Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why You Should Read "Salaam, Love" & "Love, InshAllah": on unity, Islamophobia, and Muslim Americans

Pre-post: I realize that not all of the stories shared in the two books (Love InshAllah and Salaam, Love) are about Muslim immigrants or children of immigrants, but I choose to focus on that anyway - on what it's like being an immigrant in the U.S. and why our voices should be heard. I also understand that, per my choice to address this piece to "non-Muslim Americans" and "Muslim Americans," the U.S. isn't simply divided into "Muslims" and "non-Muslims" but I think that these two categories are the most relevant to my discussion.

Thank you for reading!

Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women  and Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy are two of the most important books ever published, especially about Muslims—and more specifically about American Muslims and American Islam. No, rather, they’re not about Muslims; they are the real, personal stories of Muslims as told by them themselves. Surely, they don’t cover every perspective and every experience in existence, but they should be applauded for being open to diverse perspectives nonetheless. And while it may seem as though they are privileging “American” Muslims only, I think this isn’t necessarily the case. Neither the editors nor the authors in any way suggest that their experiences as American Muslims are more important than those of Muslims elsewhere. I read them as an effort by those involved to narrate and describe their own personal struggles and challenges with being a Muslim in America and facing real, human issues on all things (romantic) love and relationships. In the process, many of them tell what it has been like for them as immigrants or children of immigrants, as Muslims being raised in an Islamophobic society, as young adults figuring out who they are and what their place is in an in-between space (that’s neither their parents’ world nor the world of their American peers) that does not recognize them and their experiences.

To non-Muslim Americans:
For far too long, Muslims’ voices have been marginalized and our stories have been told for us from an observer’s point of view. On the one hand, the media has a certain narrow, artificial, and specific image of what it means to be a Muslim, such that when Muslims do not fit that image, questions are raised about our Muslimness. We are accused of trying to “fit in” even when many of us do not make such efforts (yes, some do, and they have their reasons that need to be understood in their contexts). On the other hand, the American Muslim community at large prefers that the truth about our lives, struggles, experiences be hidden because 1) they might contradict Islamic ideals, and/or 2) they might verify the fears of Islamophobes. And then there’s us, the Muslim Americans who are unsure about what to do with the complexities, the contradictions, and the realities that make us who we are. 

Needless to say, you won't suddenly understand your Muslim American neighbor, but you might learn that you've more in common than you initially thought or than you are expected to have. Reading Muslim American stories should by no means replace any other efforts of yours to get to know Muslim Americans better, but it is a good start or at least a fair and legitimate source of knowledge about them. And, of course, our lives extend beyond the relationships (romantic or otherwise) we build, but they're a major part of who we are, and one of the most beautiful, most important things all humans have in common is ... ta-daaah, love!

As fellow citizens, residents, and nationals of a country that both you the non-Muslims and we the Muslims call a home because this is really all that too many of us have ever known, it is mighty time that we took time to understand each other and reflect on and learn from what we experience. Let these all-too-human experiences of love and loss and all that falls in between unite us as and remind us that we are human above all. It is unhealthy to let our religious differences create and worsen the gaps between us that should not exist for, at the very least, the betterment of a more successful and healthier future for us all.

To Muslim Americans, especially immigrant parents
For those of us who have immigrant parents or are immigrant ourselves, we find ourselves in a vulnerable and marginalized space. Many of us have parents who do not understand us (and we do not understand them at times). While they do the best they can, and in the most sincere ways possible, to ensure that we have good, successful, Islamic lives, their idea of a good and Islamic life often entails being sheltered from non-Muslims as much as possible. For many of us, this means being denied participation in certain activities in schools and community/neighborhood events; for others, it might also include being denied the right to enjoy and embrace certain feelings—such as of love, or what we might understand at our age as love.

Our parents and community have a specific, oversimplified idea of what we are supposed to feel, think, and do, but we feel, think, and do something else, sometimes the opposite of those expectations. How are we to deal with this tension? And how do we do that when each of us feels guilty for the boundaries we sometimes cross as Muslims? Because of the dreadful lack of real voices of Muslims out there—like those we read in Love, InshAllah and Salaam, Love—we feel alone in certain experiences, despite how natural they might be. Because of this lack, too, our families feel like they are the only ones when they go through crises, like when their youth fall in love and the parents freak out and threaten to either marry them off or themselves commit suicide to save face in the community. “What will people say?” is the motto of the families many, though certainly not all of us, come from, and this motto in reality serves only to suffocate and alienate us. It helps no one, not even our parents who fear bad reputation in the Muslim community.

There’s beauty in unity. There’s peace in unity. And unity doesn’t simply mean sharing major joys and pains like weddings, childbirths, and deaths. Unity also means sharing our experiences when we know they can benefit the larger society. And as we all know very well, anything that serves to benefit the larger society is a form of ‘ibadah (worship) in Islam. Sharing these experiences and voices and struggles with each other, then, is ‘ibadah. Unity thus includes letting other families and fellow Muslims know that we empathize with their struggles and the struggles of their children and grandchildren, that we are there to support them and guide them—both the families and their children—and help them out of situations in which they feel trapped because they do not believe anyone else understands or cares to understand. But if we are ashamed of the things our children do—completely normal, natural human things (natural to certain times and certain societies, like America), such as attending prom, having crushes, seeking love—ashamed of their experiences because of what people will say, those people do not have our best interest in mind, and we’re destroying our own sense of self by caring so deeply about a good—read: unreal—image in front of them.

The disunity that’s haunting us today is accompanied by unrealistic demands placed on young Muslims, particularly by their parents who don’t realize how difficult, how painful it is to live in between two cultures, two spaces, two mediums. These unrealistic, exaggerated and ultimately harmful expectations lead to self-loathing and major identity and faith crises, and we end up feeling forced to lie to ourselves and to our parents. Our parents and our community in the process never realize who we are and we end up feeling like we are leading double lives, as though we are betraying something and someone out there, perhaps ourselves. Being immigrants or children of immigrants is already a test as it is. Being Muslim is agonizing in a world where most Muslims openly acknowledge the appalling state of Muslims across the world, and where our community leaders do not understand us, relate to us, or even recognize our experiences and challenges; they are instead interested in how things should be, how we should be practicing Islam, what we should and shouldn’t be feeling rather than how to cope with the reality. And Muslims in a widely Islamophobic society? It is suffocating. It is tiring. It is lonely. We need love, unity, and support. And like all other humans, we will do anything and everything to feel and find love and happiness and kill the loneliness. This loneliness is not about the pitiful character of a person: it is a testament to a crisis our community is facing but refuses to acknowledge.

I read Love, InshAllah and Salaam, Love not as an attempt at presenting Muslims as “normal Americans” but as normal humans. There exists no society where its members don't go through the challenges, the good and the bad, the struggles, the pains, the joys that are part and parcel of love and relationships—including transgressive acts, such as fornication and adultery. What makes the stories in these books real is that they are human and honest. That is the ultimate beauty of the books. This, of course, is not to suggest that transgression is being promoted or celebrated in the books (I am certain the contributors and editors do not have such motives), but that is part of the territory of love for many people, and if they choose to share what some may understand as transgression, they should have the space to do so without any harm.

To the contributors of the two books:
 I have read and thoroughly enjoyed your stories and reflections. I am pained by all of your losses and heartbreaks, and I am overjoyed by all of your joys. Thank you for sharing such deeply personal parts of your lives with us and for validating the sinful thoughts and feelings we, too, have had. Thank you, more importantly, for validating our identity, our existence, our reality. Thank you for your courage, for your honesty. For those who wrote using pseudonyms, it breaks my heart that so many of us are afraid of revealing who we are because of the consequences that come with being so human. I’m sorry that we live in a community that, in its unsuccessful efforts to better itself and dream better, it loses itself in judgmental, vicious, unrealistic world that simply cannot exist.


  1. Awwww. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    And both thank *you* and you're welcome. :-)

    1. Awww, Molly! :) Thank you for reading and for the appreciation!

    2. Ehhh it doesn't say my whole name on this account but I wrote A Cairene Kind of Love. :-)

    3. Oh my God! I loved your story! I'm SO happy for you! I wish you and your husband a beautiful, beautiful and happy life together full of love and happiness! God bless you two immensely, aameen! :)

      It's amazing how life rarely, if ever, works out the way we plan for it to, no? Well, as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans, haha! Can you imagine the expression on God's "face" while you and Amira were making your plans and stuff?

      One of my aunts would tell us that she grew up all her life swearing to herself that she'd never, EVER marry a man from Village X... yet, my uncle is from Village X.

  2. Great article! Thanks for your support!

    1. Thank you for reading, Mohammed Shamma :)
      I enjoyed your story; very touching! I especially like your writing style - it's unique and beautiful.

      I wish you and your family a long, healthy, and safe life together, aameen!

  3. This is wonderful to read :) Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for appreciating our stories! Reactions like yours make it worth publicizing intimate parts of our lives that tradition forces us to keep hidden.

    1. Thank you, Anonymous :) That's very kind of you to say!
      Yes - you guys' stories were definitely worth sharing!


Dare to opine :)

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