A work by artist Mohammed Ali.



Muslim By Technicality: The Case for More Muslim Voices

“You’re Muslim?” my friends ask me. “You don’t seem Muslim.”

I understand what they mean. There are over 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, making any sense of unified identity impossible to pin down. But, culturally, I don’t project any clear tells. Yes, I have a full beard, an honest desire to eat most food with my hands, and a few go-toLungi Dance” moves, but (as Obama knows) you can’t truly know my identity until you check my birth certificate.

I am M.B.T., Muslim by Technicality. My Pakistani mother, daughter of a diplomat, was born in Madrid. Her global upbringing, from Sri Lanka to Sweden, can be detected in her delicate British accent, as well as in her desire to cook dishes from every cuisine known to mankind. At university in NYC, she met my dad, an SPF-9000 redhead from San Antonio. Fast-forward a few years, when, in order to assuage my mother’s moderately devout family, my father was converted to Islam by a Syrian pharmacist. The conversion was no mere charade, either: he moved to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad (where I was born); learned the national language of Urdu; and occasionally recited his prayers alongside my nana-aba (mother’s father).

Relatively speaking, I barely register on the Islam-o-meter. My parents moved back to the States when I was two, so my formative memories are from Texas. I’m a non-practicing Muslim, who drinks socially (which is haraam, “forbidden”) and readily appreciates America’s undying need to shoehorn bacon into everything (haraam). As a child, I prayed a few times when visiting family in Islamabad, clumsily mimicking my nana aba as he knelt and rose on the prayer rug while whispering “Ya Hafiz” (“The Preserver,” one of the 99 names of Allah) until I was blue in the face.

“Oh,” my friends say, “so you’re a bad Muslim.”

Pause. While “bad Muslim” might just be a practical term, ISIS (DaeshISIL, whatever name you want to give their awfulness), al-Qaeda, the Taliban, are the real “bad Muslims”– militant, oppressive factions of a large and celebrated religion. So what if my knowledge of the Qu’ran was taught by a university instead of an imam? I still passed the course, masha’Allah.  In a year riddled with horrific killings and marred by the political reactions to these incidents, perhaps it’s time to stop throwing secular Muslims and moderate Muslims into the “bad Muslim” pile.

There’s reason not to fall into loose definitions of what is and isn’t a “good” or “bad” Muslim. My privilege, as a white-passing man living in a country that (for now) accepts Muslims and non-Muslims alike, allows me to be upfront about my agnosticism. Compare that to my native land of Pakistan, where the consequences for being seen as a “bad” Muslim can be grave. My aunt, a jovial woman so tenacious I call her “sher khala” (lion aunt), was threatened by her co-workers after it was discovered that she practices reiki, the Japanese form of kinetic healing, in her free time. So what? She dresses conservatively. She prays. She wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol, or linger near a hot dog. Surely, reiki isn’t going to topple all five pillars of Islam. The accompanying new-age soundtracks? Maybe.

For my aunt, these threats could be dismissed as petty office drama, plus a dash of misogyny– why is it always men telling women how to properly practice religion? But such threats can escalate unexpectedly. Earlier this year, Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud was killed by armed motorcyclists after hosting a panel discussing missing persons in Balochistan, one of the country’s poorest and most-radicalized regions. After her death, Mohammed Hanif wrote in an embittered and moving op-ed that his friend Mahmud was probably murdered “for not being a good enough Muslim”–adopting the loopy logic of radicalists in order to show its idiocy. Sabeen Mahmud was a social activist working towards open dialogue and discourse in Pakistan–a place where moderates and conservatives could openly discuss the challenges facing the Muslim world. She was as good and pure-hearted as they come.

When the extremists have guns, it’s not easy to be a moderate. Overwhelmingly, the victims of Islamic radicalism worldwide are moderate Muslims. In the UN’s 2014 report on Iraq, 24,000 civilian deaths is listed as their conservative estimate for death tolls over an eight–month period. That’s 24,000 deaths, just for Iraq, not Syria, in less time than it takes to complete two semesters. This, and similarly staggering violence in other war-torn areas, has resulted in millions of Muslims leaving their homes, their belongings, and their lives behind in order to survive, and just maybe seek a better life elsewhere. These people need help from all regions.

And yet, the conversation stateside reeks of Islamophobia, with pundits on both sides (shout out to Bill Maher, the uber-liberal PETA board member, occasional comedian, and outspoken Islamophobe) of the aisle interrogating Muslim identity. “Let’s just let in good Muslims!” they say, ignoring the fact that there is already an intense, drawn-out process designed to do just that. In flatly denying refugees, fear-mongers have thrown the Syrian and Iraqi babies out with the bath water.

Eschewing nuance and philosophical quandaries, some presidential hopefuls have simply thrown up their hands and embraced discrimination. Jeb Bush wants refugees to identify as either Muslim or Christian, (with the calm assurance that you “can prove you’re Christian) so that he can send displaced Muslims back to their smoldering homes. Trump, meanwhile, would take Americans on a wild ride where no non-American Muslims would be allowed into the country, leaving the status of Muslim nationals in the air. I’m no pessimist, but I think it’s fair to say that, if such a policy were enacted, the status of Muslim-Americans wouldn’t be sunshine and rainbows. Even my thin veil of Muslimness could send me packing. My NSA profile–25 year-old man, born in Islamabad, has visited Pakistan every few years for months at a time, lives in urban metropolises–doesn’t inspire confidence.

By artist Mohammed Ali.

These political examples of prejudice attach policy to an Islamophobia tide that has steadily risen ever since 9/11. We were the villains of 24, we are still the villains of Homeland (spoiler alert). Today’s moderate Muslims are stuck between two extremes. According to conservative and radical Islam, they’re not Muslim enough–leaving themselves open to criticism, death, or the worse-than-death shit that ISIS gets into. And according to policy-makers too scared to consider Islamic complexity, moderate Muslims are too Muslim–leaving splintered families in the aftermath and brewing a toxic brand of American radicalism.

I think I’ve spoken enough. I’m Muslim by Technicality–an identity that is rarely reinforced by the actions of others: when I’m introducing myself, when I’m talking to one of my 200+ cousins, or when I’m in the TSA’s queue for extra screening. Even if Trump wins the election and turns Air Force One into the first trans-Atlantic casino, I’d still be afforded the luxuries of uninhibited capitalism and running water.

The voices you should be hearing are farther off. They’re the Iraqi Muslims I encountered online while streaming soccer, who called their day-to-day “as shaky as their internet connection.” They’re the Muslim Feminists, whose movement is bigger than Malala, whose opinions are weapons against the status quo. They’re the refugees, who would rather live day-to-day with their lives packed in bags than risk another day in an ISIS-controlled land. Progressive movements, from the Iranian revolution to the Arab Spring, emerged alongside subjugated voices, not from outsider critics telling Muslims how to live their lives. In a world that squeezes moderate Muslims’ identities from both sides, the most progressive thing we can do is listen.

Images by Mohammed Ali, via Aerosol Arabic

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