I have lived all my life in Pakistan which is not only a predominantly Muslim country but also a highly religious society. Though there are many traditional religious schools of thought being followed by Muslims in Pakistan (and elsewhere in the world) most of them are based on same principles and share same beliefs. So I never faced any difficulty in talking about my religious views publicly as these were aligned with those of the majority of population and people living around me.
But I realized what it means to be a religious minority and how it could affect your thinking, and ultimately your communications, when I came to the U.S. ten months ago. There are many strings attached with being a minority, religiously or ethnically, in a society and I have been reminded of it almost every other day in last 10 months.
The reminder is rather based on observations though, and not on personal experiences. I have interacted with so many Muslims, especially Pakistani Muslims, here in the U.S. and I have come to a conclusion that you have to make some compromises on your religious views or at least when you talk about your religion to comply with the opinion of majority, even if you’re living in a religiously-plural and –tolerant society such as the U.S.
In a politically-charged environment in which we’re living right now and where Muslims are the center of attention and debate, talking about Islam is not an easy task. Muslims are a subject of suspicion in the U.S. since 9/11 and their coverage in the national media has not been very friendly since then. After every terrorist attack in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere in which a Muslim is involved, media starts dissecting and debating Muslims’ beliefs and religious views which, according to them, make one terrorist or contribute to it. Every time when it happens it generates a public and political pressure on Muslim minorities in the U.S. and elsewhere and brings an unwanted attention to them.
This pressure makes many American Muslims, including myself, apologetic about their religion and religious views. Now whenever I engage in a debate about religion or Islam I have to think first how to talk in a way which doesn’t offend people around me. I have to be certain that I talk only about those aspects of Islam which please the listeners and avoid those which make them furious. This is a kind of struggle I never faced in Pakistan. And this is the struggle which many immigrant Muslims in the U.S. have to go through almost daily.
I usually tease my colleagues at work, most of them happened to be immigrant Pakistani Muslims, that being an immigrant is not a physical phenomenon but a mental state in which you start seeing yourself with the eyes of majority.
When you’re an immigrant or a minority you try to make adjustments to your beliefs to better integrate with the environment. But this kind of compliance may not be as easy for Muslims as it could be for other religious minorities for two reasons. First, Islam’s belief system and principles have been intact since its origin and widely being practiced since then. Second, there has never been a popular reformist movement in Islam which could have sustained, or affected a significant number of people, or attempted to modify Islam’s principles or teachings.
So when Muslims immigrants try to conform their religious views to that of the majority many among them do not approve it or do it willingly as they think they’re deviating from Islam and its principles. So it’s not always easy for them (and for me of course) to talk about Islam without either infuriating others or themselves (or myself)!