There are some things you don’t realize are absent until they’re suddenly presented to you.
The uneasy consequences of erasure are exposed to me in subtle ways. I’ve learned to wait for a Christian to say “Merry Christmas” to me before I return it, because in my experience offering the greeting first results in the person assuming I’m a Christian. (People of other faiths celebrate Christmas socially, yet somehow this assumption is made anyway.) And “I won’t be celebrating, but I hope you have a happy Christmas” sounds excessive. My religious identity is important to me, and being mistaken for anything else, especially since my voice as a Muslim–and a Muslim woman–is so often and thoughtlessly erased, leaves me in silent hurtful distress.
When others say Ramadan Karim I don’t just assume they’re Muslim. In fact, I don’t even assume that someone saying “Merry Christmas” is Christian. As a religious minority the thought doesn’t even occur to me.
Sometimes the ways in which I am erased are overt: if I argumentatively defend a religious practice or belief that I happen to share with Christianity, I’m immediately assumed to be Christian. It takes all my resistance to keep from saying, I suspected you were already erasing me before with the premise that only Christians practice this and it’s not important to any religious minority, but thanks for the confirmation! What’s also frustrating is the other end: when people assume that because Islam has some similarities with Christianity, everything else must be the same. Christianity and Islam have very different histories, consequently have developed very different structures of organization, and some of the approaches to spirituality and law are more than just nuanced. They are expansively different. You don’t automatically know Islam or an Islamic perspective or approach just because you know Christianity.
Please stop imposing.
When I’m not being engulfed in the dominant religion, there are some ways of erasure that are more tiresome than hurtful: on one occasion in which my identity was revealed from the beginning, in a classroom setting, I had to fight the assumption that I was stereotypically obsessed with it. The professor grabbed the opportunity to assign me a presentation of parts of the lesson related to Islam. In real life, I spend more time being Muslim than discussing it, and I do have other interests.
On the one hand, I appreciated that I was given a voice, and I was already nervous about someone else covering it and would have chosen the subject anyway. But I don’t want it pushed on me like that. I wanted to have had the choice like everyone else.
Often I feel like I’m asking something absurdly difficult of the world.
I wish I could tell someone Merry Christmas without being branded as Christian, because it is such a lovely and thoughtful thing to say. I wish I could write as often about irregular galaxies and about scorpions glowing in the dark under ultraviolet light and about light traveling at one hundred eighty-six thousand miles a second as I do about Islam. I wish I didn’t feel a sinking obligation to constantly defend my existence and explain myself to the world, to worry that if I don’t write about this someone else–someone terribly misinformed–will.
A wood duckling can jump off its nest in a high hollow tree and fall 40 feet without getting hurt, dammit.
I’m lucky to have enough religious privilege where I even have the opportunity to be heard. People are more likely to listen to a disadvantaged monotheist than an underprivileged polytheist, or an atheist.
My first year of university, there was a woman in my logic class who constantly brought up her religion, which was a sect of Christianity (though I don’t know which) and would openly ask things like, “What would this philosopher say about Jesus?” But she never pushed it on anyone (though some may argue constant proclamations are a little sketchy?) and yet it still made me a little uncomfortable. However, one of my very close friends is Buddhist, and she’s given me books on Buddhist poetry to read without asking if I’d be interested and I didn’t find it threatening at all. It was moving, in fact, as it felt like she wanted to share something very personal and significant with me.
Even while I wanted to support my classmate’s enthusiasm for her religion there was a possibility that she might assume I’m Christian if I do, since Christianity is the default–and that really, really feels like erasure. This was an opportunity to share what our religions have in common and to bond over these similarities, not on a political level but a personal one, since her faith clearly meant so much to her, but there was a likelihood that she would define my identity for me as Christian before I told her I’m Muslim. And there was a possibility that if the fact that I’m Muslim did come up, she wouldn’t take it very well.
My friend, however, is of another religious minority, knew very well that I’m Muslim, and most importantly knew me as a person.
What’s most disheartening is when disadvantaged religious minorities have hostile, oppressive attitudes toward each other, and the situation becomes difficult when the hostility is understandable. On my way back from France in high school I met an Israeli Jewish woman on the plane who was on her way to Berkeley. I really liked her. I still really like her. But a couple hours into our conversation, the topic of Palestine arose, and with it, Islam.
She doesn’t know I’m Muslim. It’s not really something I announce, and her religion came up first. She didn’t announce it either: we were discussing something (I’ve forgotten now–something about her family) that led to its revelation.
She lost family to these violent, horrific war events. The best I could do was console and comfort her as she bled and sobbed over me, and remain silent as she cursed all Muslims everywhere. I brought her napkins and water and hugged her and listened attentively. We keep in touch to this day, and she adores me and still doesn’t know I’m Muslim. It hasn’t come up, and now I’m afraid that if and when it does she’ll feel horribly betrayed.