What salvation looks like: I didn’t die before this

I have not had the time or the energy to blog recently. Partly due to the situation with ISIS.  What is there to say in the face of such everyday horror, and every time there is an explosion you worry that someone you know might be dead?

And partly due to things going on in my former extended family network, as well as at work. Tiresome nonsense, that boils down in both cases to the unwillingness of a conservative former cultie Muslim dude (who knows that I was once a conservative Muslim and what sort of group I was a member of) to treat me with basic respect, while also not having the courage to be honest about what he is doing.

Hyper-conservative family dude plays tiresome, manipulative headgames that end up dragging innocent and unwilling others into the fray, and then when called on it, denies that he is doing anything. Work dude is patronizing and covertly undermines me, while being clever enough to do so in ways that leave no hard evidence.

Because I’m apparently hell-bound, a sinner who doesn’t even have the humility to admit that the conservatives’ ways of looking at the world are morally superior or to play the “inshallah someday I’ll have strong enough iman to re-hijab and bow down to the scholar-gods again” game. No, I’m not playing that game. Life is too short to live a lie.

It gets depressing and emotionally exhausting to deal with. Especially since I understand all too well where they are coming from.

This stuff stings particularly hard, because I know what is going on. I understand where this comes from. I used to think the same way. Because we were taught to look upon people according to their faith (or the lack of it): Fellow Muslims (especially if they practice and believe the same way you do) are your brothers and sisters in faith, so you treat them with respect, support and help them. Muslims whose beliefs or practices leave something to be desired are to be treated in a friendly way, and given “tactful” advice, guidance and encouragement to come around to the “right” way of doing things. Conservative, believing people of other faiths were to be treated with a certain rather distant respect. (After all, if you demonstrate the superior manners of Islam, they might be moved to become Muslim! And even if they don’t, people who hold onto some kind of faith and socially conservative standards deserve respect in this atheistic, dunya-seeking world of ours.)

But there was no place in this view of the world for dissidents, for those who would or could not toe the line even after they had had the morally and intellectually “superior” worldview explained to them again and again. Or for people who had once apparently believed in it, and now no longer believed. No place for those who won’t at least pretend. Any more than there was any place for agnostics, or atheists, or pagans, or LGBTQ people—people who (we assumed) flaunted, egotistically gloried in their misguidance. People who couldn’t be classified as good believers, potentially good believers, or prospective converts.

I remember when that was what my world was like. When people who didn’t fit (or who couldn’t pretend to fit) barely existed. I didn’t really see them, because my world made them virtually invisible. When we did acknowledge their existence at all, we saw them as part of the imperfection of the world. But we mostly ignored them. And people who couldn’t fit any more—those who realized they were gay and came out, or who had crises of faith that they couldn’t resolve, or who didn’t want to be part of such a world any more for whatever reason—vanished. Literally. They wouldn’t appear at social gatherings, they wouldn’t call. Looking back, I can see that they knew they weren’t welcome, and withdrew for their own self-preservation and mental health.

Looking back, I am deeply ashamed of how I thought about and treated others. I can see now that what we thought was our humility (as opposed to those “arrogant” people who didn’t toe the line or even pretend to) was actually unbelievably arrogant. And that although it was supposedly motivated by religious teachings (taking a stand against bid’a and dalala and blasphemy and all that), our main motivation was actually fear. We felt deeply threatened by anyone who had been exposed to the same teachings we had, and hadn’t affirmed their truth… or even worse, had once affirmed their truth but now no longer did so. The very existence of such people implied too many uncomfortable questions, which we did not want to have to consider. After all, our lives revolved around the assumed “truth” of our worldview. Questioning that threatened everything that we thought mattered.

This stuff also hurts because years ago, those “brothers” apparently respected me. But what they evidently really respected was my outward appearance as a highly conservative Muslim, not me per se. Because as a conservative Muslim who was also a convert, I indirectly validated their identities. It is sad to realize this now… to realize just how illusory most of my social relationships were.

And it is surreal, in a way. It’s like being repeatedly confronted with a ghost from my past. Like being made to look in the mirror, again and again. “You think that looks ugly? That was you. And to some degree, that is still you. You still talk about “Muslims/non-Muslims”, don’t you? You still have a binary view of the world that you haven’t entirely managed to get past… admit it. You still judge people. Yes, you do.”

Recently, I couldn’t seem to get one particularly upsetting incident out of my mind. It was ugly, but the doer clearly believed that he was entirely justified in what he was doing. I couldn’t stop turning it over and over in my  mind. Partly because I could understand where that sense of justification came from. That was what I had been. And that is what part of me still is, deep down, I very reluctantly admitted.

And then I realized something. Yes, part of me is still like that, but I know that now, and struggle against it. That’s not who I want to be. Maybe I’ll have to struggle against those mental us/them, judg-y default settings for the rest of my life. But what if I had died twenty years ago? Fifteen, even ten years ago? I would have died believing that I believed the right things, even if I didn’t always manage to practice them. I would have died lying to myself out of fear that my world would implode if I allowed myself to formulate honest questions. And I would have died looking down patronizingly on all others who didn’t share my beliefs, certain that they were headed for hell (or at least the torture of the grave) unless God in his inscrutable mercy might deign to overlook and forgive. I would have died feeling justified in treating all those unsaved and apparently hell-bound others much in the way that these two “brothers” are now treating me. Or at least, looked the other way when others did so.

I felt so relieved beyond words, so glad that I hadn’t died in that state. That I have been given time to turn from that, to strive to be something else. Because that was hell on earth—living so squwunched up, so bound by fears and insecurities, so afraid to ask honest questions—but it was a hell that I didn’t even see, because I thought that was normal and righteous.

Maybe it’s true that hell awaits me in the next life, and that the likes of those self-satisfied brothers will enter paradise. Maybe for some unfathomable reason, God really prefers self-righteousness and self-deception to honesty. Conservative Muslims (as well as some conservatives of other faiths) like to ask sinners like me, “But are you sure? What if when you stand before God, God tells you that you got it wrong?”

No, I’m not sure. And I prefer not being sure. Because I was sure before (or mostly sure—but I didn’t allow myself to dwell on that, and I dutifully squelched any doubts that might bubble up), and that was hideous.

To me, the experience of being freed from such counterfeit certainty is salvation. Salvation in this life. That’s what it feels like to me.

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  1. #1 by threekidsandi on September 23, 2014 - 1:18 am

    I feel it, too. I did not know that I was in hell, before. I am still sometimes ashamed of how I thought in my previous life. Now, when I am yelling after my children in public, running across the park, or smiling in mixed company, I feel sharp regret, an acute pain for the years I spent limiting my own freedoms. But dividing the world into ¨us versus them¨ was far worse than denying myself sun or wind. It is akin to denying love for your fellow human.

    • #2 by xcwn on September 23, 2014 - 1:49 am

      “But dividing the world into ¨us versus them¨ was far worse than denying myself sun or wind. It is akin to denying love for your fellow human.”
      Yes, that is so true. We prided ourselves on allegedly living up to the potential of being human (making the worship of God the center of our lives and all), but in reality we ended up severely limiting our potential to feel connection to and sympathy with other human beings. Making others uncomfortable or even miserable, feeling somewhat badly about having done that but feeling that we had to do it because that was what God wanted and we were in the right… it was a kind of violation of our own integrity. To say nothing of the harm it did others.

      • #3 by threekidsandi on September 25, 2014 - 1:32 am

        Oh yes. It made me monstrous. It also made me vulnerable, I readily accepted criticism, correction, and punishment. I keep Nietzsche on the wall, now, to remind me not to slip into old patterns.

      • #4 by xcwn on September 25, 2014 - 9:15 pm

        Nietzsche? That’s a good one.
        I have Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

      • #5 by threekidsandi on September 25, 2014 - 11:11 pm

        I like that just as much.

  2. #6 by nmr on September 23, 2014 - 3:13 am

    It is a real privilege for me to have a glimpse into your beautiful and terrible jihad- the jihad of compassion. You sent shivers down my spine with the “Yes, part of me is like that, but I know that now and I struggle against it.” paragraph. Breathtaking. xoxo to you xcwn!!

  3. #7 by Laury Silvers on September 23, 2014 - 2:23 pm

    Beautiful.

    • #8 by xcwn on September 23, 2014 - 6:18 pm

      Thank you.

  4. #9 by talksimple on September 23, 2014 - 3:05 pm

    I am asking you the following with all respect.
    You are confusing readers with your tactical writings….are you an atheist?…agnostic?…Why are you feared of exposing yourself if you don’t have fear of hell or sweetness of heaven after death?.

    Are you against your faith Because your ex tortured and left you?.

    • #10 by xcwn on September 24, 2014 - 2:10 am

      I’m neither an atheist nor an agnostic. Really, how many atheists do you know who worry about hell?

      Why should anyone reading this be “confused”? At least, those converts who have been through these kinds of experiences will know what I’m talking about well enough, and it is them that I write for primarily. But for those who find this sort of thing off-putting, no one is requiring them to read it.

    • #11 by A on September 24, 2014 - 7:58 am

      The fear appears to be on your side. What do you fear by SSC writing her truth?

      (Also, it’s disrespectful to ask: “Are you against your faith Because your ex tortured and left you?.” But I’m sure you know that.)

  5. #12 by Unmosqued1 on September 26, 2014 - 2:35 pm

    I just wanted to let you know that your writing has been beneficial to my life. I am a western convert who has been through pretty much every issue you speak about here. After many years I decided to finally listen to my inner voice instead of the good ol’ “Islamic” community. I released the need to try and find a place in the community. I’m happy and content belonging to myself again. I literally took back my life. Hijab? The problem with too many Muslims is they take hijab as confirmation that a woman’s faith is public property-their property. Hijab robbed me of a sense of myself and sexualized me to the opposite extreme. It was inhumane that I could not do something as simple as scratching my head when I had an itch,feel the sun on my head, and let my head release heat. When I think of how tired and warm I would feel-especially in hot temps it was simply unfair. Hijab fashion and all that jazz is nothing more than a desperate attempt to regain that sense of self. I am so peaceful now practicing my faith privately and not dealing with a bunch of drama.

    • #13 by xcwn on September 26, 2014 - 4:06 pm

      Thank you for commenting. I am glad to know that my writing has helped someone.

      “The problem with too many Muslims is they take hijab as confirmation that a woman’s faith is public property—their property.” Oh, yes. That was my experience as well. Dehijabing was very difficult for me, but it has helped reduce that constant feeling of being watched, judged and found wanting.

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