|Woman in red by Zombiey|
Scholarship demonstrates that identity is fluid. Identity as a Muslim, even as a jihadi, is no less fluid than any other. Anjem Choudary is currently the poster boy for Muslim extremism in England. Earlier in his life, he was "Andy," and he liked to drink beer and chase girls. Mosab Hassan Yousef is the son of a founder of Hamas. Missionaries converted Yousef to Christianity, and Shin Bet recruited him to spy for Israel. Hamza Yusuf, called "the West's most influential Islamic scholar," grew up as Mark Hanson, an American Christian. Nabeel Qureshi, a Christian minister and author, was raised as a devout Muslim, son of Pakistani immigrants. Evangelist David Wood, Qureshi's school friend, played a key role in his conversion.
In New Jersey, I recently saw a girl wearing a long black jilbab, that is, an ankle-length coat, and hijab, or head covering. At the same time, she was carrying a handbag emblazoned with an image of Betty Boop, the cleavage-baring, miniskirt-wearing cartoon apotheosis of flirty femininity.
I am Catholic and I a fan of Western Civilization. I believe in free speech, free inquiry, and freedom of conscience. I want these values to triumph primarily through dialogue, not violence. Living in Passaic County, home of America's second largest Muslim population, I understand the border Muslims straddle between warring worlds.
In this interview, readers will encounter Emmie, a young lady who in many respects is very much like many American Muslims I know. Emmie is a twenty-something writer. Her immigrant parents are Sunni Muslim. They are devout, pray five times daily, and performed a pilgrimage to Mecca. Emmie is currently dating Rob, a non-Muslim, American man.
Before our interview, I meticulously planned questions on Islamic doctrine. Emmie showed little interest in doctrinal questions. Emmie wanted to talk about food, love, family, fashion, and sex. During the course of our interview, Emmie sometimes identified as a Muslim, and sometimes not.
"When I say 'I'm Muslim,'" Emmie said. "I'm not the same Muslim as the hijabi walking down Main Street in Paterson. I'm not the villains that terrorize nations. I'm not the Muslim that I used to be. I'm Muslim because I come from the culture, but I'm not Muslim because I no longer believe in the ideology. Maybe I'm my own kind of Muslim. Maybe I'm not. I like to think of myself as just Emmie."
Emmie described her religious upbringing. "When I was a child, I asked my mom, 'What's sin? How do you define haram? Like, if I pick my nose, or not listen to tete (grandmother), is that haram? Haram and sin mean the same thing. Then there's halal." Mention of halal, the Arabic word for "permissible," took Emmie to her favorite subject, food. "We also use halal to talk about food. We will say, 'Can we go get some halal tonight in New York City? I'm really in the mood for halal.'"
I asked, "What did your mom tell you about sin?"
"'Number one, you know in your gut when something is bad. You know you feel good when you do something good. You feel good after you pick your nose, but you should use a tissue.'"
I asked Emmie if her mother's words struck her as true.
"No," Emmie said. "I know now it's complete bullshit. We are socialized. People accept religion unquestioningly. Because God says it is. We are taught religion just like we are taught racism, 'Oh, those people look a certain way.' I just don't want to be fed information any more. I'm done with learning by listening and by taking notes. I want to learn by doing. I'm ready to make my own mistakes."
"Religion is a double-edged sword," Emmie said. "It makes sense of what doesn't make sense. It answers big questions. Yes, we have science, but is it possible that a higher being made everything? Religion gives us hope, safety, security, and warmth. Religion assures us that there is life after death. Religion lets us look forward to heaven, or 'Jannah' – paradise in Arabic. It makes us not afraid. But that's what makes religion a weapon.
"Most Muslims, even those who claim to be religious, have not studied the Koran. I've looked at the Koran in English. I can't read Arabic too well. There are three types of Arabic, colloquial, which is what I speak, what most Arabic speakers speak, formal Arabic, which is spoken by news anchors, and Koran Arabic. They are so different. The Koran is so complex. There are people who have been studying it for years."
Emmie insists that Muslims should take a more text-critical view of the Koran. "When educated people read literature, we analyze it. I would like to ask Muslims, 'Do you really think there is a God and do you really think he would not want us to take his book with a grain of salt? Do you really think that when you read 'Let's make war blah blah blah and wreak havoc,' do you think that is acceptable?"
I asked Emmie why she is no longer sure she is a Muslim. She immediately began to talk, with great passion, about food.
"My aunt was making a common dish from the Middle East. It's made with lentils, red onions, tiny bowtie pasta, and tons of cilantro. There's never enough garlic. The lentils soak everything up. You sautée it in a frying pan, then you cook it in a regular casserole dish. Then you garnish it with a nice design. The fresh pomegranate seeds are not exactly citrusy, not exactly sweet. They're a little tart. They add a light component. They bring out the hidden brightness to all the depth. You can't stop eating. You are really gassy afterwards. All the cramps! It's lentils. Protein. Good for you!"
Emmie exhibited enthusiastic body language while describing the preparation of this dish. I nudged her back to the question at hand. Emmie said that her uncle tried to tell her that Islam is good for women, and she, without speaking to him in a disrespectful manner, quietly concluded otherwise. "The reaction in my head was 'Pffft,' but out loud I said, 'In college, I did not study feminism in a religious context.'
"I know too much and too little about Islam," she said. She explained that she has extensive real life experience in how Islam works to suppress women, but she does not know the Koran well enough to mount a serious debate with her uncle.
"I knew Islam was not equal. I knew for a long time. I was afraid to look into those thoughts. I just shoved them to the back of my mind.
"I remember it was the second class in women's studies that I had with Prof. Smith. I went up to her and I asked her at the end of class. 'Can I ask you a personal question? Do you believe in any religion?'
'No. I don't,' she said. 'There's a lot of religious feminists out there but I'm not one of them. I can't compartmentalize right and wrong into boxes.'
"Prof. Smith said what I was feeling," Emmie said. "I want to believe in Islam because I'm scared not to believe in Islam. I felt afraid for a long time. I was told, especially by my grandmother, 'You cannot not be Muslim.' But at the same time I can't believe in so much of it. So much of it is gender apartheid. I'm compartmentalizing: 'This is what I like about Islam and this is what I don't like about Islam.' I was so tired of doing that. So, so, so tired. When Prof. Smith told me that she has no religion, I felt relieved. I didn't know how to articulate that concept of compartmentalizing. I still haven't said publicly that I'm not Muslim. But that is the moment when I knew. That moment was when I started to think critically."
"I started learning too much. I learned about sexuality. I learned about the female and male anatomy and hormones and that was so beautiful to me. The sperm just swivels into the egg and – boom! – it's a zygote. It's science. It's so beautiful. This is what makes me believe in a higher power. The cervix, from the dawn of time, when childbirth is about to happen, it dilates by itself. It's the circumference of a needle and the body just knows, 'I'm having a baby; it's time for me to expand.' Our bodies do amazing things. Every single day. We don't die when we sleep because our body is breathing. That is a miracle to me. I look at you and I look at me. You and I are in this room. We are having this conversation. It's destiny. How did it happen? These are miracles to me. That's what keeps me believing.
"Love is the stupidest thing that was ever invented. The human mind says, 'I've been hurt a million times, but I'm still looking for love.' Love exists and you can't measure it. It's like that rare painting. You know, when people go to auctions and say, 'Oh, it's priceless.' That's what I believe about humanity. That's why I believe in a higher power."
Emmie hopes God can forgive her for doubting Islam. "If there is a God, if he has pre-determined everything that's going to happen, then he wants me to create peace on earth. And he wants me to eradicate sexism. He probably is upset with the people committing jihad because they are not being good Muslims."
Emmie has told one relative that she questions Islam, and that relative, who violates Islamic teachings by drinking alcohol, has not been judgmental. Emmie says her mother is loving and supportive, but would have trouble with her leaving Islam. "If I told my mom that I'm doing a fundraiser against female genital mutilation, she'd help me with the crafts and DYI stuff and burn her fingers with the hot glue gun." If other relatives knew that Emmie is questioning her faith, they would disown her, and so Emmie simply has not made any public announcement.
I asked Emmie what she likes about Islam. "The prenup," she said, referring to Muslim marriage contracts. "The Katb el-Kitab. It documents everything legally. Of course you love the crap out of each other right now but people change."
Emmie estimates highly the value Muslims places on family. "We have a higher regard for the family unit. Mohammed asked, 'Who should I love the most? Allah. After Allah, who should I love the most? Your mother. Okay, after her who should I love the most? Your mother. Who then? Your mother. Only after that, your father.'
"I'm here today because of the support and love I have from my family. Getting an education was expected of me because I am loved and my family wants the best for me. I know plenty of non-Muslims who have support and love from their families, too. But, I love my family. I love them so much."
Emmie would also keep zakat, the giving of alms.
Emmie's mother is devout. "She loves Islam." But she keeps her faith hidden. "The other day someone said something about whether or not you speak another language, and my mother said nothing. She doesn't tell her coworkers or her American friends that she prays or that she has any religious ties. I asked my mother why she does not wear hijab. 'Because I have bills to pay,' she said. That made me so sad. I realized at that moment that I felt so free to be outspoken with my feminist beliefs, but I knew that there was some type of discrimination happening against my mother because she is a devout Muslim. For her not to be able to do this one thing – wear hijab – was heartbreaking for me to hear."
I asked Emmie about women who wear hijab along with heavy makeup. I told her that it strikes me as hypocritical. Hijab represents modesty, and heavy makeup is not modest.
Emmie concurred. "Not only do women who wear hijab also often wear eye makeup, they also often wear really tight clothing. A lot of people have pointed this out to me."
Emmie explained it this way. "A lot of women who wear hijab are literally forced to do so, through verbal and physical abuse, by their families. People think hijab is a choice. No, it's not a choice. Even if parents don't actually tell their daughters 'I hope you wear hijab,' there is always the pressure of the hijabi-complex. It's depressing. They're doomed. Their parents never have to say a word about hijab. This silent battle is the worst form of oppression.
"Because they are being forced, they need to claim their identity. Some women wear name brands with their hijab. You wear a Michael Kors dress with MK, MK, MK all over it. That's not modest; it's flashy. It says you have money. If you are not allowed to wear tight clothing, if you can't afford designer outfits, you can put makeup on. This is how women find a way around hijab. People love loopholes and life hacks. That's why fire and the wheel were invented. Limitations will always be conquered by human creativity. You can be modest without wearing a hijab. If anything, by wearing hijab, American Muslims are drawing attention to themselves because they are living in a non-Muslim country."
Like the hijabi who wears Michael Kors, Emmie accepts, in an uncomplicated manner, various aspects of non-Muslim society. An example is her affection for Christmas carols. "I love Christmas songs. I love Christmas time. It's that special time of year when I can sing Christmas songs. They have extra oomph. For me it has nothing to do with religion. I know they are religious songs. I just don't interpret them that way." Emmie described Christmas with her non-Muslim boyfriend's family. She was deeply moved at how his family accepted her into their traditional celebrations and showered her with presents.
Emmie vows she will not convert to Christianity. She says her religion is now feminism. "I started seeing a new doctor and on the form where you have to name your religion, I put 'Feminist.' They didn't have 'sex' in the box, they had 'gender,' so I wrote 'Gender is a societal construct.' But, the doctor examined me, so she knows I am a female." Emmie is not rigid in her feminism. "I like to make dinner for my boyfriend because he can't cook and I don't want salmonella." Emmie also dresses attractively. "My femininity doesn't make me less of a feminist."
Though she was obviously affected by a required university class in feminism, Emmie is not a doctrinaire liberal. She investigated recent killings of black men by white police officers and she reached conclusions that are not the same as her peers.
"When we look at the cases where the cops shot black men, people jump to liberal fever. People make shit up. All of a sudden it's fact. I opened up the ruling. Because it has evidence in it. It's time-stamped. It's documented. The person who we have been told was being chased by the police was actually running toward the police. The media wants to cause a frenzy."
Emmie has cautiously revealed, to selected relatives, that she is in a serious relationship with Rob, a non-Muslim man. She knows that if she marries Rob, some of her relatives, including her father, will disown her. A relative married a non-Muslim, and several family members never spoke to that person again. One of the Muslim relatives she knows would disown her is openly friendly with his Christian, American neighbors and coworkers. He is enthusiastically appreciative of multiculturalism. This relative "would not care if I married a black or an Asian, as long as he was Muslim. He loves learning about cultures. But, when it comes to marriage, it's Islam or nothing. Muslims get angry when someone converts. You are betraying all the beliefs. But here's another unequal thing," Emmie said. "A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman. It's a patriarchal religion and everyone assumes that the children will be Muslim. They don't understand how biased they are."
I asked Emmie what she would say if she could speak face-to-face with the loved ones of the victims of the January 7, 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Emmie began to cry and did not stop the entire time she addressed this question.
"I remember I was having breakfast," she began. "I decided I needed a fancy breakfast. And my grandma was watching TV and the story broke and she became so upset. She didn't even really understand what was going on. I had to leave the room. I didn't want her to see me cry. I'm so, so, so, so, so furious that these crazy people –"
Emmie broke off and began to speak about how acts like this threaten her, since she is a Muslim.
"Normal Muslims are normal people who don't go out and blow up shit. That's what a normal Muslim is. Me, sitting on your couch.
"When 9-11 happened, there were so many threats, the police were at our community center all the time. The extremists believe that it is up to them to purify the world with Islam. Someone could just as easily decide to cleanse the US of Muslims." Emmie commented that her family members' physical appearance, which is more European than Semitic, is to their benefit. "Thank God we don't look like Arabs, because it would be a lot worse. Sikhs get crap all the time. If we look at the portion of Muslims who are terrorists, in relation to the number of Muslims in the world, it's a fraction. When something bad happens, the first thing they say on TV is, 'Well, we haven't confirmed that it was Muslim terrorists yet.' And it's some white guy. There is some type of political agenda out there."
I asked Emmie when she had heard this. She said she heard it during the Sandy Hook shooting. She said people first suspected Muslims, and the shooter turned out to be a non-Muslim American.
Emmie acknowledged that some of her family members think that attention-getting crimes committed by Muslims were actually committed by someone else, with an agenda of defaming Islam. She mentioned a relative who "is a huge conspiracy theorist. He thinks 9-11 is an American conspiracy."
Emmie returned to the question of what she would say were she to meet someone victimized by the Charlie Hebdo shooting. "I'm Muslim and I feel obligated to say something. Maybe I'm not so Muslim right now. But I come from these beliefs. I would probably" – she began crying more intensely – "Say, 'I'm so sorry that this happened. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.' I want to say to France, 'Hi, my name is Emmie, and I'm a writer. And I love writing about inequality and injustice and things like what you just experienced. And…'" she paused "'Je suis Charlie. I'm more Charlie than I am those monsters. I'm more Charlie than I am those terrorists. You have more than my condolences. You have my heart. You have my soul. Not as a Muslim. Not as a woman. Not as a writer. Not as an American. From one person. I want to be a person with you. I want to be a vulnerable person with you if you will allow me to say I am sorry. And allow me to take some of your fear and your heartache. If I can make it up to you, just as one person, I'm so sorry. That's what I will do for you, if you will let me. And maybe you are really mad at me for saying that. Maybe you don't think I have the right to say that.'"
Emmie mentioned Jeannette Bougrab, who represented herself as the partner of Charb, one of the Charlie Hebdo shooting victims. Emmie said she wishes she could convey condolences to Bougrab, whom she understood to be Charb's wife.
"Especially Charlie's wife. The second day she was on the news and I couldn't look at her and I could only imagine what if something like that happened to Rob. I would be searching for the person that did it to him."
Emmie continued to address a message to all of France. "'I know that 'sorry' is not enough. And if you want anything else, just know that I'm Charlie and the things that I do are to stop this from happening. The things that I want to do, by writing, through this interview, or the people who think I'm a hairy-legged feminazi. I want to end hatred.'
"If somebody hurt someone that I love, as much as I would want to kill them or punch them in the face, I would rather that they rot in jail. In jail, they would turn into nothing, and that is what I want for them. Maybe the terrorists should be dealt with by Muslims. My uncle gets so angry. He says things like, 'These animals, if you just put me in a room with them, they will never think about doing anything like this again. I will teach him what Islam is.'"
"What is Islam?" I asked.
"Islam is peace," Emmie responded.
Emmie sees terrorists as misguided losers.
"I know people who are lost in life. They don't have anything to identify with. They are losers. They didn't know what they wanted from themselves or others. They have some form of guilt. And the reason they do these things, they feel like they need to atone for the bad things that they've done. Or they are drug addicts. I know a heroin addict. He wasn't going anywhere in life. He and another guy I know ended up following a sheikh who was exiled from the Middle East and ended up in the United States. They would stay with this sheikh and they would plow the land and shovel hay. Those are mechanical movements. Doing the same thing over and over and reciting the same Koranic passages. I think it was a brainwashing site. One guy left because he realized how crazy it was. He returned to heroin. The other guy is still really religious."
Emmie works for change in quiet ways. She is teaching her brother to be a feminist and is very proud of that. "He left milk on the table. He left a plate with crumbs. I told him, 'You clean up your mess. It's not your mom's job. Someday you will be married. You should always help your wife. You should never expect her to do those things.' Normally I would say 'your partner' rather than 'your wife,' but he's so heterosexual."
"Those are things that I stand up for. With the older generation, with my aunts and uncles, it's a lost cause. They are too old to change. My mom's generation, you win some you lose some. My generation, I kick the intellectual shit out of them.
"My brother was telling me yesterday, 'I sit with girls at lunch and they were like "Oh my God we wish our boyfriends were like you."' He talks about it with his peers, girls or guys. He'll say, 'Why did you call her a slut? Why did you call her a bitch? Bitch means female dog.' I am so proud of him."
I told Emmie that my friend Anna said that people like Emmie are the problem. Anna is outraged by Islam's treatment of homosexuals. Anna despairs that "moderate" Muslims like Emmie will have any positive impact. I was surprised by Emmie's reply.
"Anna, I completely agree with you," Emmie said, immediately and unambiguously. "Nice Muslims should change Islam. I mean standing up against the crazy extremist people. Against the Saudi Arabians who are corrupt pieces of garbage. They are the worst example of what a Muslim should be. If I know anything about Islam I know it is not the hierarchy that exists there. Stand up against those people who claim to be so holy and so high and mighty when they don't let women drive." But, Emmie went on, "Anna, you know nothing about me but you have preconceived notions about who I am. You are a lesbian? I am fighting for you. Everything I do is for you. But you don't want me to be your champion, because I am a Muslim."
I asked Emmie if she had any closing words. "To the Muslims out there that feel the way I do, obviously you are not alone because you are reading this. Keep thinking critically. Read as much as you can. Even if you cannot stand the opinion of the person you are talking to. Even if they are just bashing you. You are thinking critically, you are asking hard questions. You are criticizing yourself and that is bravery. And nobody does that easily. And whether you decide to remain a Muslim or not, you can find happiness."
I asked Emmie if she had anything she wanted to say to non-Muslims.
Emmie began to answer, but then she stopped. "I don't even like saying 'non-Muslim," she said. "I don't want to define people that way."
"Aren't we all worshipping the same God in different ways? Don't we all want the same thing? Don't we all want to live a happy life? Get married, be happy, have kids, live in mansions, live in New York City, smoke pot, move to California, in the end, don't we just want to be happy, whatever life path we choose? That happiness we share doesn't come from harming other people."
"To people who aren't Muslims, I would say, 'What questions do you have for me? I want to talk about this. I like this conversation. If we are going to reform Islam, we need to keep talking about this and I need questions to answer. I'm also hungry for justice and I will seek justice no matter where it is. If people are using Islam to cause problems, you can count on my presence.'"
Readers will of course disagree with Emmie on many matters. But she is eager, as am I, to remind us all of our shared humanity.