I was eating ice cream with one of my favourite persons and although I do not like to discuss religious matters with him because “he just wouldn’t understand”, but my ice cream feeling was in full flow. There’s this feeling I get when I eat ice cream, — it makes me feel powerful, like I’m at the verge of discerning the solutions to my problem. So I decided to tell him then about my worry, one that has made me cry countless times.
I told him that one day, I would write an essay about the subtle Islamophobia in Nigeria and how non-Muslims like to pretend it doesn’t exist. My favourite person looked at me like I was joking.
This conversation happened after he read a rant post I wrote about how I’m tired of non-Muslims assuming things about Muslims. Treating Muslims like a monolith, putting us under an umbrella so that if I do something, Muslims are judged for it. If I stole, the headline would be, “Muslim Woman Steals Biscuits.” My identity as a Muslim is always stressed.
It’s the same reason I do not like labels like Muslim writer, Muslim activist, Muslim professor. In the blogpost, I wrote about how I’m tired of carrying Islam on my back. How I’m tired of going out every day representing all Muslims so that if I did good, it would be a good image on Islam and if I did bad, other Muslims would be criticized for my own mistake.
My friend, X, read this post and concluded I was overreacting. To him, there’s no such thing as Islamophobia. To him, I have no right to complain about Islamophobia if Boko Haram, (a terrorist group in Northern Nigeria) continue to hack people to death in the name of Allah, if ISIS continues to exist.
He told me, “You’re talking about Islamophobia, what about Christophobia?”
He said a lot of Islamophobic things right in front of me and the realization that my friend is Islamophobic and doesn’t even know hit me hard.
He also argued that I have no right to complain about non-Muslims making assumptions about Muslims because somehow, every one of us is guilty of making assumptions about other people, consciously or unconsciously.
His argument was that whatever assumptions non-Muslims have about Muslims isn’t their (non Muslims’) fault.
He used an analogy. If I was a young man in dreadlocks and ripped jeans, holding an iPhone and I saw a Nigerian police authority walking towards me, wouldn’t I walk the other way? That’s because I’ve assumed that many police officials arrest young men based on how “irresponsible” they look. Why not walk towards him to find out if he’s one of the good police or not? My friend compared Muslims to the Nigerian police force!
It hits differently when your close friend is Islamophobic and defends Islamophobia with the Nigerian Police analogy.
When I got home, I cried.
I remember that when I was struggling with hijab, someone had told me to remind myself that I was doing it for Allah, not for people. It didn’t make the struggle less difficult.
Because it would be a lie if I pretend their words don’t get me. If I pretend, I don’t sit and cry sometimes when I see a random troll call Islam violent or call Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) derogatory names or when I see people say, “they are all the same.”
Before my encounter with X, I had been at a 2-month elocution workshop. I was the only Muslim woman amongst a group of people who had assumptions about Islam. And I spent my time explaining Islam to them. Explaining that I’m not oppressed, that Islam isn’t violent, that people just misinterpret the Quran to suit their selfish desires. That not wearing a hijab doesn’t make me “the better type of Muslim”.
I kept explaining myself, my religion, until I broke down.
The day I broke down was when I sat in a restaurant with a group of young men from the workshop. They commented about how I’m different from other Muslim women. How they like my type of Muslim. How when they found out I was Muslim, they thought I would be rigid, unapproachable, over Islamic, fanatical like “other Muslim women”.
In the past, this would have been a compliment but I saw through the insult. Insulting people I identify with and singling me out as the “good, approachable one”? I was angry.
It was also that day that someone from the workshop when he saw me coming from the Mosque asked me if I get tired of going to the Mosque to pray every hour.
“How many times do you even pray?” He asked.
“12” I replied.
“I thought it was 5.”
And then it occurred to me, he knew the answer but asked me still.
That is what many do to Muslims, they poke you, they ask you questions they know answers to, questions that don’t need asking. They make you explain your religion over and over and over until you’re exhausted and then they still blame you for their Islamophobia. They have made up their minds about what they think Islam is, who they think Muslims are and whatever you say, most of them don’t care, they enjoy when you go on and on, their minds and hearts are not open with curiosity and understanding.
Over the years because of my need to explain my religion, I had become very defensive. I am pleased with Islam as my religion but I was pushed to the point where I was ashamed of being a Muslim. To the point that when the ChristChurch Shootings happened, I was thankful that it wasn’t a Muslim terrorist. Astagfutillah, people had died and I was relieved that Muslims won’t be blamed for it. I realized my situation was messed up.
I was exhausted and most of the people I explained my religion to weren’t convinced enough.
One day, after my encounter with the one who asked if praying every hour is tiring, I told myself I was done explaining myself and my choices to non-Muslims. I’m done! And indeed I was done.
So recently, when the news that a man had been arrested in Kano, Nigeria for blasphemy after he made a Facebook post insulting the Prophet went viral, It didn’t surprise me when a lot of non-Muslims went on an insult spree against Muslims and Islam.
“They are violent, they are fanatical, why always Muslims?”
It didn’t surprise me that some people hide their Islamophobia and bigotry behind the facade of caring for the man arrested. It didn’t surprise me that many found the perfect opportunity to drag Islam and Muslims again.
What surprised me though was myself. I won’t pretend I wasn’t hurt a little. I was, but I didn’t reply to any of the hurtful comments like I did in the past. I had come to terms that my explanation would make no difference, that another day, I would still be explaining myself using the same words.
I don’t want to put myself in the position where I have to continue to defend my religion. It’s not my fault that people deliberately pretend to be ignorant just to push their hatred for Islam. The moment I learned this, I was at peace.
That doesn’t mean that when someone genuinely wants to learn about Islam, I would push them away. It means that I would not expend my energy to explain Islam, to bring out Quranic Verses, Hadiths, to search YouTube lectures just to defend my religion to people who have chosen to believe one narrative about Islam and Muslims.
It’s always going to go in circles and God forbid I sit down to cry again because of a failed attempt at educating a non-Muslim about Islam. It’s not my duty to teach, it’s not my job to force them to let go of their bigotry and see Islam for what it preaches and not what others practice. Their bigotry isn’t my fault. Why beat myself up for it?