Why I’m no longer talking to …well, anyone… about religion

It is almost tempting to precursor any discussion regarding my faith with a goofy shrug and eyeroll – yeah, you know me, not one for night clubs! Implicit in these self-deprecating gestures is an acceptance that our beliefs are ripe for ridicule.

It is almost tempting to precursor any discussion regarding my faith with a goofy shrug and eyeroll – yeah, you know me, not one for night clubs! Implicit in these self-deprecating gestures is an acceptance that our beliefs are ripe for ridicule.

I’m quite a talkative person, but the one topic you’ll find me uncharacteristically silent on, if I dare utter it here, is religion.

It was shortly after I began looking into Islam beyond what I had passively absorbed as a child that I made the realisation that religion was never going to be my preferred topic of discussion. I had hints of this before I had fully started giving my faith any real thought. In situations where I was forced to show my hand, and admit to a religious belief or practice, responses would range from smirks and patronising head-tilts – as though I was literally talking about leprechauns and unicorns – to knee-jerk, defensive, and often hostile retorts. 

What I hadn’t bargained on was how pervasive this pendulum of public opinion, ranging from condescension to outright anger, swinging over puerility in the middle, was. And so, I’ve decided I will no longer be engaging in any form of religious discussion…

…because it’s never a genuine conversation

I have heard every social, scientific and economic case for the promotion of alcohol. I also know the intimate drinking habits of a fair few people.  And this is not because I have a strange obsession with gins and spirits, or because I spend my days facebook-stalking people I’m acquainted with; this is because I am subject to a barrage of word vomit whenever it becomes evident I don’t drink. Typical encounters often go along the lines of:

Random person: Are you joining us at the pub today?

Me: Erm, no, I’ve got a lot of work on.

Random person: Come after!

Me: I don’t really drink so-

Random and increasingly annoying person: Yeah but you know alcohol is an enabler don’t you? Studies show that red wine is actually good for your heart too. Doesn’t your Koran say its beneficial? I mean I only have one or two on the weekend, it’s just a bit of fun….

And so, the unsolicited soliloquy begins.  I have once again fallen into the barely concealed rhetorical traps. The signs are always there – the narrowing of the eyes before the initial question, as though there is some suspicion I’m a ‘religious’ type, I look about the ‘right’ shade of brown. And then the prepared, condescending diatribe, as though I hadn’t actually thought out my life choices for myself and need a good schooling in social ethics. As though being a passive subject to media hysterics regarding Islam makes you better informed on a way of life I’ve diligently studied. 

These conversations are almost always instigated to provide a platform for someone else to spout of their own views, to validate their own sense of self and flatter their own ego by fashioning me into the role of parochial, superstitious half-wit. They are performative, designed to exhibit the speaker’s superior rationality, empiricism, and demonstrate they are above the realms of faith and religious delusion. 

Often, they prove the opposite, and more than a few times I’ve found myself entertaining lengthy, tenuous hypothetical situations designed for an aimless ‘gotcha’ moment.

“So, like, what if you were in the desert and your GPS isn’t working, and your car broke down, and there’s no wifi and you have no other means of contact and all that you have left on you is a bottle of scotch – would you drink it then?”

These conversations are revealing in many ways, mostly they unearth a profound ignorance, but out of respect for the questioner, neither of us acknowledge the glaringly obvious fact that even if I managed to find myself lost in a desert, in the middle of North London, I still wouldn’t have any intoxicants on me. Although I hate to shatter any illusions, we don’t carry around a bag full of proscribed items ready for outlandish and surreal situations in which it becomes necessary to consume them. 

My particular favourite is when they throw in ‘I don’t mind you practising what you want, as long as you don’t force it on me’, having already lectured me, and without a hint of irony. The amount of grace required to be tolerant of someone’s ignorance and myopia, while being made to feel your existence is being tolerated.

See also – attempts to avoid shaking a man’s hand, having the temerity to take time out for private prayer. All are perceived at best, as exotic but misguided quirks, endured with tight lip smiles, and at worst attempts on my part to be controversial and difficult which provoke lengthy, passive aggressive ripostes. The idea that religious belief and thought is intellectually inferior to secular thinking is something that remains tacitly unaddressed in these exchanges, but which always hangs heavy in the air.

At a time when where we are increasingly encouraged to give less thought towards others, and where we are facilitated to obsess over ourselves, my actions are interpreted as an act of combative assertion or a casting of judgement towards others rather than a personal commitment I had made, for myself, to my faith. Most people seem to think that implicit in my actions is snide, self-righteous commentary on their own life choices, that now need defending.

…because they’ve already made up their minds

The most bizarre example of this phenomenon is the number of times I have been forced into a completely one-sided conversation. For instance, the time I had to explain to a personal trainer I would only uncover my hair during a workout when no men were present. To which she responded, that her children often come into her work out room. But that this was only innocent. They were only children. Children are ok. Why don’t you like children? Please don’t hurt the children.

Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. At the time I stood totally agog, wondering how I’d been talked into a conversation where I was a supposed child hater, and whether there was any point in contributing to a conversation I was only present in symbolically, whether it was possible to tiptoe out of the room and leave them there with their own crazy ramblings. 

And while there was no apparent malice in this ostensibly innocent exchange, or the countless others like it – how often I’m presumed to be on a personal mission to bring down Christmas for example, or the enduring belief that I’m offended by basically anything porcine related. It demonstrates how I am forced to play the role of a villain that is not of my own making. How on a micro scale, as an individual, I find myself losing a conversation someone else appears to be having with the spectre of a macro-scale Muslim villain that bears no resemblance to me, but the weight of which I am carrying on my shoulders.

…because Islamophobia is an acceptable prejudice

While liberal democracy appears to be going through an identity crisis of sorts, which overwhelmingly manifests itself in a ground swell of anti-Muslim bigotry – in the UK in particular we have a Prime Minister who appears to be comfortable deploying Muslim women as collateral damage for his own personal ambitions.

Whether it’s right-wing populist parties in Western Europe who shrewdly employ anti-Muslim sentiments as a proxy by which to position themselves in regards to a host of primary cultural issues, or American shock jockeys keen to cash in on the lucrative Islamophobia industry, or even third-wave feminists whose blind loyalty to ‘choice feminism’ and ironic inability to perceive Islam outside of patriarchal paradigms means they position themselves in opposition to Islamic thought. 

The accumulative affect is a concerted effort to vilify and scapegoat Muslim communities. Here in the UK, the fact that major newspapers are able to fabricate whole, front page stories maligning Muslims without causing any uproar is indicative of how little humanity is recognised in Muslims today. The Tower Hamlets fostering case and Trojan Horse scandal being two of the most obvious examples – the threat of Islam is depicted as being in our very homes, schools, and other public institutions. 

The fruits of this constant media onslaught are most obviously laid bare in the now infamous ‘Muslamic rayguns’ rant. Despite our outspoken maverick having consumed what appears to be an inordinate amount of alcohol (it’s a great enabler you know) he embodies the most accurate reflection of the media’s anti-Muslim narrative; a white noise of threat so great and so pervasive that there is no need to articulate it. It’s obvious isn’t it – Muslims are bad and that. Although his references are rambling and incoherent – and the joke is they make no apparent sense – you are able to piece together every popular reference, and find its root in every hyperbolic, inflammatory headline. 

That’s because the debate concerning Islam, designed to meet the ideological aims of a number of social agents and meaning makers, plays itself out in the media and other discursive contexts to paint a vague, omnipresent threat in the mind of the receiver. It’s a colour by numbers style template on terror – we know that Muslims have a different world view to us, it’s all to do with the dark ages and medieval philosophy.  

There is no attempt to engage with our texts, our beliefs, and our customs in any meaningful way. 

This is dangerous, not only because it shuts me up and denies ‘Random but annoying person’ the opportunity to put his best anti-Muslim argument to use, but because media and public discourse feed into policy, culture, and institutions. It leads to profiling of Muslims in schools and hospitals. It has resulted in larger numbers of Muslims being wrongly referred to Prevent, while right-wing extremism goes under-reported. It means our Muslamic Rayguns friend who has obviously been failed by the education system, will try to find blame in a community that is equally at a disadvantage.

…because we’ve learned to hate ourselves

As a Muslim I am in a unique position in which this reality is also mirrored in my own religious circles, as well as in non-Muslim circles. Upon adopting the hijab I was most frequently met with disdain from male relatives, despite the commonly held assumption from the outside world that it was one of these men that was behind my decision to cover.

This got worse at some Muslim gatherings where my mere presence in hijab was viewed as a literal attempt to remind everyone of their mortality. Aside from the few, confused, adolescent months I spent as a dark-eyeliner wearing emo, this has never been my intention. And as I began adopting a more modest, less mainstream aesthetic in the rest of my dress choices, I was again treated like I was walking around proclaiming loudly that I could see dead people.

To a whole host of secular Muslims, my mere presence as a visibly Muslim woman, before I even begin the task of opening my mouth, is irksome. There is a strange sense of guilt involved in this, as though my right to express myself religiously is done at the expense of members of my own community. This tension is amplified in public situations where I’m exposed to Muslims whose restless and agitated desire to express they are somehow more enlightened, modern, forward thinking than I am, means they are physically moved by seeing me.

It means in any gathering of Muslims you will find at least one self-identifying maverick figure desperately scanning the room for someone they can off load the five minutes worth of google research they’ve done, rallying against centuries of legitimate Islamic scholarly tradition.

Islam’s highly racialised construction in public imagination means that we exist in a strange overlap between religious and racial prejudice and are therefore not immune to native informants and uncle tom figures. Like many dominant ideologies, despite our best efforts, we often internalise narratives which place Muslims and Islam on a spectrum of ignorance and barbarism while placing secular, humanist thinking on the opposite end – as civil, rational and enlightened.

This means for many Muslims, we are facing a double prejudice, both from within and outside of our community. We are often too busy putting each other down in a vain attempt to curry favour or attain proximity to ‘whiteness’. (See: Sajid Javid.) That is not to say that religious debate should be stifled, but that perhaps debates regarding religion should be had through a more critical lens, rather than being rooted in orientalist notions of Islam. And of course the term proximity is key here, as even those of us who follow more traditionalist interpretations of Islam still appear to centre secular thinking, by defining our very existence and sense of legitimacy against secular sensibilities.

This is why, for example, many mainstream Muslims will engage in respectability politics and denigrate the niqab – because instead of using scriptural, religious reasonings by which to make moral judgements, we have begun to measure actions according to how they are perceived according to the secular gaze.

This thinking has also led to a number of false referrals to Prevent being made by fellow Muslims, the intra-community tensions over what it means to be Muslim are exacerbated by a hostile external climate. One that situates terror, barbarism and violence in Muslim-ness itself. Which has us using terms like ‘moderate Muslim’, as though the term ‘Muslim’ needs to be qualified.

This is also why, to pick a seemingly more innocuous example, we have begun apologising for our religious beliefs. It is almost tempting to precursor any statement regarding my faith with a joke , often accompanying our religious assertions is a shrug and eye roll – “no, not even water!” Implicit in these self-deprecating gestures is an admission that our beliefs are ripe for ridicule. Islam and Islamic practice is not only deemed intellectually inferior in popular opinion because it is a non empirical belief system, but it is also widely infantilised, because of Islam’s perceived asceticism and social ideas around abstinence and exposure. This leads to large swaths of Muslims self- infantilising, and being apologist, and is also why a host of Islamic practices are framed as something we need to grow, progress and move on from – they are deemed a transitionary phase.

…because we sometimes forget our own history and tradition

Which brings me to the final, and perhaps most tragic, point – that we’ve lost the ability to adopt a truly Prophetic approach when it comes to the art of naseeha and in areas of religious disagreement. My earliest memories of the masjid are marred, in almost every instance, by an older Muslim woman reprimanding me in a language unknown to me, for my dress choices or where I placed my hands. This led to a fear of religious institutions that I carried well into my twenties. 

Naseeha is of course always encouraged according to Islamic thought, but we have many strong examples in our religious history of this being done with the utmost respect and with hikmah. We are also encouraged to make seventy excuses for our Muslim brothers and sisters before we assume the worst and feel justified to impart judgement. 

Our total inability to engage with each other on matters of religious dispute, or when it comes to offering religious advise, is why, in discussions with even my closest friends, there appears to be a reticence when it comes to issues such as make up or less orthodox dress choices – the assumption being that I may deem those around me that are less ostensibly ‘practicing’ in this regard, as inferior to me or that I might extend judgement for a perceived religious shortcoming. That this appears to overshadow even my closest personal relationships means that, at times, I have lost hope of us having responsible and mature discussions as a wider ummah. 

Having been on both ends of this tensions – as someone that has been on the receiving end of harsh, religious reprimand and as someone that’s now feared on account of my own current commitment to Islam – I can see that we could all benefit from a kinder debate, one that begins from a position of understanding and attempted reconciliation. 

But for now, I’ve perfected my own polite, tight lipped smile when I see a chat going in a certain direction, refusing to dip my toe in conversation. I artfully steer the direction onto safe terrain when I think we’re hitting rocky waters. I resist the strong, and admittedly juvenile, desire I have to stalk our culturally Muslim friends who oppose religious orthodoxy in dark clothing, and with a deadpan stare. And I’ve sometimes been known to offer tips and prompt people in their pro-alcohol tirades when I feel they’re lacking imagination, and in order to derail their trajectory.

And this is because I don’t feel the need to qualify myself, or see someone else’s barely masked prejudice as a reflection on me and my life choices, and there is a liberation and sense of contentedness in that. It might also be because I’m hiding that my inner emo does actually want to bring down Christmas. Who knows.