Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Price of Being Born Muslim


December 5, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor
By TARIQ AHMAD

I am by no means an expert on the topic of Islam or Muslims. However, by accident of birth, being Muslim was thrust upon me.

My chances going in were not too bad — about a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim. I live with the title and try to make sense of the daily newsworthy events that keep my people in the news. It was not until the fourth grade that I even knew I was Muslim. I was in grade school in Karachi, Pakistan, checking out a library book — an illustrated Bible — when my friend pointed out to me that I had picked the “wrong” book.

He appeared to be a little upset by my choice, as did some of the other kids. Any deviations from the norm, I concluded, would raise unnecessary alarm. My friend, since then, has become a militant atheist, but that is a story for another time.

I continued along a peaceful yet godless path until 8th grade when another friend confronted me with a deep philosophical question: Was I a Sunni or a Shiite? Being Muslim, it appeared was not really as simple as I had thought — I would need to make some difficult choices. My friend gave me a well rehearsed summary of the pros of cons of each group (heavily biased in favor of being Shiite, of course, because he was one) and provided me with the choice.

At last, I could exercise my free will! I decided to be Shiite until my grandmother stepped in after a week and in a matter-of-fact manner said that I was a Sunni, not a Shiite, and these things “cannot be changed.” Many more years of peaceful indifference toward religious matters passed and I ended up a freshman at New York University. It was then that the conflicts associated with being Muslim came to light.

My suite-mate hypothesized, a week into living together, that the college must have been trying to do an experiment on me by making me live with a Jew, a Hindu and a Catholic. Muslims, it appeared, had a lot of enemies and, for the first time, being one appeared to have more to do with the conflicts rather than any particular philosophical doctrine.

The few Islamic Center meetings I attended at college would invariably extend into speeches about the Palestinian conflict, the Kashmir conflict, the Chechnya conflict, the Bosnian conflict. Somewhat dispassionate about such issues, I chose to define myself as an undefined creature with no real place in society — the secular Muslim.

Since 9/11 the nature of the dialogue has changed quite a bit. I experienced the strong backlash against Muslims. Medical school interviews in the weeks after 9/11 were uncomfortable and borderline racist. Even my closest friends appear to place me on the wrong side of a line of “danger.” Everyone is more aware of the fact that I have a Muslim name. The more cultured among them show a genuine curiosity about “our kind.” Others mask their fear with jokes and frustrated questions along the lines of: “Why every time a bomb goes off, a Muslim person is behind it?” Yet others try to be unnaturally polite, likely suppressing undesirable emotions.

But with this increased awareness of the Muslim, there is a lack of appreciation of the nuances within our group. The reality is that many Muslims are secular. We do not pray five times a day, do not read the Koran and have not spent much time inside a mosque. We only turn to Islam when a child is born, someone gets married or someone dies.

We certainly have no interest in participating in civilizational battles. We are, in fact, loathed by the religious minority. And yet we have no clear voice, no representation and no one in the Western world appears to be aware of our existence. Every time a terrorist attack occurs, we suffer the most.

We are trying to succeed in life, trying to be effective doctors, lawyers, business people, artists and other kinds of professionals, and it hurts us, not the jihadists, when society keeps us at more and more of a safe distance “just in case.”

To defeat the threat of radical Islam, I suggest that the answer lies among the people who are the least Muslim.

It is only the secular forces within Islam that can subdue the screams of radicalism. We are united by a lack of indoctrination, a belief in personal freedom and a similar accident of birth and we must unite to properly forge a positive and progressive future for Muslims worldwide.

Tariq Ahmad is a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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