Being Muslim (Part 2 of “Being Me”)

I’ve grown up in a Post-9/11 world. I was 7 years old when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York, and too young to understand what it meant. What I do remember, is how that day changed my life forever. When the towers came down, so did our tolerance and acceptance as we stood with our brothers to the south. It suddenly mattered that I had brown skin and didn’t go to church on Sundays. My friends gave me funny looks when I told them I couldn’t go to their birthday party on a Saturday because I had religious education classes. “But Sunday school is on Sundays.” I eventually started to say “I have Saturday school. It’s like Sunday school but on a Saturday because we’re weird.”

For the most part, I really liked being a Muslim growing up. More specifically, I loved being an Ismaili Muslim. I would play with kids who looked like me at our Khane (a mosque), and their parents would use familiar words that my parents would use.

I was raised in a very Ismaili home, with Ismaili values and teachings, and for the most part, I think I was proud of it. After 9/11, my pride slowly started to dwindle as it was replaced with more shame based on the anti-islamic rhetoric from the media. The News captions on TV might as well have flashed “MUSLIM IS NOT, AND NEVER WILL BE, WESTERN” 
Over time, I couldn’t find that pride anymore – by the time I was a teenager, I was outright denying that I was a Muslim to my friends and peers.

I wasn’t raised to be a terrorist. I wasn’t raised to hate Western civilization. I wasn’t raised to be closed-minded. I was raised to be curious, and to pursue knowledge. I was raised to help others, and put my community first. These were the Ismaili values I was taught.

As I got older, I didn’t understand why people hated my people so much, and why they were so afraid. We were just like other people, except that we had prayers on Friday Evenings instead of Sunday Mornings, and Saturday School instead of Sunday School.

I got tired of constantly having to explain things (because more often than not, I was defending my religion, rather than explaining it), so I started using words that were “easier” for others to understand. I described The Aga Khan as “sort of like the Pope, but different”, and referred to going to Khane as going to “church” but it would be in the evenings. On Dec 13th, I would describe our Khushiali (our spiritual leader’s birthday) as “Brown Christmas”. I chipped away at parts of my identity to make it less confusing for others, so that I wouldn’t get so many questions.

After 9/11, Saturday School shifted from learning about our rich history filled with stories of benevolence and tolerance, to practicing how to be ambassadors of our faith. Every year, we would spend at least 1 class talking about how to talk to other kids about our religion. How to show them that we are good people. How to respond to bullies. How to respond to islamaphobia. How to explain our ideological differences, but more importantly, our similarities with our western friends. How at 7 we were learning on a micro scale to rise above the hate that was seeping in on a macro level. We learned to respond to violence with peace, hatred with kindness, fear with acceptance. We as the “moderate Muslim community” had to be the extenders of this olive branch, because no one else would. At every given moment, we were representing our community because if a crime was committed by one of us, we had seen how the punishment and responsibility fell on every single one of us, not just the perpetrator. It confused me – if we were the good people, why did I have to learn to defend myself? Why did I have to be extra careful to not get angry or upset when faced with hatred? Why did I have to be the peaceful, bigger, more mature person?

I learned to cope by making fun of myself, and my religion, to take away the opportunity from others. If someone would ask if I was Muslim, I would answer with “Yes, but don’t worry – not the kind that blows you up” because there had been too many times when someone followed up my yes with a joke about terrorism. I laughed along when anyone would mock Muslim prayers and quietly accepted the “compliment” that I’m “not like other Muslims”. I let comments about how I probably have no rights as a woman, and claims about how lucky I am to not be living in the Middle East under Sharia slide right off me. For the record – I was born and raised in Canada, I’ve never been to the Middle East, and my parents are from Africa.

I experienced ignorance from every corner. But I distinctly remember a time when I was faced with outward ignorance and discrimination from another Muslim. A Muslim from a different sect. I was 10 at that point, and started to cry as he yelled about how I was not a “real Muslim” because I was Ismaili. I could say nothing as he shouted things part of me believed, that we didn’t cover our heads or pray the way other Muslims did. Two of my friends ran to our teacher to tell her about the boy that was making me cry. She took us outside the class to talk about what happened. She asked me what happened and I explained that the boy told me I wasn’t a real Muslim, while he responded with “well she’s not, she breaks rules from the Quran!” The teacher was clearly overwhelmed, because addressing Muslim tensions were certainly not covered at any teachers college in Alberta. Probably not even in the whole country. She came up with an acceptable solution – the boy and I agree that this topic was not to be discussed again. She also explained that school wasn’t the place for these conversations, and that we were all classmates that needed to get along with one another. The boy did not mean any harm, and it wasn’t the first time that someone had questioned a part of my identity, but he represented something far more sinister. He represented the splintering within the greater Islamic community, which had caused wars for many generations before. He reaffirmed that my Muslim identity was on the fringe, just barely acceptable.

And so I learned that honoring one part of me would more often than not mean denying another. If I wanted to be more Muslim I would inevitably pull away from the more western ideals, and if I wanted t be more “western”, I’d pull away from bits of my Muslim identity. What I love about Ismailism is the ideal that western and eastern tradition can coexist – that we can cultivate this pluralistic mosaic where all the parts have a place. It’s hard to build that vision when most people in your life, on both sides, don’t fully see it that way. I started to wonder if maybe the media was right, and maybe we weren’t good people. Maybe I was bad. And as that sank in, I distanced myself from my religion more and more, focusing more on its faults rather than its good parts, until my religious identity was virtually non-existent. When college came around, I abruptly gave up what little commitment I had to my ismaili identity. I couldn’t wait to start “fresh” and be free of being connected to that part of me. I thought by denying it altogether, it would get rid of all the identity issues I had. But the years of denying who I was had already taken its toll, and now that I was free to accept who I was, I didn’t know how to do it, and I didn’t know who I was. How could I accept the person I had never bothered to get to know? 

Years of therapy has taught me that anytime you try to hide a part of yourself, or compromise your authenticity, things get messy. With that mess comes anxiety and depression, and feelings of disconnection or loneliness. The world around me was constantly giving me messages to disconnect from the Muslim part of me and I did my best to deny it for as long as I could, but it’s part of who I am. It’s going to take a long time to learn what that part means, or think about how to embrace that part of me, but it’s a step towards accepting all of myself. And that step feels really good.

Keep Surviving by Living.


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