Interfaith Relations: Erasure

Because I’m a religious minority, it is always surprising and pleasant when there is some sort of friendly acknowledgement of my existence in everyday life, outside of depressing news stories. Receiving a Ramadan Mubarak or Ramadan Karim or simply “Happy Ramadan” from distant acquaintances and classmates when I’ve disclosed I’m on my way to break the fast feels like an incredible courtesy of immense kindness.

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.

24 thoughts on “Interfaith Relations: Erasure

  1. Oh Nahida, amazing post. I've experienced some of that stuff too — every time I'm defending religion on Feministe I want to put NOT A CHRISTIAN MYSELF across every reply. I'm grateful for the opportunity to educate myself with your posts and discussions on Islam, but I hope you get a chance to write about irregular galaxies and glowing scorpions too, because that would be awesome.

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  2. It was generous of you to comfort your friend. Like you, I possess many qualities that are not apparent and would startle people, so I'm frequently in that same position. I choose, like you, to be nice despite the shortcomings and prejudices others have. I admire you for that.

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  3. 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 …A wood duckling can jump off its nest in a high hollow tree and fall 40 feet without getting hurt, dammit.Please, do write about that too. One your post like that felt like poetry, only in prose. I think you should tell this to the woman, explain her how it happened. In her place I would want to know, it should be her choice what to do with it all.

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  4. Yeah, Nahida, I know it's weird to bring up your religion out of nowhere, but it might be even harder on her if you go further into the friendship. She may see it as cruel, instead of you being respectfully silent and centering on her experiences. I don't think you should wait until she asks or it comes up.

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  5. I choose, like you, to be nice despite the shortcomings and prejudices others have. I admire you for that. Cosigned. It is really admirable, sweet, and nearly pristine that you put her pain before your defenses.

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  6. Yes, it must have been difficult as you are mostly pro-Palestine.In real life, I spend more time being Muslim than discussing it, and I do have other interests.Sadly, this is true for many minorities. The world will only see one side of us, our expression is limited to their expectations.You're a wonderful person, Nahida, with extraordinarily intricate dimensions. Some of your posts here are truly beautiful. I hope you can write more of them.

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  7. Just wanna say that I look forward to *all* your articles, Nahida, including on wood ducks and astronomy.I've engaged in erasure of Muslims, I'm sure – certainly in the "someone says Merry Christmas means they *must* be Christian" (which erases all non-Christians). I need to stop doing that.Ramadan Mubarak, all!

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  8. you were already erasing me before with the premise that only Christians practice thisWhat was the practice in question? I know Islam and Christianity share beliefs, but practices?

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  9. Unfortunately, in a majority, you will still be a minority.Because 99.9% of Muslim countries and/or Muslim-dominated countries are patriarchal and literal to an extent that actually distorts the eternal message of the Quran.I've been called a Kafira, have heard people say that the limits of Allah* of حرابة which means "armed robbery" needs to be applied onto me and anyone else who supports the DV proposed bill in Lebanon.And, even though I'm firm in my beliefs, I won't deny it. It does hurt. And at some point, I'd rather people assume I'm non-muslim than know that I'm muslim, but state that I'm a kafira** anyway.*The limits in this case are either: cutting off the hands and feet, or killing, or crucifying.**This is not to be offensive to any non-muslims. Kufr means to deny, and in this context it simply means to deny the message of Islam.

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  10. Oh zeina, that's terrible! I'm so sorry. I have no words. How vicious! Insha'Allah, things will improve in the future and their lies and patriarchal distortions will be revealed. Until then I hope you stay safe and strong.

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  11. This post was interesting, as I tend to have the opposite experience. Living in a generally secular place like Australia, where the vast majority who celebrate Christmas are secular/agnostics/atheists/non-religious types rather that religious christians; means I tend to assume that anyone who greets me with a 'Merry Christmas' is just irreligious like me unless they specify otherwise.But as someone from a Pakistani muslim family with a 'muslim' sounding name, I can't tell you the number of times people have assumed I was muslim myself! I tend not to talk about religion with people I've just met so it can get bit awkward when a muslim colleague or acquaintance throws in a 'Ramadan Kareem' when they find out you're Pakistani and wonders why you are not fasting. And I'd rather not irk muslim people I meet by telling them I'm not a believer. Believe me, it gets irritating when strangers ascribe a religious status to you on the basis of your name/ethnicity. So as a brown agnostic, I'd like some of that 'muslim erasure' of which you speak!

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  12. Every time someone submits an Anonymous comment Nahida eats her eyelashes. =PHow rude of them to ask why you're not fasting in the first place! That's no one's business. Muslims don't fast for a number of reasons: diabetes, mesntruation, breast-feeding, not actually being Muslim, etc. =P How strange that they would ask!

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  13. IP stalker. :PSeriously while I would say Australia is less religious than the US, rural NSW feels a lot like parts of the rural US South. I don't think even Sydney is exempt from religious privilege. o.O

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  14. Ramadan Mubarak, Nahida! Much better than mine, I hope! May Allah accept your fast and reward you greatly for it. Speaking of things you should be rewarded for- patience. It takes a lot of patience to sit and listen to someone curse your religion and your people. To not only remain calm but to comfort her as well is probably the most Muslim thing you could have done in that situation. That's really something to be proud of. Allah gave you a situation to be patient in and you were. How many of us Muslims would have passed such a test? How many of us Muslims would have been able to be that compassionate; to be that Muslim? The most effective way of giving dawah is not through words but through actions. Nahida, if she were to find out that you're Muslim, I can only pray that she would let your actions define what it is to be Muslim and that she would be very pleased with that definition.

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  15. Hadiyah! Alhamdulillah, my Ramadan has been good and Insha'Allah yours will get better! Thank you so much for the kind words, and best wishes to you and your family, and the newest member! <3 How beautiful, many blessings.

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  16. I experienced Muslim erasure in a Muslim setting by a Muslim teacher (of the same ethnicity as me, and in my country ethnicity and religion coincides 99.5%) teaching a white man about Islam, as I sat beside him. Now, that really hurt!

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