American Muslims often find themselves caught between those two aspects of their identities — American and Muslim.
Research shows that anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia have increased over the last decade, making it even harder for Muslim Americans to create connections or to feel part of the larger fabric of American life.
Many Muslims, however, are seeking to create those connections. Some do so by organizing interfaith events. Others take to the media in an attempt to dispel stereotypes. Still others write books.
Among the book authors is Ranya Tabari Idliby. She first came to the public’s attention when she co-authored The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding. That book focused on how Idliby and her co-authors Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner worked to educate their children about their three faiths.
Now, Idliby has a new book out.
Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America is labeled a memoir, a reflection on Idliby’s life as an American Muslim.
But it’s also a letter to her children.
Idliby spoke with Muslim Voices Managing Editor Rosemary Pennington about what it was like to write such a personal story.
Rosemary Pennington: This is your second book dealing with faith and identity — why do you feel compelled to write about this issue?
Ranya Tabari Idliby: Before 9/11, I never thought of writing with a view of being published. But the terror committed that day in the name of Islam, a religion I was born into, made Islam a condemned religion in the eyes of many.
For my American Muslim children their religion became more of a burden than a privilege I was handing down to them. In order for me to “ parent” properly I needed more information — I needed to take ownership of our faith as a family and understand why we choose to be Muslims.
One of the most important challenges for children as they mature is the development of a healthy identity.
Islam has become such an explosive issue that as a parent I could not afford to ignore it as a component of my children’s identity — either we reject it and distance ourselves from it, or we embrace it and understand the issues. Empowered with knowledge so that neither side of the extremists (American or Muslim) can dictate their problematic truths. That way my children can indeed be both American, Muslim and proud.
RP: You call yourself a secular Muslim — what does it mean, to you, to be a secular Muslim?
RTI: A secular Muslim is one who believes in the separation of church and state; and that one’s faith is private not a public affair regulated by the state or by strict observance to rituals.
Rituals are just a component of faith — communal, religious traditions that help the faithful seek closer communion to God. Too often, rituals are used to “in” and “out” Muslims as members of the community, the danger being that they become a power play by those who want to control the gates of entry.
As a secular Muslim, my relation to God is based on faith or “ Iman” not just religion or “ Deen.” It is more important for me to live a faithful, Muslim life in actions and daily moral choices.
RP: There has been research that’s shown, since September 11th, anti-Muslim prejudice has increased as well as negative images and stories of Muslims in the media. How has this increase in negative representation and negative feeling impacted you and your family?
RTI: As a parent I recognize that the Muslim component of my children’s hyphened identity can trigger a lightning rod of emotions. As a result, my children cannot be neutral about their faith, or ignorant or complacent. They will be called on to answer the questions, confusion and fear.
They will inevitably be stereotyped.
For this reason they need to be armed with knowledge in order not to be intimidated or bullied by both extremes — Muslims who reject them as Muslims and Americans who reject them as Americans. That is what is at the heart ofBurqas, Baseball and Apple Pie — my love for my children and my need to help them find their voices as proud Americans and Muslims.
RP: There are a few chapters in the book that feel more like letters than straight forward book chapters. (I’m thinking specifically the chapters on Muslim feminism and the burqa.) Why did you approach those chapters in that manner?
RTI: I approached those chapters that way because they were very much from the heart. After all, it was Aisha, the thirteen- year old Somali girl who was stoned in the name of Muslim justice that served as catalyst for the book. I wanted to personalize her pain, to bring it into our home in spite of the distances that separate us.
For too long, I and other Muslims have dismissed these instances as matters of a failed state, exceptions, but with Aisha that was no longer enough.
We need to demand a zero tolerance policy. We need to stop making women and female issues (peripheral and personal choices that should be a woman’s choice) a measuring stick for a person’s faith. As Muslim women, we need to take these issues personally.
RP: This feels like a very personal book. There are pictures of your family. The chapters often start with you remembering something a loved one said or did. How did your family feel about their place in your memoir? How did you decide what went in and what was too personal?
RTI: It is a personal book. Ultimately it is love story — it is a love we all share for our children, and in our belief that there is a better tomorrow, a more dignified tomorrow, a just and peaceful tomorrow.
It is a call for my children to hold the two components of their identity – Islam and America — to the promise of their higher ideals. I am privileged to be their mother, and many of the issues I write about they have brought home to me.
The personal is shared with the hope that the reader can connect to our shared, universal and common experiences, as Americans and as Muslims and as humans. Writing is the afterlife to my fleeting life.
RP: You write of a drive by some to create a sort of “pure Muslim” identity — of course, what’s pure is defined by the cultural context in which the people live — what do you think drives that desire to create this “pure” identity? Do you see any evidence of an attempt to create a “pure” Muslim American identity?
RTI: The drive to create a pure identity is human, an instinct that ultimately caters to our human needs to belong to a community, to empower that community, to establish its superiority, its truth over and above other truths. To also establish its legitimacy and purity as the authentic path to God.
But as God has reminded as Muslims — diversity is a sign of Divine Mercy for had God willed he would have made us all of the same tribe.
If a “ pure” American identity signifies the embrace of our plurality as Americans, then that is not just quintessentially American, but it is quintessentially Muslim.
RP: The subtitle of your book is “Being Muslim in America” — what, for you, is the most important thing you’d like a reader to take away with them from the book?
RTI: To develop an awareness of the plurality of our experiences as humans, Americans and Muslims.
To think twice, next time there is a mass general indictment of all things Muslim, and to remember that there are American Muslims who have known or loved no other home or country.