I am honored to be listed, but I am not religious”, might sound like a rejection when you reach out to someone in order to honor them. For me, it was a moving reply I received several times from Hayatlife’s “Top 30 Ramadan Illuminators” annual list honorees since its launch 4 years ago. It’s moving to me because it is a mirror of my own journey. Let me explain.
I was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, a hub on the Silk Road in the ancient heart of Muslim empires to a family with a centuries-old Muslim heritage. My own name “Firangiz” is a marker of the Persian and Turkic peoples who carried the banner of Islam in Central Asia.
At the same time, mine is a Soviet story, a continuation of the Czars’ centuries-old quest to dominate the Caucuses and Central Asia. Soviet authorities Russified my ancestors name Qasimbeyli into the last name Gasimova. My grandparents and parents grew up in a forcibly-atheist society under Communism and many of them were executed as “bourgeois enemies of the people” for rejecting Communism.
Born after the fall of the Soviet Union and long after the Silk Road’s decline, I had the opportunity to assemble my own identity from the ruins of empires in a largely secularized Muslim-majority country. My Muslim heritage was a natural part of my identity, though hardly the defining element. There was no need to prove any Muslim bona fides to friends and neighbors back home because they were almost all like me.
Yet, when I arrived on an American university campus, many of my classmates and teachers struggled to understand who I am. At first, I was a “Russian” girl, which bothered me because I am a proud Azerbaijani descended from Qasimbeyli. Then, when I declined alcohol at a party, my peers made the next logical step: “Oh, you don’t want to drink because you are Muslim?” When my choice for not drinking had no relation to theological aspect rather I simply don’t like the taste.
Matters got more complicated when I joined a pizza study break and enjoyed a slice of meat not marked Halal. One of my study partners stared in disbelief. “I guess you are not a good Muslim,” he observed.
I was offended and confused. Since to me having such heritage meant more than obeying ritualistic aspects of it. It was more a culture to me rather than theology and politics. My Spanish Catholic friends were never held to Church doctrine on campus. Why was I subjected to a theological sniff test?
My Spanish Catholic friends were never held to Church doctrine on campus. Why was I subjected to a theological sniff test? Is it because I am Muslim?
But then I realized that rather than be hurt, I had the opportunity to educate. My classmates and friends deserved to know that there are all kinds of ways to express Muslim identity. Just as no one interrogates “Cafeteria Catholics” or “Cultural Jews” about their religious practices, it is time for Western societies to recognize and celebrate Cultural Muslims.
During my time in America, I have had the unique opportunity to engage with cultural Muslims of all kinds of backgrounds. Senegalese, Chinese, Persian, Moroccan, Bosnian, Russian, Bengali – all hailing from diverse and rich cultures, each one forging their own evolving Muslim identity. What unites all of us is that we recognize our Muslim heritage.
You can fast during Ramadan and not attend prayer services. You can go on Hajj and date a non-Muslim. You can recite Surat Al-Fatiha every morning and not wear a hijab. None of these are contradictory in the minds of millions of Muslims. Our massive ethnic, sectarian, and political diversity should be celebrated, not reduced to simplistic and harmful stereotypes.
You can fast during Ramadan and not attend prayer services. You can go on Hajj and date a non-Muslim. You can recite Surat Al-Fatiha every morning and not wear a hijab. None of these are contradictory in the minds of millions of Muslims.
If you stop to look around Western societies cultural Muslims are everywhere: Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, the Turkish-German power couple behind the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine; Dua Lipa, a Grammy-winner and a global pop icon inspiring audiences all over the globe; Shahid Khan, who arrived in Illinois as a teenager with just a few dollars, and is now a billionaire and the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars; The Today Show host Hoda Kotb, who inspires millions of Americans with her humanity every day on national television; Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah Nobel literature laureate for his “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
On the one hand, nothing seems to connect these diverse individuals. But beneath the surface, a deep cultural bond unites their stories into a mosaic, thus far little recognized. They – and millions more like us in the West and beyond – are part of a nascent scene of cultural Muslims shaping modernity with powerful and creative contributions. Ultimately, that is why I was moved by the message from one of our Ramadan honorees.
I realized that now that the “War on Terror” and its reductive and alienating rhetoric have run their course, the time has come to embrace cultural Muslim identity as a path forward for millions of Muslims living in the West, and away from victimhood and alienation.
Cultural Muslim identity offers a healthy and inspiring alternative: We can be proud of our heritage and fully assimilated into the modern world. Our heritage in fact can be a source of inspiration and spiritual fulfillment, and our contributions can and deserve to be recognized by the larger society around us.
The mosaic of cultural Muslims positively transforming our societies is an untapped asset because it offers an answer many Muslims like myself have had about our own identity. Muslims and non-Muslims alike can benefit from recognizing cultural Muslim identity as a positive path forward in our otherwise confusing times.
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