A Western Muslim’s Dilemma

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?

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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?

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5 responses to “A Western Muslim’s Dilemma

  1. Reblogged this on Emboldened Hearts.

  2. My situation is that I grew up very exposed to mainstream society – being in mixed race schools where Muslims were a tiny minority. For the most part, that’s carried through to my career as well – where the places I’ve worked have been largely non-Muslim environments.

    Mostly, people are very respectful of the restrictions / concessions I need as a Muslim; and in those discussions, I have found opportunities to teach them about some aspects of Islam.

    But I don’t really initiate conversations about it. It’s hard to convey the message for me – and I put that almost completely down to my personality, which is one of introversion and shyness. I wish I could say so much more and be an ambassador of Islam, but I have internal obstacles that block me. And no matter how much I learn via da’wah lectures and articles, it still comes down to my personality not being suited to that kind of thing.

    For me, writing is the ideal means of sharing the message, but I haven’t delved into the mainstream, non-Muslim fray that much, unfortunately.

    One important dua I make is that my outward character reflects that of Islam, so that despite my lack of talking much, just the way I carry myself and the effort etc I put into my work is one that people will associate as being a result of Islam – thereby promoting the deen without me actually making extra effort.

    We’re all different though, and ultimately I would hope that we can be sincere in our DESIRE to spread the message, and that Allah will make us a means of doing that – whether we actually see the results or not.

    • It’s hard, isn’t it? I also feel that I don’t really have the personality for conveying the message-I’m not necessarily shy, I just find it hard to get into discussions about these things unless I know the person well. But inshaAllah we can all aspire to do our part, as small as it may be.

  3. I spent YEARS trying to downplay my “muslimness,” editing phrases like alhamdu lillah, in shaa Allah, and maa shaa Allah from my speech when talking to non-Muslims. Then one day at college I was sitting with a group of non-Muslims and the conversation turned positively horrific (way too sexual) and up until that point whenever such things had happened I’d stayed out of politeness. That day it suddenly occurred to me that while I was constantly watching myself and editing my GOOD for their benefit they were doing no such thing, and not even bothering to edit their ugliness, so I quietly got up and walked away. Since then I’ve decided to be my whole self, (after all, aren’t we only half of our selves without our religion?) and speak to everyone as I do to my fellow Muslim, and you know what? People appreciate it. I was talking to a Christian guy I’d met only minutes before and he started complaining about his neighbor which made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want to make gheebah, so I told him about how in Islam when you backbite you lose your good deeds to the person you’re talking about until you run out of good deeds, at which point you start receiving THEIR bad deeds. He thanked me and told me how much he loved that concept, and when his other neighbor came outside he told HIM what I’d just said! Islam is beautiful, and it’s the greatest adornment we have. To hide it around our non-Muslim neighbors is doing no one a service.

    • What an amazing story! I also think there’s a lot to gain from being open and honest with others. Sometimes we don’t do it out of fear of how they’ll react, but we really have no way of knowing what their reaction will be. Hamza Tzortsis, the prominent da’ee, says that we have to be careful not to “project our drama onto reality” i.e. make assumptions about what other people think and do based on our perceptions of them. We need to turn off our internal radios and try to just take people as they are 🙂

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