I don’t really remember 9/11 happening — I was only 6 years old at the time.
But I do remember the consequences for my Arab-Muslim immigrant family.
Only a few months earlier, we had emigrated from the Middle East to Vancouver, Washington. Suddenly my father started calling himself Kyle instead of Khaled. My mother nicknamed me Mike in public for my own safety.
We weren’t the most religious family to begin with, but even our small adherences to our culture became more infrequent and toned down.
As a result, growing up I was only taught about Islam in bits and pieces. At such a young age, it was difficult to process learning about the cultural traditions of our old home in Jordan while simultaneously trying to learn the language and customs of our new home in Washington.
Losing my religion
“I couldn’t sit down with my kids and just teach them what my mother did,” my mom reflected when I asked her recently why I didn’t have a more religious upbringing. “They were learning English, how to make friends, and all kinds of new things in a new place.”
I was indeed learning a lot of new things. But adapting to a new culture also trained me to think critically, and I applied that criticism to the few Islamic teachings I got from her.
The lessons I do remember sounded more like “do this” or “don’t do this” simply because “God said.” I never internalized the few explanations of why. Religion seemed arbitrary to me and I slowly rejected spirituality in favor of figuring out the here-and-now of my life.
“We knew we would be depriving our kids of a lot of their culture, but it was a matter of give and take,” my father says reflecting on the decision to immigrate. “Education here was going to be better, you can speak your mind much more — that stuff partially makes up [for] the sacrifices.”
He’s probably right overall, but Arabs, Muslims and even South Asian people of color who are mistaken for either have certainly not had it easy in the U.S. recently.
“Saying you’re Muslim makes people uncomfortable,” says Ashraf Hasham, a 25-year-old Seattleite whose parents emigrated from Pakistan when he was just a baby. “It’s not like I care about making them uncomfortable, but you choose your battles. It’s a safety issue.”
Learning to be a secular Muslim
The times I had those kinds of awkward interactions when I was younger, it only made me resent my identity, and pushed me further toward secularism. I didn’t want to be Arab or Muslim. I didn’t want to be “othered” in any sense (as the professor Edward Said called the sensation of being from the east and living in the west).
But as much as I wanted to distance myself from being Arab and Muslim in that time, I was also aware of a difference between my identity and the white American classmates I was trying so hard to emulate. For some reason it was acceptable for them to be non-practicing Christians. They’d never be lumped into the same category as Christian fundamentalists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any other practicing Christians. They just got to be “normal” Americans.
But I couldn’t even find a proper term for a non-practicing Muslim until I was much older and learned what “secular” meant. As far as anyone was concerned, my name was Mohammed, which made me the same kind of Muslim as the jihadi plotting a terror attack on TV.
As much as I wanted to be what I thought was “normal,” there was no opting out of being Muslim.
As I grew older, the dissonance became more real, and the duality of my identity began to weigh on me. I don’t look Arab. I’m not dark. I’m not hairy (I can’t really even grow a beard). I don’t have any noticeable accent.
Other Arabs I meet are surprised to hear me speak Arabic. White people I meet and introduce myself to as “Moh” are surprised to find out I’m not actually white and that Moh is short for Mohammed. I don’t quite belong to either group.
Ashraf Hasham’s path to becoming a secular Muslim was different.
“My elementary school was probably the most diverse school I went to,” Hasham said. “That was the beginning of my not-so-devout, not-really-included, but also not-wanting-to-be-included attitude.”
The diversity Hasham was exposed to growing up didn’t leave him with the impression that fitting into one group was best. He was secular just because he wanted to be. In contrast, my upbringing in wealthy, white Vancouver gave me one type of peer and role model to liken myself to and aspire to be.
For a long time, I was so busy thinking about how difficult it was for me, that I never slowed down to appreciate how difficult immigrating here was on my parents. Watching their children all but renounce their religion could not have been easy, especially when they knew it was partly driven by their decision to move to the U.S.
“Stereotypes have gotten out of hand, it’s not easy to be a Muslim here,” my dad said recently. He lived here in the early ’80s when he attended the University of Puget Sound, before I was born, and returned to the Middle East soon after to start our family. “I used to defend America back there, and now it’s reversed here. Now I have to defend Arabs and Muslims.”
I realized from speaking with my dad that the interactions where my identity made people uncomfortable, or where I felt “othered” were the result of monolithic perceptions of other cultures.
Ironically, those kinds of misperceptions seem to transcend cultural boundaries: The Arab world sees America as a land of entitled hedonists and America sees the Middle East as a backwards, fundamentalist wasteland. There’s not much room for nuance.
In both cases, the perceptions are gross generalizations about what is actually diverse group of people. It’s harmful for both sides to think like this, but it’s especially damaging for immigrants, because those generalizations follow them, and ultimately end up stunting the way they perceive themselves.
For me, it turned wanting to simply be a secular Muslim, like plenty of people back in Jordan are, into a desire to assimilate and forget my roots altogether.
Just like me, Hasham says he doesn’t feel overtly religious today. But he points out that that shouldn’t prevent us from paying homage to and being proud of where we are from, and wanting to pass that on.
“I identify as Muslim now, mostly to pay respect to where I came from and how I grew up,” Hasham said. “I want my kids to be raised in the same sort of way I was raised, because Islam gives you some great moral values, just like any religion.”
Maybe I should take a page from his book.