By Aysha Jamali
This is the second prize winner in the TMO Foundation 2011 Essay Contest.
I often look back at my childhood and note the split in my life, as well as in the lives of so many, made distinct after September 11, 2001. Ever since, Iâ€™ve had to answer for what I believe or prove who I was to people who had never focused so intensely on the terms â€œMuslimâ€ or â€œIslam.â€ It was tiring knowing that people were looking at me with preconceived notions, and it was tiring always approaching people with the attitude of clearing misconceptions.
But I accepted it. I accepted that if I wanted people to know my Islam, then I would have to be comfortable answering the endless stream of questions â€“ many bizarre and ignorant, but always important.
Then the American people, both Muslims and others, discovered something. While I was explaining what Islam meant to me, someone else was explaining what Islam meant to them. We began to discuss with each other about what we believed, why we believed and how we applied those beliefs to our lives. Our stories were born.
We were forced to compare our Muslim identities to those who claimed to destroy lives in the name of Islam. I was not like those people. My family was not like those people. My community was not like those people. I knew that. So what were we like?
We were diverse. We were diverse in age, in heritage, in interests; but always unified in faith. At first, this vast and intangible diversity I discovered confused me. I thought it would be easier if all Muslims were the same â€“ one religion meaning one type of follower.
Then I uncovered the deception in that statement. I heard different narrations from Muslims, even those who looked just like me, about what Islam meant to them. The true meaning of diversity came out. It wasnâ€™t limited to speaking global languages or swapping samosa recipes for falafels. It was deeper. It was diversity in experiences; diversity in thought.
So Muslims cannot be seen as one programmed, unchanging group â€“ whether weâ€™re from Indonesia or Palestine, the East Coast or the West Coast. Nor was it ever our purpose to be so. As God says in verse 13 of chapter 49 in the Quran, â€œOh mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another â€¦â€ We were created as different groups not for quarreling but for knowing each other.
Iâ€™m only beginning to understand diversity in Islam. Weâ€™re all only beginning to understand that. But itâ€™s evident in our discussions that this understanding has begun. Just in January, the Islamic Society of North America held its first Diversity Forum in Michigan. It featured sessions on Shiâ€™a-Sunni relations, immigrant versus indigenous experiences and encouraging an appreciation for diversity under the theme of â€œRealizing The Dream: Finding Strength Through Diversity.â€
This forum seemed to have come ten years too late. I thought about how much discussions like that would have benefited me back in 2001. But itâ€™s important to realize that those struggles my community and I faced then, we are still facing now. Weâ€™ve almost been thrust back in time with the recent death of United States â€œEnemy Number One,â€ having to answer those same decisive and identity-hinged questions again.
However, itâ€™s not a matter of redefining yourself but of defining yourself. We discover our stories and our paths to this one, unified appreciation and understanding we have of God and His message. It is under this unity that when defining ourselves, we also discover our diversity.