Growing up Muslim, except not really
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 23:10
This is only my third semester at UConn, so I am still very much in the midst of meeting new people. During these introductory meetings there are always the inevitable questions getting to know basic information about someone, such as their major or hometown. From personal experience, I almost always end up getting asked about ethnicity at some point. I know I look Middle Eastern, which isn’t surprising considering both my parents are from Iran, and I don’t have a big problem with people asking because I’d rather they ask than just assume I am Indian, Pakistani, or in an extreme outlier case, Portuguese. However, what I find more interesting is the topic of religion.
It’s often assumed that I am Muslim and that assumption is often based on my ethnicity. Iran is a heavily Islamic nation and thus it would make sense for me to be Muslim. The majority of my family members in Iran are practicing Muslims. However, in my household, my parents never made religion a part of our daily life. Growing up, my brothers and I never participated in any religious practices whether it was prayer, attending a mosque or fasting. If anything, we were more exposed to Catholicism having gone to a Catholic middle school and high school. I would consider myself the furthest thing from one who practices the faith of Islam, but from society’s viewpoint, I still grew up as a “Muslim”.
The main reason for this is that religion has, in some ways, become tied to ethnicity. Technically speaking, anyone can be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or any other religion. Religion, by definition, is a belief system and has no bearing on your ethnicity. You can change your beliefs, but not where you came from. Yet there is still stigma attached to ethnicity such as considering Middle Eastern individuals are Muslim by default. For example, discriminatory security practices in airports, something that has affected my family and I in the past, are not based off of religion, but rather ethnicity and the color of your skin. Through acts like these, the fear of Islam has become both religious discrimination and racial discrimination.
When a debate arose over building a mosque near Ground Zero, I was affected very personally. It wasn’t because I would be going to pray there anytime soon. It was because of the mentality that failed to separate the religion from the people. Effectively, people were saying that it wasn’t the psychopathic extremists that caused the devastating attack on 9/11, it was the religion, and any symbol of that religion would be disrespectful. It would be similar to protesting the building of a church because of the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church. This mentality continues today. After the attacks in Boston, there were talks among conservative news anchors of wire-tapping mosques and limiting visas to students from Muslim countries. Again, this ideology fails to separate the individual from the religion. Not only is it assuming that Islam is a threat, but it also assumes that anyone coming from a Middle Eastern country is a Muslim and therefore also a threat.
Each of these issues roots back to education, or the lack thereof, many Americans have on the Middle East and Islam. Just like Christianity, Islam has multiple sects, such as Shiite and Sunni, but these distinctions are rarely made in political discourse. Countries in the Middle East vary drastically in religion, culture, language and other variables, but they often get treated as a single amorphous blob of subcontinent. Individuals within each of those countries vary to an even greater extent, but aren’t treated as such because it is easier to group people together and make generalizations about a similar characteristic.This doesn’t just apply to Muslims or Middle Eastern individuals, as it can happen with almost any group that is generalized. It is important to create a distinction between the actions of a certain individual and those that share similar characteristics, whether it is ethnic background, religious beliefs, political party affiliation, gender, or whatever else.