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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Neither this nor that: "How Walking the Walk helped me escape my double life and embrace my true identity" | by Arisha Syed

I grew up in a moderate, Muslim-American family—first generation American on my dad’s side, second generation on my mom’s. Both of my parents hoped that raising their three daughters in the U.S. would bring us a comfortable life, and, by the grace of God, we have a roof over our heads, food on the table, money for college, and we even go on the occasional vacation. However, September 11, 2001 drastically changed my family’s sense of comfort in the U.S. and altered the way we looked at the world.

After 9/11, my family wasn’t comfortable identifying openly as Muslim and operated by one simple rule: culture is for the world, religion is for the home. Even though I felt like an outcast as one of the only brown kids in school, I was encouraged by my parents to embrace my Indian/Pakistani heritage. However, I was also told to always conceal my religious beliefs from the public.

It never made sense to me, even as early as a 6-year-old. Why could Christian kids freely celebrate their religious holidays (let alone get an entire winter break around Christmas) yet I had to quietly take a day off in order to celebrate my religious holidays? Although it didn’t seem right, I did what I thought I was expected to do by American society—I embraced the dominant Christian culture that was, in a way, forced upon us. Sadly, the media’s portrayal of “dangerous Muslims” caused my parents to be more comfortable with me and my sisters decorating Christmas ornaments in school rather than talking about our own religious holidays. In a post-9/11 world, it just seemed “safer” to seem Christian. Despite this, our parents made sure to teach us about Islam and our own culture as soon as we got home from school each day. Essentially, I was living a double life. I was neither this nor that: neither truly “American” (a.k.a. Christian) nor openly Muslim.

This changed, however, during the fall of my junior year of high school when I was introduced to Interfaith Philadelphia and joined the Walking the Walk Youth Initiative. Little did I know this interfaith youth group would go on to change my entire life in the best way possible. Suddenly, my story of living a double life seemed a little more normal. I realized that there were so many teens going through that same struggle, whether they were Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, or Quaker to name a few. As a part of the “out-group” in American society, we were all forced to be aware of religious and cultural diversity very early on in life whereas Christian kids had the luxury of choosing whether they wanted to be aware of it since society catered to their identity. For me, Walking the Walk wasn’t just about engaging in much needed interfaith dialogue but discovering and embracing my own true identity through listening to the stories of others. The more I learned about different faiths, the more I realized how strikingly similar the basic goals of many religions were: to spread peace and harmony, treat one’s neighbor as you want to be treated, avoid ignorance by pursuing education—by daring to understand. And just like that, I felt so much less alone.

Walking the Walk gave me the confidence to embrace my religion in public just as much as at home. Even now, in 2018, with overwhelming political tension targeting Muslims and people of color, Walking the Walk has given me a sense of safety and the ability to embrace my religion without feeling alone. It taught me that there’s nothing to be ashamed of because those shaming me for being myself simply need to be educated. Humans aren’t born hating certain groups of people; ignorance is the cause of hatred. We are only afraid of the unknown. That’s why I advocate for interfaith and intercultural dialogue and believe it’s never too young to start the conversation. After all, if a 6-year-old has the capacity to feel marginalized because of their faith, race, or gender then they have the capacity to learn how to change that too.