As a young and inquisitive child, I always wanted to know about the wonders of the world and its people. The Atlas and Encyclopedia were my best friends as they were to me what Narnia was for the children from C.S Lewis’s novel.The DK’s Encyclopedia book cover gave me the impression of unity with differing people holding hands around a globe.
At an early age my parents made sure that my siblings and I understood the religion of Islam and practiced it. I remember getting excited when they first told me that Islam was a religion for all people, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, and location.The best part, however, was when they emphasized that a muslim, regardless of their country of origin, were my brother or sister. They then quoted the verse of a Quran that states:يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted”
After learning this I continually thought to myself that I was lucky to be a Muslim, to be a part of something great.
While my family and I accompanied my father around the world for his work related trips, I made friends from all over. I loved that whenever we saw a Muslim family, which was quickly indicated when one of the women wore the headscarf (hijab), they would smile and give a nod of welcome to us even if we didn’t know each other. After living in France for a while, my first close friends were from Kuwait, our families bonded quickly, mainly due to our religious similarity. The same was applicable with the Muslims in other places we visited.
To me, Islam was the perfect religion that encouraged love for one another and my ideals of unity were mostly based from my traveling experiences as a child.
Coming to America in my late teens, these ideals shattered, became skewed, and turned ugly.
Before coming to America, I was well aware of the diversity this wonderful country had to offer and also America’s ugly discrimination issue. However,I was prepared to stay strong, be polite, and aspire to be the best in whatever I did. The discriminatory blow from the Muslim community was what surprised me
The first time my family and I stepped into a Masjid (mosque) where we moved to, no one noticed our existence. It was like we had to make concerted effort to be acknowledged.
During our first move to the U.S., my parents wanted us to live close to the Masjid. We didn’t really know any Muslim family upon our arrival. We ended up living in a neighborhood that had a decent high school district. However, this did not deter my parents. We went through all the Masjids in the city we lived in to pick which one we liked. My siblings and I finally picked one that was about 30 minutes from where we lived. My mom registered us in the Islamic school there. Despite the fact what we learned from the school were things we already knew, my parents felt that being around the community was the number one priority.At the time we were in this community, my Dad had not yet found a job in the U.S. The first thing people asked when introduced was “what does your Dad do?” This question was very odd to me because I didn’t get the memo that my parent’s profession was the ticket to being accepted in the Masjid. My siblings and I would awkwardly respond that he didn’t have a job yet but would soon insha’Allah (God willing). Some of the Masjid attendees would reply insha’Allah back and some would just look at us oddly. However this all had a contributing factor to the treatment we would receive later on. One lady had the audacity to ask if we were refugees.
During celebratory events at the Masjid everyone would save long rows and chairs for their family members or friends who they had known for an eternity. Attending our first event as a family in the Masjid was a nightmare. “Can we please sit here” my sister asked. “No *emphatically* this is for my husband, children and cousins….etc” a lady said almost snarling. It was like survival of the fittest: if you don’t come early all the seats will be taken and no one would care to make accommodations even if you were new. When my family and I finally found a seat, I couldn’t help but notice an African American man who I believe was a convert sitting and eating by himself. No one bothered to talk to him. He just sat there alone.
These mini experiences I had at the Masjid made me resent Muslims. I found it weird that I enjoyed my high school more. Although my high school was very cliquey and 90% of the individuals were closed minded, there were clear rules to fitting in. Play sports or be a party goer, and don’t talk to certain people to reduce your status. Once you got that in place you should be fine. With the Muslim community, fitting in involved things that were beyond our control as humans. It was either you had to be wealthy, be of a certain ethnicity as the majority Masjid attendees, or be a Muslim at birth.
During my freshman year of college, I tried to avoid many of the Muslims on campus. I spent time with mostly non-Muslims that were diverse and easy going. At that time my mom also took classes at the University I attended. She attended the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and kept urging me to go. I vented out my frustration to her about the Muslim community but she wouldn’t hear it. “You need to surround yourselves around them to remember your values” she would often say.
Lack of Diversity/Ignorance
The very few times I attended MSA, it was like a cultural clique similar to the Masjid. Most of the e-board members were Arabs and they would all talk to themselves although they’d known each other since birth. The new members would just stare awkwardly at everyone and after the end of the event never show up again…
After my horrible encounter at the MSA, I would go to the International Student Association (ISA) to relieve myself from that moment. ISA was my safe haven as it was refreshing to see students welcome new people with open arms and diverse individuals interacting freely with one another.
During the last semester of my freshman year, my Mom registered me for the MSA elections. I was upset at first but she urged me to try at least once and see how I felt. So I ran for treasurer, I believe I won mainly due the fact that my Mum was a familiar face to the former e-board members.
As the treasurer of MSA during my sophomore year of college, I was the only non-Arab present. This of course didn’t bother me but what did was the attitude by some of the members. Due to the lack of diversity, all the events were Arabic centered, which meant Arab food for events, attendees mostly Arabs. Many other Muslims did not feel welcomed at all in MSA.
I decided that as a member of the e-board, an immediate change had to be made. I stated my observation and the issue to e-board members. This was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. It was like telling people who had done something a certain way for decades that they had been doing it all wrong. Naturally, I got resistance and even rude comments as a response. For example one of the e-board members stated, “Most of the Muslims on campus are Arabs. I don’t see what the big deal is.” We finally agreed to create an event called “Islam around the world” with me being the host. In this event Muslims would bring food from their home countries and do presentations about their country of origin. Islamic music from different parts of the globe would be played during the event.
Alhamdulillah (Thank God), when this event did occur, it became one of the most successful for the MSA school year. I was apprehensive at first because the event meant so much to me and it was like proving myself to the e-board that there was a problem. The room where the event took place was packed with so many people. People I had never seen attend any MSA meetings before, were there. The wide grin on the MSA president’s face as she held my hand tightly and said, “You did it!” was priceless. This was a break-through.
Cultural Masjids, Social injustices, speaking the language of majority
I remember sitting in class at the madrasah, behind the door read “No racism will be tolerated in this school”. I chuckled to myself and thought, “ Why do Muslims need to be reminded this. It should be a no brainer”. Today when I think of that notice, I can see why they constantly need a reminder: Of all the Masjid’s I have attended, those in the U.S. are the most segregated. Members of the Muslim ummah (community) who don’t agree on an issue usually on the basis of culture or Islamic interpretation would branch out and form their own mosques, thereby creating self-segregation among the ummah. I get really sad when I see mosques for only/mainly Arabs, Desis, African Americans, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Afghans and more. So many times, I sit in a Masjid and the ladies will say their salams, chat for a brief minute and then carry on their conversations in their own language . . . laughing out loud. There is an Islamic saying that states, “If you were three, two of you should not whisper to each other till you join other people, lest the third feel offended”. Abdullah Ibn Umar (رضى الله عنه) was asked; “What if they are four?” “Then this doesn’t matter”, he answered; meaning it is not then offensive” This definitely applies to language. Speak the language that everyone can understand If not, you are directly or indirectly excluding the third person.
While I understand that sometimes people want to feel comfortable by being around others that speak the same language and share the same ethnic culture, it is somewhat unrealistic. At the end of the day we all live in a country whereby there is one official language. Our struggles as immigrants, Americans, or Muslims are the all the same. During the time of the Prophet (pbuh), Muslims from different backgrounds prayed in the same mosque and communicated freely with one another, I don’t see why that should be so hard for us here in the U.S.
Another form of disparity that is seen in the Muslim ummah is the way social injustices are advocated. Many Muslims would indicate their utmost disgust to atrocities being committed on people with the same ethnic background as them, and these same Muslims would be silent when similar atrocities are inflicted on individuals with different backgrounds. So many fundraisers, awareness programs, donations are made for Muslims from the same country but nothing done for other people (Muslims or non-Muslim). This is very disheartening to see.
When I was younger and in my country of birth, I used to have friendly debates between my Muslim and Christians friends. My Muslim friends and I would always win the battle whenever we discussed how united we were as Muslims. My christian friends would agree and even state their disappointment as to how there were so many church sects. Today, it is sad to say that Muslims are going through the same problem.
When it comes to marriage, you would be surprised how ugly the attitudes of some Muslims could turn. The most “pious” Muslim/Muslimah would fight tooth and nail in order to ensure that their family member doesn’t marry someone from either a different tribe, religious sect, or nationality.
Sitting in a Muslim friend’s house during Eid, the ladies and I chatted about various movies. There was a movie that a particular lady and I liked that year and we started talking specifically about the actors and actresses. One of the actors happened to be in an interracial relationship. We gushed about how cute their children would be. I then stated casually that I wouldn’t mind marrying someone from a different racial background. To my shock the lady said “Then you should marry a convert”. I didn’t know if I was to be offended by that comment or not. Was there something wrong with converts that I didn’t know about, and why were the non-convert Muslims too good to marry out of their nationality? At that moment I realized that many Muslim families try to sometimes show how tolerant they are to other ethnicities but when the situation of marrying into their family arises, they act like something priceless is permanently being taken from them.
Yet every year young Muslim men and women complain about how there are no good potential partners available and then once a candidate meets almost all their specification; either they or their parents turn down this candidate based solely on how God created him/her. Some of the excuses they make are as follows: “My community would look down on me,” “He/She would not understand our culture,” “Our culture would be lost,” “My community would think we met through haram (unlawful) means,” “Our children would be confused,” and “The marriage would not last”. The list goes on.
All these excuses have no standing in Islam, the religion that they follow.They forget that the Quran states,“if someone comes to you who is pleasing to you in terms of religion and character, you better marry them unless there will be much corruption and trial for mankind”.
In the few years I have lived on earth, I have realized that relationships work based on personality, similarity, fear of God, and respect. Culture is the least important, as it could easily be learned. It’s not something you are born with. What annoys me the most is how maybe a guy who is interested in a girl in the Muslim community first asks “where is she from?” as if that is the first step to a successful relationship.
Still, in this 21st century where many civilized societies are looking beyond superficial characteristics, Muslim matrimonial sites have sections for skin tone and eye color preferences.
Too many times I have heard Muslims propagate racial stereotypes on their other fellow Muslims using it as a form of justification for their discriminatory actions. Although it seems harmless and is usually in the form of jest, these words are very harmful as they perpetrate hate.
The individuals I feel much hurt for are converts. They read about Islam, become excited and convinced that this is the right path. For them Islam is a ray of hope from their previous lifestyle. Islam answers all their doubts.It brings peace of mind to them. They then take the brave move of converting, being aware that not everyone (even their family members) would support them. “This will all be worth it”, they say to themselves. After repeating the Shahadah, every Muslim present applauds them for their action. For some, this is the most support they will get. Ostracized from their family and sometimes friends, the need to be surrounded by a Muslim community is even more imperative.
So many times, I have seen new Muslims walk in the Masjid and no one even sits by them to get to know who this unfamiliar face is. So many times when a convert would practice Islam in a way that might be unintentionally wrong, I’ll hear a non-convert Muslim say, “They’ve got Islam all twisted” or when a convert corrects a non-convert Muslim, the non-convert Muslim would say, “Who do they think they are? My family has been Muslim before their great grandfather was born, How dare they tell me about my religion?” Many times converts have gone back to their old ways or begin to detest Islam because of the actions of the Muslim ummah.
Many Masjids these days are better off being named ethnic centers rather than just being holy location for all. Converts attempt to fit in by showing exuberant interest in, say, Arabic or Desi culture etc in order to connect with the Muslim community they are in.Some converts even pick the ugly disease of prejudice in these ethnic centers (Masjids) and discriminate on other Muslims in order to feel better about themselves.
Converts who try get to know their new religion better get so confused when they have to now pick which Masjid to attend because there is so much segregation going on.
All these barriers contradict what Islam is truly about, and as a Muslim I am ashamed that we can’t be role models for converts.
Today, I can say that I am truly thankful to my Mum for making me be a part of MSA because from there, I could discuss a problem and try in my little way to show others an alternative. Through MSA, I have become very close friends with almost every single one of the executive members. My tenure at MSA helped me see the good in the Muslim community. After my time in MSA, I decided to make more effort to get to know a Muslim from a different ethnic background. During our times together we share foods from the country of our ancestors and discuss about the beauty of our culture and religion. I will be lying to you if I said interacting with people from diverse backgrounds is easy, but when one picks what’s similar amongst ourselves you’ll find out that we are not so different after all. The key to any successful relationship is communication.
My story might not be the same for every Muslim out there. They might not be lucky enough to have the support of a family or good friends to guide them. This is the main reason why I am writing this lengthy journal as a beginning of discussing of our problem and hopefully tackling it.
Culture is beautiful, as it gives a sense of belonging and uniqueness to people in this world. At the same time culture taken to the level of ethnocentrism and extreme nationalism is dangerous. Dangerous culture causes physical and emotional harm to different groups of people.
I don’t believe that Muslims have the right to complain or state how the U.S. society is discriminatory towards us when we don’t even truly love ourselves. I believe that it’s never too late for us to change. Get to truly know your neighbor/someone regardless of their religion, nationality or orientation. Help someone the same way you would help a family member. Don’t let ethnocentrism cloud your judgement. Speak and take action against injustice whether it’s a popular opinion or not.
My question for Muslims around the world is: What are you doing to encourage unity among yourselves? Would you be asked on the day of judgement whether you pleased your ancestors/cultural community or pleased your creator? And lastly, is this a problem faced only in the U.S.?