On Religious Identity: A Modest Proposal (That Has Nothing to Do with Eating Babies)
by Sharif Musaji
“Of course there is no us and them
But them they do not think the same
It’s them who do not think!”
-Lyrics from Gogol Bordello’s “Illuminated”
By any traditional definition, I am not a good Muslim. This is perhaps surprising, considering my mother is the editor of The American Muslim (though I am aware there may be some people out there who don’t think she’s the best Muslim in the world either), but it’s the truth. And yet, no matter what I do, no matter how I live my life, I will always be a Muslim.
Being a Muslim is now, much like being Jewish, just as much a cultural identifier as it is a religious one. David Cross has a stand-up bit about a perplexing conversation he had with his rabbi where, even after explaining that he was an atheist, his rabbi still asserted that he was Jewish for life, simply because his mother was. Being a Muslim is kind of like that. There is no escaping it. There is no way around it. No matter how incorrect or inapplicable, “muslim” has become a vague, blanket term for pretty much anyone with a moderate tan and a fondness for samosas.*
For most of my life, this hasn’t really been a problem. But with every passing news day, it becomes more of a liability. It seems I increasingly find myself in the awkward position of fielding questions about why Islam is a religion of violence and hatred, even from people who are generally fairly sensible and level-headed. Not that this isn’t a fair question, in the sense that Islam is definitely a link in the causal chain of many recent events like the Fort Hood shooting, but to equate Islam directly with violence is, in my opinion, patently false. Such thinking represents the limited perspective that people so often view the world from. As a fairly visible voice in the American Muslim community, I see this same phenomenon happen to my mother on a much larger—and often much more confrontational—scale.
So even though I am not a scholar**, and have a limited knowledge of Abrahamic faiths, I have a proposal. It is an admittedly silly, naive, and idealistic proposal, but those are the best kind. If it helps, think of it as a thought experiment. Let’s stop using religious labels altogether. Labels like Christian or Muslim. Let’s just do away with them. Cold turkey. Done. Just like that. They are limiting terms that serve only to divide us.
Because really, in this day and age, what do these terms mean? There are dozens of Christian denominations in America alone, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the myriad ways that faith can manifest itself in this country and across the globe. One spiritual person might believe that believing in Jesus Christ as lord and savior is the only way to salvation, whereas another might simply believe that Jesus was a prophet, and that we should all attempt to live by his example and teachings. Both self-identify as Christians, yet both have vastly different theological worldviews. One Muslim might follow the teachings of the Sufi poet Rumi, and express his devotion to God through dance and music. Another might find dance and music distracting, or even the tools of the devil, and insist on performing her five daily prayers in a plain, empty room.
People will protest. “Our differences are what make us unique, and what brings us together. You can’t do away with thousands of years of religious tradition just like that.*** We must embrace and learn from our differences!” they’ll say, in their alarmingly whiny voices. And they have a point. But they’re still wrong. Very wrong. These complaints fail to realize that by getting rid of these inadequate terms, we will actually be honoring and enriching not only our various cultures and religious practices, but the unique beliefs of every individual. Because, as one of my favorite professors used to say, religion does not exist in a vacuum. It is an extension and product of societies and culture, politics and economics - really, of everything. So we can never speak of any religion or religious group as some monolithic entity. Religion is just one aspect of a much larger picture, not just in an individual’s life, but in a society’s. Sometimes it is a very influential aspect. Other times it is just a church or temple attached to a really nice gymnasium.
Try and imagine the change that would occur were we to stop using these labels. No longer would we be able to use them as shortcuts to reaching conclusions about people. The terms for the follower of any major religion have now become so loaded, heavy with baggage and all sorts of connotations that it’s almost silly that we do still use them. So let’s do away with them. Suddenly the discussion about Islam’s role in terrorism would instead become exactly what it should be: a discussion on the different ways people choose to interpret the Qu’ran and apply it to their lives, and what role that application plays in the larger context of their specific socio-political situation. Because that’s exactly what it is.
And we would get to that intelligent and nuanced discussion because no one would be able to take the intellectually lazy path of simply stating, “Some muslim blew himself up.” Muslims like my mother would not have to justify and defend the religion of Islam, because every individual’s religious choices, beliefs, and actions would be their own. Moreover, a troubled individual who came to the conclusion that “martyrdom” was a justifiable action would not even be related in any meaningful way to an individual like my mother, an individual with whom the teachings of the Qu’ran and Muhammad happen to have resonated deeply, but who also finds truth and meaning in the holy texts and practices of other faiths, whose worldview is still undeniably shaped by her Catholic upbringing, and who lists among her favorite books Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
People might take a step back, and look at the world from a new perspective. That guy read the Qu’ran and decided to hijack a plane, whereas this guy read the Qu’ran and became a conscientious objector, losing his world heavyweight boxing title and serving several years in prison instead of fighting in a war he believed was unjust. What was the difference between the two? This guy read the Bible and became a brave and courageous civil rights leader, whereas that guy read the Bible and decided to assault and murder a homosexual. Why such vastly differing outcomes? Perhaps this simple thought experiment would allow people to actually take a moment to look beyond stereotypes and broad blanket terms, and attempt to truly understand one another. Because people are not simply Christians or Muslims or Jews, they are impossibly complex and endless combinations of culture and circumstance, of socio-economic factors and pure coincidence, perfect examples of what Buddhists call dependent co-arising.
Moreover (and this is getting into super wishful thinking), doing away with these terms would allow us to enter a new age of spiritual improvement. We could all recognize each other simply as fellow travelers on the spiritual path. How much we choose to remain on that path, or even stray off of it, would be our own individual choice. All would be free to learn the valuable lessons presented by various faiths and belief systems, but also to reject the outdated, irrational, and dangerous viewpoints that we must recognize every belief system possesses. There would be a vibrant discussion and debate, and people would be flexible and free to adjust their views and even radically alter their beliefs, because they would not be constrained by labels. Religious traditions would be more vibrant and relevant than they have been in centuries, evolving and expanding in new and exciting ways.
It would be like a sumptuous religious potluck, where every soul could pick and choose the teachings and aspects of different religions and belief systems that make sense to them, constantly trying new things until arriving at the perfect meal. Strict atheists might reject every dish served at this meal, opting instead to bring their own healthy snack to the feast. All would be welcome in this exchange of ideas. I’ve heard people argue that this “buffet” style religion is inauthentic, wishy-washy, New Age-y flim-flam. Those people are mean and use too many hyphenated words. They also miss the point. Sarah Nardi, however, does not. In her article ‘Ramadan Xmas” (Adbusters #87), she presents a fascinating example of how this cross pollination might play out. She posits that Westerners might benefit from some form of fasting during or after the excess of the holiday season. “The thought of candy, cookies, credit cards - consumption in any form - invites feelings of guilt and disgust”, she writes. “Coming down from Christmas - reconnecting to my body’s natural rhythms and my mind’s natural pace - takes days… But what if we were to introduce some elements of Ramadan into our celebration of Christmas? Muslims, during the month-long observance of the Islamic holiday, abstain from eating, drinking and sex during the daylight hours. The practice of fasting is meant to teach patience, humility, and restraint… It is an exercise in discipline and meditation that, once completed, should leave one feeling more connected, more whole.”
No doubt critics will consider this yet another attack on the sanctity of Christmas. Perhaps Stephen Colbert will upgrade it to The Jihad on Christmas instead of just The War on Christmas, if he hasn’t done so already. But the point is that this commingling of ideas and traditions leads to a richer, fuller understanding of one another. Just as Ramadan could help one to appreciate Christmas in a new way, so too could the joy, warmth, and celebration of Christmas serve as yet another reminder for those observing Ramadan to make sure to treasure their loved ones. Also, fruit cake!
More than anything else, doing away with these labels will assuage the cultural guilt I have of not being a very good Muslim. I could instead become, just like everyone else on this planet, a humble pilgrim, seeking answers to thus far unanswerable questions. For my sake, if not for your own, at least think about it.
*This is the part where angry, intolerant, radical hatemongers quote the first half of that sentence, and replace “moderate tan and a fondness for samosas” with “a towel on their head and fondness for explosive devices”. You’re welcome, angry internet fanatic!
** I do hold a religious studies minor from Webster University. No big deal.
*** I can, because this is a thought experiment. If I wanted to, I could put a cat in a box and then kill it with poisonous gas, because that’s just what happens in thought experiments. Deal with it.