You wouldn’t know my secret by looking at me. You wouldn’t see me walking down the street and give me that knowing nod of understanding. Because, honestly, you can’t tell that I’m a Muslim. I’m a middle-aged woman (first time I wrote that out… ouch), born and raised in the states. Blond hair, blue eyes and a totally American name. And I don’t cover.
There are a few reasons I choose to be anonymous with my religion. I don’t need to talk about my religion or get people to convert to my side. I don’t need to debate the merits of my religion versus another religion or having no religion at all. I know what I believe and I’m firm in my faith. I have no desire to make sure you believe what I believe or to give you some spiel on why I needed to change religions.
My husband and I are private people. We don’t share our news with the world. We keep that between us, so it’s reasonable to think that our core belief system would be a part of that. Why share it? What’s the point? My family knows my religious beliefs, as do my closest friends. And it’s always been an awkward conversation for me when I do finally share it. How do you casually drop that into a conversation? “Oh by the way, I’m a Muslim! Now you know why I don’t drink or eat pork!” I’ve never been comfortable with that stuff. Announcing when I was pregnant was just as awkward. “How was your weekend? Oh really? Great! Mine was good too! And I’m pregnant!”
I grew up as a Christian but rarely attended church and really only celebrated the major holidays. Religion wasn’t big in our family — we didn’t pray together or go to church on Sundays or on big holidays. God was rarely even a topic of discussion. My mother, especially, thought it was up to us kids to find our own spiritual paths.
So why did I convert?
Nearly nine years ago, during my weekly one-and-a-half hour drive south to my university, I had one of my usual heart-to-hearts with God. It went something like this:
“Hey it’s me, talking your ear off once again. Look, it’s been a rough year for me and I need a break. I have two requests. If you can help me with them then I will be eternally grateful. First, I’m through with dating. It sucks and I don’t like it. Please let the next one be the ‘the one.’ I can be patient and wait. I don’t mind. But just let the next guy be the one meant for me. And second, you know I don’t follow a religion. If you have a problem with this then please, by all means, show me a religion where I can’t argue with the fundamental core.”
I’m only willing to make a change once I’m convinced it is truly something I should do, and that I can commit to it for a lifetime.
Not long after that conversation with God, I graduated from college with a shiny new degree in psychology. I was eager to see the world before I settled down, got a job and life started to happen. Some colleagues of mine told me the UAE (United Arab Emirates) was a great place to spend a few months. So I packed my bags and headed east. I enrolled in a university there for just one semester — my own study abroad program. The great thing about doing it this way was that my housing, food and visa were all taken care of for me. Doing this was sort of out of my character. I’m actually pretty shy but I was pushing myself to get the most out of this experience. I immediately made friends from all over the world, including my roommate, who was a Muslimah (female Muslim) from Pakistan, and a student in my Arabic class, who was from Croatia and helped me meet loads of people, including my future husband.
Being in a Muslim country, it was inevitable that I would become more intimate with the religion. Fortunately for me it was through a full spectrum of people — from the very devout to those who were about as Muslim as I was Christian (meaning holidays only, thankyouverymuch). I even learned from those who were not Muslim but had unique views about the religion from being more exposed to it. I was able to ask many people the same questions: Why do women cover? Is fasting for real? What’s so bad about pork? What is the core belief system (which, I learned later, is referred to as the Five Pillars)?
I eased in slowly, read the Quran and made the decision to convert on my own. By this point my term at the university was over, and I had decided to stay longer in the UAE to see where the relationship with my boyfriend was going. We talked about marriage quite early in our relationship. I wasn’t about to uproot my entire life and move to the other side of the world for a fling. He was a Muslim, and as our relationship got more serious, it was important I know that he would marry me whether I converted or not. I needed to be sure that that wasn’t going to be a deciding factor for me. I needed to truly, in my core, believe this to be my path.
When I look back on why I finally made the commitment— a commitment I take more seriously than even my marriage— it came down to the fact that it just felt right. The Five Pillars (believing in One God, praying five times a day, fasting during Ramada, donating to the poor every year and going to Haj) were practices I couldn’t argue with. The more I allowed them into my life the more, the more comforted and complete I felt. It’s like a big down comforter wrapped around me, adding peace and serenity to my life. Everything beyond the five pillars has been up for discussion in my eyes. I don’t eat port or drink alcohol, but I also don’t cover (though I do dress more modestly than your average gal on a hot summer day). I’m only willing to make a change once I’m convinced it is truly something I should do, and that I can commit to it for a lifetime.
Once I converted I was proud and I shared it. I told my family, who were all supportive. I married my husband and both of our families flew in to attend our wedding, I had been working at a large multi-national corporation and most of my friends at work knew. But the longer I lived in the Middle East, the more I saw how people changed once they knew I was a Muslim. I had been friends with a guy at work, for example, who was Christian. We did similar jobs, got married at the same time and had the same sense of humor. Christmas was coming and he started asking me what my plans were. “I don’t have any,” I told him. “My husband and I will just enjoy the day together.”
“Oh is that ‘cause you aren’t going back home?” he asked.
“No. I just don’t really ‘do’ Christmas anymore.”
“Why? You’re Christian right? You have a Christian name.”
“Well I’m a Muslim. I converted a couple years ago.”
He got this big surprised look on his face and asked, “I shouldn’t even be making eye contact with you, right?”
And from that point on our friendship was different. He no longer saw me as the person he had known. Instead I was now the “Muslim girl.”
Now that my husband and I have been back in the States for a few years I have realized that I seem to be a magnet for the Islamophobic thoughts that often spew out of strangers’ mouths. There was the time I was in an airport, waiting for my best friend to come through passport control. A woman who had been waiting near me turned and asked me what flight I was waiting for. I replied that I was waiting on one from Abu Dhabi. “Oh I’m waiting on one from Oman. You know, it’s taking my boyfriend so long to come out. Probably because of all those Arabs taking extra time to get through passport control.”
Or a couple weeks ago, when I was mailing my taxes at the post office, I overheard an older white gentleman telling the African American postman that people can’t help but profile black men: “It’s like when you see an Arab get on plane… you’re going to get nervous!” I usually at least try to enlighten people, or let them know that shit is not okay, but I kept my mouth shut that time. It gets exhausting.
It’s people who think like that, or people who exhibit cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed just to show their hatred and intolerance, that make me want to keep my faith to myself. And I don’t even want to start on the less-than-humans that decided to retaliate. They are NOT Muslims according to the Quran.
Which part of those two groups of cowards makes me want to come out as a proud Muslim?
Islam means Peace. And I want to live in peace. So I choose to keep my religion to myself.
(Illustration: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)