggest that the conclusions you’re drawing are hardly iron-clad.

  3. Also, I should point out that prosperity is not necessarily a sign of righteousness in the sight of God. That’s a Puritan idea that doesn’t translate well into Islamic thought. By contrast, your namesake, Sayyidina Omar (r), used to say that he doesn’t know whether to pray for wealth or for poverty because he doesn’t know which one will be better for him in the Hereafter. Or as Ibn Ata’Allah puts it:

    Sometimes He gives

    while depriving you, and sometimes

    He deprives you in giving.

  4. A very good post, with many valid points. As it has been proven with other immigrants, after two or three generation, the kids of the original immigrants blend in nicely, remember their heritage, and become good citizens. It just takes a generation or two.

    Ya Haqq!

  5. Salam,

    >>because our culture is more righteous than everyone elses?

    Oh, God no! Its not about righteousness at all. Its about a culture that encourages certain things as “normal”, “correct” and harnesses people’s efforts and organizes them. Various Islamicate cultures / civilization used to do that, but for some reasons it does not do it much anymore. American culture harnesses people’s selfishness: Capitalism in the economic sphere and Democracy (of a sort) in the political sphere. It will not last forever, but it seems that recognizing that people are selfish beings and harnessing those motives produce some striking results and agregates power. It may also produce some harmful side effects, side effects which I think the Quran and sunnah can help ward off.

  6. Salam, well my worldview is like all others: imperfect with exceptions to what I think is the rule. Detroit, like my hometown of Pittsburgh just didn’t know it was time to die when the auto or steel industries went away.

    My buddy actually could not stay. I think he couldn’t get a residency permit, but I don’t know anything about the details of Malaysian citizenship or residency laws, though. Its better than Egypt by far, though, since my boys can’t get Egyptian rights through thier mother.

    >>your namesake, Sayyidina Omar (r),

    Its true, though. A blackamerican Muslim told me my name was Omar when I was 15, because he thought I was hotheaded like Omar b. al-Khattab. Some things never change…

  7. Sorry to hear about your friend. Working here for a period of time can be done, but permanent Immigration to Malaysia is pretty tough. I’m still just on a work permit myself. My kids wouldn’t be able to get Malaysian rights through their mother either, if they hadn’t been born here.

    Might I add, that is among the characteristics of America that I love most dearly, that we have, or had, an open door to the rest of the world. That’s why I find your hostility and fear toward immigrants shocking and, at the risk of being rude, un-American. I mean, I don’t think there’s a single political stance that all American muslims need to hold or anything; I’m ok with disagreement. But I gotta say you’re the most right-wing muslim convert I’ve ever encountered.

  8. Assalamualaikum Br bin Gregory [still a bit reluctant to use my first name online – Ed.],
    I am here in the US @ Lexington KY & will be moving to Bethlehem PA next month. I\’ve recently been to both Chicago and NYC over the summer and would say that comparatively, people in Lexington are very very much nicer. Down here, at least in terms of being outwardly polite with each other, I\’d say that they\’re all how Muslims should behave.

    But after putting thought to it, if I had a choice, I would still opt to go back home after completing my PhD inshaAllah – this especially when bringing to mind the upbringing of my children. I would be grateful though that they\’ve been exposed to some of the good points of American elementary education and life.

    Perhaps, the main reason would be because I do not have family here. Or.. maybe after spending 2 Ramadhans & Aidilfiltris here, I long for something which can only be experienced back home.

    The Malays have a saying, hujan emas di negeri orang hujan batu di negeri sendiri..

  9. Brother Israd, the engineer with the soul of a poet! Have you really been in the States two years already? SubhanAllah time flies. When do you return to Malaysia?

    For the benefit of anyone reading this, Israd said

    Showers of gold in a foreign land are no better than a hail of stones in your own.

    roughly paraphrased, and correct me if I got the sense wrong, akhi.

  10. I think you got that spot on! It has been 2 Ramadhans but not yet 2 years. I don’t know Br. Bin Gregory, when I will be finished with my studies… There has been a few setbacks, inshaAllah I will get through it.

  11. Salam,

    >>That’s why I find your hostility and fear toward immigrants shocking

    It would be un-American to want to stop all immigration. Wanting to let immigrants stay aloof from the other descendents of immigrants is not American at all. It is, however, very post-modern and politically correct. I happen to think that Balkanizing a society makes it vulnerable, unstable and ultimately destructive. Of course, some people want exactly that. Others simply want to unrealistically maintain thier old cultures in a new land. My great-grandparents came from Italy and Sicily and insisted on the family integrating; otherwise the whole point of leaving Italy would have been moot and thier sacrifices totally wasted. Coming to America was about being free and prospering in ways that couldn’t be done in the Old World. Replicating the failures of early 20th century Italian culture would have condemned them to replicating the exact reasons they left in the first place! Now, 80 years later, I still eat mostly Italian food, talk loudly as stereotypical Italians do, and have other characteristics that I can only explain as coming from my Italian family. But, I don’t feel bad or inauthentic when I eat Irish food or when people put up green everywhere on St Paddy’s Day. I also don’t feel offended when people decorate for Christmas. But, I’ve seen people in the mosques feel bad about themselves when they are served food from another ethnic group. They seem offended when people do things differently from thier ethnic group. But, its all absurd becuase they are all foreigners here.

    And then consider this: avoiding integration usually means that Arabs stay in thier little groups, Pakistanis stay in thier little groups and people like us either have to hang out with the spouse’s naitonality or end up being really lonely. Is it not good to get Muslims to hang out and integrate with each other? There is no single “immigrant” culture; its all these little ones who stay apart even from other Muslims. I see that the best hope for Muslims in America is to integrate into American culture so we can integrate ultimately *with each other*. The current way of having ethnic cliques is harmful for Muslims more than anyone else. Yeah?

  12. I don’t want to upset you the way Omar has (not sure if I could anyway, man that’s a side of Bin Gregory I can’t ever recall seeing), but I do have to say I can’t fully accept the whole idea that eating with our hands and licking them is inherently good just because the Prophet ate that way. So many Muslims want to ape everything the Prophet did, but some still end up being arseholes, and I can’t accept the idea that God is going to go easier on them because they licked their fingers, know what I mean?

    I mean, would you be a better Muslim if you rode a camel to work every day? And am I a lesser Muslim because I drive a car, eat with a fork, and brush my teeth with a real toothbrush instead of a piece of wood?

    Anyway bro, keep up the good work. This is a great discussion.

    By the way, I think I agree that Irving is the nicest guy on the Internet. 🙂

  13. Oh hi Jord, how are ya?

    Didn\’t see your comment just now – we must have posted at the same time. Yeah, I kinda lost my cool; I\’m not proud of the cussing.


    wrt to following the Sunnah, I purposely chose a very minor action like eating because I\’m not dealing with who is going to heaven or not or who is better than who else in the grand scheme of things. I\’m not saying that eating with your fingers will cancel out being a jerk – God is the Best of Judges. I\’m saying that for each individual person, performing a recommended deed is better than that same person not performing a recommended deed. All our actions are either obligatory, recommended, neutral, discouraged or prohibited, and we are informed that we will be called to account. Now, I can relate if you don\’t feel drawn to the idea of God the Accountant; we also know that God is the Mysterious, the Merciful and the Forgiving. One beautiful prayer after salat beseeches God to deal with us from His Mercy and not from His Justice. But we have to accept fully the meaning of all His Attributes that He has revealed to us.

    As to what actions of the Prophet (saws) are recommended for us to follow and which were specific to his time and place or to his condition as a Prophet, that\’s a perfectly reasonable question, and one which I don\’t feel qualified to answer. I could point you to somebody if you\’d like an educated opinion.

    But I specifically chose the eating with the hands one, because Prophet Muhammad (saws) finished eating, licked his fingers, and then immediately said this is his way and we must follow his way if we consider ourselves his followers. I think that\’s pretty open and shut – what else might he have meant? In many other matters of the Holy Prophet\’s behavior, there is room to say, \”well, what is the take-home lesson here\”, or , \”how do we implement the intention of this act\” or something like that, and that\’s why I talked a lot about how to implement the sunnah in our society or culture or era in my second example. But in this specific case, I think it\’s fairly black & white, unless you\’re asking, \”Who says we have to follow what the Prophet says to be a good muslim?\” but that\’s not what you\’re asking, is it?

  14. The other day I had a meeting with my son’s grade school teacher. We commented that we really liked it that their English is vastly improving, and noted too that they’re speaking with a distinct American twang. She, a white lady, asked us whether or not we spoke to them in our native tongue. We told her we did. She said it was good because it would be “a shame if they lost that part of their culture”. I agree too.

    In Malaysia, I have an Indian Muslim friend whose mother and father speak fluent Tamil. Unfortunately he doesn’t and because of that I am sure his child would not follow suit – especially now that he is married to a Malay (which by the way is rare in Indian-Mulsim-Malaysian culture). I as a “Bumiputra” feel it bad that he can’t speak his ancestral tongue and see it as his loss.

    What does it mean to be an American? What culture does one have to adopt to be fully “integrated”? Aren’t the majority (minus the natives of the land) of Americans, descendants of immigrants themselves? What’s wrong with being different? I think there is beauty in diversity. Allah created us different so lets be different. I think my black hair is beautiful. I think blond hair is beautiful too.

    Recently during eid, I saw 2nd and maybe 3rd immigrant Muslim children donning Western style coats. Also, I know a many immigrant children who can no longer speak their ancestral tongue. It may not be wrong, but somehow I feel it is their loss.

    I am not taking a “my culture is better than yours” stance, as you put it. There are many good things I see in American culture which I would definitely want to “integrate” into my life. There are also bad things. It is the same with my Malay culture. Being learned (I hope I am), I try to do away with that part of my culture.

    Whats wrong with the way I eat? If I am an immigrant, should I start to eat with a fork and spoon to be fully integrated into mainstream society? I would have no problem with that if I were the guest at another person’s home. But at home with my family I’d rather eat rice with my fingers and on the floor (which we do here and ironically don’t back in Malaysia!).

  15. I’ve replaced the profanity in my comments above with [expletive], to maintain this site’s PG rating. I was the first to lose my temper, and so I take the blame for the decline in the discussion after that. Apologies to my regular readers, and I’ll be returning to posting about coconuts and chickens shortly.

  16. Assalamu Alaikum
    Reading about all of these cultural rights and wrongs, Sunnah vs. not sunnah, etc., brings to mind a halaqa I attended once, in which our teacher said something that will always stay with me.

    Because our halaqa is comprised of mainly Westerners, and our teacher is an Arab who lived in the West, we have many gripe sessions about the bad adab of the Arabs and the innumerable screwed up cultural practices (like the 3-day Bayt Azzah where everyone sits for hours and eats Mensaf). Our teacher graciously listens to us most of the time, without condemning our flare for, as someone mentioned above, beating a dead horse.

    So one day while someone was complaining about being pushed around in a line–I think it was to get a passport or some necessary red tape document–our teacher said, “Let me tell you something. American society on the whole is polite. You go into a store, people greet you. You wait in line in a bank until it is your turn, without pushing or shoving or trying to see the person’s transaction in front of you. Kids in public schools are not typically hanging out windows or calling their teachers “Haywan.” Do you want to know why? Because Shaytan does not have to whisper in their ears. He does not have to tempt them constantly to commit the unforgivable sin. His work with them is finished, so they inherently have better adab. They can fight some of the smaller battles of the nafs and be victorious, because they have already commited shirk, and what more does Shaytan want from them? Nothing.” (of course, paraphrased)
    Meanwhile Ahmed bin so-and-so is not on shirk. He proclaims La illaha ill-Allah, Muhammad ar-Rasull-Allah, and has won the greatest battle over Shaytan. But he can’t stand in a line, he loses his temper if someone cuts him off on the road, he sometimes screams ugly insulting words at his wife or kids.

    Therefore, all of these “Muslim” societies have the greatests tests from their Lord, chiefly adhering to the prescribed Muslim Character. And they fail, most of the time. So it’s not so much a matter of culture as it is of what Shaytan wants from us.

  17. how did you know? It has always baffled me that the same mouth from which the beautiful words of Al Qu’ran comes can also make such a harsh sound. I thank you for removing it, maybe I shall continue reading the rest. Old as I am, it’s PG ratings for me I’m afraid. I’ll take coconuts anyday!

  18. peace be upon you brother Zayn.. I knew since I start reading your blog that you call yourself Bin Gregory to acknowledge your father’s name.. is he a muslim?

    I read but never written a comment until today.. started when I found ‘the journey to ihsan 2’.. such a pity I had missed a great event like that..

    this has been a good topic nonetheless.. provokes the mind.. aren’t we all immigrants in this world? people believe what they want to believe.. and verily, Allah is the best of Judges..

  19. Haha I’ve had this kind of argument with some Turkish and Arab friends, everyone of us (including me) tried to defend our own culture, and (excluding me) accused that the others are less Islamic… hell, it was stupid.

    I always like to quote verse 13 of al-Hujraat:

    “and We created human beings, men and women, and in different races, so they would befriend with each other”

    Notice that Allah says, different races, not different religions, meaning that there’s only ONE religion, also notice that Allah also says that we should be friends with each other and not to hate or condemn or kill each other.

    I have no objection at all that brushing teeth with ‘sugi’ wood is healthy. Eating with and licking fingers afterwards is also healthy. In fact prophet ate with three fingers, we Malays eat with five. Does it mean the less the more Islamic? How about the Chinese using chopsticks than? Even less!

    For certain food (eg: bihun soup, curry mee, etc), I use spoon and fork. I donno how to eat them with fingers. If eating with fingers is Islamic, then I should just be eating bread instead of rice! See, we’re beating around the bush.

    Keeping beard, as a matter of fact, is legacy of pre-Islamic era which is also accepted as Islamic culture, but I and many of us Asians are created with “less testosterone hormone” around our chin and if keeping beard is Islamic, why then I am created without nice beard? Does it mean I am fated to be not Islamic?

    I think what Jordan wants to say is what’s inside is more important than what’s outside. I couldn’t disagree more (is this the right way to say I absolutely agree, Abang Zayn?) People can wear turban and still they skip prayers.

    Being punctual, hungry for knowledge, respecting neighbors – these are some of the qualities encouraged by Islam, and if these are the benchmarks of ‘islamicness’, then perhaps I can say that Americans, Japanese, or Europeans are more Islamic than the Malays, even though they are not Muslims.

    We can follow sunnah whichever we can. If we can’t, don’t say it’s stupid or condemn it. Some things our prophet did need not be copied exactly (eg: riding a camel instead of driving a car). Learn the skills of archery (we can use modern weapons as a means of defense). While some things (eg: sleeping on ur right side) are not difficult to be made a routine.

    I know how it feels like when some ppl try to “Turkishize” or make you ‘masuk Melayu’, or “Arabify” you when you can’t even eat their food. Islam is not by race. It’s by faith. It’s universal.

    As for Brother Zayn al-Abideen, I really donno what is the best word to say, other than “Masha-Allah, you’re ahl ul-jannah”. Even though I was a born a Muslim, it doesn’t make me more Islamic than a convert. I am learning a lot of things from Jordan and you.

  20. as salaam alaikum Zayn

    WOW I must say I got a tickle out of your aggresiveness in the responses. Never would have thought it from you. WOW 🙂

    But I’m still not sitting at a platter and eating with my hands. I’ll stil spoon out my portion and my girls protions onto a plate. I’ll still endure the stares from others who just dive in. Yes I know sunnah and all but it gives me the willies. I’ll eat with my hands from my own portions of say fried chicken or something but a community plate.. nope don’t even do that with dip. But count in Mr.Man and Jihad for such a sit down.

    As for immigrant issues I sit here and see the same issues applied towards americans in foriegn lands. People have lived here for 20+ years and still know nothing about Saudis rarely share meals with them, never joined in on anything cultural. The language, past a few catch phrases nothing no efforts. They also freely take the resources all the while despising the culture and its people. The same people that allow them the econcomic benefits they would NEVER get in the US. And this is an attitude that is supported by the US consulates with all of their warden messages and their very own conduct.

    Now this is what many immigrants (at least Arabs) see going into the US. They see in their own lands that Americans have refused to assimiliate in any shape or form in their countries. Yet as soon as the get to the US they are demanded to drop everything about their own cultures?

    And why can’t people simply eat the foods they want? Why can’t they dress the way they feel comfortable? Do such issues really hinder intergration? Or does it make others feel uncomfortable about their foreign status heaped with loads of prejudgements?

    stealing white women.. hehe Are there issues in the US communties with some taking advantage of women? Yes.. and that is the fault of the Ummah that basically just leaves convert women out on their own doubled with pressures to ‘marry’ as soon as they utter shahadda. That is a community failiing not a evil drive of all immigrant men. The countless number of foriegn women living happily.. ohh yes happily here counters such a stereotypical fear. Of course lets also mention that some women bring it on themselves so some blame lies with them as well.

    said enough

  21. What an interesting post, Zayn Al-Abideen bin Gregory. I remember the first time I saw one of my professional colleagues in Malaysia eat with her hands. Wow, it totally surprised me! But I got used to it and also learned to do it myself without making a mess. (It was good to be able to do it neatly when I was a guest in someone’s home.)

    In eight months, no one in Malaysia ever mentioned to me that there is a connection between eating with the hands and Islam. I was very interested to learn this from you.

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