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.