Gender & Identity, Life

I’m a “not-so-good” Muslim

I am possibly the lamest rebel on the planet though.

They were terms I had never defined for myself, but after listening to the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, I realized they were very much ideas that I had unwittingly internalized.

For those of us who aren’t familiar with it, the new podcast series #GoodMuslimBadMuslim features Tanzila ‘Taz’ Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh, who look at the factors that categorize us as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ within our own communities and among non-Muslims. Inspired by a hashtag conversation on the subject, they present a dichotomy where the actions that make them good to one group are used to condemn them by the other side. Basically, they can’t win.

For a lot of Muslim-Americans, particularly those from immigrant origins, this is a sentiment we can relate to. Perhaps it is because our parents’ idea of propriety is at odds with contemporary American culture, but there is definitely a disparity in what is expected of us depending on the circles we travel in. The good Muslim/bad Muslim rhetoric has certainly shaped my own life, but I am not sure where I fall on that scale. Maybe it is something I can declare for myself before someone else has a chance to label me, but would I really want to be someone else’s definition of ‘good’? How can I place myself in a dichotomy that I didn’t create?

The idea that there are good and bad Muslim attributes affects my behavior despite my reservations with the terminology. What it means to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Muslim woman is definitely complicated, but it keeps cropping up in the way in which I categorize myself in relation to other Muslim women. I find myself censoring my exploits when I’m around my ‘good’ Muslim friends so as to not startle their delicate sensibilities and keeping quiet around my ‘bad’ Muslim friends, because my experiences are nothing in comparison to theirs. Despite the fact that I know where they are placed, I don’t actually know where I fall into the scale of good/bad Muslim.

Growing up, I was the #1 Brown Noser. I should have saved that award because someone surely commemorated my ability to follow every rule I ever met. Perhaps that’s what my stellar standardized test scores were for. My liberal arts education prided itself in teaching us to question everything, but I think my sister was the real reason I learned to be a not-so-good Muslim. Where I was comfortable residing in the black and white rules written out for me, she did cartwheels in the gray areas. I learned to start critically analyzing my own life, not just the passages in SAT prep books, through her. Basically, I learned to rebel.

I am possibly the lamest rebel on the planet though. Yes, I went through the motions of pushing my boundaries and fighting for stuff I am not sure I even wanted, but I didn’t learn what to fight for until later in life. Rebelling in the normal teenage way – like drugs and boys – wasn’t me. I snuck out once, but I went to a diner with my best friend to get pancakes at 1 am.

I never did regret those pancakes for a second.

I have gotten better at it, the rebelling. I think am currently residing in that gray area of not-so-good Muslims by our communities’ standards. I can’t be a ‘good’ Muslim because my voice is too loud, too many of my close friends are male/non-Muslim, I dance publicly, and I have dared to smoke. But I pray, I strive to follow the tenants of Islam, and I truly believe in my faith, so I cannot be a completely ‘bad’ Muslim either, right?

From the outside, non-Muslim perspective, I am too grounded in my beliefs and don’t renounce my faith for its alleged oppressions, to be a ‘good, moderate’ Muslim. That being said, I am far from their definition of a ‘bad’ Muslim because I embrace my Americanness for all the McDonald’s it will get me.

Yes, the media has propagated idea of what it means to be a ‘good’, ‘moderate’ Muslim versus a terrorist, but growing up in a Muslim community means that we have our own self-imposed rules on what it means to be good. How do you cross the line from good to bad? I am not sure I ever want to go back to what people within our community consider to be a ‘good’ Muslim woman. I cannot be quiet. I cannot stop questioning and pushing my boundaries in order to discover them. I cannot give up the parts of me that are wholly me for someone else’s idea of good. I don’t want to distance myself from the people who made me either. I am a Muslimah. My own boundaries leave me just shy of being a ‘bad’ Muslim, but I don’t necessarily want to be bad either.

So, I guess I am a gray-area Muslim.

I am too American to be my parents’ idea of a ‘good’ Muslim, let alone a ‘good’ Muslim woman. I am too Muslim to be a media celebrated ‘moderate’ Muslim. I am stuck in that murky in-between space. Maybe one day we wont need to define ourselves on someone else’s scale, but until then I hope the conversation on #GoodMuslimBadMuslim expands past the binary of good and bad to include some of us gray-area Muslims.