Montag, 15. September 2014

Convert Conversations I

Culturally German, religiously a Muslim. 
Or: Too much biryani.

In the beginning it was exciting

If I am being perfectly honest, in the beginning it was exciting. This new religion came not only with a testimony of faith, principles of belief, acts of worship and the building of a relation with God, but with a whole new, and at times exotic, culture. Cultures, I mean. There was Eritrean hospitality, Moroccon tea, Algerian music, Pakistani food, Turkish fashion, Bosnian sweets, Central Asian architecture. Learning how to be a Muslim, I also learned loads about the many cultures that Islam left its footprint on in one way or another, cultures that are hard to think of without the enormous influence the religion of Islam had on them. 

Turkish lentil soup, Arabic hiphop, South Asian tea

Now, more than ten, almost fifteen years later, I can make a mean Turkish lentil soup; know how to do small talk in Bosnian, Turkish and Arabic; could give a 30 minutes presentation about Arabic hiphop and a 60 minutes presentation about the role of the diaspora in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I can tell a Moroccon hijabi from a Saudi, Pakistani, British-Pakistani, Turkish, Syrian or Malaysian one - from a 100 metres! (when I wear my glasses) - and I would happily explain to you the difference between aloo paneer, palak paneer and aloo keema ... if you asked. I can say the traditional Islamic greeting salam alaikum (may Peace be with you) the way it is pronounced in Turkey, Arabic countries and the Sub-continent. I prefer Fairouz over Umm Kulthum and Moroccon green tea with mint over South Asian red tea with milk; haggle like a pro (I am known to have made a taxi driver in Jericho complain, "she's worse than the locals!"); and it does not seem odd to me (any more) to keep on asking "how are you?", even after the person in question has already replied (twice).

Muslim habits, norms and values

With Islam, I got to know a long list of different countries, cultures, mentalities, lifestyles. Cultures which differ in many ways but which have in common that Islam is one of their main cultural reference points (not the only one, of course, after all, we don't want to fall into essentialist narratives of how all Muslims are the same, do we?). I have gotten to know many aspects of these cultures, I have gotten to love some of them, and many have become a part of me. I have not just become a Muslim but I also adopted quite a few habits, norms and values that are often regarded as essentially linked to Islam while in reality they are rooted in one of the many cultures, societies or communities which happen to be majority Muslim.

Culture and religion

Culture and religion are closely intertwined. That is not just an Islamic phenomenon but something that can be observed in all cultures and religions worldwide. Sometimes this intertwinement is pretty obvious, at times it happens more subtly and you need to look closely to spot it. Sometimes it is problematic, sometimes absolutely fine, or perhaps even of advantage - for example, when it brings out the best in a community of believers. Intertwinement can mean similarity, overlapping, contradiction; it is not positive or negative per se. In practise, the intertwinement of religion and culture means that it is often hard to tell where culture starts and religion ends.

"If you want to be a true believer..."

At first, I did not mind that too much. At first, it was exciting. And at first, I also lacked the knowledge to tell the difference between cultural practises and religious principles. Wrapped in mashaallah, alhamdulillah, bismillah, many things that were not Islamic in their own right (but, for example, Arabic or Turkish) or even not Islamic at all (as they contradicted the very basics of this religion) looked like they were the way to go - if you wanted to be a true believer. "Oh, you don't like abayahs? But that's what proper hijab looks like!" - "What do you mean, you are not happy to sit in the back? But you are a woman! We can't allow free mixing in our Islamic classes!" - "No, no, no, don't ask the speaker your question directly, let one of the brothers pass your question on!" - "Male friends? Astaghfirullah!!??" - "Western music? Filth! I only listen to Nancy Ajram..." - "No, I don't think we should start yet; yes, we are already 45 minutes behind schedule, but what if anyone is still on the way? Isn't it our duty to wait for our brothers and sisters in Islam who came here with the intention of listening to an Islamic talk and not prevent them from gaining knowledge? Gaining knowledge is so important in Islam!" - Ok, sorry, I might have gotten a bit carried away. Where was I?

Ten, almost fifteen, years later...

Ten, almost fifteen years, later, the initial excitement has slowly worn off. Not completely, I still owe a lot to all the Muslims (and their respective cultures) that I have met on this journey in the last years, I love many things I have learned from them, things that have become part of me. But I have become a bit older, a bit (tiny bit!) more knowledgeable, a bit more confident and, sorry!, less accepting of nonsense. I have realised in the last years that people have been trying to sell me something as Islamic which is not. And I'm tired of it. I don't need to wear a Saudi abayah to be a Muslim; I don't need to have the same views on gender relations as many South Asian Muslims, for example, do; my Norah Jones is not less Islamic than your Nancy Ajram; and if you serve samosas and dates to non-Muslim visitors at an event organised by the local mosque that's not "typically Muslim food". Your culture is not representative of Islam. 

Losing out of sight how diverse our Muslim community is

Alhamdulillah for biryani, but do we really need to serve it at every event organised by our Islamic Student Societies? At every single event? If all members of said society are desi (see, how I have learned my cool cultural terms), that's, of course, absolutely fine. There is nothing wrong with biryani. This is not about biryani. This is about a majority acting as if the minority did not exist. This is about losing out of sight how diverse our Muslim community is. If all members of a mosque or student society or what-not are not Arabic but they keep on serving Arabic food, in my mind, there is something wrong. And I am not saying that this is being done on purpose, that the biryani fraction of my community have bad intentions or that they are to blame. If you are in the majority it is very easy to forget how those in the minority feel. I am not blaming you for that. But please, try to be a bit open-minded and don't start rolling your eyes and saying, "but it's Eid", when I suggest to order pizza instead of kebabs

An Islamic community in Germany

Last year, I spent Ramadan in Germany. My mosque there is very multicultural. The majority of the visitors are German-Moroccons, but  the mosque is also attended by German Muslims with a German background (like me) and by those whose families once came from Turkey, Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Southeast Asia, Poland, Slovakia, the US (many of whom have also become pretty German in the meantime). The only language we have in common is German so pretty much all activities are in German. In fact, a comparatively high number of young Muslims attend this mosque as they feel more at ease in a German-speaking (as opposed to Turkish- or Arabic-speaking etc.) environment. Here, they understand the language. And know how things are being done. 

German pasta salad for iftar

During Ramadan, free food is provided in the mosque every evening. Most of the time, it was Moroccon food. But that was fine. If 70% of your visitors are Moroccon, there is nothing wrong with serving Moroccon food 70% of the time. If, however, you serve Moroccon food only, I would say, there is a problem. At my mosque, they didn't do that. It was Moroccon food most of the time, with the odd Afghani or Pakistani meal inbetween. One day they made German pasta salad. German pasta salad. With mayonaise, cornichons, sweetcorn - exactly as we would do it at home. I was in food heaven, but I also realised this was the first time in over ten years of being a Muslim that I was eating European food in a European mosque.

It is easy to forget to look outside the box

As I explained above, in many cases, the majority of culturally (pretty) Turkish, Arabic or South Asian Muslims in Europe don't even realise how it can be for a German Muslim, for example, if Islam is made look, taste and feel foreign most of the time. They feel at ease, they know things to be that way, they expect things to be that way, so for most of them the thought that this might not be the same for those with a different cultural background does not even cross their minds. Again, I don't really want to blame them for it. I know myself how easy it is to see yourself only, to assume your preferences to be the norm, to forget to look outside of the box. I do it. You do it. We all do it. And as long as it happens unconsciously, unintendedly, I don't really want to blame anyone.

Muslims full of hared of "the West"

But there is something else, too. There are those who just don't question the predominance of Arabic / Turkish / South Asian / you name it! cultural practises in Islamic organisations and mosques in Europe - but who would, if you told them, agree that, yes, perhaps, one day we can have spaghetti napoli in the mosque for iftar and hmmm, why not get some potato salad, too?! And then there are those who are full of hatred of "the West" which they see as an antidote to "Islam". "Look at the West and how they treat their old people, sending them to care homes instead of looking after them, what a shame!" - "Look at how morally corrupted the West is!" - "You want to wear Western clothes?! Astaghfirullah, that would be imitating the kuffar!" 

I am not imitating "the kuffar" or "the West". I am of one them

I am sorry, I am not imitating "the kuffar" or "the West". I am of one them. Culturally, I am one of them; religiously, I am a Muslim. And before you start screaming now, "Oh my God, she declared herself an unbeliever" - I haven't. Not everything in Europe contradicts Islam. There are loads of cultural aspects that you can perfectly reconcile with Islam. In fact, some aspects of European cultures are even more Islamic than much that is found in many "Eastern" societies (talk about punctuality, bindingness of appointments or lower levels of corruption ... that is if you stay North of the Alps... :P ). 

Like the first Muslims back in the Prophet's time

By holding on to my German identity, I am really not doing anything different than the first Muslims back in the Prophet's time did. They were converts. And carried their (polytheistic) ancestors names, continued to eat their (type of) food and wearing their traditional clothes. They remained a part of society. What we consider essentially Islamic now (names such as Fatima, for example) used to be part of the culture of a polytheistic society. What did the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and his followers do? Did they start to scream, "don't imitate the unbelievers" and change their own ways completely? They didn't. They changed what needed changing and held on to what was acceptable to keep. Fatima stayed Fatima. She was not made change her name into a more "Islamically sounding" name when she converted. 

Islam is bigger than this, it is for everyone

And lastly, don't misunderstand me. I am not asking for big changes. I am not asking for German pasta salad everyday. Have your biryani. I'll share it with you. But don't pretend this was Islam. Don't make us, Muslims and non-Muslims, believe your Pakistani naans or Turkish pides were more appropriate to have in the mosque than my German rye bread. Islam is bigger than that. It is more than just biryani. Let's not belittle this grand religion, let's not veil the universal character it has. Islam is for everyone. Look outside your box, have some compassion and try to walk a bit in my shoes. Leave me some room and let me be who I am. That's all I'm asking for.