HOW I BECAME A MUSLIM REFUSENIK
Like millions of Muslims over the last forty years, my family immigrated to the West. We arrived in Richmond, a middle-class suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972. I was four years old. Between 1971 and 1973, thousands of South Asian Muslims fled Uganda after the military dictator, General Idi Amin Dada, proclaimed Africa to be for the blacks. He gave those of us with brown skin mere weeks to leave or we would die. Muslims had spent lifetimes in East Africa thanks to the British, who brought us from South Asia to help lay the railways in their African colonies. Within a few generations, many Muslims rose to the rank of well-off merchants. My father and his brothers ran a Mercedes-Benz dealership near Kampala, benefiting from the class mobility that the British bequeathed to us but that we, in turn, rarely granted to the native blacks whom we employed.
In the main, the Muslims of East Africa treated blacks like slaves. I remember my father beating Tomasi, our domestic, hardenough to raise shiny bruises on his pitch-dark limbs. Although my two sisters, my mother, and I loved Tomasi, we too would be pummeled if my dad caught us tending to his injuries. I knew this to be happening in many more Muslim households than mine, and the bondage continued well after my family left. That's why, as a teenager, I turned down the opportunity to visit relatives in East Africa. "If I go with you," I warned my mother, "you know I'll have to ask your fat aunties and uncles why they practically enslave their servants." Mum meant the trip to be a good-bye to aging relations, not a human rights campaign. In order to avoid embarrassing her, I stayed home.
While Mum was away, I thought more about what it means be "home." I decided that home is where my dignity lives, not necessarily where my ancestors put down roots. That's when it dawned on me why the postcolonial fever of pan-Africanism--"Africa for the blacks!"--swept the continent on which I was born. Many Muslims made dignity difficult for people darker than us. We callously exploited native Africans. And please don't tell me that we learned colonial ruthlessness from the British because that begs the question: Why didn't we also learn to make room for entrepreneurial blacks as the Brits had made room for us?
I don't apologize for being offended by the notion of having a Tomasi. Most of you, I'm sure, oppose servitude, too. But it wasn't Islam that fostered my belief in the dignity of every individual. It was the democratic environment to which my family and I migrated: Richmond, where even a little Muslim girl can be engaged--and I don't mean for marriage. Let me explain.
A couple of years after the family settled down, my dad discovered free baby-sitting services at Rose of Sharon Baptist Church. (Say "free" to an immigrant and religious affiliationstake a backseat to the bargain at hand.) Every week, when Mum left the house to sell Avon products door to door, my less-than-child-friendly father dumped the kids at church. There, the South Asian lady who supervised Bible study showed me and my older sister the same patience she displayed with her own son. She made me believe my questions were worth asking. Obviously, the questions I posed as a seven-year-old could only be simple ones. Where did Jesus come from? When did he live? What was his job? Who did he marry? These queries didn't put anyone on the spot, but my point is that the act of asking--and asking some more--always met with an inviting smile.
Maybe that's what motivated me, at age eight, to win the Most Promising Christian of the Year Award. My prize: a brightly illustrated edition of 101 Bible Stories. I look back now and thank God I wound up in a world where the Koran didn't have to be my first and only book, as if it's the lone richness that life offers to believers. Besides, 101 Bible Stories riveted me with its pictures. What would 101 Koran Stories look like? At the time, I hadn't seen such a thing. Today, there's no dearth of children's books about Islam, including A Is for Allah, by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). Free societies allow for the reinvention of self and the evolution of faiths.
Shortly after I earned the title of Most Promising Christian, Dad plucked me out of the church. A madressa, or Islamic religious school, would soon be constructed. This little geek couldn't wait. If my Sunday school experience was any barometer, the madressa would be fun, or so I innocently assumed.
Meanwhile, my new world was growing up with me. A sprawling mall that would be pivotal in my education as a Muslim, Lansdowne Centre, opened. The names of Richmond's founding Scots, emblazoned on outdoor signs--Brighouse,McNair, Burnett, Steveston--soon jostled for attention with words in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese. These languages blanketed the interior of Aberdeen Centre, built several years later and billed as "the largest enclosed Asian-themed shopping plaza in North America."
Well before then, it struck me that a place like Richmond could accommodate just about anybody who expressed initiative. In the tenth grade, I ran for student body president at J. N. Burnett Junior High School. The year before, I'd lost my bid to become homeroom representative, the deciding vote being cast by a grungy twerp who didn't want a "Paki" in charge of his classroom. Only a year later, a majority of students in the whole school made this Paki their duly elected leader. In Richmond, racism didn't have to fence my ambitions any more than race itself had to define me.
A few months after I became student body president, the vice-principal of my school was strolling past my locker and stopped dead when he glimpsed the poster of Iranian revolutionaries I had taped inside. Sent to me by an uncle in France, the poster depicted women in black chadors smashing the wings of an airplane. The left wing had the Soviet hammer and sickle painted on it and the right wing sported the U.S. stars and stripes.
"This isn't appropriate," he cautioned me. "Take it down."
I pointed to the next locker over, whose door had an American flag hanging from it. "If she can express her opinion openly," I asked, "why can't I?"
"Because you're trivializing our democratic values. And as president of all students, you should know better."
I confess to not realizing that Ayatollah Khomeini's regime oozed totalitarianism. I hadn't done my homework. Seducedpartly by propaganda and partly by the pride of living in a free society, I wanted to advocate diversity of opinion so that the Star-Spangled Banner wouldn't strangle other perspectives. So I argued. "I'm trivializing democracy? How is it that you're supporting democracy by telling me that I can't express myself, but," pointing to the flag-draped locker, "somebody else can?"
We stared at each other. "You're setting a bad example," the vice-principal said. He stiffened his back and walked away.
You've got to credit him for letting diversity of opinion survive at Burnett Junior High. It's all the more admirable given his own embrace of evangelical Christianity. He didn't veil his personal beliefs, but neither did he foist them on the students--not when the student council president appeared to be a booster of Khomeini's theocracy, and not even when the students lobbied for school shorts that revealed more leg than our vice-principal thought reasonable. After a heated debate with us and a few strategic delays, he okayed the shorts, bristling but still respecting popular will. How many Muslim evangelicals do you know who tolerate the expression of viewpoints that distress their souls? Of course, my vice-principal had to bite his tongue in the public school system, but such a system can only emerge from a consensus that people of different faiths, backgrounds, aspirations, and stations ought to tussle together. How many Muslim countries tolerate such a tussle?
Lord, I loved this society. I loved that it seemed perpetually unfinished, the final answers not yet known--if ever they would be. I loved that, in a world under constant renovation, the contributions of individuals mattered.
But at home, my father's ready fist ensured his family's obedience to an arbitrary domestic drill. Don't laugh at dinner. When I steal your savings, shut up. When I kick your ass, remember, it'll beharder next time. When I pound your mother, don't call the police. If they show up, I'll charm them into leaving, and you know they will. The moment they're gone, I'll slice off your ear. If you threaten to alert social services, I'll amputate your other ear.
The one time my father chased me through the house with a knife, I managed to fly out of my bedroom window and spend the night on the roof. My mum had no idea of my situation because she was working the graveyard shift at an airline company. Just as well; I'm not sure I would have crawled down for any promise of safety she might have offered. For the same reason that I liked my school and Rose of Sharon Baptist Church and, years later, Aberdeen Centre, I liked the roof. From each of these perches, I could survey a world of open-ended possibility. In the East African Muslim community from which I came, would I have been allowed to dream of a formal education? Of landing scholarships? Of participating in political races, never mind holding office? To judge by the grainy black-and-white photos that showed me, at age three, playing a bride with her head covered, hands folded, eyes downcast, and legs dangling from the sofa, I can only guess that unremitting subservience would have been my lot if we'd stayed in the confines of Muslim Uganda. How's that for a firm grasp of the obvious?
The bigger question is this: Why did the Richmond madressa, set up by immigrants to this land of rights and freedoms, choose autocracy? From age nine to age fourteen, I spent every Saturday there. Classes took place on the upper floor of the newly built mosque, which resembled a mammoth suburban house more than it did Middle Eastern architecture. Inside, however, you got stern Islam through and through. Men and women entered the mosque by different doors and planted themselves on the correct sides of an immovable wall that cut the building in half, quarantining thesexes during worship. Set in this wall was a door that connected the men's and women's sides. This came in handy after services, when men would demand more food from the communal kitchen by thrusting their bowls through the door, banging on the wall, and waiting mere seconds for a woman's arm to thrust back the replenished bowls. In the mosque, men never had to see women, and women never had to be seen. If that isn't the definition of assigning us small lives, then I'm missing something big.
One flight up was the madressa, with its depressing decor of burnt-brown rugs, fluorescent lights, and portable partitions that separated the girls from the boys. Wherever classes congregated within the wide expanse of that room, a partition would tag along. Worse was the partition between mind and soul. In my Saturday classes I learned that if you're spiritual, you don't think. If you think, you're not spiritual. This facile equation rubbed up against the exhilarating curiosity in me that Richmond indulged. Call it my personal clash of civilizations.
The solution wasn't simply to accept that there's a secular world and a nonsecular one, and that each has its ways of being. By that logic, the decidedly nonsecular Rose of Sharon Baptist Church should have quashed my questions. Instead, my curiosity brought me praise there. At Burnett Junior High, a secular school, my questions bugged the bejeezus out of my vice-principal but nobody shut me down. In both places, the dignity of the individual prevailed. Not so at my madressa. I entered its premises wearing a white polyester chador and departed several hours later with my hair flattened and my spirit deflated, as if the condom over my head had properly inoculated me from "unsafe" intellectual activity.
Before airing more dirty laundry, let me be fair to mymadressa teacher--we'll call him Mr. Khaki. He was as sincere a Muslim as they come. This bony brother with a finely trimmed beard (signifying cleanliness) and a Honda Mini Compact (indicating modesty) volunteered his services each weekend (proving charity) to give the children of Muslim immigrants the religious education that they might otherwise forfeit to the promiscuity of values in a multicultural country. No easy task, since the madressa attracted students from across the age spectrum: self-conscious prepubescents struggling with acne, giggly types who took cover in the bathroom, adolescents sprouting moustaches--and that's just the girls. I'm kidding ... sort of.
Most of us saw the madressa not so much as a place of learning, but as a pond from which to fish out our future mates. Because mouthy chicks don't get husbands, my girlfriends rarely argued with Mr. Khaki. So what was my problem? Didn't I want to be somebody's wife someday? Don't get me started. My problem was this: Enamored of that multilayered world beyond the madressa, I insisted on being educated rather than indoctrinated.
The trouble began with Know Your Islam, the primer that I packed in my madressa bag every week. After reading it, I needed to know more about "my" Islam. Why must girls observe the essentials, such as praying five times a day, at an earlier age than boys? Because, Mr. Khaki told me, girls mature sooner. They reach the "obligatory age" of practice at nine compared to thirteen for boys.
"Then why not reward girls for our maturity by letting us lead prayer?" I asked.
"Girls can't lead prayer."
"What do you mean?"
"Girls aren't permitted."
"Allah says so."
"What's His reason?"
"Read the Koran."
I tried, though it felt artificial since I didn't know Arabic. Do I see you nodding your head? Most Muslims have no clue what we're saying when we're reciting the Koran in Arabic. It's not that we're obtuse. Rather, Arabic is one of the world's most rhythmic languages, and weekly lessons at the madressa simply don't let us grasp its intricacies. Haram, for instance, can refer to something forbidden or something sacred, depending on which "a" you stress. Forbidden versus sacred: We're not talking subtle shifts in meaning here. To the inherent challenges of this language, add the realities of life. In my case, a violent father who practiced religion mostly for show and a mother who did her best to be devout while striving to sustain a household on shift work. You can appreciate why Arabic study failed to rate as a family priority. Frankly, Mr. Khaki's stock reply to my questions--"Read the Koran"--fell about as flat as my chador-chastened hair.
Over time, this read-the-Koran response generated more questions: Why should I perpetuate the fib of reciting Arabic if it makes no practical sense and strikes no emotional chord? Why must we suspect that every English translation of the Koran "corrupts" the original text? I mean, if the Koran is as straightforward as the purists tell us, then aren't its teachings easily translated into a thousand tongues? Finally, why should stigma stalk those of us who haven't been weaned on Arabic when the fact is that no more than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs? Translation: At least 80 percent of us aren't Arabs. "Know Your Islam," they say blithely. Whose Islam? Is this a faith or a cult?
All right, time-out.
Let's pick up my original question to Mr. Khaki: Why can't girls lead prayer? Figuring that the Koran's answer would be repeated in some other book I might have a prayer of understanding, I attempted to access the madressa's library. What a production to arrange that trip. The library was a series of racks situated at the top of the stairs on the men's side of the mosque--off-limits to ladies without advance approval. Being eleven years old and of "obligatory age," I couldn't consort with adult males. So I had to persuade a boy under the obligatory age--twelve or younger--to run upstairs on my behalf and secure permission for me any time I wanted to browse. Assuming I got the green light, all the men had to clear the area before I could ascend the stairs and pick through the collection of cheap brochures in the racks. Of course, my time was severely restricted since the men were waiting to return to their space. I managed to borrow a few pamphlets each time, but their contents were so hard to follow, I don't know where their authors went to school. Two years of getting the runaround inside the mosque proved fruitless. At thirteen, I realized that I'd have to circumvent Mr. Khaki and the madressa in order to have my question addressed.
I became a mall-rat. My mission? To track down an English-language Koran. Lansdowne Centre delivered, may God bless my town's bazaar of beliefs. Freedom of information might have frightened Mr. Khaki, but it was exactly this freedom that allowed one of his students to find more meaning in her religion--a meaning the madressa wouldn't supply.
What did I learn about why girls can't lead prayer? I can't tell you right now. Because even if mullahs and madressa teachers supply pat answers, the Koran doesn't. What I can tell you is that in between elections, drama rehearsals, part-time jobs, volleyballpractices--up to, into, and beyond university--I made my way through the scripture with the "woman question" top of mind. I'm still reading. To divulge my conclusions at this point would be to leapfrog into my adult life. First, I have to deal with something else.
The Jews. It's the other question that perturbed me during my madressa years because the Jews came in for a regular tarring. Mr. Khaki taught us with a straight face that Jews worship moolah, not Allah, and that their idolatry would pollute my piety if I hung out with them. What planet, I wondered, did Mr. Khaki inhabit? Was he willfully blind to our surroundings? Richmond, a below-sea-level suburb, was more likely to drown in Asian commercial influence than to become submerged by any mountain of money the Jews could stockpile. If Richmond had even one synagogue at the time, I didn't know about it.
Then again, maybe I was an agent of their shadowy power, because I certainly managed to disrupt Mr. Khaki's passionate history lessons with questions about Jews. I remember asking why Prophet Muhammad would have commanded his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe when the Koran supposedly came to him as a message of peace. Mr. Khaki couldn't cope. He shot me a look of contempt, gave an annoyed wave of the hand, and cut short history class, only to hold Koran study next. Me and my big mouth.
A year after I bought my English-language Koran, Mr. Khaki and I reached an impasse. Nothing I had read so far convinced me of a Jewish conspiracy. Granted, a year is scarcely enough time to digest the Koran and, at fourteen, there's a lot of mental maturing still to do. I couldn't quite brush off Mr. Khaki's anti-Semitic harangues. Who was I to decide he was full of bunk until I had all the evidence? So I challenged him to provide proof of the Jewishplot. What he provided was an ultimatum: Either you believe or get out. And if you get out, get out for good.
Really? That's it?
With my temples throbbing and my neck sweating under the itchy polyester chador, I stood up. As I crossed the partition checkpoint, I could have uncovered my head for all the boys to see, but I didn't want to risk the humiliation of being chased out by an even more scandalized Mr. Khaki. All I could think to do was fling open the madressa's hefty metal door and yell, "Jesus Christ!" A memorable exit, I hoped. Only later would I realize just how memorable. Jesus was a Jew!
ARE YOU WONDERING WHY, AFTER MY EXPULSION FROM THE madressa, I didn't damn the whole religion and get on with celebrating my "emancipated" North American self? In part, the imperative of identity kicked in. You know what I'm driving at. Most of us Muslims aren't Muslims because we think about it, but rather because we're born that way. It's "who we are."
My madressa meltdown embarrassed my mum, yet she'd lived with me too long to believe she could order me to grovel for Mr. Khaki's forgiveness. Not a chance. Nor did she force me to go to mosque with her. For a couple of years, though, I actually did. It was the one place that remained open to me on the map of my fragile Muslim-hood. I loved God, and I wasn't about to punish the mosque for the sins of the madressa--until it gradually sank in that the madressa I loathed was an extension of the mosque. Attending the mosque might have allowed me to identify as a Muslim, but it also obliged me to sacrifice that other, equally sacred, part of my identity: thinker.
Let me tell you another story. Among Islam's five pillars is charity. So, a buzz of approval permeated the air one evening when the loudspeaker on the women's side of the mosque, blaring the voice of the mullah on the men's side of the mosque, announced a drive to raise money for our Muslim brothers and sisters overseas. We were to have our checks ready in a few days. During that interval, I asked a member of the ladies' auxiliary where the money would be sent. She mentioned an Islamic organization with a clunky name. I asked her what the funds would be used for. To feed our fellow Muslims, she replied. Recalling TV news stories about fraud charges against Christian charities, I asked how we'd know that the money would end up where we intended. "It's going to Muslims," she snapped. "That's all you need to know."
Do you buy it? I didn't. My quarrel wasn't with alms-giving but with information-hoarding. Why should I rest easy merely because people who call themselves Muslims will have my donation? Is it that by virtue of being a Muslim, every Muslim is, well, virtuous? Talk about faith. Where was the crime in my queries? Or were the queries themselves the crime? My beleaguered mother didn't appear altogether shocked when I explained that I couldn't add to the family's donation because, really, who cares what religion a hungry person is, and besides, I was wary about the scheme being sold to us. Instead, I said, my alms would go to a nonreligious charity whose credentials I would research.
The more the mosque felt like the madressa, the less I attended. I started to decentralize my faith, cultivating a personal relationship with God rather than assuming it had to be mediated through a congregation. In that spirit, I prayed in solitude ("bowing alone," as the Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, might say). Every day for years, I'd wake up early and shiver my wayinto an unheated bathroom--my refugee mother believed in low bills as much as in a higher power. After washing my feet, arms, and face, I'd unfurl my velvet rug in the hallway, position it toward Mecca, lay down the piece of Arabian clay that my forehead would touch, and spend the next ten minutes praying. It's a discipline-building exercise, especially since you cleanse yourself two more times a day, and utter four more sets of prayers.
Still, the entire exercise of washing prescribed parts of the body, reciting specified verses, and prostrating at a nonnegotiable angle, all at assigned times of the day, can degenerate into mindless submission--and habitual submissiveness. If you haven't seen this tendency in your parents or grandparents, you're some rare Muslim, my friend. I realized that what began as a guide to godliness had become rote, compelling me to replace my prayer "routine" with something more self-aware: candid, unstructured conversations with my Creator throughout the day. It may sound flaky, but at least I can say those words were my own.
It wouldn't have been a much greater leap at that point to renounce Islam wholesale and walk away from my Muslim identity. You know what stopped me? A devotion to fairness. I've always believed in giving Islam a fair shake because, to my Western sensibility, merit ought to matter. I needed to discover Islam's personality instead of its posturing. An analogy: When I was thirteen or so, my mother urged me to make nice with an obnoxious cousin. "She's family," Mum reasoned. "She's our blood." I retorted that blood meant nothing to me. The relevant question was whether I would choose to be her friend at school if we weren't related. With a personality like that, forget it. To expend energy "liking" my cousin would be a charade, and I had better things to do with my time. Although Mum understood, shedidn't agree. For her, family took precedence. For me, lineage didn't equal merit. Personality did.
I brought the same standard to religion. In order to decide whether I should practice Islam, I had to discover its merits--or lack of them. And I had to discover this for myself, replacing the mosque and its programmed pieties with my own quest for the personality of Islam. Maybe the Koran really does dehumanize Jews and subjugate women. Or maybe Mr. Khaki was a lousy teacher. Maybe God commands that everyone speak Arabic. Or maybe that's a manmade rule to keep most Muslims dependent on higher-ups. Maybe diverging from the spiritual script insults the Almighty. Or maybe we pay tribute to Allah's creative powers when we use our own. I didn't know. But without exploring the alternative, walking away would have felt like running away.
The good news is I knew I lived in a part of the world that permitted me to explore. Thanks to the freedoms afforded me in the West--to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged, and rethink--I was poised to judge my religion in a light that I couldn't have possibly conceived in the parochial Muslim microcosm of the madressa. No need to choose between Islam and the West. On the contrary, the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively. It was up to Islam to retain me.
I DIDN'T OBSESS ABOUT RELIGION, BUT EVERY NOW AND AGAIN A question would pop up, and I hunted for answers in the only place I thought might have some. Picture it: The public library in the pre-Internet period of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of what I'd read about Islam exuded a textbook tone. Lots of reference, little risk. Then, on February 14, 1989, Iran's AyatollahKhomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. This "unfunny Valentine," as Rushdie would later call the fatwa, demanded of Westerners more than a collective tiptoe around theocracy. Many people in the West did take a stand against the death warrant and I'd be disingenuous to deny that. But the commentaries I tracked down at the public library seemed satisfied with merely explaining Muslim outrage; they steered away from asking if the Koran is as virgin, as divine, as the effigy-burners would have us believe. What happened to the religiously respectful yet intellectually messy West I'd fallen in love with? Was multiculturalism losing its mind?
In a crucial sense, I think so. I say this because my trips to the library coincided with the era of Edward Said. He was the Arab-American intellectual who, in 1979, used the word Orientalism to describe the West's supposed tendency to colonize Muslims by demonizing them as exotic freaks of the East. A compelling theory, but doesn't it speak volumes that the "imperialist" West published, distributed, and promoted Edward Said's book?
Within a decade, Said was all the rage among young academics-turned-activists in North America and Europe. Their worship of him effectively stifled other ideas about Islam. By the time Salman Rushdie came out with The Satanic Verses, Said's acolytes stood ready to denounce as "Orientialist" (read: racist) just about anything that affronted mainstream Muslims. In my experience, the public library didn't escape this chill.
I began to regain faith, in both the West and Islam, after the mid-1990s. Praise Allah for the Internet. With the Web making self-censorship irrelevant--someone else is bound to say what you won't--it became the place where intellectual risk-takers finally exhaled. They reasserted what makes the West a fierce if imperfect incubator of ideas: its love of discovery, including discovery of itsown biases. And as the critics probed Islam, I picked up on some jaw-dropping aspects of my religion.
How many of us know the degree to which Islam is a "gift of the Jews"? The unity of God's creation, the inherent and often mysterious justice of God, our innate capacity, as God's creatures, to choose good, the purposefulness of our earthly lives, the infinity of the afterlife--these and other biggies of monotheism came to Muslims via Judaism. This discovery astounded me because it suggested that Muslims need not be steeped in anti-Semitism. If anything, we have reason to be grateful rather than hateful to Jews.
Nor, until educating myself, did I appreciate that Muslims worship exactly the same God as do the Jews and the Christians. The Koran affirms this fact. Truth is, though, I had to read a recent book by the British religious scholar Karen Armstrong before that point penetrated my madressa-molded mind. (What can I tell you? Deprogramming is a many-splendored thing.) Armstrong emphasizes that Prophet Muhammad didn't claim to introduce a new God to the entire world. His personal mission was to bring Arabs into the "rightly guided" family of Abraham, the first prophet to receive the revelation that there's one sovereign God. Growing up, I never heard Abraham's name in a history lesson. A glaring omission, given that Abraham's progeny went on to found the Jewish nation. Being the debut monotheists, the Jews laid the groundwork for the Christians and, later, the Muslims to emerge. So, you see, Muslims didn't invent one God; they renamed Him Allah. That's Arabic for "The God"--the God of Jews and Christians.
Where in the madressa curriculum was that acknowledgment? It's as if nothing happened before Islam. Yet, if all pre-Islamic experience counts for naught, then so must a slew of our principles as Muslims. If more of us knew that Islam is the productof intermingling histories, as opposed to a wholly original way of life--if we understood that we're spiritual mongrels--would more of us be willing to accept the "other"? I began to wonder why we're so reluctant to acknowledge outside influences, except when blaming the West for assorted colonial injuries. Which, in turn, raised a fundamental question: Is Islam more narrow-minded than the rest of the world's religions?
There's a party-wrecker of a topic. From university on, whenever people did agree to a discussion about Islam's intolerant bent, they would caution me not to confuse religion with culture. "Stoning women has everything to do with tribal customs and nothing to do with Islam," tutored one woman at a dinner. I remained a skeptic. If Islam is flexible, then it can adapt for good and not only for ill, right? So why didn't anything about my mosque resemble Richmond's democracy--the very democracy that allowed Muslims to erect a mosque there?
It wasn't just the modern Muslim in me who had to wrestle with these issues. My career as a TV journalist and commentator placed me on the front line of the public's own questions about Islam. Having seen my face in their living rooms, average folks feel no hesitation about approaching me in shops, restaurants, and subway cars to voice a basic concern: If you're going to be a beard-busting, chador-defying Muslim, God help and save you. But as long you choose to stick with Islam, how do you account for so much bigotry under its banner? More precisely, they've asked, "Are you allowed to be a Muslim and a feminist?" "What does it take to turn a devout Muslim into a suicide bomber?" "Why aren't more Muslims speaking up?" "Aren't you afraid to speak up?" And, "How come I've never heard a joke about a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah?" Since getting hit with that last stumper, I've done some serious digging,and I think I've gained an insight. Permit me a quick diversion.
Islam has a popular teaching against "excessive laughter." No joke. In a booklet titled Problems and Solutions, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid spells out the teaching. While "the Muslim is not expected to be dour-faced," an abundance of laughter proves that we Muslims have been manipulated by charm and wit, which softens our character and piety. I recall an uncle lovingly but firmly warning me one New Year's Eve not to laugh too hard as doom would be sure to follow. Here's where my uncle and the sheikh lose me: If the black magic of laughter is so offensive, why isn't the hypnotic, lyrical effect of the Arabic language, recited aloud, also frowned upon?
Given that I glimpsed this silly side of Islam because of someone's expressed hope for a punch line involving a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah, I have to say that I love the curiosity of the public. For years, that curiosity has nourished my own. The more opportunities I've seized to be in the spotlight, getting noisy about this social problem or that global trend, the more I've needed outsiders to keep me on my toes about why I bother associating with a faith that beats at the center of so much international turmoil and individual torment. People are right to ask. Two questions, in particular, have rocked my world--both for the better, but neither without pain.
The first question is, "How do you reconcile homosexuality with Islam?" I'm openly lesbian. I choose to be "out" because, having matured in a miserable household under a father who despised joy, I'm not about to sabotage the consensual love that offers me joy as an adult. I met my first girlfriend in my twenties and, weeks afterwards, told my mother about the relationship. She responded like the wonderful parent she is. So the question of whether I could be a Muslim and a lesbian at the same timebarely unsettled me. That was religion. This was happiness. I knew which one I needed more. I carried on, intermittently studying Islam, learning the fine art of sustaining relationships with women (which is another book unto itself), producing television programs, and generally living the multidirectional life of a twenty-something in North America.
As my TV work made me a more visible public figure, my hope of reconciling homosexuality with Islam evolved into a preoccupation. Viewers wanted me to justify my improbable combination of identities. I was plunged into a serious bout of introspection, even flirting with the possibility of finally giving up Islam for the sake of love. Hey, what better motive is there to sacrifice anything? But each time I reached the brink of excommunicating myself, I pulled back. Not out of fear. Out of fairness--to myself. One question begged for more thought: If the all-knowing, all-powerful God didn't wish to make me a lesbian, then why didn't He make someone else in my place?
Hostile challenges to "explain myself" became a near daily occurrence after 1998. That year, I started hosting QueerTelevision, an unprecedented TV and Internet series about gay and lesbian cultures. The show was about people, not porn, and yet avowed Muslims joined Christian fundamentalists in petitioning against my presence on their screens. In truth, I expected nothing less. But was I naive to expect a little more--conversation, instead of mere condemnation?
Believe me, I tried to do the dialogue thing. As a lover of diversity, including diversity of perspectives, I never trashed my detractors' missives. In fact, I regularly aired them on the program. An example: "I am writing to inform you that the one and only real God, the God of the Bible, makes it painfully clear that all Sodomites (meaning 'homosexuals' or like deviants) have forsakentheir humanity for their deranged, perverted, evil lusts. Thereby they have become abominations, no longer human, and are to be executed immediately according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy ..."
The many Muslims who called and e-mailed QueerTelevision agreed with these Christians. (Except for the part about the one and only real God belonging strictly to the Bible.) Yet not a single Muslim addressed my counterchallenge, my repeated stab at conversation: How can the Koran at once denounce homosexuality and declare that Allah "makes excellent everything He creates"? How do my critics explain the fact that, according to the book by which they scrupulously abide, God has deliberately designed the world's breathtaking multiplicity? The question that pits homosexuality against Islam tested my faith alright. But thinking it through has made me realize that a healthy exchange is possible if we all care less about where we stand than where God might.
Now for the second question I promised to tell you about. It was asked of me mere months before September 11, and it precipitated my biggest test of faith.
In December 2000, an interoffice envelope arrived on my desk at QueerTelevision. The envelope came from my boss, Moses Znaimer. Scrambling to complete as many episodes of the program as possible by Christmas break, I felt at once drained and in need of distraction. So I opened the envelope and pulled out a newspaper clipping. It featured a brief report from the Agence France-Presse:
GIRL COERCED INTO SEX TO RECEIVE 180 LASHES
Tsafe [Nigeria]. A pregnant 17-year-old whom an Islamic court sentenced to 180 lashes for premarital sex will give birth within days, her family said yesterday.
Bariya Ibrahim Magazu told the court in September that she had been pushed into having sex with three men who were associates of her father. The girl produced seven witnesses. The girl's family said she was due to give birth within a couple of days and was expected to receive her punishment at least 40 days later. AFP
In vibrant red ink, Moses had circled the word "Islamic," twice underlined the number "180," and penned a comment, Talmud-style, in the margins. It read:
ONE OF THESE DAYS YOU'LL TELL ME HOW YOU RECONCILE THIS KIND OF INSANITY, AND FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION, WITH YOUR MUSLIM FAITH. M.
Oy vey. Wasn't it enough that viewers of QueerTelevision goaded me to choose between my sexual orientation and my spiritual orientation? Did my boss have to burden me ethically, too? Especially at a time of excruciating deadlines?
I pushed the envelope aside and got on with working for theman. But over the next several hours, Moses's challenge shook my conscience. Tell me it doesn't do the same to yours. The story of this young rape victim has to haunt any decent human being because, whatever the minutiae of her case, one reported fact couldn't be rationalized away: The woman, her dignity already violated, had gone to the trouble of rounding up seven witnesses. Seven! And she still faced 180 lashes! How the hell could I reconcile such an elemental injustice with my Muslim faith?
I was going to have to address it head-on. Not with defensiveness, not with theories, but with total honesty. Less than a year before much of the world was to be unmoored by September 11, I prepared to enter the next chapter of my life as a Muslim Refusenik.
THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM TODAY. Copyright © 2003 by Irshad Manji. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.