I’ve abandoned belief, but not my community
Not too long ago I was home for Eid, in the south of the United States, for the first time in years. I went to the mosque with my family, and in the crowded prayer hall I went through the motions of the celebratory prayer, feeling like a stranger in the congregation that once felt like family. Greeting the faces that I used to know, I realised that I had finally lost the sense of home that I used to associate with the mosque. That Eid prayer wasn’t my first after admitting to myself that I no longer believe, but it was my first time doing it without feeling bitter or confused. Even though I’ve now accepted my lack of belief, I still have trouble calling myself an atheist. Part of it is identity, but part of it is also an uneasiness with the narrative around Islam prevalent in the West.
My break with Islam was long and lonely. Being Muslim was central to my identity, and I was afraid of what it would mean to walk away. I did not belong to the culture of my parents, nor did I seem to fit in with mainstream America. But being Muslim was where I felt like I belonged entirely. As I grew older, I began to find my own voice through breaking away from our congregation, and learning about the Muslim feminist movement, which battles against misogyny in the name of Islam. Being a strong Muslim woman in America, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, was the only identity I knew, even though religious reflection and prayer were never priorities for me. The thought of shedding that identity – at least initially – made me feel naked and lost. I didn’t know who I would be without it.
For years, I tried to ignore my lack of belief, until I could no longer avoid it. I didn’t know how to talk about it. My close friends did not know that I was considering taking off my hijab, or that I was having the slow realisation that Islam did not suit me. Maybe I was worried about being judged, but I was more worried about a shift in who I was. The experiences I had as a Muslim still remain an important part of who I am today. Letting go of the label is something I’m reluctant to do – there’s a certain sense of finality that I’m not ready to face.
There’s also that part of me not ready to face my parents, since religion plays a huge role in their lives. Aside from off-hand references to verses or warnings against straying from the righteous path, my parents have mostly given up on asking me to pray or fast when I’m at home. It was only this time that I made a visit to the mosque, partly to make my mother happy, and partly because I’m still a little nostalgic for belief, and the world that comforted me so much growing up.
There’s also uncertainty about what might come next. Strangely enough, my first interactions with atheists weren’t far off from my experiences with Christians hell-bent on conversion. My friend’s boyfriend at university, for instance, was eager to shake me out of my Muslim ways through condescending monologues.
This theme of “saving Muslim women” has played a role in the public sphere too, particularly in debates around the niqab and hijab in public spaces, or immigration. Ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali has aggressively pushed the idea that Islam inherently oppresses women, once saying that while a Western woman “can choose her own lifestyle”, a Muslim woman holds “the honour of the man” between her legs. Hirsi Ali argues that a Muslim woman “has to be chaste so that [the man’s] honour can be preserved.”
While misogyny in the name of culture or religion is very real, there is no one-size-fits-all experience with Islam. It’s frustrating when such injustices are magnified, not to address them but to validate the hatred of an entire group of people. While many will claim that it is impossible to discriminate against a religion, in my past life as a hijabi I saw just how real Islamophobia can be. As more Muslims in the West seem to face discrimination and racism, it breaks my heart to see that suffering belittled or ignored by those who claim to have our “human rights” at heart. Islam was not right for me, but I had the room to figure that out. I have great respect for those who are attempting to reform the religion from within, and that’s what is important to me: making sure that people have the spaces that make them feel comfortable. Thankfully, atheists who have a more nuanced understanding of religion are continuing to become more visible. Perhaps one day that will give me the courage to speak in my own name.
Dina Mohammad is a pseudonym