About Being an American Muslim in 2014 and Beyond?

I am a cultural Muslim.  That is, I grew up with Muslim parents, in a Muslim country, observing Muslim holidays and practices.  I have never eaten pork in my life (and despite the delicious and tempting smell of bacon, I don’t think I will), I have had the great fortune of completing a pilgrimage to Mecca with my family, and yet, as an adult, I don’t practice the religion myself.  I don’t pray, I (somewhat regrettably) don’t fast, I’ve never read the Koran in its entirety, and I don’t give nearly enough of my money to charity.  Although my husband converted to Islam (to appease my family), he practices no religion and believes in no god or higher power.  And yet our son has a Muslim name, doesn’t eat pork, celebrates Eid, and greets his family with the traditional Salaam and Khuda Hafiz.

The best way I can explain this is to restate: I am a cultural Muslim.  Islam is so entrenched in my being that much like an American would find it hard to divorce Thanksgiving from their American identity, I find it impossible to separate Islam from who I am.  It’s of little consequence that I don’t believe in god or the rituals of any religion.  Islam is part of my identity and I’m proud to say that it always will be.

I imagine (and hope) that this is how my children will feel when they’re older.  But I also know that my children will be American first and cultural Muslims second (or maybe third or fourth).  They’ll go to American schools, live in American cities, have many American (read non-Muslim) friends, and be American.  What do I tell them about being an American Muslim when their nation is at the forefront of the ignorance surrounding Islam? How do I ensure they remain proud of every facet of their cultural heritage despite what is said about it?

I’ve decided to approach this first by instilling confidence in my children.  I want them to know they are smart, beautiful, and perfect exactly the way they are.  Even the Muslim part of them.  Even the Arab-looking part of them.  They. Are. Perfect.  Will they believe this when they’re teenagers or young adults? I don’t know but nothing will stop me from telling them this.

Second, I want them to be tolerant of everyone as long as they don’t preach hatred or spread hurt and destruction.  So my kids can be whatever they want and embrace whatever practices they want so long as they don’t try and cause others harm.  This means if they meet people that are religious but they themselves choose not to be, they will be utterly respectful of those people’s choices and their right to choose whatever religion or belief system they want.  My mum, for example, prays 5 times a day, observes Ramadan, and is a practicing Muslim.  She never, however, forces me to follow these same practices.  Would she prefer that I practiced Islam in the same way as her? Of course, but to her the two most important things are her own personal and private relationship with god and that I am kind to those around me.  Giving me the freedom to be the kind of Muslim that was right for me was one of the best gifts my mother ever gave me.

Third, I expect them to take it upon themselves to be well educated when it comes to religion.  We know that IS in no way reflects the views of most Muslims or the principles of the religion so I want my kids to be aware of the same misrepresentations of other religions before they form those opinions.

Fourth I will tell them that they never have to apologize for or justify who they are.  They are Muslims (in whatever capacity) and just because some extremists have hijacked Islam for their own selfish and perverse needs doesn’t mean this is in any way a reflection of Islam, Muslims, or my children.  In my 29 years I have never tried to explain away my Muslim heritage and I never will.  Just like I don’t ask my Jewish friends to justify or explain Zionist ideals or my Christian friends to explain how blowing up an abortion clinic could be right, I expect to be able to practice (or not) my Muslim ideals without fear or judgment or reproach.  We are a prime of example of how millions of Muslims around the world feel; we should embrace that.

It’s my hope that by talking about Islam and Muslim identity with my kids, it will help break down the stigma of identifying as a Muslim (and believe me, there is stigma attached to this identification).  I hope my kids will then take this one step further and think ‘well if people judge me so harshly for identifying as a Muslim, who am I judging prematurely and is that judgment really justified?’

I have a lot to tell my kids about being an American Muslim.  Pride, acceptance, tolerance, knowledge – that is what being an American, a Muslim, and an American Muslim is about.



About Michael Brown, Ferguson, MI, and Justice?

My heart sank last night.  My heart sank and it broke and it ached for Michael Brown, his parents, his community, and fair-minded Americans.  I wanted to believe that Darren Wilson would be held accountable for KILLING ANOTHER HUMAN BEING so that I could tell my son that the country he is from is changing.  I mean, they did vote for a (half) black president twice now, right? Surely this is a sign of progress and growth.  But no.  That’s not what happened and now I need to figure out what to tell my kids…

On November 24th, 2014 the grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the fatal shooting of the black, unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th in Ferguson, Missouri.  Citing forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony, the state prosecutor was quick to remind people during his press conference that only the jurors had heard the evidence in its entirety.

The autopsy report commissioned by the state and the private report ordered by Michael Brown’s parents gave two different and conflicting accounts of what happened.  One says he had his hands up as if he were surrendering and the other says the opposite.  What is absolutely clear and irrefutable, however, is that a young man of only 18 lost his life.  And in what has to be the freakiest coincidence ever, he was black, his killer was white, and the state is choosing not to prosecute again.  I say again because, however much we choose to ignore it, we’ve heard this refrain before.  The data on justifiable homicide committed by law enforcement (not including state sanctioned executions) is sketchy at best.  CDC data reveal that between 1968 and 2011, blacks were over 4 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than whites.  According to USA Today, from 2005 to 2012, a white police officer shot and killed a black person almost 2 times a week in the US.  Of the people killed by law enforcement, over 18% were blacks under the age of 21 compared with 8.7% whites in the same age group.  If one turns to look at the data on incarceration in the US, blacks are so highly over represented it’s a wonder we can pass black people on the street without them committing some crime (or so it would seem…).

And Darren Wilson chills me.  I know he’s a police officer (well was I suppose now that he’s decided to retire) and killing when necessary is part of his training (it only took 12 shots…), but how can he say his conscience is clear when he killed an unarmed 18 year-old?  Even if you say you did it in self-defense, what kind of human says their conscience is clear after killing someone? Surely that’s the type of thing that stays with you your whole life and weighs on you whether you were right or wrong?  Maybe I’m just looking for excuses to not like him but I will tell my kids that killing someone, whether it is part of your training or not, is something that will always remain with you because we should never put ourselves (or others) in positions where they decide our fate.

My point in bringing all of this up is that when I speak to my son about Ferguson, I will give him this background to the events that led to Michael Brown’s death.  While Darren Wilson may have acted in self-defense against an unarmed teenager, I will still have to explain to my son that nothing, nothing happens in a vacuum.  This decision to not indict Officer Wilson is compounded by a history of racially skewed police killings and incarceration rates (not to mention higher unemployment and poverty rates among blacks) and try as we might, we can’t pretend this is an isolated event.  Forget the much lauded Arab Spring that the US was so proud to tout as an organic call for democracy and focus on the ‘Black Spring’ happening within your own borders.  Despite the system’s best efforts to hold blacks (and I would say many non-whites) back, people have had enough.  And while I do not believe that violence is the answer (and clearly neither do Michael Brown’s parents), I also imagine many of those rioting feel that they have no other options and that even when the nation and world is focused on them, they are still not receiving justice for their community.  America, your people are crying out for your help, your understanding, and your ability to redress the injustices that they have felt for generations now.  I want my children to hear that call, listen to it, and do whatever they can to respond to this suffering happening in their own country.

My son is many things and of the long list of weird and wonderful things American is one of the most important.  I will tell my son that unfortunately Ferguson will happen again.  I will tell him that in the country of his birth and the country that he represents through his deeds and actions, blacks (and other non-whites) are being denied justice or are being judged prematurely (and in some cases killed) and that, as a socially conscious American citizen, he has the power to change it.  He has the power to make a difference by calling out inequality when he sees it, by taking it upon himself to understand the ways in which the system is flawed, and by working in whatever way possible to change that system of inequality (political activism, volunteering, outreach and education, etc).  Ferguson happened to Michael Brown and his community but injustice touches us all.