Three Years and Loving the Light
Even though I was born and raised in this country, on 9/11 I finally became an American.
I recently discussed a possible vacation to the West Coast with members of my family. Alas, the plans fell through, but the discussion I had gives a keen insight into the life of American Muslims three years after Black Tuesday. We were talking, and my brother-in-law suggested we leave this coming Saturday. I looked at him with horror. "Fly a plane on the 11th?!!" He paused for a moment and said, "Oh...maybe not." We all found a way to laugh at our nervousness, but the fact is, the horrific events of three years ago still have a dominant effect on the lives of American Muslims here and now.
Still today, I get nervous every time I have to fly within the country. Still today, some American Muslims face discrimination. Still today, some American Muslims are attacked and slandered. Still today, the religion itself, along with its Prophet, is maligned and smeared. Even at the most recent Islamic Society of North America conference held in Chicago, my wife was verbally abused by non-Muslim pedestrians. Despite all of this, however, I am grateful for the change effected in me after September 11, 2001. On that day, the person who I was disintegrated in those two towers. The person I was on September 10 was forever crushed and destroyed...and I am full of gratitude to God for that.
I recently took Beliefnet's "What Sort of Muslim Are You?" quiz: I scored in the "Progressive" range. For those who've known me for a long time, this would be utterly shocking. For quite some time in my life, I suffered from the fevers of religious intolerance. I burned in the fires of arrogant religiosity. I was possessed by the demons of narrow-minded thinking. Although my affliction began in earnest relatively late in my life (in my early 20s), the incubation period--or time it takes for a disease to fully manifest its symptoms--took many, many years.
It began when I was in kindergarten. From the very first day of school, I faced extreme dislike because of my skin color. The first time I ever boarded the school bus, I sat next to a child, someone I had never met before, and he frowned at me. Another time on the bus, two girls said in unison, "I don't want to sit next to Hesham!" The most hurtful incident, however, came in the first grade. One of my schoolmates grabbed and pushed me, with his eyes full of hatred, and screamed, "Go back to your country!" This was very confusing to me, because, this was my country.
As I progressed in my schooling, the dirty looks, sneers, and anger did not abate. In fifth grade, I remember two girls opening up a dictionary and reading aloud the definition of the word "alien" and applying that definition to me. Even the kids next door joined in: they spent an entire afternoon hurling curses and yelling at us despite our having done nothing to them. As I got older, this kind of cruelty eased considerably. The problem was, however, taunts for my skin color were replaced by jeers about my religious beliefs.
I have always been religious, and my religious commitment only deepened as I got older, especially in high school. Although I wanted to pray the daily prayers on time in school, I would never dare do so. This stems from the time I attended a summer camp at the age of nine. I was praying in my cabin, and two of my cabin-mates came in on me and began to laugh. When I was in prostration, one of them slapped my behind with a towel. When I finished the prayer, I left the cabin almost in tears.
Perhaps the one thing that drew the most ridicule, however, was the fact that I did not date. Islam does not allow dating in deference to this command by God: "And do not approach adultery, for it is an obscenity and an evil way" (17:32). Dating is "approaching" fornication and adultery, for the dating couple will in all likelihood end up sleeping together. I was waiting for marriage, and this was absolutely unfathomable to my classmates. I still remember being surrounded by my track teammates--with sheer astonishment in their eyes--and being "interrogated" about my abstention from dating and sexual activity.
Although things are different now, when I went to high school, if you did not date and engage in sexual activity, you were "weird." I stuck out like a sore thumb. On top of this, many of my schoolmates still treated me badly because of my skin color. I still could tell they hated me. Furthermore, I did not drink or go to parties, also in deference to Islam's rules, and this made me even more "different," and I hated feeling different. I hated feeling left out.
These feelings came to a crisis level during the first Gulf War. I was sixteen years old when Saddam Hussein sent his tanks and soldiers into Kuwait. I learned of the invasion while vacationing in Florida, in fact. After coming home, I watched Baghdad get "bombed to the Stone Age." All around me, especially at school, patriotic sentiment oozed from the walls. I started football season, and all my teammates asked me for whom I was rooting in the war. "America, of course," was always my answer, and I truly meant it. I would never root against my own country in a time of war. Yet, I also was not happy to see fellow Muslim innocent civilians be killed, either. I could have cared less about Saddam Hussein and his band of thugs and monsters. When the war finally came to a close, I was so happy. I was happy that no more innocent blood will be shed, and I was happy that I no longer had to face the questions from fellow Americans who were suspicious of my patriotism and loyalty.All these experiences led to my extreme isolation from the greater American society. I never felt like I was truly American, even though I was born and raised in this country. I always felt like an outsider. If someone asked me where I was from, I would always say, "Egypt," where my parents were born, and not "America." In fact, I used the term "Americans" to denote my non-Muslim friends . The only reason I did not go absolutely insane was because I was blessed with a large extended family that lived in the Chicago area. My family, after the Good Lord, was my saving grace. I always felt at home with my family; I always felt like I belonged. My family was my refuge, my place of safety. Still, I spent the majority of my day at school and among my schoolmates. Thus, I had to spend the majority of my day feeling alone, even though my school had over 2,500 students.
This process of alienation from America was very difficult for me to handle. You could not pay me to relive my adolescent years. This process of alienation helped set up my plunge into the darkness of arrogant intolerance; it left me susceptible to catching the fevers of arrogant religiosity. Yet, I did not wake up one day and decide to be a narrow-minded fool. Something had to happen. That thing occurred during my freshman year of college: I had a spiritual crisis, a crisis of faith. I left the religion I loved so dearly. I abandoned the religion of Islam. Although my sojourn outside of the faith was ever so brief, it was still the most telling experience of my life. And one I will write more of in a later column.