Yes, there is such a thing as a secular Muslim

The duality of being a secular Muslim. (Illustration by Mohammed Kloub)
(Illustration by Mohammed Kloub)

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.”

My parents sacrificed a lot to bring my sisters and I here, including the ability to fully immerse us in our culture. (Courtesy photo
My parents sacrificed a lot to bring my sisters and I here, including the ability to fully immerse us in our culture. (Courtesy photo)

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.

Monolithic misperceptions

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've kept an English translation of the Qur'an with me since I came to college, to remind me of my roots and help me learn more about them. (Photo by Mohammed Kloub)
I’ve kept an English translation of the Qur’an with me since I came to college, to remind me of my roots and help me learn more about them. (Photo by Mohammed Kloub)

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Much of what you wrote seems nonsensical to me. To wit:
    “For some reason it was acceptable for them (your peers in school) 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.”

    There’s no such thing as a “non-practicing Christian”, any more than there’s a “non-practicing Scientologist” or “non-practicing Satanist”. A person is a Christian because of their practice and their faith. If they lack that, they’re not a Christian. Q.E.D.

    For that matter, there’s no such thing as a “non-practicing Muslim”, or “secular Muslim”. I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so here’s my argument:

    1. There could be no Islam without Muhammad.

    2. Muhammad was adamant that all Muslims must follow the dictates set forth in the Qur’an, such as those that require prayer, avoiding unclean foods, etc., and that anyone who did not follow these prescriptions and proscriptions, could not be a Muslim.

    3. Muhammad was equally adamant that the Qur’an, as directly dictated to him by Allah, was the perfect word of god and that consequently, not one letter of one word could EVER be changed, for to do so would be to contradict or reject Allah. Anyone who tried to do so would, by definition, be apostate and therefore, not a Muslim.

    The combination of those three factors make it impossible for anyone to be secular or non-practicing, and still be a Muslim. At the most, such people take on some of the superficial trappings of Islam, in the same way that the average WASP American who supports the US military’s “adventures” overseas, accumulates wealth and is indifferent to the poor and destitute cannot possibly be a “Christian”, no matter how much they might like to profess otherwise. The core of Christianity is to follow Christ’s teachings and example. No following = no Christian. We all watched with bemusement during the campaign as Donald Trump professed to be a devout Christian, but no one with any intellectual honesty and understanding of Christianity would be able to buy that for a second.

    Finally, this: “Islam gives you some great moral values, just like any religion.” Like Scientology? -like the Aum Shinrikyo sect? – the People’s Temple? -Heaven’s Gate? -The Children of God? The reality is that religions are also carriers for countless bad ideas and bad values. They are inherently divisive and controlling. They too often provide the prescriptive justification for all manner of completely immoral things, from the genital mutilation of girls to the shunning of nonbelieving family members to the execution of apostates. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say that “Islam (or any other religion) gives you some great moral values” without ALSO accepting that Islam gives you some terrible moral values, which leaves you no justification whatsoever for such religions. What is sounds like you’re *really* trying to say is that you want to retain some of your cultural background. OK, but that’s not being a Muslim of *any* legitimate kind.

    1. A brilliant comment, Robert. There is no such entity as a “secular Muslim” or a “secular Christian” – in spite of what these people might call themselves. You either believe in and follow your “God” or you don’t – you cannot do both.

    2. Thanks Robert, you have Just made my day. I am a Muslim, from Jordan and I agree with what you said, except for the “bad values” part :)

      Gonna say this in Arabic “Moh” hope you read it. خزيتنا بين القبايل والعربان تخزيك يالله

  2. I Googled “Are their secular muslims?” after tiring of hearing the same old claim that the sole mission of all Muslims is to do destroy all other races, religions and cultures in favor of populating the world with an army of Muslims by any means necessary; that the Qur’an advocates violence and therefore, all Muslims must have an agenda to violently destroy the rest of us. That idea just never sat well with me, as I’ve interacted with many kind and peaceful individuals who identify as Muslim. I was very happy to find your article and get an honest perspective from someone in your shoes.

    Unlike Robert, I don’t find your thoughts nonsensical at all. There are fundamentalists among Muslims, just as there are among Jews and Christians. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m thankful I’ve been taught to look at a person’s qualities and to be impartial just as the Hebrew God is impartial.

    Thank you, Mohammed, for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I think this article is of value in helping others to see that we are all in this together, sharing the common (if varied culturally) basic problems that afflict humanity. I will definitely be sharing this well-written article for others to read.

  3. There are four kinds of Muslims. 1 Secular Muslims, 2 Confused Muslims, 3 Criminal Muslims 4 Extremist Muslims. I am a secular Muslim who believes in “living and let others live.”

    Your faith, your color, your nationality or cast does not matter to me whatsoever. However, at the same time, I can not and will not leave the five pillars of Islam which are Faith, Prayer, Charity, Fasting, and Pilgrimage (If I can afford).

    Have a great day.

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