Part of me wants to apologize for the relative melodrama of this title. I concede, of course, that my own experiences pale in comparison to the racially-based oppression John Howard Griffin recorded in his famous account of segregation in the American South. That said, all we have to share is our own perspectives and individual tribulations, and I feel the banality of my own need not suppress their relevance. There is a tacit expectation that converting to a new religion necessitates an alteration of your own culture.
Arabs dress you up in thobes and want you to smoke hookah, while Desis assume you’ll love Bollywood movie nights and bhangra. Such things clearly have no relevance to one’s theological exploration, but they can work their way into a convert’s religious vernacular as though they are pillars themselves. It takes an uncannily strong effort to resist the assumption that having converted to Islam, you must now immerse yourself in this cultural language that is not your own.
And yet, you can never truly be a part of that culture to which you are expected to assimilate. The earliest anxieties I can remember about Islam were directly linked to a feeling of being out of place in Muslim communities, not because of bits of culture I felt encouraged to adopt, but because of the explicit racism that litters our community. “I would never marry a black man,” a phrase that would have won a girl in my elementary school severe detention, parent-teacher conferences and possible sensitivity mentoring, became an almost weekly refrain—someone mentions the desire to marry, another person asks what kind of person they are looking for and inevitably up pops that sordid phrase. “ I would never marry a black man.” “My parents just wouldn’t accept a non-Arab.” “I’ll only marry a Khaliji.” “I just want a nice Indian guy.” And so it goes.
Of the many variations of this recurrent theme, “I just don’t think I could marry a non-Desi” became the one I heard the most. It might have stung even more that it came up, not in conversations among people who were strangers to me or those I might have been interested in, but in flippant comments shared amongst my group of friends—my Muslim friends who were examples of Islam for a person aspiring to be something better by way of this religion. People whom I expected to be good role models were, with no shame, so meticulously fluent in the language of racial bias. I spent a year keeping Islam at an arm’s length because of this cutting narrative and have remained hesitant about my ability to belong to this community long after.
Do I realize that much of these sentiments come from parents and communities in which Muslims live? Absolutely. Still, the “I don’t care about race, but I just need to respect my parents’ wishes” line I’ve heard more times than “Let’s find a place to pray” is an offensive and quite frankly cowardly copout. Respect is not obedience and honor is not acquiescence. There is an irony that is sardonically amusing in converts being told over and over again they need to understand the difficulty in going against the ways of convention.
We need to pause and reconsider the gravity of this offense. Whether derived from our own preferences or those of our parents, there is the assumption that the vast majority of the Muslim community is not good enough for us—based exclusively on their race. Were I the only one, I’d say call me oversensitive and let’s get on to more significant issues, but I’m not. I am hard-pressed to find a Muslim convert who hasn’t been rejected by the opposite gender, had an engagement broken or felt compelled to leave their faith on the basis of being maligned due to their race. And what hurts the most is my peers know it, yet treat it with relative apathy.
When I sift through words I have written in moments of passionate frustration on this issue, the emotional turmoil that overt racial bias has caused in me is striking. I describe myself as someone who is ‘worthless and powerless’ and the Muslim community as an ‘albatross on my back that suppresses my love, my dreams, my emotions and my whole religious existence.’ ‘I don’t want to be a Muslim,’ I write. ‘I’d be crazy to want this. I’m stuck being a Muslim because I happen to believe in a religion. This isn’t a community, it isn’t a family, and I don’t want to be a part of it.’
These sentiments were written at times where I felt especially lonely, lost and turned away. They are not emblematic of my over-all experience with or sentiments towards Muslims. But they are a major part of it. I find myself blessed because I am at a point in my life now where the people I am closest with are, for the most part, beyond this paradigm, but then I think to myself how truly disheartening that is—that among the unique, endearing qualities of those I love, amidst the special characteristics that set them apart from the larger Muslim community is their ability to see me beyond my race. In which century am I living?
This is a sincere appeal. I want to beg Muslims to not just take a long look in the mirror, but to make actionable change. I am asking Muslims to purge these stock phrases from our lexicon, to consider the feelings of exclusion they cause to Muslims who don’t belong to the larger ethnic group in a community, to flout the blatantly racist sentiments and conventions we know to be wrong, but we, ourselves, have been party to perpetuating for so long. As benign as it seems, simple phrases like “I’m just looking for a nice Pakistani man” are so painfully disheartening, loaded and paint a loathing self-image. When you are non-Arab, you aren’t good enough. When you are non-Afghani, you are worth significantly less. When you are non-Khaliji, you can never truly prove your own self-worth. When you are non-Desi, you are left wondering how much easier life would be if you were no longer Muslim and never had to worry about being non-Desi—non-Desi like me.
Photo Credit: Jano De Cesare
Adam Sitte is a writer based in Washington, DC working on civilian empowerment in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.