I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend about the Muslim identity. We were talking about how Muslim identity is different for Muslims here compared to those in Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh. He brought up an interesting point about how here, in the US, Muslims have to actively go against the grain to be Muslim and maintain a Muslim identity. In countries like Bangladesh, people are just considered to be Muslim by default, and not necessarily by their actions.
His points made me reflect on my own identity. I was born in California to parents originally from Bangladesh. I grew up in a predominantly white, suburban city. Despite growing up in a primarily non-Muslim environment, attending regular halaqas, Sunday schools, our local masjid and being part of the Muslim community instilled in me a strong Muslim identity and set of ideas of what it meant to be Muslim.
Often this identity was defined as going against the mainstream culture. In school, my Muslim identity was defined by not eating pepperoni pizza, being the only hijabi in school, and not dating. My mom was pretty strict when it came to a lot of things, and often justified not letting me participate in activities with my non-Muslim friends, such as sleepovers, because “we weren’t American” or “we weren’t like them.” I would just obediently listen to my mom and go with what she said, even if it sucked. But it always led to a certain sense of alienation from my non-Muslim friends because I knew that I could never do everything that they did.
I was lucky enough that my family was able to go to Bangladesh relatively often. It was always interesting to see the contrast there among my cousins. They saw everyone as Muslim by default and thought people should practice, but they, in general, seemed to be more relaxed about practicing. One aspect I found particularly interesting was how they always seemed to be very amused that I was born and raised in the US, and was a practicing Muslim.
People would often be very surprised that I wore hijab, or prayed, because they assumed growing up in a non-Muslim country, I wouldn’t be Muslim at all – that somehow my Muslim identity was directly linked to the dominant environment I grew up in.
A question that I always found particularly interesting was how shocked some people were by the fact that I did not date. I will never forget the shocked look on one of my cousin’s faces when I told her I did not have a boyfriend.
“You don’t have a boyfriend?!! What?!”
That was always interesting for me because it seemed like it had become a very common trend for youth my age to casually date, and not think it was wrong in any way. While I definitely had Muslim friends in the US who did date, I also had a lot of friends who like me, did not date and were raised with the view that as Muslims, we shouldn’t date, that dating is something non-Muslims do. But somehow, I realized that thought did not even occur to my cousins in Bangladesh, as that was such a normal occurrence. Dating was in no way linked to the Muslim identity, as it was for me.
I know that oftentimes growing up in a predominantly non-Muslim environment, I had wondered what it would be like to live in a Muslim majority country. I had often dreamed of how much easier everything would be, as Islam would be part of the culture. And while in many aspects that is true, I also wonder if I would have been as critical towards my Muslim identity.
I wonder if I would have just been Muslim by default, or it would have been a more active choice for me as it has been growing up in the US.