At the age of 5 my parents taught me that we all pray to the same God, just in different ways. “So substitute ‘Jesus’ with ‘God’ and you’ll be fine,” they said. They didn’t pull me out or insist the school allow me to sit it out. That would have made me stick out even more and being a minority in a predominantly White school in Germany was a very uncomfortable experience as it was.
I was born and raised Muslim, and yes, to some in the Western world, Islam is a religion that oppresses its women and discriminates against anyone and everyone outside the Muslim fold. That, however, wasn’t my life or my Islam—until I came to America.
It was in America that I found my true identity. I discovered that I was not Shiite, or Sufi but a Sunni; that there were people who didn’t believe in the existence of a God, or simply believed in a “greater being”. And there are plenty of people, Muslim and otherwise, who believe that their religion is “the right” religion. This is a country where you are allowed to express yourself, where cultural baggage can be cut loose and where you can create your own identity and destiny. This is the freedom that secular America nurtures. But there is also an America where peoples’ taboos, prejudices, and superiority complexes are lived out under the pretext of religion, and as such, protected by the American Constitution.
I discovered a parallel universe in the Muslim community of which I was temporarily a member. There is a religious switch that gets flicked on when you enter a mosque. Muslim women, well accomplished in the secular world and their careers, accept their spiritual inferior status. Men who need to over-compensate their masculinity direct women to the backdoor entrance, and gay Muslims go back into the closet.
I have always had a seed of doubt on how Islam should be defined and by whom. I believed a lot of what my parents taught me, but there were some teachings that didn’t sit well with me. As a young girl I had an issue with the understanding that menstruating women are deemed ‘dirty’, and as a result are not allowed to pray, or touch the Quran. And at 12 years old, when I tried to do the call for prayer, my mother quickly forbade me, stating “girls are not allowed to do that!” How could God discriminate against girls and women? It just didn’t make sense. Life has a way of helping you ignore nagging and difficult questions about one’s own identity; it is easier to just sweep it under the rug. But 9-11 forced me to reanalyze my Islam, to expose it for what it truly was, to relearn it in a way that forced me to completely surrender to that process, making my faith very fragile. In the aftermath of 9-11 America became an ugly place for Muslims, but the beauty in that was that it tested me. With the freedom to think and read, for the first time, I allowed myself to discover pure Islam.
As a songwriter, fresh out of college, I was no activist. I wrote pop and commercial music, and with 9-11 I decided to write pop songs about Islam. That would be my contribution. I thought the Muslim community was going to appreciate my efforts, but was instead rejected simply for being a female singer. This rejection awoke the prejudices I learned from my mother. In revisiting Islam, I not only discovered the roots of these prejudices but also discovered a plethora of other damaging beliefs camouflaged in Islam. With this knowledge of injustice, my activism was born.
So come my Ummah of Humanity, Wake Up!By Ani Zonneveld, Aslan Media Columnist