I was a Muslim. And then I wasn’t.
When I left the deen, I said to myself that I was going to become the most mainstream person I could be. I was going to eat pepperoni pizza, drink beer, and exercise my right to bare arms. I entered the cyber world of ex-Muslims, exchanging ideas, sharing our contempt and hardships. I divorced my asshole of a husband and subsequently entered what became a pretty serious relationship with a pretty intense person, T.
Although I told T before our first date that I was a dual citizen who used to be a Muslim, it turned out that T had a pretty serious streak of bigotry, racism and hatred when it comes to Muslims and people of Middle Eastern heritage. Speaking Arabic or talking about the deen quickly became something I learned to avoid if I didn’t want to hear uninformed political ranting or straight up hateful stuff. If it surprises you that I spent any time around this person, let alone a years long relationship, it shouldn’t. After all, I was taught to prioritize the feelings and opinions of the person I was in a relationship with (family, society, shaykhs, Allah) rather than my own feelings and opinions. And coming on the heels of a fairly drawn out, hard won new life, I didn’t want Islam to be the story of my life anymore. After all, I was trying new things, right? Like pepperoni pizza and saying “shit!” instead of “subhanallah” when something went wrong. So being with someone who got nearly apoplectic when Islam came up was like going cold turkey. Former Muslims, especially those of us who were religious, tend to talk about and think about Islam a whole lot. You’re still immersed in the deen, even though you’ve stopped praying, fasting and believing in it.
T’s hatred, in a way, forced me to step outside of the culture that I came of age in. It forced me to form new habits. I swear a lot now, often in settings where it’s probably not appropriate. I didn’t listen to nashids or qasidas at all. I stopped participating in internet forums for former Muslims and gave up my nascent blog. Still, there were a great many rare and important books and a large box of misbahas I could not bring myself to give away or throw away. Those were put in a trunk and locked away in a storage facility owned by relatives – far from T’s reach. My long shayla hijabs became cool, hip scarves worn around my neck. I just happen to have a lot more than the average person does. A regular American person? That’s me.
And then a few years ago, my relationship with T ended.
And slowly, I seem to be moving back where I started. First came the regular Arabic phrases. Then, not too long ago, a sarcastic “mashaallah” came out of my mouth as a friend was telling a story. One night I found myself loading my MP3 player with qasidas and nashids and singing along to them.
That feeling of not fitting in – the one that so many of us had as Muslims in the West – returned. T used to make fun of me sometimes when I didn’t understand a pop culture reference, or when I admitted to not having had some of the experiences the average young adult has. In the years since I have returned to the US as a secular person, I’ve learned enough about some of this stuff to not be totally embarrassed when my friends have conversations. I know who Justin Timberlake and Beyonce are, even though N’Sync and Destiny’s Child were not even close to being on my radar during the years they were around.
And I realized that being with T and living with T’s rules, that it wasn’t so much that I was going cold turkey on Islam being the story of my life as effectively cutting off a huge part of who I am. I may not be Muslim anymore, but I’m a person who was part of a very specific, enveloping culture for most of their life. Being with T so soon after leaving the deen didn’t give me a chance to reconcile and become comfortable with that. The initial antipathy – hate, even – for the deen faded over time. My opinions about aspects of the deen are becoming more nuanced. But I didn’t have a chance to explore that when I was with a person who hated even the mention of Islam or Arabic culture. Except the food. T sure did like the food.
If you were an adult or came of age as a Muslim prior to the advent of social media, I think it is very fair to say that being an oddity, an outlier, an outsider, was the norm. I do not know that this is true today. Social media has had a huge impact on the Muslim community here in the West.There are many things that are the norm for American Muslims today that were unacceptable when I was a young Muslima or even when I left the religion almost a decade ago.
Recently, I was at a feminist gathering on spirituality, a place advertised as a “safe space,” where one of the speakers made a joke about Muslim women and men. The woman talked about how she, as a non-Muslim white woman, would sometimes strike up conversations with visibly Muslim women in public spaces. She wanted, she said, for them to feel welcomed in her country.
(Question – were they born in “her” country? Maybe. But when you wear hijab, you are almost always assumed to be an immigrant).
If she saw them again, she said, she would start the debate with them about hijab, “teaching” them about why hijab is wrong, “teaching” them about men, “teaching” them about their bodies.
The audience – all women – laughed. The joke was informed not only by her own liberal knowledge of Islam (which is to say, not a lot of knowledge) but also by her position as a white woman pwning Muslima strangers about their own religion and teachings. Never mind that these Muslimas probably did not want to hear this never-Muslim woman’s opinions. Never mind the fact that hijabis hear non-Muslims’ opinions on their clothing all the time (really, you were not the first to say these clever things to her). But she had the right to make that comment to some random stranger in public, and she had the right to turn it into a joke.
A woman with twinkling eyes caught mine as they laughed. Did I have the right to stand up and call her out on this? Even after a woman of color had spoken in the same gathering about her experiences with white feminists devaluing the religious and spiritual beliefs of women of color, as this same crowd nodded along understandingly? I did not think that I did. Instead, I drew in on myself, tickling my fingers with the tassels of the hijab I wore around my neck, waiting for the meeting to end so I could hightail it away from them.
When I was a public Muslima, I felt obligated by the community to stand up for Islam and Muslims at every turn, even when I did not want to. When I was publicly Muslima, I found non-Muslims expected me to explain and teach them about Islam, Muslims, Muslim cultures, even when I did not want to and especially when they were mired in romantic stereotypes of Muslims. When this woman made her joke, it returned me to the place I’d existed in before. But I’m not a public Muslima anymore – and to stand up in that place that suddenly didn’t feel safe would have put me back in that place of feeling obligated to defend and teach about the deen and its people. That place of feeling like someone’s exotic curiosity, that place where you are set apart as someone we can’t really understand or relate to.
After T, I’ve had a lot of time to think and a lot of time to decide for myself what my own boundaries are. The idea of having my own boundaries and the right to enforce them was so foreign to me that someone like T was able to be a bigoted pig and I just put up with it. As a religious Muslim woman, I was taught by shaykhs and ustazas and the rest of them that I didn’t have the right to any boundaries at all. The only boundary I was taught to have was against being asked to do something against the deen by my parents, husband or community leadership. That was the only time, we were taught, that it was acceptable to say no to someone.
After T, I find myself wondering if maybe I can only ever have a relationship with someone who was once Muslim themselves. I find myself wondering if a raving maniac bigot is behind every pair of smiling eyes and every flirtatious line. So many people, including those who are pretty well educated in many areas, are so ignorant about Islam. Even if they aren’t hateful bigots, they don’t know the first thing about the deen. You find yourself put back in the position of having to teach people about the deen, of having to defend something that you don’t feel like defending anymore, of having to justify your presence in a non-Muslim society. Popular ideas about Islamic teachings are so whacked out that even explaining some of these basics so you can get to the criticism sounds like you’re defending and apologizing for the deen.
So after a decade, I find myself landed in this nowhere space of being an atheist and a Muslima. I can’t cut off who I was and what my life was. I thought about drifting back to the community, but this time as a liberal Sufi. I will never cover my hair again except when it snows. I’ll never make sujud again. But where else do I belong? Among people like T – who look like good liberals from the outside, but who are filled with bigotry and ignorance inside? Among the feminists who joke about humiliating random Muslima strangers in public? Or who, like many Muslims, see Muslim women only as a symbol to be used in a debate? Is my safe space the hippie liberal vegan dergah? Is it with people who joyfully listen to and sing the qasidas even if they don’t invest literal meaning in the mystical wonders they tell of?
After all this – a life lived mostly in Islam, and a decade outside of it – I feel like I’ve earned the right to call myself a cultural or atheist Muslim. I don’t believe in any gods. I could probably never walk into a regular masjid again – not only because of the attitudes in most masjids, but because I’m tattooed – although a perusal of the internet seems to show a more welcoming view of tattoos than what existed when I was a Muslim (which is that tattoos permanently invalidated all of your prayers). But just as atheists from Christian cultures sing carols and gaze upon the works of the Renaissance artists and marvel at the Notre Dame (all of which I also enjoy), I too believe in the beauty that Islam has helped people produce for so many centuries – without accepting that Muhammad was the best of creation, or that hijab is a good thing, or that pork is unclean or that it’s ok that Muslim communities sweep unsavory things under the rug and throw those who want to shine a light on this stuff in the same company as those who are legitimately bigoted.