Religious Identity in Secular Societies

SOON AFTER I embraced Islam, I had an animated discussion with a close member of my family, who was very upset at my having become a practicing Muslim. “The whole family can’t believe what you’ve done,” he told me. He intimated that the whole family felt I had turned my back on my upbringing by becoming Muslim and, hence, indirectly, on them. My adoption of the hijab annoyed him even more. It turned out that in addition to him being upset that I had become Muslim, he was worried that I had become religious, and that by wearing the scarf, I was showing that religiosity in public. Be religious (and Muslim) in private, he was telling me, just don’t advertise it.

His reaction to my conversion shows the complicated layers involved in expressing a religious identity in the West these days. In the first place, religiosity itself can be suspect; Islamic religiosity even more so. I remember having these very same feelings towards religion myself. Although raised a Christian, by the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I had become an atheist – or perhaps more precisely, an unthinking agnostic person who didn’t ponder the deep questions of the meaning of life. It is quite easy in the comfort of middle-class western life to live on the surface of existence, focusing on getting the right clothes, friends, degree, house, job and so on. Opportunity for contemplation is seldom offered. Work or study consume the energies of the day, and at night one either flops down in front of the television (with its soporific effect), or goes to the nightclub, where drink and loud music prevent one from thinking. “Elevator music” that haunts public space helps create more background noise that precludes deep thought. The Qur’an refers to this phenomenon in the verses that describe “the life of this world is but play and amusement … the goods and chattels of deception ” (57:20).

I looked upon religious people with pity, seeing them as a kind of anachronism in modern life. Evolution theory and western cultures’ emphasis on individuality, and its encouragement for people (especially youth) to rebel against authority and tradition combine to give one a feeling of self-sufficiency. With all this the ego is tricked into feeling assured that it is the most important aspect of being alive. The baser parts of the soul are egged on by the hedonistic and materialist aspects of western culture. “Obey your thirst” was the slogan for a soft-drink around the time that I was first learning about Islam. Who needs God? Or, perhaps more to the point, who wants to shackle themselves to the strictures of religion?

I can’t write this without remembering Plato’s critique of democracy in The Republic, where he writes: “[the democratic man] lives day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another drinking nothing but water and reducing; now practicing gymnastics then, idling again and neglecting everything; sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s money-makers, he turns in that way. There is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed, he follows it throughout”

This emphasis on the material aspects of life, to the detriment of spiritual values, is having a devastating impact on western society. Instead of being located in the heart and in one’s relationship to God, self-esteem is now placed on objects and our relationship to them. People buy certain kinds of clothes; have cosmetic surgery to create a certain kind of look; buy a certain kind of car, and so on; all as a way to have positive status in the eyes of our fellow human beings. It’s particularly bad amongst the youth, to the extent that someone can be killed for their brand-name shoes.

Thus maintaining a religious identity in the West is extremely difficult After I had become Muslim some of my Christian friends surprised me by confiding how alienated they felt from Western secular culture. I was taken aback by this because I had never seen any sign of this from them before. Though there had been little differences in their life styles (they came to the pub, but didn’t drink to excess; dated but didn’t sleep together), overall they had seemed fairly “normal.” Evidently they had kept the religious part of their life very secret and private. The growth of the evangelical movement in the U.S. is testament to the numbers of Christians who also feel alienated from the secular West.

Having become Muslim in my mid-twenties I have been spared the agonies of growing up as a Muslim in the West for if my believing Christian friends have struggled with a religious identity, Muslims who wish to be religious have an even tougher time. Christians can inhabit the outer spectrum of “normal” in a way a Muslim cannot: a Christian can be religious and still drink, date, go to nightclubs, swim in bikinis, wear shorts, celebrate Halloween, and so on. But Muslim religious practices are out of sync with Western culture: a Muslim cannot be religious and do all these things; in addition, a Muslim needs to pray five times a day, attend congregational prayers on Friday, fast in Ramadan, take a holiday on Eid, and so on. The Islamic way of life is more demanding and less in tune with secular culture than that of the Christian.

Muslims face an added burden that inhibits expression of their religious identity: Islamophobia. Unfortunately, given the historical enmity that the West has had for Islam and Muslims – an enmity that persists until this daya Muslim identity in the West is tied to geopolitical factors. When I started wearing the hijab, I found myself under verbal assault when a Muslim group anywhere in the world committed an atrocity in the name of Islam. It’s as if the scarf signaled automatically my allegiance with every Muslim action anywhere on the planet Of course, this is absurd – I did not excoriate my Catholic friends after the IRA bombed a local mall. But that is because I understood the complexities of the situation in Ireland, and its relationship to global Catholicism. Sadly, Westerners do not know how to do the same for Muslims. If a Muslim group bombs a mall, I, as a Muslim, am to blame. No one bothers to find out if I am as appalled as they are at such violence. This is because of the persistent western stereotype that Islam is an inherently violent religion. In the post 9/11 era, Muslims face an uphill battle in the West when attempting to explain the complicated religious and interpretative politics behind atrocities perpetrated by groups such as Al-Qaida.

The youth probably suffer most from Islamophobia, though it affects us all. (After 9/11 1 stayed inside for nearly a week lest I face a revenge attack from an American.) This is because Muslims whose identities are still in the formative stage during times when Islam is blamed and held up as a violent and foul religion, can become confused and resentful of their heritage. While some youths may find in these events an impetus to reclaim their faith from extremism, discover a pride in their heritage and become motivated in dispelling negative images of Islam in the West, others find their commitment to Islam wavering. As one young woman told me, during the first Gulf War she was a senior in high school, and seeing the negative images of Islam in the media, she thought to herself, “If these are Muslims, and this is Islam, then I don’t want to be Muslim.” Thus we have the split personality syndrome, where Aisha appears to be a good Muslim at home, but at school she becomes “Anna” and runs with the pack as any normal girl.

So the youth face enormous challenges, which are only partially met by the presence of Muslim Student Associations in high schools, colleges and universities. There is safety in numbers, and the MSA provides a safe haven for those girls who want to wear hijab, and for those who want to fast Ramadan and pray. The MSA commitment to ?a??a and the dispelling of stereotypes about Islam has also been important Many of the non-Muslim youth have been able to shed their prejudices and embrace their practicing Muslim classmates as friends. Nevertheless, without a strong family and community commitment to an Islamic way of life, an active MSA is not enough to surmount the challenges Western secular culture poses to Muslims.

Materialism and lslamophobia, when combined with Western imperialism and its support of oppressive regimes throughout the Muslim world, lead many Muslims to denounce the West and its secular way of life. But I am increasingly convinced that anti-Western rhetoric in our community is short-sighted and ultimately detrimental to the well being of the unimah. Anti-western rhetoric creates an “us” versus “them” attitude that divides instead of unites humanity. It is, of course, the flip side of the Western hostility to Islam, which also creates an “us” versus “them” mentality. But the world is too interconnected these days for “us” versus “them” attitudes; the stakes are too high. We are many different ethnic and religious groups, and if we want to avoid imploding as a race, we need to learn how to work together in spite of our different backgrounds. Building cooperation across differences requires focusing on what joins us as human beings, rather than highlighting what divides us. This is why the Qur’an tells Muslims to invite non-Muslims to Islam with the best of words, and counsels us to address Jews and Christians by focusing on what we have in common instead of how we differ: “Say: ? People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God'” (3:64).

Muslims are quick to bemoan and denounce lslamophobia in the West, as they (and anyone committed to humanity) should, but we are less than honest about the role anti-Western rhetoric plays in our own community, and the effect it has on relations with the West. For anti-Western rhetoric plays an unsavory role in Muslim identity formation and political behavior. Many of us build our identities around the fact that as Muslims, we are “not Westerners.” It is a negative definition, rather than a positive one. So, instead of saying, “I am Muslim and this means such-and-such,” we say, “In the West they do such-and-such an awful thing, but in Islam we do not. So Islam is superior, and 1 am Muslim.” This kind of negative identity formation is part of a well-entrenched pattern among Muslims. Books on topics ranging from science to law to social relations will talk about “the” western perspective (as if there is only one, and it is always inferior), and “the” Islamic one (as if there is only one, and always superior.) The same is true of our conferences. Along with topics about tawhid, the sunnah, fasting and the like, there is usually a topic along the lines of “the Western versus the Islamic perspective on women.” We know in advance that this will be a session devoted to showing how the Western woman is inferior to the Muslim woman. We must put down the West in order to make ourselves feel good.

This is an unfortunate trend. It is a sign of inse- curity, immaturity and low self-esteem. Having an insecure sense of self, and always needing to put others down in order to give oneself a sense of well-being is to be at the mercy of the other’s approval. Itmeans we can’tstand tall and proud on our own. Ultimately, this insecurity means we do not rely on Allah and His message, because it means we are insecure about the truth of what He has sent us. We need the West to agree with us that Islam does not oppress women, so we have come up with a discourse that has Islam claiming all the modern rights of women 1400 years ago. Of course there is much truth in this argument but some aspects of it are a bit of a stretch: I have seen the verse in the Qur’an “to each is allotted what they earn” offered as proof that the Qur’an enshrines equal pay for equal work. We are afraid that by wearing hijab the West might think it is a sign we are oppressed, so we have to degrade the Western woman in order to promote the hijab. How about just saying “we are Muslim and we wear hijab and we don’t care what you think of it one way or the other”?

I have become convinced that anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim community leads to two interconnected problems facing the world: political violence and a lack of progress on issues of social justice. It is easy for Al-Qaida to recruit Muslims to its cause if a Muslim has been prepared psychologically in advance to look down on the West. Western foreign policy outrages in the Muslim world (of which there are many) are the proof Muslim extremist groups need to demonstrate the correctness of their anti-Western stance. It is for this reason that the West shares the blame for political violence perpetrated by Muslims. If the West encouraged and cooperated with religious Muslims, instead of castigating them as fundamentalists, Muslim extremists would have the wind taken out of their sails.

Secondly, Muslims are hypersensitive about becoming Westernized, which to many, is such a horrifying thought that they will cling to cultural traditions and reject needed reforms, even if such reforms are fully in tune with Islam. The Taliban’s sequestering of women, and denying them education and jobs, is an example of what I mean here. Somehow modern education has been seen as Westernization, rather than as “education,” and thus is to be opposed in the name of Islam. And this from a religion that saw women scholars play a prominent role in the early days. The Prophet himself, may the blessings and peace of Allah be upon him, advised his companions “Take half your din from Humayra” (narrated by Sayyidna ‘A’isha).

There is no doubt that much of modern education has meant Westernization and an undermining of Islam for Muslims. The European colonialists made no bones about their desire to use education to change the thinking of their Muslim subjects. And to a large extent they have been successful in this: think of the way Turkey’s military safeguards Attaturk’s secularization programme by banning women in hijab from university. But Muslims need to transcend the traumas of the colonial era. It is a must if we are to solve our problems and create flourishing societies. And part of this transcending needs to be shedding of the anti-Western discourse in our community and the development of a more nuanced understanding of what the West is all about. Remember that after 9/11 there were revenge attacks against Muslims, but there was also an outpouring of support. Our mosque received calls from people offering to do the grocery shopping for a Muslim woman who was too afraid to leave her home.

Secularism is not, of course, an ideology based on a belief in God; nevertheless, it has much to recommend it for Muslims in the West. Secularism gives space for religiosity even if it’s difficult, as I have described above. Historically, secularism has allowed Christendom to transcend its internecine religious wars and to adopt the sentiment of Surah al-Rafirun: “to you be your way and to me be mine” (109:6). Many of secularism’s core values are praiseworthy and upheld by Islam: justice, tolerance, respect for the other, anti-racism, freedom, equality, compassion, and so on. Secularism’s commitment to freedom of conscience and religious practice has safeguarded a Muslim identity in the West or at least in the Anglophone West, the European and Muslim versions are currently tied up in Islamophobic politics. Muslims are using the court system when their rights to practice their faith are denied due to anti-Islamic sentiment. Women who have been fired for wearing hijab have been able to use the courts to get reinstated, often with back pay. The courts have upheld women’s rights to wear hijab on official government documents that require photographs and allow employees to pray five times a day at work, or to have the Eids recognized as a holiday.

So, instead of continuing to denounce and excoriate the West and secularism, Muslims need to be more nuanced. Denounce foreign policy and Islamophobia, but applaud anti-poverty efforts, religious freedom, and so on. As a Westerner, I am sometimes offended by the continuous anti-Western -sentiment I come across at Muslim social gatherings. Muslims are eager to emigrate to the West, to take advantage of the freedoms here, the education and job opportunities, but then spend their time criticizing. This is simply in bad taste, like insulting a host. Sometimes I wonder why Muslims who are busy denouncing the West stay here; I wonder why they don’t go back home if they hate the West so much. As much as Muslims resent being called the “axis of evil,” so too do Westerners resent being called the “Great Satan.” Western resentment of Islam has a lot to do with Muslim anti-western rhetoric which contributes directly to western anti-Islamic rhetoric. It is only human nature to dislike what causes you resentment. Thus Muslims and the West are locked in a vicious cycle which can only be broken when one side changes the equation. The Prophet, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, once counseled us as follows:

It is not permissible for a Muslim to keep apart from his brother for more than three days. If three days pass, he should meet him and greet him, and if he replies to it, they will both have shared in the reward, while if he does not reply, he will bear the sin while the Muslim who offered the greeting will have been freed from the sin of keeping apart” (AbuDawud)

“The West” is not our “brother” in faith, but since we are all children of Adam, it is our “brother” in humanity. What if Muslims stopped bearing age old grudges over the transgressions the West has committed against us, and started greeting it with a smile? The English poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) once wrote, “What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. They are but trifles, to be sure, but, scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.” Islam concurs. Muslims are obliged to perform acts of charity every day and the Prophet Muhamma – may Allah bless him and grant him peace – reminded us that “smiling in the face of your brother is charity …”

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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