Culturally Muslim

Growing up Pakistani-American, the first time I recognized myself in the world of a novel was when I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

Shuja Haider
April 16, 2018
Photo: Jane Charlesworth via Flickr

IN ZADIE SMITH’S essay about the British Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, she recalls his debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, being passed around like contraband in her history class. It was treasured for its sexual freedom and punk spirit, but its most thrilling quality was not its profanity, it was its perspective. “My name is Karim Amir,” the book begins, “and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” Half-Indian and half-British by birth, he is more likely to be considered Black, Asian, or Muslim in his native England. But in spite of that final designation, which casts a long shadow over perceptions of Karim’s family by their suburban neighbors, the book follows him to the pub more often than to the mosque. Kureishi’s world, populated by the “new breeds” of multiracial South London, was unlike the literary worlds of Dickens and Austen to which Smith and her schoolmates had previously been subjected. “We had a Kureishi in our class (spelt with a Q),” she remembers, “and felt we recognised the world of this novel.”

Growing up Pakistani-American, the first time I recognized myself in the world of a novel was when I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. In Roth’s notoriously bawdy bildungsroman, Alexander Portnoy’s coming-of-age involves his first violation of Jewish dietary law, in the form of a lobster claw. The effect of its consumption is so powerful as to cause sexual arousal. As the adult Portnoy tells his analyst:

That taboo so easily and simply broken, confidence may have been given to the whole slimy, suicidal Dionysian side of my nature; the lesson may have been learned that to break the law, all you have to do is—just go ahead and break it! All you have to do is stop trembling and quaking and finding it unimaginable and beyond you: all you have to do, is do it! What else, I ask you, were all those prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed?

According to a recent Pew study, 22% of American Jews don’t consider themselves religious. As we all know, the designation means something else, something that is not always easily identified. The category is often referred to with the modifiers “secular” or “cultural,” and yet is often determined by other causes. The American Jewish identity is complex; it includes not only those who follow religious law, but those who have broken it. The transgression cannot take place without the boundary.

It’s an experience that occurs for Muslims as well. I remember my own relationship to religious dietary restrictions changing dramatically over the course of my childhood. At first, I took some kind of pride in announcing that I wouldn’t eat pizza with pepperoni at birthday parties, or bacon the morning after sleepovers. But eventually, that sense of security gave way to jealousy and curiosity, far surpassing any proportional response to the flavor of food. Finally, I reached the same turning point as Alexander Portnoy. All I had to do was do it.

exactly what I ate and when, but I remember how I felt. I had an experience similar to one Salman Rushdie describes in his essay “In God We Trust.” Rushdie writes about losing his faith in Islam, after moving from India to England for boarding school. After a moment of sudden heretical revelation during a Latin lesson, he commemorated the occasion with a ceremony. “I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich,” he recalls, “and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down.”

Like, I suspect, many secular Jews, I now take a delight in eating pork that exceeds the merely culinary. In the flesh of the swine, gustatory pleasure is mingled with a sense of liberation. Does having this experience mean I am not a Muslim? Or did I have to be a Muslim in order for it to take place?

This raises a more fundamental question: are you a Muslim if you don’t follow religious precepts, or even hold religious beliefs? It also raises an unavoidable comparison: can there be Muslims without Islam, the way there are Jews without Judaism? Even in the absence of religious doctrine, a Muslim identity, in some sense, obtains for non-religious people throughout the world. Hanif Kureishi recounts a conversation on the subject in his essay “Sex and Secularity”:

Once my uncle said to me with some suspicion: “You’re not a Christian, are you?” “No,” I said. “I’m an atheist.” “So am I,” he replied. “But I am still Muslim.” “A Muslim atheist?” I said, “it sounds odd.” He said, “Not as odd as being nothing, an unbeliever.”

Of course, Islam departs from Judaism on the question of definition, in that Jewishness is sometimes determined by lineage rather than belief. Islam, on the other hand, has always been a proselytizing religion, spreading from the Middle East to include not just South Asians, but large numbers of Bosnians, Indonesians, and African Americans. In Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon, delivered on his final pilgrimage to Mecca, he is said to have called on his followers to “learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

The Arabic word “Ummah” names this global Islamic community, supplanting the kinship relations that constituted tribal affiliation with a society united by faith. But the resulting network of cultural, linguistic, and commercial exchange that grew from this community took on characteristics beyond religion. The Islamic Golden Age, contemporaneous to the European Dark Ages, was a period that yielded a proliferation of scientific advancement, as well as heretical theological and philosophical debate among Persian and Andalusian scholars.

The ambiguity of this notion has led both to inclusion and exclusion, from both within and without. Like Judaism, Islam has been subject to its own conflation of religion and ethnicity, in the frequently invoked category of the “Muslim World.” At its worst, this idea fixes the Ummah in place, identifying it as a sovereign nation. This view was epitomized by the influential us-versus-them “Clash of Civilizations” thesis advanced by neo-conservative historians Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington in the 1990s, and effectively implemented as policy by the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” As Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said put it in his book Covering Islam, for most of American history, Muslims were “uniformly represented as evil, violent, and above all, eminently killable.” Thanks to this current of thought, we in the West tend to associate that “Muslim World” with jihad rather than algebra.

, the day after Eid al-Fitr, the final day of Ramadan, the US Supreme Court unanimously chose to maintain the President’s travel ban on immigrants and visitors from Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries. At the time, the list comprised Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan. When the ban expired in September, a new presidential proclamation made it permanent, swapping out the last two countries for Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela—Chad has since been removed. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that non-Muslim countries have been included solely to discourage use of the designation “Muslim Ban” and attendant challenges to its constitutionality. With lower courts blocking the order, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for it again on April 25th, the last day of its present term.

For his part, Trump called the new order a “watered down, politically correct version” of the original. For his most dedicated followers on the far right, its ultimate goal remains a “Clash of Civilizations” between Western civilization and Oriental barbarism. While alt-right ideologues are fond of repeating the claim that Islam “isn’t a race,” and therefore Islamophobia can’t be racism, this claim doesn’t hold up on a planet that includes a Muslim World. The imbrication of race and ethnicity precedes us; today, the question is how we navigate it.

A Gallup poll showed that 19% of people in Saudi Arabia, the very fertile crescent where Islam originated, identify as having no religion—nearly the same percentage as secular American Jews. As Edward Said, himself a Palestinian Christian, put it in his essay “The Other Arab Muslims”:

Islam of course is a religion, but it is also a culture; the Arabic language is the same for Muslims as it is for Christians, both of whom, believers and nonbelievers alike, are deeply affected—perhaps the better word is inflected—by the Koran, which is also in Arabic.

Of course, if this ambiguity is disturbing to the alt-right, it is equally, if not more, problematic for Islamic fundamentalists. ISIS’s journal Dabiq has bemoaned the “grayzone” in which Western Muslims are able to exist. The ambiguity is intensified when those in this Zone are not even necessarily Muslims. The idea that Islam isn’t a race is little comfort to Hindus and Sikhs who have been subject to racist violence. Late last year, the New York Daily News reported, a man assaulted a woman as she left a subway station in Queens, New York, shouting “Get out of my country, you dirty Muslim!”; the victim was an Orthodox Jew, wearing traditional garments of her faith.

It’s no accident that anti-Muslim hate crimes were at their highest in 2015 since they’d been since 2001, according to the SPLC. It was that year, during the Republican primary campaign, that Donald Trump had first made his promise to institute a travel ban, calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in response to shootings carried out by a Pakistani-American couple in San Bernadino, California. 

Like many other Muslims, practicing and non-practicing, I’m an American citizen, but I felt personally threatened. My parents had temporarily moved to Karachi, Pakistan at the time, for academic sabbaticals. Even though they’ve been US citizens for more than a decade, I wondered if they’d be able to come back. My brother and I worried about what to tell them when they asked if we were safe. I remembered the air of hostility that had prevailed after 9/11. Like many people, up until the phrase “Muslim Ban” entered American political discourse, I had thought of Trump’s candidacy as a joke. That was the moment where, for me, it wasn’t funny anymore.

The day after Trump’s statement, I stopped by the corner store on my block in Brooklyn, where I went nearly every day. It’s owned by a Yemeni family, all of whom recognize me by sight. The man at the cash register was someone I’d spoken to many times before. But this time, something was different.

“Are you Muslim?” he asked me.

I hesitated at the question, as I always do, being a nonbeliever. I have not been above taking some mischievous pleasure in telling the more pious members of my extended family that I’m an atheist. But that day, I realized that what he was asking had little to do with religious faith.

He was asking if I had family in a country to which American borders might become closed. If I might find myself on a secret watchlist due to my name or the stamps on my passport. If I tended to get selected for random screenings at airports that everyone knows are far from random. If I feared for my family’s safety, not just from domestic terrorism, but from the retribution, both by violent vigilantes and the legal state apparatus, visited upon scapegoats identified by a rough equivalence of skin tone.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m a Muslim.”

We exchanged salaams. Then he handed me the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich he’d just made me, and I headed for the train.

Shuja Haider is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn and an editor at Viewpoint Magazine.