Identity Crisis

My sincere apologies for my long silence – work, life, and everything else has kept me too busy to post anything. 

Nevertheless, one issue has been growing in my mind over the past few months and is beginning to take a toll on my mental well-being: my identity. 

Upon conversion, I was excited to be seen as a white American convert to Islam; I enjoyed being different and didn’t mind the curious stares.  However, as time has passed, the excitement is wearing off and I am now feeling almost desperate to be seen as ‘normal.’  It would be nice to ‘fly under the radar’ so to speak every once in a while, to fit in with SOMEONE at least.  Everywhere I go, I’m different.  Born Muslims stare at me with curiosity, and some approach me and talk to me about it, but the conversations rarely go beyond that; it seems that I’m viewed as some sort of exotic rarity that they want to pump enough information out of to be able to rush home and call their families to tell them about an American convert they met (sometimes they ask to take pictures with me so that they can show their families even)… while all the while failing to realize the seriousness of the impact my conversion has had on my life. 

Americans either stare coldly, smile kindly (or with sympathy rather), and a few (mostly women) compliment my scarf or my outfit.  And there are always some who treat me rudely, assume I don’t speak English, or believe I must be brainwashed or a complete idiot for accepting Islam.  Although the people around me from day to day are mostly polite, I find myself being held at arm’s length, despite my efforts to get to know them and move closer toward them.  

Of course, I can’t fail to mention the few true friends I have found online; kindred spirits who either share my experiences or simply are sincere and genuine enough to move beyond my appearance (most of them don’t even know what I look like anyway!).   

As a result, I find myself suspended between two worlds – the Muslim world, which seems to be something one must be born into, and the dominant culture in the American world, which seems to consciously or unconsciously reject all those who fall outside the white, Christian(ish) ideal.  I can’t really blame either one outright, however, as it’s basic psychology to be attracted and feel close to those who share similarities, and feel unsure or distrustful of those who are different.

And all the while, I have begun to struggle with my own concept of who I am as an individual as well.  I fit nowhere.  Due to my conservative Christian background, I find myself resonating more with Muslims from collective backgrounds, who value family and more traditional roles of the husband, wife, and children.  Yet my own family seems to have drifted more into individualism, living life for themselves, depending on only themselves, and thus not extending a helping hand when other family members need it most.  At the same time, I support the Islamic view of the roles of the husband, wife, and various family members (which is definitely not always the same as the cultural traditions most Muslims practice, and differs slightly from the traditional Christian ideals); I still value independence and minding my own business; I hate the nosiness and mindless (yet destructive) gossip that often accompanies collective cultures, and believe that people should be left to manage their own lives, make their own decisions, and find the right path for themselves without the intrusion or judgment from others. 

And I am so many other things as well.  I am a musician, an artist, an intellectual, an athlete, someone who is open-minded, compassionate, educated, moderate, skeptical (in that I ask questions and am unconvinced if something is not logical), hard-working, curious, and earnest.  I have a million different interests and enjoy learning about everything.  I have a great deal of knowledge about Christianity, and am knowledgeable about Islam as well.  Compared to my family, I’m a raging liberal.  Compared to most other highly educated Americans, I’m conservative – moderate. 

Yet…. none of that is evident when others only look at my scarf and the color of my skin – they simply make their judgment, and then brush me from their mind.  Of course, I remind myself that even if I didn’t wear the scarf, people would just look at my overall appearance and pass me off as X or Y and move on.  So, it’s not a question of a piece of cloth; I like wearing it and cherish its benefits greatly.  I just think it’s regrettable that it’s become an item highly marked with preconceptions and stereotypes.  Muslims and non-Muslim Americans alike see it and come to entirely different, and incorrect conclusions. 

And yet, what does it matter that others see me for who I truly am or not?  It doesn’t really… but I think it’s just the combination of being hugely misunderstood everywhere I turn AND struggling with my own concept of who I am.  I am many things, but am having great difficult to tie it all together in order to conceptualize myself as one, single individual.  I don’t expect others to fully understand me, but I suppose it’s not entirely fair to complain about it either since no one can get a clear picture of who I am until I first understand myself.

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Some Advice for American Mosques

So… today while I was running on the treadmill, since it was overlooking a large gymnasium, I was passing the time by watching a scrimmage basketball game.  My mind began wandering and I began thinking about how churches are so efficiently organized, as so many of them have organized basketball teams, softball teams, volleyball teams, and so on.  They provide an essential aspect of life for the community: social connectivity.

The mosques I’ve been to in the US seem to be very disorganized, with ethnic in-fighting causing overwhelming disunity.  I even visited the largest mosque in North America, and felt very disappointed by the disorganization, lack of decent sound equipment, and overall disrespect by those listening to the lecture.  I had a very hard time hearing the speaker because I was surrounded by chattering women, with kids running up and down the aisles.  When the lecture finished, everyone began pushing and shoving in order to get outside; it was a frightening experience!  This mosque probably had several hundred people in attendance, but I’ve been to churches equally as big, if not bigger, and never have I seen pushing and shoving!!

I’ve often wished that mosques would just take a look at how churches are organized and run in the US, and follow suit.  Why not, after all?  If they are doing something that works, why not model your organization after it?  Churches are extremely well-run and provide an important social function in the lives of many Americans.  Growing up in church, I can personally attest to the fact that a lot of people go to church and church events, not because they’re particularly religious, but because they enjoy connecting with others in a clean environment, having their physical, spiritual, social needs met, and giving back to the community as well by donating their time and specific skills when needed.

Unfortunately, in the US, people are so isolated and distant from each other that their social outlets are confined to only certain situations: bars/clubs/parties, work (which has limitations), or church.  People who don’t go to church, but don’t want to participate in the club scene (such as Muslims), are highly ostracized and separated from the society at large as they have no way to integrate and connect with other people.

This is why I think it is imperative for mosques to step up and provide a social support system similar to what the church provides for so many Americans.

First, what mosques should do is address the physical needs of Muslims: have two fully functioning fitness facilities for both the women and the men – and don’t skimp on the equipment for the women (particularly the cardio equipment)!  Giving the men a place to exercise that is free from the distraction of half naked women would be a refreshing alternative from the regular gyms.  Providing women with a secure place to work out and being able to wear whatever they like will help women to branch out physically and not be inhibited due to the requirements of modesty.  I exercise in a fitness facility 5x a week, and I can tell you that wearing pants, long sleeves, and covering my hair while running at a brisk speed for lengthy period of time is HOT AND HARD.  If mosques provided such services for their members, it would fulfill a huge need.

Once a mosque has a fitness facility, they could even branch out by addressing both the physical and social needs of its members by beginning intramural teams that could play against other church or community teams (often cities have an intramural league in which various organizations like churches, businesses, a group of friends, and so on form a team and sign up to play).  The mosque could even have a women’s volleyball team (I would totally play on that) and work on interfaith outreach by inviting other churches to start women’s only volleyball teams, and have the other teams come to the mosque for games so that the Muslim women’s modesty could be ensured.  The opposing teams could sign a waiver or something stating that they would respect the modesty of the women by having only females in attendance, no cameras, no taking pictures, etc.

In this way, people in the community could have a chance to see real Muslim women (and men) up close and personal, and see that they’re real people after all.  It would be a great way of spreading a positive image of Islam by breaking down the barriers of isolation many Muslims tend to put up.

Further, churches often have classes and various groups for people to be involved in that address their spiritual (and social) and mental needs.  The last church I attended had a divorce care class, a widow/widower class, a young married class (discussing the many common issues newly married couples face), an unemployed class (they talked about networking, interviewing, shared job tips, and helped one another commiserate), men’s classes, women’s classes, a parenting class (parents of small kids, parents of teens, etc.), a single’s class, a senior citizen class, and so on.  Each class was run sort of like group counseling (so there was a lot of discussion and participation of group members) and teaching integrated with the Biblical perspective all combined.  A mosque could have English classes (as do some churches), as well as Arabic classes (a HUGE need for reverts), basic Islam classes, interfaith classes in which they learn about various other faith traditions, and so on.

The sheikh or imam of the mosque doesn’t have to singlehandedly run all the classes, but he could oversee everything and have the class leaders appointed on a volunteer basis (and then of course, meet regularly with the leaders and ensure appropriate material is being used and so on).  In churches, getting volunteers has never seemed to be a problem in my experience, as people are eager to give their particular skills in service to God.

As many churches do, the mosque could also provide individual counseling services for individuals facing difficulty in their lives and want a trusted, Islamic perspective on the matter.  Finding qualified individuals to volunteer a little bit of their time would not be difficult – or the mosque could pay a few people to come in part time to offer their services (and maybe charge a minimal fee, like $5 or 10$ or something).  The mosque could also have a publicly available list of Muslim professionals in the area in a variety of fields so that members could get the Islamic-based services they need.

Other basic things: child care (to circumvent kids running rampantly during lectures and reduce the women chatting and hanging out instead of listening), and hey, how about a BULLETIN so that the members know what the lecture or activity is even about, and what time things are happening, who the speaker is, what is going on during the week in terms of activities and classes, last week’s attendance, how much people gave last week, and this year to date, and how much the mosque still needs and so on…

The proposal I had worked out in my mind as I was running was far more detailed than this, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Plus, it’s just my own fantasy after all, since I’m not in charge of a mosque (nor am I near one), I don’t have a large amount of money to donate to such a cause, and it may be too big a task for many of the ethnic Muslims to leave their sadly un-Islamic cultural practices at the door and come together to start to effect true change by first serving the local ummah, which will secondly have inevitable positive effects on the community at large.  People will see the Muslims being more active, more visible, a positive force, and people may be curious and come participate in some of the activities offered, just as many people do with church activities.

Well hey, here’s an idea: perhaps all of us reverts should get together and make our own mosque!  Unfortunately, many of us are so spread out that it would be hard… but not impossible.  InshAllah such a dream could be realized someday, and Allahu alim – God knows best.

Abortion: The Islamic View

Growing up as an Evangelical Christian, abortion was always something denigrated and preached heavily against as it constitutes the murdering of innocent children.  I have participated in Pro-Life rallies and protests, holding signs and shouting with everyone else.  I believed very earnestly that the mother made the choice to have sex – it was not the choice or the fault of the unborn child, who does have a soul (as David (as) says in Psalms that God knew us while we were still in the womb, and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”).

Yet this narrow view of abortion only accounts for some of the reasons why women choose to have abortions: some have abortions to save the mother’s life, or because the mother was raped (which was certainly not a choice on the mother’s part!), and so on.  Some of these women are in fact married and are not engaging in pre- or extra-marital sex, which may be shocking for some to realize (something never ever talked about at any of the churches and protests I went to!).

Upon converting to Islam, I automatically assumed these same beliefs held true for Muslims as well: no abortion whatsoever.  Yet, I was very surprised to learn that actually, Islam takes a contextual, realistic view of abortion, unlike the black and white stance of Christians.

In fact, the Quran even weighs in on the ever-contested debate of when (or if) a human fetus has a soul: derived from Surah Mo’mineen, Islamic jurists have ruled that abortion before the 4th month is permissible IF the mother’s life is in danger.

Why favor the mother’s life  over the baby’s life?  Well, Islam follows the principle of choosing “the lesser of two evils.”  When you’re faced with only two choices, both of which are bad, you have to go with the ‘least’ bad.  In the case of a pregnant woman whose life is in danger, saving her life is better because she may have other children dependent on her, a family, a spouse, relatives, loved ones.  She is already well-established and known in this world, so to lose her would cause a great deal more heartache and trauma than that of the unborn, still unknown baby.  Plus, if we favor the baby’s life over the mother’s, then who will care for the baby?  The baby will be an orphan, and runs a very high risk of having a difficult life.

Some Islamic jurists have even ruled that abortion to save the mother’s life can take place at any time during the pregnancy, even after the 4 month time frame.  In fact, I’ve been told that this is the case in Saudi Arabia: a pregnant woman can go to a hospital and have an abortion upon discovering that her life is in danger, at any time during the pregnancy.

I’ve also read that some jurists have stated that a woman who has been raped may also abort the baby, although not everyone agrees, as opponents believe that baby falls into the same category as a baby with defects or handicaps (for which abortion is not allowed).

The issue of abortion is yet another clear example of the Islamic emphasis on logic and reason working in harmony with faith.  It is not a stark black and white issue; rather, just like all else in life, it is an issue that requires context and logic.  Religion should not stand in opposition to logic and intellect – God is the Creator of reason, so most certainly, His religion would not oppose His natural system.  SubhanAllah (glory to God).

American Domestic Terrorism

Although Western media has programmed us all to automatically associate terrorism with Islam, terrorism is certainly not under sole proprietorship of extremist so-called ‘Muslims’.  In fact, Christian terrorism is alive and well in the US to this day, in the form of several different organizations.  The abortion clinic bombings and murders of doctors and staff (one such murder occurred just last year: Dr. Tiller was gunned down while he was in church, of all places) are good examples of present-day Christian extremism.

I recently watched a documentary chronicling one Christian extremist group closely involved with many of the bombings and murders that took place in the 1990s.  It’s very interesting to see how they justify killing others for the sake of God, and even how they apply a great deal of psychological pressure one young member in particular to engage in violence.

I’ll post it here so you can watch it for yourselves: