Like many people, I both study and work in the CBD. I feel visibly Muslim at times, but at times I feel as though my religion forms some kind of secret double life. It’s not that I can or want to hide the fact that I’m Muslim; the hijab takes care of that one pretty easily. But being Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim environment sometimes makes me feel walking a tightrope between drawing overt attention to my Muslim-ness on the one side and avoiding any mention of it on the other. It’s hard to find the opportunity to do da’wah outside of environments specifically geared towards that purpose, and when they do come up, many Muslims find themselves unsure of how to behave
There are very few Muslims who can claim to have never had a negative experience when it comes to interacting with non-Muslims. Sometimes, these experiences arise out of sheer ignorance. A well-intentioned remark can go horribly astray, especially when it involves any of the following:
a.) ‘Wow, your English is great!’ (Errrr thanks, it’s good to know that all those years of primary, secondary and tertiary education in the language didn’t miss their mark!)
b.) ‘You’re fine, it’s those other Muslims I have a problem with.’ (Oh phew, I’m off the hook, not like those other bad Muz-lums!)
c.) ‘Oh, aren’t you hot in that?’ (Your concern is touching, it really is, but I think I’m perfectly capable of ascertaining my own body temperature.)
Thankfully, these types of experiences aren’t common. Sydney is a cosmopolitan enough city for most people to have come into some kind of contact with Muslims. Even if people do dislike or distrust Muslims as a whole, there aren’t many who feel strongly enough to make those feelings clear to every Muslim they meet. But even so, a Muslim is always facing some kind of minor internal dilemma when in the workplace or at university. Do I tell my workmates to wait for me because I need to pray, or do I just quietly disappear? Do I explain that I can’t be around alcohol, or do I just decline their invitation to lunch? We know that there are things we absolutely cannot compromise on as Muslims, but how do we negotiate our way around the grey areas?
Overt displays of religiosity in any shape or form are becoming increasingly rare in our society. A Muslim already stands out because of their name, hijab or beard, and so some may feel tempted to just fly under the radar as much as possible. Some may take the opposite approach and think, what the hey, everyone already knows, so I might as well use this as an opportunity to get some good dialogue going. Personally, I’ve found it difficult to do the latter. I feel like whenever I do, I come across as either trying to justify my choices or seek concessions because of them. I feel like I’m already starting from a reactive position rather than a proactive one, that I have to be very careful so as not to say or do the wrong thing.
But it’s not possible to eliminate religion from the discussion entirely, nor should we seek to. Being Muslim is an inherent part of who I am, and if it comes up in conversation, I’m not going to shy away from it. But I certainly don’t go out of my way to conduct a one-woman PR campaign to ‘clean up’ the image of Islam, nor do I openly proselytise to every non-Muslim I meet. I don’t feel I need to; I’d hope that the people around me are intelligent enough to ask informed questions if they’re curious and to judge me on my own merits. If I’m thought to be capable at what I do, it’s not in spite of my religion, and if I’m thought to be stupid, my stupidity isn’t a result of my religion.
I can understand why some Muslims take the easy way out and stick to their own wherever possible. These are the types of people who stay in the same friendship groups at university as they did at high school, and they often go on to work in predominantly Muslim suburbs. It’s not that they dislike contact with non-Muslims, nor are they consciously trying to create some kind of ‘ghetto’. It’s far more complex than that. Some Muslims feel there isn’t a place for them in mainstream society, that they’ll have to fight every inch of the way to earn one. Some understandably give up before the fight has even begun.
There’s also the perception that if a Muslim does make it somewhere, they’re held up as some kind of shining example of how a Muslim should be. They can potentially feel like the ‘token’, the nod to diversity and acceptance. They can feel pigeonholed as ‘that Muslim’, that this is their only real area of expertise and their only marking feature. This is particularly noticeable in the fields of journalism and academia, where prominent Muslims are continually called upon to speak about ‘Muslim’ issues. Many of these people may in fact have started out by talking about these very issues, but they can very easily find themselves trapped in a prison of their own creation.
I don’t have the answers as to how a Muslim should behave in mainstream society. It’s so easy to fall into two equally dangerous traps: feeling the need to apologise for every act even vaguely connected to Muslims, or feeling unnecessarily defensive and touchy every time something relating to Islam comes up. It’s so easy to become one of two extremes: a person who tries to mask their Muslim-ness as if it’s a bad stench, or a person who can’t relate to others on a purely human level because their only frame of reference is their Muslim-ness. Being a Muslim is our defining feature and always will be, no apologies necessary, but the way we choose to project it makes all the difference when we participate in mainstream society.
Do you ever feel it’s hard to convey the message you want to as a Muslim? Where do you stand on how to interact with mainstream society?