Wearing my Faith on my Sleeve

A recent post by someone I consider to be an intelligent and educated adult, read:

“I know the world would be a more beautiful place to live in if people kept religion in their hearts rather than wear it on their sleeves.”

I was taken aback when I realized that this is a very common point of view, and, in my opinion, a common misconception. How would the world be a better place if we were to downplay or suppress our religious identity?

Like in Spain during the Inquisition? You had to hide your religion or convert or leave the country discreetly. Or die. Like in Nazi Germany? We would eventually end up being forced to wear our religious symbols on our sleeves. And die. Like in Taliban-run Afghanistan? Like in Communist China, where there must be no religion at all? Like the burkha ban in France?

All are examples of lack of freedom of religious expression, and all these regimes, which began with utopian thinking, eventually became examples of dystopia.

Since we don’t live in a Utopia or under a totalitarian regime, and can’t all agree to one system of behavior, there will always be others who think and act differently, and can’t be forced or regulated. Instead of taking the approach of how others should be, why not look at how we can be? Because the only person you can control is you. Control yourself, not try to regulate others. Warped expectations from others, more often than not, lead to disappointment and disillusion. And a continued investment in a fantasy of how things should be (according to you) instead of efforts towards making things the best they can be. 

There’s judging a book by its cover and then there’re judging a book without ever knowing anything about it and deciding you never want to find out. How can knowledge of any kind be detrimental? The only way to bring down the walls of ignorance and prejudice is by opening the gates of communication. Don’t close your ears and force others to close their mouths. The gauge for how much you are trusted and respected by your friends is how comfortable they are sharing their personal beliefs with you, religious or otherwise. Instead of just tolerating each other’s differences, why not celebrate them? There is no excuse for ignorance.

People should not have to suppress who they are for peace and harmony to prevail. To display or be discreet about your religion is a personal choice, as it should be. In India, every culture is welcomed and celebrated. Our constitutional freedom of religion, the secularism of the East, is all-inclusive, not all-exclusive. Peace that is borne of suppression of identity and restraint is not real peace at all, it is an illusion and a state of denial. At best, it is an uncomfortable silence as we tip-toe around the elephant in the room.

And where do you draw the line between the culture we are so proud of and the religion we must conceal? This reminds me of an NDTV talk show by Burkha Dutt a couple of years ago, about the identity and place of Muslims in India today (see link), in which she assembled a few celebrities she thought best represented Muslims. One question she repeatedly asked was along the lines of, “Why can’t Muslims dress like everyone else and behave in society without bringing religion up?”

My answer: because then we would then be Muslims no longer. Islam is not a culture or something learned from family or society that you can turn your back on. It is a lifestyle choice. Faith is a choice. And we have the freedom to believe.

She also asked, “Why don’t Muslims just be normal and mainstream?”

My answer: Define normalcy. Is it herd mentality? Swarm logic? Living like the majority? Or the middle class?

If I wish to dye my hair hot pink and get a face tattoo, it is individual freedom. If I choose not to consume meat or alcohol because of personal preference or concern for animal rights, I am hailed and respected as an intelligent individual. If I choose to abstain from premarital sex because of a personal decision, I am a responsible adult. If I choose to do any of the above because of religious belief, I am backward, conservative, narrow-minded, suppressed.

After centuries of presence in India, and knowing no other home for generations, after substantial contribution in every field of achievement, why are Muslims in India constantly marginalized? Why are we still seen as ‘the other,’ the deviant? It is not our being a minority (almost 20% is not a negligible minority), it is certainly not our different attire or unwillingness to participate in all activities of the contemporary urban individual. It is our reluctance to share, to open up and dispel doubts, to bust those stereotypes wide open. By not sharing, we remain shrouded in mystery and silence. Our religion is not taught in the history textbooks of this secular nation’s schools. It is not celebrated in the streets. It is devoid of performance. It is so embedded in our daily lives that it ceases to be noticeable. And we refrain from mentioning it in front of our non-Muslim friends and neighbors. Everyone around us has become so accustomed to this ‘arrangement,’ that they have begun to prefer it that way.

We teach people how to treat us. We need to unlearn and reteach. One amazing example that comes to mind is of the drive to spread awareness about the hijab in schools and college campuses across America (where the Muslim presence is much, much less than in India), by encouraging non-Muslim women to wear the headscarf for a day. While I am not advocating this approach in India (I know that here it would flare up the sensitivities of people and arouse feelings of being forced), it is a great example of how open Muslims can be about assimilation: not only assimilating with other cultures within the bounds of Islam, but of allowing, no, inviting others to assimilate with us.

Don’t wear my religion on my sleeve?

Even if I were to comply with this ridiculous adage, where would I draw the line before surrendering who I am? Change my name, a praise to the Almighty? Take off my headscarf? Not pray at my workplace during the day? Not fast, because it means not partaking in lunch? Use profanity because everyone is using it? Drink socially? What part of me would remain Muslim if I failed to comply with anything Islam asks for? What part of me would remain?

Everyone, consciously or not, has made some life decisions about what they will and will not do. Everyone has a system of principles they live by, whether these principles are made by them or handed down to them. So do I. Mine is Islam.

If I am courteous to you, it is because Islam teaches me to be. If I am a good neighbor, it is because Islam guides me to be. If I am an upstanding citizen, it is because Islam dictates me to be. If I am a dedicated student or professional, it is because Islam requires me to be. If I make an honest living, it is because Islam accepts nothing less of me. If I wish for peace with people who are not like me, it is because my religion is called Peace. Where would you and I be if I discarded these principles?

But in the end, I live for no man. I live for God alone.

Images courtesy:

For the Barkha Dutt show on Muslim Identity (NDTV):

One example of a hijab awareness drive in a US college:

This entry was published on August 5, 2012 at 20:43 and is filed under Islam. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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