Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Got tolerance?

A few weeks ago, my friend invited me to go to her to the Pakistani embassy to celeberate the country's Independence Day. I was surprised at how political the event was - there was a panel with several Pakistani authors talking about tolerance, democracy in Islam, etc. I found it very ironic that one of the authors talked about how democracy is compatible with Islam at the embassy when Gen Parvez Musharraf came to power through a coup!

The highlight of the event for everybody crammed in the small room was Junoon's Salman Ahmad - one of the most popular Paki rock stars. He talked about his experiences as a Paki-American & then sang some of his songs too (I have a pic with him to prove it!). While I was at the embassy & looked around the room, what I found was a room of people who have lived in the US for a long time but are so proud to be Pakistani. And I felt jealous. Most Khojas experience an identity issue due to our diverse background but I think it is even more difficult for people who were born in the Gulf but are not recognized as citizens of the country we’re born in. I truly don't feel like I have one home. In my life, I have sung everything from Dil Dil Pakistan to UAE's national anthem to Vande Matram to a Palestinian liberation song to humming the Star Spangled Banner. In a world that is increasingly asking people to pledge allegiance to a country, flag or an ideology, I feel like I have none – whether it will change when I become an American citizen is yet to be seen.

The friend I went with is someone I term as "liberal Muslim." And most of the people at the Pakistani embassy fell under that category because they belonged to an elite class and many of them were probably even secular. As I have been exposed to different Muslims and Shias in DC, I have realized how shielded I have been as a Khoja Muslim. Muslim women who don't wear Hijab are not new to me. But Muslim women who dress as liberally as Westerners are and it has been a test of my faith as I spend my time around them. Some of them are devout Muslims while others have a different set of beliefs.

The same goes with my non-Muslim co-workers. I love my colleagues because we share the same drive for making a difference in the world but it's been a challenge not to judge them by their dress code or lifestyle. You may think that living in the West, all of us face the same issue so why am I making such a big deal about it. That is true, but this time has been different for me because for the first time, I don't come back home from work or school to a Muslim family or Muslim friends where I can set aside my discomfort. On some Friday nights, many of my friends go dancing or drinking late into the night. I'm surrounded by people who are different than me with lifestyles that I am very uncomfortable with and I find myself homesick longing for the comfort of my circle of friends in MN.

As I question my identity as a Shia Muslim in the US, the more pressing issue for me has been the whole concept of tolerance. What does it really mean to be tolerant? Honestly, I’ve never liked the word because it sounds like I have to put up with something or somebody has to put up with me. In a post-9/11 world, the word is in-vogue & Muslims use it liberally to describe Islam as a religion of "tolerance." But does that mean that as a Muslim, I am nice to people different than me on a superficial level and make a face behind their backs?

I spend all of last weekend with some of the most amazing young people for a conference on sustainable development in NY. We stayed over at an eco-friendly lodge with composting toilets (it's environmentally friendly because they don't use water but all the waste gets sucked into a huge hole similar to the ones in airplanes to be decomposed - no really, it wasn't gross!). I met people who worked in science, trade, environment and development and had one of the most enriching experiences in my life because it was inspiring to see so many young people working to make a difference in the world. But I was not always comfortable around them because they interacted or dressed in a way that was against my set of beliefs. On the drive back with a bunch of American girls, this topic actually came up & I admitted how uncomfortable I am around girls who dress what I consider liberally and they really appreciated my honesty.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because I have been given so much by people who have a different set of values and beliefs than mine: from air high-fives because I don't like interacting physically with na-mahram (mahram=father, father-in-law, brothers, maternal/paternal uncles, grandfathers, sons) to accommodating my prayer schedule to embracing my need to eat halaal or vegetarian food. They have taught me so much about life and have not simply "tolerated" me but embraced me. In the past few months, it is these people who have come through for me when I've been sick or just having a bad day. And I want to give back - wholeheartedly, without reservations or being judgmental. It may sound like "duh" for many people, but it has been really hard for me to do and something I struggle with every day.

I guess it's because all my life, good and bad has been presented as black or white. That is if a person does a, b or c, he/she is automatically x, y, or z. And it's not necessarily true. When we get together for multi-faith or multi-cultural dialogues, we tend to talk about the common features of our faith or lifestyles. Although this is crucial to bridge differences, I feel like we also need to talk about our differences because they exist and have a significant impact on how we interact and live. And if we ignore them or pretend they don't exist, they have the potential to become ugly.

I may be wrong or just over reacting. But what I do know is that I don't have all the answers to all the questions I have but it is how I feel at this point in my life. I came across a beautiful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that really resonated with me: “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."