Sunday, December 15, 2013

I am a Muslim but I am not...

Mohamed is a teacher in Tazarine. He is well-educated, articulate and incredibly devoted to his students. Mohamed got married last Spring and his wife is five months pregnant. They live in a small apartment and I often sit with them for tea, for lavish vegetarian meals and to catch up on Turkish soap operas. They are a young couple in North Africa hoping for a bright future for their growing child. Mohamed is not an extremist.

Aicha is a housewife and mother. She attends my aerobics classes, loves her children dearly and is one of the funniest people I've met in Morocco. Despite the language barrier, she waits patiently as I stumble over my explanations and I can hear her sarcasm through the misunderstandings. Aicha has threatened to tie me up and not let me return to the U.S. - in the nicest way possible. Aicha never misses a single prayer, but has never hinted at my conversion to Islam. Aicha is not a fundamentalist. 

Boushra is a senior in high school, hoping to pass her exams and study English in Rabat next year. She listens to Green Day and the Killers, loves Adam Lambert and would fit in better as a punk child in the 1980's than as a veiled teenager in Tazarine. She writes, reads and lives in other worlds - hoping to study her way into a different path than her mother. Boushra's father has abandoned the family for another life in Europe, but her mother continues to support her four children in their education. Boushra is not a terrorist.

During a recent cultural session in Rabat young educated Moroccans were asked to complete this sentence, "I am a Muslim but I am not..." The responses were honest, heart-breaking and predictable. To the West, Muslims are viewed as a single entity of fundamentalists and radicals. Despite our own religious diversity, we fail to see that the same nuances exist in a major world religion. It appears that our open culture has its' limits: "Nearly half of Americans would be uncomfortable with a woman wearing a burqa, a mosque being built in their neighborhood or Muslim men praying at the airport. Forty-one percent would be uncomfortable if a teacher at the elementary school in their community were Muslim(1)." Land of the selectively free.

I've recently become addicted to the TV series "Homeland" which follows a CIA agent specializing in the Middle East and a recently returned POW turned national hero. The drama is exciting, but it is the show's portrayal of Islam that interests me the most. At times the religion is treated with respect, at other moments it feels like Islam is the primary villain in the series. A female veiled Muslim CIA agent was introduced in the third season - her opening shot was one of suspicion, judgement and hatred from the camera. After the 'second 9/11' the acting head of the CIA tells her "You wearing that thing on your head (hijab) is one big 'fuck you' to the people who would have been your co-workers." From the perspective of her co-workers, she is guilty until proven innocent.

Perhaps unfairly, I expect more from religious Americans. Growing up in a conservative Christian area, I like to think that all the friendly families would be open-minded about Muslims moving into the neighborhood. Surely discrimination and bigotry are trumped by a good dose of Church, right? Sadly I've found that some of the most religious people I know are also the most narrow-minded about U.S. Muslims. Instead of seeing what we share in common, they are focused on what divides us. Interestingly, "Nearly two-thirds of US Muslims, 63 percent, say there is no inherent tension between being devout and living in a modern society. A nearly identical proportion of American Christians, 64 percent, feel that way(2)." US Muslims are some of the most progressive in the world, in fact, I would probably find some of their acceptable 'behaviors' to be shocking after living in Morocco.

The religious and cultural tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, the Middle East and the West aren't disappearing quickly. Technology continues to make the world smaller, but that doesn't mean our hearts and minds follow. I have my list of grievances against Islam, but Moroccans struggle with their faith and country as well. The outside world stereotypes them as terrorists, fundamentalists, Islamists and fanatics instead of mothers, artists, revolutionaries, and dreamers. Over the last two years, I've asked Moroccans to see me as a person and not just as an American, an outsider. It's my hope that we extend the same courtesy.


  1. this is such an important point to make-- and so well written!! We've got to keep pushing!

  2. Thank you so much for writing this, Kyla! This was one of the huge things I learned when I spent time in the Middle East, and it's not always easy to articulate. Well done.

    Speaking of grievances, it's interesting to ponder how many I have with Christianity (or certain aspects of it), as well . . . every religion has its negative sides.

  3. Thanks for you input - it's one issue that really resonates with me. It's already so difficult to be a an outsider in a country, but when people make these harsh and unfair judgement about you based on the way you look or your religion, it's incredibly isolating. Allison, I completely agree with having grievances with Christianity. I feel that tension of completely believing in something but feeling so furious with the way it's played out in reality.