I am a “closet Muslim”. I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve (or on my head in the form of a hijab). I don’t discuss my religion in polite company. I just go about my business.
Recently a friend asked me whether some of Donald Trump’s statements about a Muslim registry made me angry. I laughed and said “Nah, I really don’t take that hype very seriously”. I posted about this on my personal Facebook page and a good friend of mine (let’s call her Mary) sent me a private Facebook message. She said “Really, I had no idea you were Muslim…” Something to the effect that I seem so normal. This is a good friend of mine, a faithful, church-going, animal-loving, right-doing friend. Then I read a Washington Post article that talked about how Americans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims, but most don’t know us. So, I decided to speak out.
I suspect there are many of us who are closet Muslims. I speak only for myself when I say that there is, of course, safety in being a closet Muslim. My religion is not a big part of my identity. I experience some degree of shame about calling myself Muslim because I don’t consider myself a “good” Muslim. I don’t pray five times a day. I have not performed the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). I don’t give away 2.5% of my assets to charity every year. Instead, my pilgrimage is in my hike in nature which is where I feel closest to God. I experience God in my on-again, off-again practice of stillness and meditation. My jihad is mostly with my ego (and sometimes with my teenager when trying to get her to clean her room). I certainly am no scholar in the teachings of the Quran. So why talk about your religion when you don’t feel like your actions are congruent with what it teaches?
And now with terrorist groups hijacking the religion, and “Muslim” being one of the most frequently expected words next to “terrorist”, there is even a greater temptation to lay low and stay in the closet. “Why get involved in the controversy when you can do nothing to fix it?” the practical voice in my head says. My more productive voice says “Focus on where you can make a difference, and just let the rest be!”
Except there is the voice of my friend Mary. She asks “Why aren’t more Muslims like you protesting?” I feel like telling her that acts of violence by terrorist groups are not my burden to carry. Except that they feel like a personal burden I AM carrying – – by staying in the closet about my religion. In my book, Wired for Authenticity, I write that we cannot truly have inner peace until we make peace with all parts of ourselves, even the parts of which we may be ashamed.
So I am practicing what I preach. I am making peace with the Muslim part of me. Yes, I may not be the most observant Muslim, but I am a “good” Muslim because I am a good human being. Islam is a religion of peace and I am a warrior for peace within and without. And as I admit that to myself, a new insight emerges: the difference I can make is to inspire each of us to see ourselves in the other without our labels, and to reach for our common humanity. As leaders in an increasingly complex world, we must let go of putting others in boxes and assuming we know everything about a person based on the label we attach to them.
Mary asked me if I would have lunch with her and teach her about Islam. I plan to tell her that I am no expert in the religion but that I strive to be a good human being. I suspect that there are other closet Muslims like me. We are volunteers, PTA members, professionals, homemakers, neighbors. We all share the human dream: a comfortable place we can call home, opportunities for our children, a means to earn a living that satisfies us, the love of family and friends, and the ability to be at peace when we sleep at night. As human beings we bleed the same blood, we want to feel safe, to belong, to connect, to find peace.
I hope my sharing can inspire others like me to come out of the closet and share a meal with a non-Muslim friend. I also hope this can inspire curiosity in those of you who want to know the human Muslim next door. I am a Muslim and I am out. Please share your experience of being a Muslim under the hashtag #IAmAMuslim. Share what you care about: a piece of art, a garden you’re growing, your hopes, your dreams, so we may be seen for who we really are.