My real aim with this post – even though it feels incomplete, and the title seems unnecessarily dramatic – is to personalize a global issue. I’m going to address an issue, however rudimentarily, that I’ve been planning, and have started, an entire book on: exposing my identity. With this post, I want to become part of the conversation about what it is like to be a Canadian who was raised as a Muslim.
The attacks in Paris last week set off another wave of anti-Islamic sentiment, which seems to be spreading the world over. The state of Syrian refugees is deplorable, and the response to the situation by some governments and public figures is disgraceful.
I’m not as politically aware as I should be, and I know very little about what is actually happening to the people fleeing Syria. What I do know is that it’s completely unacceptable to demonize a people because of their religious affiliations. People must be judged on their actions because we can never truly know their intentions.
I was raised as a Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili Muslim. The Ismailis, as they are more commonly known, have a present living Imam, and have since the time of Hazrat Ali, the cousin, son-in-law, and religious successor – for the Shia people – of Prophet Mohammed. Today, the 49th Imam is Shah Karim al-Hussaini, Aga Khan IV.
Why is this important for you to know? Why is this important for me to be aware of?
I’m a non-believer, despite having been raised in a fairly religious household. Admittedly, I was religious when I was younger. I maintain a tangential connection to the Ismaili faith and people, largely through my family and childhood friends. I am an Ismaili insofar as I belong to a community of people who identify as Ismailis, but I maintain a religious distance from this community.
This is not an easy position to take, but one that I feel is best for my life. When thinking about my life, I think that many vacancies could easily be filled with religion, and that I would be a calmer, more well-meaning person if I were to accept a religious disposition. I’m unwilling to make this concession, however, because I simply don’t believe in religion. My father has often told me that the one thing that is missing in my life is religion.
So, fine, I don’t believe in religion.
To look at me, you would think that I am a Muslim. I have all of the stereotypical features that readily identify an individual as a Muslim. If you’ve seen Aladdin, you’re already aware of what I’m talking about. I’ve got a large, protruding, rotund nose. I have straight, black hair. I can grow a full beard rather quickly. I have narrow, inset, dark brown eyes. I’m constantly battling a uni-brow. I’ve got fairly thick lips. I’m neither tall nor short, but lanky. My skin is a light, greyish brown.
Let’s not even begin to discuss the Muslim-centric qualities of my name.
When I walk through the city, I am regularly greeted by complete strangers with, “as-salaam alaikum.” It’s not hard to see a Muslim when you see me. And, nobody is wrong to see a Muslim when they see me.
To judge me – or anybody else – on the basis of my appearance, however, is wrong. The recent outlandish anti-Muslim attacks against Muslim women in Toronto has set me off a bit. To attack a mother picking up her children from school, harass a woman on the subway, or scrawl “Fuck Muslim Girls” on the entryway of a public washroom, is cowardly, at best. In a city so vibrantly multicultural, it’s shameful.
I was two weeks into my student exchange in Finland when 9/11 took place. I cannot remember one student holding me up as a beacon for anti-Muslim sentiment. Rather, they asked questions about the faith and about North America in an effort to gain a better understanding of the situation as it was unfolding. They were curious and sympathetic.
I do remember a man in a wheelchair yelling “Terrorist” at me from across the street, while I was walking into a burger chain, but I wasn’t too worried about the repercussions of ignoring this man in such a snowy climate.
While in Montreal, when looking for an apartment with my buddies, we were denied a unit only after I had gone to see it. The unapologetic claim given by the landlord was that my people are a dirty people.
When crossing the land border between Canada and the U.S. in March of 2007, I was asked to pull over before I could even prove my identity. There, I was asked to sit in a white, brick room, while the border agents went through all of my belongings.
On rare occasions, cabs won’t stop for me, and people in bars make absurd comments. Luckily there are other cabs, or I get pissed off enough to walk for a while. People in bars are usually stupid, so it isn’t hard to find a few words that’ll put them in their place. Even more luckily, I haven’t been clocked for speaking up.
Despite my best efforts, I cannot rid myself of this aspect of my identity. And, really, any effort made in this vein is a wasted effort.
Who I see myself as is as a Canadian, first, before any other identity. I speak Canadian English, without any hint of an accent. I’m employed by a Canadian public-sector organization. I pay Canadian taxes. I live in a Canadian city. I interact with Canadians daily. I hold a Canadian passport.
I’m only a Canadian Muslim because I’ve been made to be one. I drink. I eat pork. I’ve had sex out of wedlock. I’ve read more of the Bible than I have of the Quran. I own a winter jacket and gloves; scarves are one of my favourite fashion accessories. I’ve shovelled a sidewalk and a driveway in one go in the dead of winter.
I have a tattoo on my left forearm of a sword, with my name written on the blade in Arabic. My mom left me a thasbi (rosary), which I keep in my linen closet. I have attended mosque, and do on occasion when it’s necessary, but I don’t religiously.
My parents have given up on the idea of me ending up with an Ismaili woman. When I was younger, I had a massive crush on an Ismaili girl but she never liked me back. It broke my heart. This past summer, I went on one date with an Ismaili girl, but it didn’t work out. Here’s the thing: I’m far enough removed from the religion, for better or worse, that it’s extremely difficult to have a meaningful relationship in which value is placed on a religious identity. It’s not impossible – I’ve seen examples of it working – but it’s not easy.
My special relationships with women are important because there is a chance that I may, one day, have a child, if the condom breaks and the IUD is faulty. This child, should one accidently exist, is going to have to figure out how to navigate the world without the aid of religion, at least initially. Should this unexpected but welcomed guest in my life decide to find religion, I would not prevent it from happening. In fact, I’d support such a decision if it were taken reasonably.
The only simple way that I can understand my identity today and into the future is that of being white. To be a White Canadian seems more closely aligned with how I see myself and who I want to be than does being a Canadian Muslim. That I use “White” to precede and “Muslim” to succeed my identity as a Canadian should be somewhat revealing in itself.
It’s not that I think one is better than the other. I make no value judgements here, outside of those that affect my understanding of my own identity.
My parents have worked so hard to give me the best possible life. What this has amounted to is a disassociation with my own heritage for the acceptance of a Canadian culture that is now mine. I believe, quite strongly, in Canada and the values that it holds as a nation. Canada is my home, and I belong here.
The doors to my home remain open to those who need to take shelter and to those who wish to venture away. As we live together as a great Canadian society, it’s important to remember that we mightn’t see eye-to-eye all the time, but we’re still going to bed with each other. As winter slowly sweeps across our nation, it’s high time that we start stitching our quilt.