ReadCONTRA’s Sarah Hakani is currently based out of Amman while she works for the Jordan River Foundation, an organization that works with children who have been victims of abuse, refugee issues, women’s empowerment, and overall family and child safety. This is the second in a series of reflections about her stay.
Before I left for Jordan, I was unbelievably excited to live in a Muslim country. I was finally going to be the norm, the majority—I was finally going to be comfortable with my religion because I wouldn’t need to defend it. I was finally going to be in a place that embodied Islam.
My expectations were pretty off.
Shortly after getting here, I learned that I was not really coming to a Muslim country–I mean, I was, but that was only half of the truth. I was coming to a Sunni Muslim country. Nothing about this is problematic to me; I am one of the (very) few Shia Muslims involved with the Duke Muslim Students Association, and the only Ismaili, so I’m used to being the minority, even in a group of Muslims, and even in a group of Shia Muslims. However, what did strike a nerve was that I was told to keep the fact that I was Shia to myself “for my own safety.” Of course, I want to do everything I can to be safe here, and have taken that advice. But having to do so has just really shaken up my perception of an understanding, multifaceted, pluralistic, inclusive Islam.
I decided not to actively lie about this, but rather to just leave it at “I’m Muslim” and let people assume what they wanted. However, this wasn’t always an option. I visited Abu Darwesh mosque with a few of my friends, including one other Muslim, Sama. The sheikh showed us around the different prayer areas even though prayers were over and the area was technically closed. We learned that he was from Egypt, and moved to Jordan because this is where his wife wanted to live. He talked about how fate brought him here, and that he believes so strongly that everything happens for a reason. Before we left, he even asked us if we wanted to take any books with us or if there was anything he could get us. He was so unbelievably kind, and truly one of the best people I have met in Jordan.
And yet, while we were talking to him, he asked Sama and I whether we were Sunni or Shia. Being the brilliant person Sama is, she replied “Sunni” for both of us in Arabic before I got the chance to say anything. I mean, I probably would have said the same, but I can’t deny that I was considering being honest because I was inside of a mosque, talking to a welcoming, loving, and compassionate sheikh. After Sama responded to him, he showed how thankful he was that we were both Sunni and talked about how we were very blessed and welcome.
Then again, just last week, I went to a Bedouin village in the Middle Badia and stayed there for a two days. My host brother asked me if I was Muslim, and we talked about that for a bit. After that, he asked me what “team” I was on. Seriously? Team? I know he didn’t mean this offensively, but I felt pretty irritated by the question. Again, I had directly been asked, and I replied that I was Sunni. He followed my response up with a thumbs-up, and an excited “Alhamdulillah!”
I don’t know how that would have gone on if I had been honest in either situation. But I’m glad I wasn’t honest, even though it really stung. My honesty could have only led to two things. Maybe they would have been PC and let me feel welcome and equal, even though on the inside, they felt uncomfortable around me and unwelcoming towards me. Second, things could have just been really visibly awkward, and I may have been hounded about why I align with Shiism. As someone who is actually Shia, it hurt me so deeply seeing both of their thankful, happy reactions to my lie, ignorant to how hurtful their reactions were.
This isn’t always the case. Sama is a Sunni, Arab Muslim, and I am Shia, Indian Muslim. However, I think that our friendship, communication, trust, and mutual respect highlights just how irrelevant this difference is. After these occurrences, her and I talked extensively about our individual experiences as Muslims in a Muslim country. Although she was in a predominantly Sunni community neighboring Iraq, where her family is from, even she felt like her expectations of feeling comfortable and at-home in a Muslim country were not met. She talked about how she felt not Arab enough or not Muslim enough (although she is both Arab and Sunni), because of petty things like not wearing a hijab (which many Muslims here choose not to wear), not knowing enough Arabic, and other cultural differences.
We went on to talk about our issues with the culture here, and how frustrating it was to be cat-called, harassed, and bothered constantly in a Muslim country because of how at-odds this is with Islam. We discussed a few other issues we saw, such as education issues, avoidance of mental health discourse, the lowered role of women in families and the workplace, and more that seemed to be completely at-odds with Islam, but so largely present here. As cliché as it is, this is a clear example of how different religion is from culture, yet how interchangeably the two words are used. So interchangeably that even I had a really hard time separating the two, and am struggling to reconcile my peaceful, tolerant, equitable, and loving Islam in this culture.
This conversation about culture versus religion took an even more intense, enlightening direction when I talked to my coworker Yumna about it. Yumna is Jordanian, but lived and worked in Virginia for 10 years as an ESL teacher. She taught many Pakistani, Mexican, and Afghani students, and talked at length about how much she learned through interacting with young, immigrant voices. Yumna talked to me about how the community center she went to for prayers in Virginia was so different than in Jordan. Girls would show up to pray in shorts, and sometimes even lead prayers, which was unheard of for her before that. The community center fostered interfaith dialogue with local Christian and Jewish organizations in order to create empathy among the three Abrahamic faiths.
Yumna moved back to Jordan 8 years ago to raise her kids here, immersed in Jordanian culture and Arabic. But since she has been back, she has also seen a huge problem with Jordan representing Islam because of how different religion is from culture, and how unfair it is to hold a culture responsible to represent a religion. She said that in America, girls’ skirts were never measured when they wanted to pray, but she has seen that since in Amman. She was disgusted by this when she talked about it, and ranted for a bit about how culturally based these pathetic traditions are. What frustrated her even more about this was that Islam was originally put in place to increase the standard of women at the time, when babies were killed just for being girls and women were treated like they inherently mattered less than men. She was upset because almost 2000 years since this religion was founded, the culture that existed before Islam still continues. Yumna told me that she preferred Islam in America because of how there isn’t a culture surrounding it and being mistaken for it, at least in Virginia where she lived. She was free to practice and live as a Muslim, instead of following cultural norms that over time became (wrongfully) synonymous with Islam.
After talking to her, I felt really good about our relationship and the conversation we had. With full trust, I told her that I was Shia and that I was struggling with hiding my identity from my coworkers and my family while being here. She literally could not believe that I was told to keep this a secret, and that a few people had reacted how they did, let alone even ask me what sect I belonged to. Yumna told me about how just the previous week, she and her extended family were having dinner and discussing Shias, and how they (a Sunni family, like everyone else in Jordan) believe that Shias are much better educated and more knowledgeable than Sunnis in matters of Islam because of how much literature they have and research they have done that extends far beyond the time of the Prophet. She told me that she looked up to Shias and read a lot of their texts in order to gain a better understanding of Islam as a whole. I was blown away.
But what shocked me even more is what she said next. She talked about how this reversal of Muslim progress and separation of sects is a direct product of the (failed, horrible, and all around counterproductive) US intervention in Iraq. She said that before that point, no one cared about whether you were Sunni or Shia, how you prayed, and what specific beliefs you aligned yourself with. Even just 10 years ago, there was no talk of Sunnis versus Shias, let alone even an acknowledgement of the difference. This division was man-made, and specifically, US made.
I know I said in the last paragraph that this was shocking to me, but it really isn’t when I think about it. The US is the cause of so many big issues the Middle East is facing, like ISIS. (By the way, this huge “threat” to the US is actually just really a threat to Muslims–both Shia and Sunni–who are killed indiscriminately and mercilessly). A few more clicks of research shows that the Taliban was trained and armed by the US during the Cold War in order to fight against the Soviet Union. Even Al-Qaeda is a direct creation of the United States, and Bill Van Auken writes, “There were no WMDs and there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until US imperialism overthrew the country’s government and tore its social fabric into pieces. In fact, there was no Al Qaeda at all before Washington set about inciting a bloody war by right-wing Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”
These are three examples of hundreds that show just how directly the US has influenced the creation of buzzwords like terrorism, jihadism, etc. when referring to the Middle East. However, it is important to think about and consider how much these (largely false and misleading) accusations are mistaken with the religion here, rather than the culture, although neither inherently promotes hatred and violence. Finally, if these huge entities that the world so easily looks to as “Islamic,” hateful, and fear-inducing bodies, how does it make sense that they were created by American non-Muslims in order to fit their own, imperialistic agenda? It doesn’t, and just further demonstrates how separate Islam is from how it has been manipulated to appear.
This conversation with Yumna gave me peace, but more importantly, it gave me motivation– motivation to research more, learn more, and explain more. I cannot really explain this sentiment any more clearly than my program coordinator, Dema, did. She wears a hijab, and is one of the most empowered and empowering women I know. When asked why she chose to wear a hijab, she said it was because she loved the challenge and loved the questions that came with it because 1) it allowed her to learn about her own beliefs more in order to articulate them and 2) it led her to be able to change people’s perceptions and ideas about her faith and her liberation. She said that she was a prophet of Islam through wearing a hijab and sharing her experiences with people.
Through being the only Muslim in my grade at a Christian school, I felt a similar way. I know that I was the only Muslim that some of my peers would even ever come in contact with, let alone talk to. This caused me to learn more about my faith in order to figure out how to present it and talk about it with people who were completely unfamiliar. Similarly, as a member of Duke’s predominantly Sunni MSA, I have constantly been pushed to research and justify my faith to myself in order to better convey my thoughts and ideas to the wider, diverse Muslim community. Being pushed is a beautiful thing, and it is the only thing that has led me to learn as much as I have about my faith and gain the appreciation I have in how feminist, empowering, and modern it is. I was motivated yet again to challenge and learn.
However, through doing this, I was hit with another strong realization. It is important for me to internalize that my findings are personal, and my interpretation is individual. It is also unrealistic and pretty wrong of me to tell someone else that their Islam is incorrect because it isn’t a strict formula. As long as I’m concerned, you believe in Allah, you believe in Prophet Muhammad, you are a Muslim. Of course, many Muslims (including myself) do things that contradict Islam, but that is because we are flawed human beings practicing a religion. For some people, those flaws are extremely severe, to the point where they are unforgivable in my eyes. But those types of Muslims exist and it is so wrong to say that someone is not a Muslim because their Islam looks different from yours, which I have definitely been guilty of, and also been the target of.
I went to a lecture put on by Duke MSA last semester that changed my perception on how I should portray and embody Islam, and I’ve thought about that lecture a lot in the last few weeks here. The professor who was speaking talked about how counterproductive it is to paint Islam (or any religion) in one light. She dissected the billion-dollar Islamophobia industry (really, look it up), and talked about how going against this by saying that Islam is purely a religion of peace is counterproductive because it is our word against theirs. It is our word against money. If you fight a flat picture of Islam (like that portrayed by Islamophobia) with another, equally flat picture of Islam (just peace), you get absolutely nowhere, because no religion falls on either extreme. Instead of that, she suggested that Islam be painted in a more diverse light, and be given the benefit of the doubt just like every single other religion is.
I am guilty of fighting Islamophobia by saying that terrorists are not Muslim, as are many Muslims I know. I am guilty of only pointing my finger at instances in the Qur’an where equality, peace, feminism, and tolerance are presented, although that is not the reality for any major world religion, including Islam. I am guilty of only using examples of Islam in discourse that highlight the positive aspects of it, like when Muslims invited in the anti-Muslim armed protesters into their mosque to show them the peaceful reality of their practice. I personally believe that Islam is a religion of peace, but many people don’t. Many people believe that the institution of religion in general is one that is a system that cannot foster peace because of the oppressive systems that it contributes to. And those concerns and thoughts are extremely valid. Through the remainder of my experience, I want to work on reversing the damage that I have done, the damage that the media has done, and the damage that most people do of painting Islam, or any religion, in just one light. Do you expect a Catholic living in South America to practice their religion in the same way that one living in Manhattan would? Would a Buddhist in Myanmar have the same traditions, backgrounds, and biases as one living in the United States? Clearly not, because religion is not the only thing that plays a role in religion, as silly as that may sound. Through diversifying the picture, maybe we can remove the stigma productively and present Islam like any other religion in the world—practiced by flawed human beings with different, unique, colliding opinions, cultures, traditions and backgrounds.