Story of Recovery: HD

Despite the fact that neither of my parents really were too religious, my life began with the chanting of the adhaan (Muslim call to prayer) into my ear. Every Muslim child has this done, and it is supposed to start off his or her life with Islam. My parents did pray and fast and identify as Muslims, but we lived mostly as most people I knew did: Americans who ate McDonald's, played with Barbies, watched television, and listened to the radio. Growing up in a multi-cultural part of Orange County with a large Jewish population meant that abstaining from pork and alcohol didn't really mark us as outsiders. By the time I was five years old or so, however, my mother had discovered the difference between Pakistani cultural lip-service to an Arab religion and what I'll call Hard-Core Islam. Many other immigrants did in that early 90s period, turning into what has retrospectively been called a Western Islamic renaissance. She found a religious teacher who fed her newfound passion for religion, and though my father never reached her level of piousness, our lives slowly changed. My mother adopted the headscarf and later, the outer robes, of a practicing Muslim woman. Television and radio were slowly excised from our lives as Western temptations towards sin. Most significantly, my parents moved us to England, where they felt I would attain a higher level of Islamic education.

I had always been an inquisitive and bookish child, and this change in my parents sparked a deep curiosity in me. The new books my mother brought home I perused eagerly with as much comprehension as I could muster. Religion was the perfect avenue by which I could engage my bookishness; by exploring a holy topic, I could read endlessly without sparking the ire of my father, who was and still remains a very incurious man, disdainful of books and reading. For my prepubescent self, religion was a fascinating place where the holiest of men flew on winged horses called buraq to Heaven, the faithful slept for over a century in suspended animation inside a cave, and angels used celestial measuring tape to decide on the fate of the reformed murderer of a hundred and one people. I would recount these stories to delighted parents, relatives, and teachers, happy to spread Allah's word to so many people. Secretly, I would recount the more grotesque and sexual bits of the religious tales to the disbelief of giggling classmates and friends, who would demand proof, which I would provide willingly in the form of texts read directly aloud. The tortures of the early Muslims were a favorite, containing such gems as the numerous and nameless slaves whipped to death, a man torn apart through the tying of each leg to a separate camel, a woman killed via spears thrust through what Tabligh-E-Nisaab (also known as Fazail-E-Amaal) gingerly calls "her most private parts" (my best guess at the time was her breasts), and a good Muslim child who urged her mother to jump into a fire-pit at the behest of an evil king with a reminder of how Hell's flames would be worse for the king than the fire-pit would be for them.

Aside from the obvious interest in the fantastical and grotesque elements, religion was clean-cut and straightforward to me, unlike the anger of my father. Whilst his was prone to rise at the most irrational and unjustified of times, the wrath of the Lord was quite consistent. Allah had set down certain rules, and if I followed them to the best of my ability, then I would be justly rewarded, despite the small sins in which I would sometimes indulge. No matter where my family moved, from America to England and back again, Allah would be there. No matter how many times my parents switched schools on me, without warning and at odd intervals during the school year, so that I could acquire a better Islamic education, Allah would bless me for being on the right path. No matter how snotty the Islamic school girls were, I was clearly more religious than they and they had no right to hate me for it. Despite all the parental shuffling of schools and its social consequences for me, I never quite felt like I knew enough about my faith, and so I devoured whatever reading material I could find on the topic. Every and all books on Islam were fair game to me, including the ones my mother prohibited me from reading, usually books with titles like Kitab ul Nikah (The Book of Marriage) that contained nothing more offensive than some oblique and sanitized references to vanilla sexual acts.

I persisted in my devoutness through my Islamic school career and into middle school, when I finally entered the American public school system. I couldn't wait to have persecution stories to share with my fellow Muslims. The summer prior to my grand entrance into kaffir (non-Muslim) school would mark a greater turning point for me than entering public school that fall: my sister had a terrible accident. Not only did it shatter my sense of security, my self-worth was struck a heavy blow, as I blamed myself for it. Islam advocates some form of the notion of the evil eye as a way to inadvertently curse someone using the power of jealousy, and I was sure that my envy of my more attractive sister had caused her suffering, as well as the suffering of the entire family. My guilt began to eat away at me, but the school year proved a much-needed distraction.

Soon after I began attending public school, it soon became evident that I would have no persecution stories to tell (I'd have to wait until 9-11 for those). Unlike in the Islamic schools, I quickly made friends. I was Defenderette of the Faith, Allah's representative. Not everyone liked me for it, but I did quite well socially. By the time I entered high school, I was beginning to feel as if I could reconcile being a young woman in modern society and being a veiled Muslim who was expected not to date or be too free and easy with members of the opposite sex. I had bought into the Islamic gender rules without question, since, first of all, Allah knew better than I, for I was a mere mortal, and the hyper-sexual pseudo-feminist Western alternative role for women seemed absolutely worse to me. Better a covered Muslim female respected for her faith and intellect than a bikini clad sex object, I thought.

9-11 was my second day of high school, and, as the now-cliche goes, it changed my life, as it changed the life of so many Americans. I took more pride in wearing the veil; not only was Allah happy with me for wearing it, I thought, but I was rebelling against mainstream society even when faced with adversity and hardship. I defended my choices with my characteristic boldness and talkativeness, hoping that my ability to articulate my faith would bring others to Islam. At the same time, I was forced to look into the more violent aspects of Islam in order to have the proper answers for the newly sprung up crop of Islamophobes that seemed to attack from all sides. The multiculturalism under which Islam had comfortably nestled was then subjected to question, and I was ready and willing to answer, despite my parents' warnings not to talk about it (fear Big Brother more than Allah, the afterlife can wait). As I began to research and delve more and more into history and theology, questions began springing up like the proverbial mushroom. My constant in life, Allah, was the answer to all of those questions. If questions like "why are two women needed to testify in the place of one man?" and "why did Muhammad kill a whole tribe of Jews in Madinah?" arose in my mind, I simply shooed them away with the old "I mortal, He God" defense. Almost no non-Muslim knew of those matters in any case, and I could focus on defending Islam from the more common vein of attacks.

My senior year of high school was the precursor to my final fall from faith, although I hadn't known it at the time. The summer preceding it, I had acted upon a crush I had had on a boy on my class (a Hindu, no less) and had told him that I liked him, but ended it out of guilt before I even had the chance to hold hands with him. To make amends, I enrolled in an intensive religious weekend course which revealed to me a detailed depth to Islam that I could not have imagined, including many convoluted justifications of the religion. In school, I started a class in which the structure was all debate and discussion, and I was called upon to defend and explain Islam quite a bit. In his own way, my loudmouthed New Yorker teacher showed me the inherent absurdity of a lot which I was defending. Simultaneously, I learned about Existentialism in my English class, a philosophy which, although I have long outgrown, still hold dear as the "red pill" of my life. Alongside the newborn intellectual fervor, I became involved in a drama class in which the instructor very sardonically mocked my restrictions, including but not limited to my refusal to participate in certain stage activities that included the (platonic) touching of male classmates. I felt hurt by his mocking, yet fascinated by what he represented: a gay perfectionist theatre type, a world from which I had been banished since the prayer-call had been chanted into my ear as a newborn.

I assumed that in college, I would grow in faith through involvement with the Muslim Students Union, find a nice Muslim boy to marry as soon as I was able (as I was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with my sexual curiosity and desire), then graduate and become a teacher or a journalist, both being professions that could be reconciled with my inevitable role as a stay-at-home mother to my future children. I began to write Islamic tracts and was praised for my ability to express myself, and participated in Islamic events as much as I could. I was happy to finally be able to leave the house and make friends of whom my parents approved.

Although my exterior displayed only the spurts of joy I felt, my insides still churned with questions. My parents, both supposedly followers of a clear and simple religion, had significant and frequent differences of opinion. My father was and still is a self-centered emotional abuser, so whilst I identified with his dominance, my heart belonged to my mother. Dad is a Republican, Mom a hater of the US government. Dad disdains reading, Mom loves seeking knowledge. Dad wanted me to get an education before I got married, Mom had wanted to marry me off as soon as she can. Dad didn't want me speaking out so much on American issues, Mom disagreed with anything vaguely pro-US that I said. Both could justify themselves theologically, and both contradicted themselves depending on how they wanted me to feel and what they wanted me to think in a particular moment. I don't blame them --- rationalization is irrational. Still, if they were hoping to keep me within the fold, they weren't doing themselves any favors by switching opinions and slanting citations every which way.

The fall from faith I experienced that autumn was slow and gradual. During winter break, I attended a conference hosted by Alim, whose leaders are considered to be the most intellectual of Muslim American thinkers. One of the speakers tore down all of our faiths before building them up again, but the very act of tearing down, as well as his inability to properly answer a question I had about the existence of God and the integrity of the Quran, bothered me. I tried to justify it through a sort of adaptation of the god of the gaps argument, feeling that religion might exist in its own special world and gave comfort and a sense of community, and thus did not need to be justified logically. Still, by the winter quarter of my freshman year of college, I was freshly disenchanted by the hard-line, faux-terroriste attitude I found prevalent in the Muslim Students Union. I had heavily disagreed with many of them during the Muhammad cartoons scandal, feeling that one person's hate speech was another's free speech and vice versa. Furthermore, the MSU prioritized protesting over supporting fellow Muslims, an approach I considered highly ineffectual. In short, college was not buoying up my faith in the way I had imagined.

Coincidentally, it was that academic quarter that I took my first philosophy class. It was a course on Christian philosophy, focused through the writings of Augustine of Hippo and taught by an amazing professor, a leader in her field. Where some Christian classmates felt their faiths being affirmed, I felt mine crumbling. All of Augustine's arguments were ones that I had heard before --- in the intensive weekend class in which I had once been enrolled, in the Alim program, in the Harun Yahya books in which I had immersed myself since I had first begun doubting so that, if all else failed, I would have the oft-touted Quranic miracles to keep myself faithful. Christians had done it, and were doing it, too, and so were countless other faiths. The very same foundations (what I would later call illogic) held up several divergent belief systems.

Let's not mince words here: I was shaken.

Through that very same class, I made a friend who came along at just the right time. He and I spent quite a lot of time together talking, and it was he that finally got me to admit the words that I could hardly think, let alone say: I am not a Muslim (at least not anymore). The theological bounds were gone and my world fell apart, not with a bang but a whimper. I spent a while quietly reconstructing it, using what I had known for a while but had ignored due to faith. It was scary to have to completely reconstruct my worldview, to have to question everything and claim nothing, but I eventually found a way to do so that not only made sense, but made me a much happier person. No longer did I have to beg Allah for forgiveness for having listened to music, or felt sexual desire, or talked in a private room with a member of the opposite sex, or anything like that. I could live my life free of rules that now seemed so arbitrary and antiquated.

Having freed myself from dogmatic bonds, I slowly began going unveiled (whenever I could get away with it), venturing into the world of dating, and eating once-forbidden foods. My morality was finally based on consistent reason and fact, instead of on multiply-interpreted holy text. I knew that if my family found out, I would be in trouble, so I kept things quiet. My friend had encouraged me to move out, but I found that it would be financially difficult and so figured that I could stand a double life until I graduated from college. I was wrong. The constant lying and excuse-making was exhausting, and the faking of sincerity in religious rituals was a compromise of my integrity. Sure that my parents would throw me out due to my choices, I made preparations to move out, and only told them after the car had been bought and my possessions already moved. They were shocked but assured me that they loved me no matter what, and that convinced me to stay with them.

I spent two years attempting to live in their house whilst being an "out" atheist, and those two years made me believe in Hell again. I struggled to make it work with them. I first hoped that I might make them see the error of their ways, but they were so stuck in religion that even considering an alternative was beyond the scope of thought for them. They freely admitted that they believed without any kind of rationale other than "we're right" or "it was good enough for my father." I stopped trying to convince them, and worked on having them at least accept me. They dragged me from mosque to mosque, pressured me meet and correspond with several religious authorities, and even surprised me at home without warning with visitors like my religious cousin. I finally put my foot down and told them that if I were to respect their right to their beliefs, they ought to do the same for me. They were either unwilling or unable to do so; every few weeks, some kind of outburst would occur, ending in tears, anger, and lost sleep.

My grades dipped, my friendships suffered, and all I could do was dread the next outburst. I suffered from depression, anxiety disorders, worsened sleep disorders, and emotional eating disorders. Still, I did not move out, hoping to work things out. I knew that my parents loved me and that all of this was out of love. They feared that I would suffer for all eternity in a place worse than their worst nightmares, and to them, any agony they caused my sister, my brother, themselves, or me was well worth the price. There was no world beyond that of the Islamic one, and no community other than the Muslim one, and they would fight to bring me back. I understood just how incomprehensible turning from Islam to atheism was to them, and so I struggled on.

The night my father struck me, I realized that nothing would change unless I made a dramatic change for myself. Before, he had never engaged in physical violence with me, but as soon as I felt the sting on my face, I knew that my parents had lost their one last chance. A few days after the incident, my parents flatly informed me that they would no longer pay for my education, despite the fact that tuition was due in only a week. Although my father apologized and eventually paid for my school, this cemented my decision: I could no longer live under the constant fear and threats. I loved them, but moving out and supporting myself was the best decision for all involved. I would no longer be living in their house, a constant visual unveiled reminder of their theological failure as parents, and their money would no longer sustain an education that included a lot of atheistic thought and philosophy.

Supporting myself, especially in times that grew more and more fraught economically, has been very difficult. I graduated with $20,000 in student loans and more in credit card debt, and have been unable to find as much work as I had hoped. Economic concerns aside, the effect the move has had on my life choices, relationships, and mental health has been overwhelmingly positive. I have made some very healthy friendships, ended unhealthy ones, and ended a romantic relationship to which I clung for the wrong reasons. I have overcome the panic attacks that had paralyzed me. Best of all, I have improved my relationship with my parents. Without their constantly brooding presence, I have been able to quell the resentment that arose from their obvious disappointment in and disapproval of me. They do not have to constantly worry what trouble I am up to when I am not at home; when I visit their home, I am a visitor, not a naughty child who isn't home enough and worries her folks. I have even accepted some help from my parents, including a car of theirs that they had planned to sell, without them berating or guilt-tripping me.

I still struggle with them about the choices I make, but they've stopped trying to make me be Muslim again. I refuse to discuss religion with them, as I feel it is the more appropriate way to relate. My father has sworn that I will one day see the error of my ways, but I know that I am following the path of maximum moral integrity for me. I just hope that they will finally not only be resigned to my life path, but actually accept it on some level. If not, I will attempt to reconcile, as always. I remain both unashamed about who I am and hopeful that my life and my relationships will continue to improve

Since "coming out," I have received countless messages and half-whispers of the gagged ex-Muslim community, people who wish to do as I have done: given up their double lives for a more whole one. I have since become much less flamboyant with my newfound ex-Muslim status, but have never once recanted. I only wish more ex-Muslims were forthright about their spiritual status, for if more of us were open, the stigma and shame upon our parents would be much less potent. Much of my parents' anguish arose from the perceived and actual social stigma of having an apostate daughter. Being an ex-Muslim is like being an ex-Mormon: there is a strong religio-social structure that is betrayed when leaving the faith. Unlike being an ex-Mormon, however, I bear the mark of being an ex-Muslim via my skin color and hair type. An ex-Mormon, probably being white or at least not "exotic"-looking, can disappear into the American mainstream. I never can quite disappear, and so I can never quite turn away completely from my parents' community. Thus, I constantly work and re-work the boundaries, trying to figure out where I fit and carving away at my little niche in the American landscape.