The Realities of Being a Secular Muslim in the Modern World

By Little Brown Feminist for The Radical Notion

muslim

Religion and spirituality are incredibly personal, human endeavors; a way to make sense of our surroundings, of our communities and the global tragedies that occur. Religion is meant to be an internal form of understanding but historical human intervention meant that religion became interlaced with politics, law, and the patriarchy. Patriarchal involvement was inevitable, since the majority forms of power have been male dominated for centuries (and remain so). Many judge Islam as a patriarchal institution – as a violent, non-feminist, misogynistic religion that is not keeping to Western ideals of freedom and democracy. What many aren’t aware of is how carefully constructed this image is, through historical interpretation to modern consumer media.

Islam has been in the spotlight for the last fifteen years. I was ten years old when 9/11 happened; I remember my horror witnessing the images on the news, and the teachers making a speech about it the next day in our school assembly. I remember the panic my family felt for their relatives living in New York – at first for their physical safety, and soon afterwards because of what their Muslim identity would mean to their neighbours.

Personally, I have struggled with this aspect of my identity: I’m not religious, I haven’t read the Qua ‘ran in many years. I have issues with the patriarchal interpretations of the holy texts that were constructed to limit Muslim women’s bodies and rights. If I had to identify myself, I would say that I am a secular Muslim. For a long time, due to not following religious rules, I felt that I was a terrible Muslim. Many would probably agree with this sentiment.

But before 9/11, being a secular Muslim in the Western world was close to becoming the norm; particularly for the children of immigrants, who were born and raised in Europe or the USA. In countries such as Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, many citizens are secular even though they follow the main tenets of the religion. With the rise of ISIS, Boko Haram and other extremist groups, as well growing Islamophobia, it has created an implicit pressure to prove your Muslim identity.

This has developed in various ways with different generations. Many young Muslim men are growing out their beards; although there is no religious obligation, there has been an increase in girls and women wearing headscarves and hijabs in the UK. I know many young Muslim women who had no wish to cover themselves prior to 9/11 or 7/7 in London – now however, there is an amplified reason to do so. This is despite the fact that it makes them more susceptible to violence.

Many believe that these changes are important, as physical forms of expressing their religious belief. It makes the person feel unified with their community, particularly at a time when there are such visceral modes of opposition. However whether intentional or not, these acts can be seen as political as well as personal. They are also another way to protect gender divisions that the patriarchy has created.

As someone who has chosen to not join this form of religious protest, there is pressure to ‘pick a side’. There are many who claim secularism to be ‘anti-Muslim’ because you are not a ‘true believer’, essentially siding with those who promote Islamophobia. This feels disingenuous when there are many who wish Islam to become more conservative for their own purposes, including increasing traditional attitudes in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia and Iran.

At times it feels that being a feminist, secular Muslim I am purposefully disconnecting myself to those I grew up with in my community. Years ago, I would have claimed to have been simply agnostic; whereas now it seems easier to explain my identity as secular, and allow people to think of it whatever they will. For those who believe it is more important than ever to signify your faith, claiming to be secular can come across as traitorous and opposing it. However, what many do not understand about the after effects of 9/11 are that it not only opposed Western ideals but also stripped the Islamic religion of nuanced flexibility.

I do not disagree with the religion itself; despite the way Muslim history has been portrayed through patriarchal forms, Islam can be argued to be a feminist religion. There are Muslim feminist scholars who are re-interpreting the holy texts to outline the religion’s feminist stance. I am a believer of free will; if faith provides contentment and empathy, then so be it. However, if we become preoccupied by the minutia which highlights our differences, it can create divides and misconceptions on either side about a person’s intentions. You only have to glance at the new American President’s policies to see how misconceptions and hate have jaded our view on 1.6 billion humans around the world. By reacting with fear on top of fear, the Western ideals of democracy are destroyed, ironically fueling the very action they claim to oppose.

In times like these, it is difficult to claim your lack of faith for a religion that is being persecuted in such fashion. It is perceived as disloyal and a distancing tactic, when solidarity is needed more than ever. I was proud to see the ‘I am Muslim too’ rally that happened in NYC in February; activists called for compassion and unity, at a time where citizens are being denied their human rights simply for their religious identity. I feel this understanding should be extended to those who are secular as well, by those who are part of the religion that means ‘peace’.


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