Islam may not be the religion for me, but it is my identity


Islam may not be the religion for me, but it is my identity

A writer explores what being a Muslim, even an indifferent one, feels like

By Arshie Chevalwala  March 3rd, 2016

When I found out about the attacks that happened in Paris late last year, my first reaction — after horror — was the fear of losing the big Parisian holiday my boyfriend and I had been saving for. I realise this sounds inappropriate, but when you’re an atheist with a Muslim name you can’t not think like this.

Allow me to elaborate: My parents — who I still live with and am very close to — are liberal Muslims who fail to see the problem with being believers. It’s a great concept, really. God keeps you in check, you meet all your friends and family at religious gatherings and the directions to eternal happiness are pretty straightforward. What’s to lose? But despite their solid pitch on the rectitude of Islam, I still wound up with no faith.

In some part, I’ve been disassociating myself from the community since a very young age. I didn’t fully understand the reason for my discomfort with organised religion then, but I knew instinctively that I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t need an imaginary friend to teach me how to be a good person. Also, I drink like a fish and have quite a solid terrorism humour-fuelled defence mechanism in place. It was my way of putting distance between myself and the community, and it has been successful. I was cool, people came to know me as the inappropriate Muslim, and it’s what they loved me for. A fair few of my friendships are solely based on a good Jihadi joke. It’s even how I met my boyfriend (atheist Muslim boy meets atheist Muslim girl, they both have a blast).

So I guess what I’m saying is: Islam may not be the religion for me, but it is my identity. When I answer the phone, it’s always with a Salaam and I’ll continue to use Inshallah (if Allah wills) to get out of plans — “Hey, wanna get coffee sometime? “Sure, Inshallah.” I don’t mind accompanying my parents to the mosque to meet an ailing aunt or commemorate my grandparents’ death anniversaries. And when I’m asked about why the Quran harbours such brutal sentiments or why my religion preaches war, I can’t just shrug indifferently. I’m expected to have some answers. I need to know what Jihadi cool is (ISIS propaganda to snare young recruits), have an opinion on NYT’s piece on how Islam and the west are at war, and see if I can dial a quick phone call to make the terrorism stop. I obsessively read up on ISIS, keep up with Middle-Eastern politics and hate on Donald Trump. Like I said, for all social intents and purposes, I’m a Muslim. And I think about how it’s a shit time to be a Muslim. Even a fake one.

This is by no means a new development; it hasn’t been a good time nearly ever. Starting with the year I was born, 1992. The Hindu-Muslim riots had just broken out across the country with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Muslim kids were being held at knifepoint, kidnapped or killed. Preventively, my parents gave me and, four years later, my brother, ambiguous, non-Muslim-sounding names. After another four years, they changed my name to what it is today; in Arabic it means heavenly, because they had allowed themselves to let go of the fear and believe that things would be all right again. Muslims could come back out of hiding, we were safe.

The very next year, 9/11 happened. It was September 2001, I was nine, and it is my earliest memory of Islam and terror being linked. I remember being confused and angry. Since then, it’s just been a steady stream of jihad — Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the London train bombings, the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Then there’s ISIS, the only guys who make even Al-Qaeda look good.

When I read The Atlantic’s viral article ‘What ISIS Really Wants’ last March, I turned cold. This wasn’t a fractured terror group driven by blind faith, but a fully-functioning mini state that had already occupied UK-sized territory in Iraq, and most of their recruits — including engineers, doctors, accountants, reporters — actually came from all over Europe. I texted my mom to say that because we were ‘modern Muslims’ they were going to kill us first. She laughed and told me we had more immediate bigotry to deal with, like the wall of criticism she faces daily, from just the extended family, for her choice not to wear a burqa. I still believe it’s true, though. And even though I want to scream from the rooftops that the Islamic State is not Islamic, the real problem is that it is very, very Islamic. Though the word Islam literally means peace, when an ancient holy book is taken too literally it can be used to justify great violence. But then, I suspect, that is true of most holy books.

Sometimes I try to talk myself out of it — why should a horrific act of terrorism that happened in distant Paris, in the name of a religion I don’t even practise — why should it affect me at all? But it simply does. Thanks to my Arabic-sounding middle name, my passport proclaiming my faith and the fact that I have stamps on said passport from almost every country with a Muslim government, Syria and Iraq included, from family trips we took when I was a child — take all that together and it feels like our holiday to Paris will never get off the ground.

And this makes me cranky. I’m no longer so good-humoured about over-earnest questions on my faith (“Muslims can do tequila shots?!”) or backhanded compliments about how I’m the coolest Muslim (Um, thanks?) from seemingly liberal friends. Now when someone makes a terrorist joke at my expense, instead of countering with a faux bomb threat, I feel the urge to tell them it’s offensive — yes, even to an atheist. Firstly, Muslim or not, you’re being rude when you badger me at a club or express incredulity that I’m about to destroy that BLT. But more importantly, I find it exhausting to be defined by just that one part of my identity. I don’t want to be the poster child for cool Muslims. What I really want is to shed all the labels, make peace with my knotty, tricky and confusing relationship with Islam, and just take that trip to Paris, goddammit.

Photograph: Dolce & Gabbana

When I found out about the attacks that happened in Paris late last year, my first reaction — after horror — was the fear of losing the big Parisian holiday my boyfriend and I had been saving for. I realise this sounds inappropriate, but when you’re an atheist with a Muslim name you can’t not think like this.

Allow me to elaborate: My parents — who I still live with and am very close to — are liberal Muslims who fail to see the problem with being believers. It’s a great concept, really. God keeps you in check, you meet all your friends and family at religious gatherings and the directions to eternal happiness are pretty straightforward. What’s to lose? But despite their solid pitch on the rectitude of Islam, I still wound up with no faith.

In some part, I’ve been disassociating myself from the community since a very young age. I didn’t fully understand the reason for my discomfort with organised religion then, but I knew instinctively that I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t need an imaginary friend to teach me how to be a good person. Also, I drink like a fish and have quite a solid terrorism humour-fuelled defence mechanism in place. It was my way of putting distance between myself and the community, and it has been successful. I was cool, people came to know me as the inappropriate Muslim, and it’s what they loved me for. A fair few of my friendships are solely based on a good Jihadi joke. It’s even how I met my boyfriend (atheist Muslim boy meets atheist Muslim girl, they both have a blast).

So I guess what I’m saying is: Islam may not be the religion for me, but it is my identity. When I answer the phone, it’s always with a Salaam and I’ll continue to use Inshallah (if Allah wills) to get out of plans — “Hey, wanna get coffee sometime? “Sure, Inshallah.” I don’t mind accompanying my parents to the mosque to meet an ailing aunt or commemorate my grandparents’ death anniversaries. And when I’m asked about why the Quran harbours such brutal sentiments or why my religion preaches war, I can’t just shrug indifferently. I’m expected to have some answers. I need to know what Jihadi cool is (ISIS propaganda to snare young recruits), have an opinion on NYT’s piece on how Islam and the west are at war, and see if I can dial a quick phone call to make the terrorism stop. I obsessively read up on ISIS, keep up with Middle-Eastern politics and hate on Donald Trump. Like I said, for all social intents and purposes, I’m a Muslim. And I think about how it’s a shit time to be a Muslim. Even a fake one.

This is by no means a new development; it hasn’t been a good time nearly ever. Starting with the year I was born, 1992. The Hindu-Muslim riots had just broken out across the country with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Muslim kids were being held at knifepoint, kidnapped or killed. Preventively, my parents gave me and, four years later, my brother, ambiguous, non-Muslim-sounding names. After another four years, they changed my name to what it is today; in Arabic it means heavenly, because they had allowed themselves to let go of the fear and believe that things would be all right again. Muslims could come back out of hiding, we were safe.

The very next year, 9/11 happened. It was September 2001, I was nine, and it is my earliest memory of Islam and terror being linked. I remember being confused and angry. Since then, it’s just been a steady stream of jihad — Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the London train bombings, the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Then there’s ISIS, the only guys who make even Al-Qaeda look good.

When I read The Atlantic’s viral article ‘What ISIS Really Wants’ last March, I turned cold. This wasn’t a fractured terror group driven by blind faith, but a fully-functioning mini state that had already occupied UK-sized territory in Iraq, and most of their recruits — including engineers, doctors, accountants, reporters — actually came from all over Europe. I texted my mom to say that because we were ‘modern Muslims’ they were going to kill us first. She laughed and told me we had more immediate bigotry to deal with, like the wall of criticism she faces daily, from just the extended family, for her choice not to wear a burqa. I still believe it’s true, though. And even though I want to scream from the rooftops that the Islamic State is not Islamic, the real problem is that it is very, very Islamic. Though the word Islam literally means peace, when an ancient holy book is taken too literally it can be used to justify great violence. But then, I suspect, that is true of most holy books.

Sometimes I try to talk myself out of it — why should a horrific act of terrorism that happened in distant Paris, in the name of a religion I don’t even practise — why should it affect me at all? But it simply does. Thanks to my Arabic-sounding middle name, my passport proclaiming my faith and the fact that I have stamps on said passport from almost every country with a Muslim government, Syria and Iraq included, from family trips we took when I was a child — take all that together and it feels like our holiday to Paris will never get off the ground.

And this makes me cranky. I’m no longer so good-humoured about over-earnest questions on my faith (“Muslims can do tequila shots?!”) or backhanded compliments about how I’m the coolest Muslim (Um, thanks?) from seemingly liberal friends. Now when someone makes a terrorist joke at my expense, instead of countering with a faux bomb threat, I feel the urge to tell them it’s offensive — yes, even to an atheist. Firstly, Muslim or not, you’re being rude when you badger me at a club or express incredulity that I’m about to destroy that BLT. But more importantly, I find it exhausting to be defined by just that one part of my identity. I don’t want to be the poster child for cool Muslims. What I really want is to shed all the labels, make peace with my knotty, tricky and confusing relationship with Islam, and just take that trip to Paris, goddammit.

Photograph: Dolce & Gabbana