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When I was four years old, my mother taught me how to read the Quran. We started with the Arabic alphabet. I remember learning how to sound out “alif,” the first letter in the word “Allah,” and “sheen,” the first letter of my own name. As I grew up, my mother taught me how to hold my hands in prayer, my father told me about the bravery and devotion of the first Muslims, my parents took me to the small mosque which would become like a second home to me.
I know my experiences are different. I cover my hair with a scarf. My holy scripture reads right to left. And I attend a mosque, not a church. But I also know that there is nothing extremist about this. My faith, too, has taught me the same basic morals: be kind, honest, and respectful.
It wasn’t until I grew older that I realized that, for some, my childhood and my identity are not just different but dangerous. In a post-9/11 world, the language I learned alongside English is associated with terrorism, my headscarf is just another symbol of my otherness, and the mosque where I made friends and played on swing sets is a sign of unwelcome Muslim infringement on American society. This was also when I realized that being Muslim was not enough―I had to brand myself as a “Moderate Muslim.”
I began to laugh my way out of terrorist jokes and remain calm through offensive accusations. I became overly apologetic and worried about how my mistakes could lead to generalization of negative Muslim stereotypes. At the time, this made sense. I could hear America call for “moderate Muslim” voices everywhere. It seemed like the clearest way to distinguish my peaceful beliefs from the warped ideology of those I saw on television.
Even my knowledge of Islam was impacted by my attempts to be moderate. Instead of pursuing my natural religious curiosity, I learned how to be on the defensive. Today, I can deliver speeches on the Islamic history of women’s rights and the meaning of the word jihad. I can explain how Islam values moderation in religious deeds. I can tell you that the Quran never prescribes the punishment of stoning, that the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman, and that the word “infidel” has no root in Muslim tradition.
However, in my vain attempts to be moderate I learned that a moderate Muslim is much more than “a Muslim who isn’t a terrorist.” A moderate Muslim is more “secular”―less overtly religious. A moderate Muslim must show blind patriotism and gratefulness to the United States despite bipartisan domestic and foreign policies that hurt Muslims around the world every single day. A moderate Muslim must constantly fit into the stereotype of “liberal, secular Muslim,” which is just as devoid of nuance as the stereotype of “dangerous, terrorist Muslim.” A moderate Muslim is allowed a limited amount of space by the media and by America. A moderate Muslim is small.
I am not a moderate Muslim. And I have no desire to be.
The qualifier of “moderate” suggests that there is something innately violent about Islam. It leads to the false conclusion that a small group of “moderates” is standing in opposition to a large swath of violent, ISIS-supporting radicals. This is simply not true because the reality is the complete opposite. When the media talks about “moderate Muslims”, they are perpetuating a dangerous narrative of Islam as a violent religion that is at odds with American society.
The term “moderate Muslim” assumes that being Muslim isn’t enough. That being Muslim is threatening. It teaches Muslims to shrink from fighting for human rights and basic respect. It teaches us to associate our own faith and our own selves with violence, however false we may know the myth to be. It leaves us constantly condemning terrorism and places the burden of proof on us to reaffirm that we are peaceful, liberal, and good.
It’s exhausting, and limiting, and I’m done with it. I do not believe that it is my individual responsibility to constantly reaffirm my humanity. I do not believe it is my responsibility to reaffirm the humanity of billions of Muslims across the world.
My identity, like the identity of every single Muslim, is varied. Yes, I pray five times a day and Ramadan is my favorite time of year. But I also have an undying love for Beyoncé and a propensity for Netflix binging. I should not have to compromise either part of myself to deserve your respect.
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Greenough.
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