A couple of questions to get you thinking and whet your appetite:
When did religion become so important? And more importantly, when did it become a labeling mechanism?
Doubtless some are already expecting the worst out of this piece. Others are probably preparing their retorts and retaliatory arguments. Perhaps there are those who are already drafting the comments in their head in reply to this post.
But first, let me explain what brought this up; I had a very interesting conversation this evening with one of my Christian friends. As it happens, it was one of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I’ve had in a long time. Needless to say, as with all typically thought-provoking conversations, one of the two most referred to topics was raised – religion (the other being politics of course).
During our exchange, we became aware of the fact that as little as 15 to 20 years ago, religion had no place in our community. When I say it had no place, I don’t mean it didn’t exist. I mean it existed mostly in the privacy of people’s homes, whereas in public people learned to coexist. Thinking back to my years at school, I realized that in some instances, I could actually know a person for a good while before I ever knew what religion he or she followed. It was never a priority for us to think to ask about a person’s religion, or nationality even. We just accepted everyone as is. One of the things I kept referring to when I left for the UK was my growing realization that we live in a bubble. We are all raised in this bubble where we are what we are because that is just who we are. We don’t question it. We don’t necessarily talk about it. We don’t bring it up. It is what it is.
Going to England changed my perception about many things. The minute I landed there I knew that I was first and foremost identified as a Muslim.
Once that judgment was out of the way, then came the “Where are you from?”
After that, I usually got the “But your accent is American. Where did you learn to speak English?”
Then came the series of whys, hows and what ifs. (i.e. Why do you cover your hair? Why can’t you drink alcohol? What if you only drank one glass? How does one glass make a difference? Why do you believe in God? etc.)
In a matter of mere minutes I had been weighed, measured, and found wanting.
It was a completely alien experience to me, one that I grew accustomed to in the next couple of years. One that, indeed, only made me stronger.
I abandoned my bubble soon after, and became more open to these questions, welcoming their curious inquisitions, and spending hour upon hour debating different topics of religion with them. Some were genuinely curious and were only looking for logical explanations to all these enigmatic beliefs. Others were more snide with their comments, perhaps even downright disrespectful. I strongly believe that tolerance and respect are key to any successful empire, and it amazed me how places that claim to be secular can be anything but neutral to other religions.
This incredibly refreshing experience made me criticize my people at length. I thought it was naïve of us to let our children grow in this bubble, when eventually they were going to go out to the world to have similar experiences. I thought it was naïve to raise them with the ideology of not questioning anything. To ram in their heads the acutely Arabic philosophy of “عيب” and “حرام” (translated into English respectively as wrong and forbidden).
I have not changed my mind. But I have had an epiphany of sorts:
Our bubble, as disadvantageous as it is, has at least made us more accepting.