Editor’s note: this is the second essay that was tied for third place in the TMO Foundation Essay Competition. Ms. Scorzoni’s opinions are her own.
“Excuse me, are you really Muslim?”
I was engrossed in the act of hand-washing, having just emerged from a bathroom stall at Loews Cinema in downtown Boston. I looked up, startled to find the blonde college girl next to me waiting for an answer. Why had she chosen that moment for such a philosophical question? Was it because my hijab was in the process of tumbling off my brown hair? Because my white skin and freckles were as familiar to her as her own face?
“Yes, I’m really Muslim”, I replied, vigorously soaping my hands and bracing for a confrontation.
“Oh!” she laughed. “I was just wondering because I saw you come out of Wolf of Wall Street. I didn’t know Muslims were allowed to see things like that.”
Since I converted to Islam in 2012, I consistently receive comments from both Muslim and non-Muslim strangers who give their opinions about what they believe it means to be “really” Muslim. If they think what I am doing is haram or halal, right or wrong. Most Americans only know about Islam through political science courses or atrocities in foreign countries on Fox News, so there is a disconnection. An absence. They can’t separate “being Muslim” from being Arab or being African because there has never been a strong white American-Muslim presence in the United States. And to that end, many foreign-born Muslims cannot separate their culture from their religion. Seeing a “hijabi” at the gym, walking a dog, having platonic guy friends, rocking out in the car to Kanye West or laughing at a risqué film like Wolf of Wall Street is an alien concept to them, and one they typically see as haram.
My parents are not Muslim, and both sides of my Irish-Italian family were born in the Boston area and not overseas. I sport tattoos, have Jewish and Atheist friends, and proudly consider myself a feminist. When I ran the Boston Marathon this past April and was interviewed by both the domestic and foreign press about being a Muslim convert, I was asked over and over again “Do you feel you represent American Islam?” The question itself baffled me, as I had no idea that what I was doing would be considered a symbol of anything. I wanted to run the marathon simply to raise money for a children’s charity and because it was a lifelong dream. I was surprised after the race when I received mail heralding what I had done to showcase Muslim women in sports, but also received negative responses telling me it was not my place to speak up, to run, to accept media interviews without my parents’ permission.
American-Muslim converts need to remember that just because we have chosen to join a religion of our own free will, that doesn’t mean we give up our social or cultural identities. We don’t change our souls. We are good as we are, as we came on the day we took our shahada. I have no knowledge of what it means to be Saudi, to be Jordanian, to well up with tears when the Turkish national anthem is played. My Arabic is tinged with a Boston accent, I root for the Red Sox, and my favorite junk food will always be nachos, not kabsah. Is my tajweed any less pure with a tattoo on my ankle? When I protest against ISIS and extremism, is my sign in English taken less seriously than the ones written in Arabic?
America is a melting pot of languages and religions; where I pledged allegiance to a red, white and blue flag and the first Arab I ever saw was on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Each person’s journey as a Muslim and navigating Islam is different. Our doubts, our fears, our clumsy mistakes and small triumphs. I went skydiving for the first time this year. Although I dressed for the jump in jeans and a long-sleeved top, I kept my hair loose because I didn’t want a hijab to get tangled in the straps or harness. One of my Muslim guy friends jumped into the silent sky right next to me, and when we landed we prayed Asr together on the airstrip, both thankful we had safely made the journey back down to Earth together. I don’t believe Allah saw anything that happened that day as haram.
There isn’t one perfect answer for the newspapers, the TV reporters, or even my family that look just like me and my foreign Muslim friends that look like my complete opposites. I don’t represent American-Muslims because simply put, I don’t believe there is one “right” or “correct” way to be a Muslim, American or otherwise. We must admit we are human, and every day we do the best we can to be a little bit better than we were the day before; whether we kneel or place our foreheads on the ground, in the silence of prayer, in the pulsing bass of our Ipods at the gym. I have no magical answers for what is right, other than we all must keep trying, keep running, keep reminding ourselves there is a plan for everything and we should make every attempt to understand one another.
In 1952, African-American writer Ralph Ellison published his novel Invisible Man, in which he spoke about his personal struggles as a black American in the changing times of the United States. Although I do not consider myself invisible, it took me a long time to understand how much of Islam is personal; how no one can or should take away your individual identity in a religion. We are who we are, Muslim or not. It is simply up to us whether we choose to be the best version of that person. Like Ellison said “It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with…that I am nobody but myself.”