Since leaving Islam I’ve been troubled by a kind of mental dyspepsia. An occasional discomfiting bubble bursts through the weightlessness that supplanted those discarded unattainable standards I measured myself by for so long. The bubbles are memories that, to me at least, are as toe-curlingly excruciating as re-reading your teenage diary in your thirties.
If I were a celebrity this would be the moment to take out a full page ad in the New York Times outlining how life is a continuous unfolding and you really shouldn’t hold someone responsible for the illusions they once defended vociferously as ‘the truth’.
There but for the grace of obscurity go I…
Still, looking back I was a fully paid up, card-carrying member of the muslim apologentsia, and whenever I remember beliefs the Old Me held, explanations the Old Me gave, the shame is no less searing than if my life had played out in the media spotlight. So, if I were to write my own public apology it would go something like this:
I, the undersigned, do hereby apologise for overruling my better judgment and secret suspicions in favor of being a naive apologist about religious and cultural practices that limit people’s rights and freedoms…
To the imam I approached about converting: you gave me a little book and advised me to come back when I’d read it. In the dark ages of ‘Life Before Google’ I hadn’t come across the author, Sayyid Abdul A’la Mawdudi, in my reading.
I didn’t know he was the godfather of what we now call Islamism.
The book made no mention of his stance on women (it didn’t mention women at all – an example of the gravity of what’s left unsaid if ever I saw one), so I was unaware he protested women’s rights in his native Pakistan and supported the Hudood bill of 1979, requiring that a woman produce four male witnesses to support a charge of rape, lest her accusation become an admission of guilt to fornication for which she is flogged and the rapist walks free.
Amongst the blandishments and hyperbole it was, however, adamant about belief in prophets, books and angels (which, I confess, I lied about – I liked the angel idea, but in a fairytale kind of way).
How different things would have been if you and I had been straight with one another from the start, though I have to say, your refusal to meet my eyes made that difficult. I knew the ‘respecting my modesty’ reason, but it still made me feel dirty somehow, and inferior. Why did I get the feeling if I‘d given you permission to look at me you’d still have refused?
To my friends and work colleagues with whom I shared my discoveries and descriptions of south Asian culture, I wince when I recall ‘explaining’ everything, from arranged marriage to the position of women, with the enthusiasm of a mechanic taking apart a vintage engine – not necessarily because I shared the sentiments but because, from my position of privilege, I could savour these ideas without being imprisoned by them.
Instead of building intercultural bridges as I imagined, I was adding my bricks to the prisons so many are walled up in by their own communities. Somewhere along the way, in my desire to lessen ignorance of different customs, dress, and beliefs, I became one of those erecting barriers to fair critique.
I’m talking about my ‘understanding’ of the prohibition on women praying while menstruating, and my too-swift ability to find the good in being forced to sit at the back of the room even when ‘clean’. Although I was vocal in my protest of veiling and gender segregation I should have seen the whole lot for what it was – misogyny sanctified by religion – and run a mile, but I succumbed to cultural relativism before I even knew there was such a term. I was too busy learning the ‘rules’ of a new culture to realise I’d leapt from one patriarchal prison to another. Freedom of choice doesn’t guarantee of freedom of thought, something I’m sure some of the runaways to Syria are getting a practical lesson in right now.
To my readers, I think back to the explanations I gave in the pompous belief I was educating and informing, when by dismissing things as ‘not real Islam’ I trivialised and vetoed issues that are a reality for many. I flush with embarrassment remembering my Ben Affleck period. If only someone had written me a letter like this back then.
Irksome though they are, I’ve kept the posts I published as a muslim on my blog. I always wrote guilelessly, from the heart, and while my perceptions have changed the sentiments in those words reflect how I felt at the time. Perhaps the route by which I arrived at my current position will resonate with others out there. At the very least they’re a reminder to me of the dangers of allowing your mind to be closed off and the importance of questioning everything.
To my son, this is the hardest paragraph to write. Those who view circumcision as innocuous will be perplexed by the source of my deepest shame, but for me it’s my most visceral betrayal. I apologise to you for my complicity in the decision to inflict unnecessary surgery on a helpless infant, despite my qualms about its justification, and for my self-absorbed prayers during the period you were unconscious. My irresponsibility in believing any single outside influence had complete reign of events shames me beyond words. As a mother I fell far short that day. That I allowed something to be done to you against my instinct and better judgment with such ready submission will be a stain that never leaves my conscience – a guilt far greater than any other.
These things occurred because I allowed them to. When I think of the cumulative hours I spent listening to racist, prejudiced views about westerners, ghoris (derogatory: white girls), and unbelievers and never once challenged them because I’d convinced myself my role was merely observer in a cultural field study, I burn with humiliation. In my drive to support the underdog, the displaced, the different, I fell completely for the poisonous narrative of victimhood – the plight of the misunderstood parlayed by one face, while the other darkly delighted in the deceit.
This continues, in part, because of the actions of people like me, sympathetic apologists and muslims in denial of the content of their instruction book. I helped make it harder for the voiceless to be heard by dismissing the dangers they faced, repudiating their claims as ‘not real Islam’. By its very existence honor killing, FGM, and forced marriage is no less real than the muslim who prays and fasts and gives of his earnings in the certainty of his goodness. The fact that I could rationalise all the questionable elements of my faith and the culture I married into speaks of a depth of need within me I was unaware of on a conscious level. To be muslim requires a split personality.
I started this post believing I owed myself an apology for betraying my moral standards so easily but I realise that’s not necessary. There is grace and peace in owning up to and admitting your mistakes. My ability to love my wild and precious life is hard won – I can’t allow natural imperfection to rob me of it. Instead of growing cynical and distrusting I try to draw from all that’s human in me – thoughts, disappointments, and triumphs – enough to triumph myself. Who is it who said ‘human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished’? I’m an experiment, each trial is a test, I learn to like myself more with each iteration. The lessons I’m learning from this, though painful, are rich in wisdom and self-knowledge – gifts far greater than the earache I’ve given everyone else.