How I Embraced My Muslim Identity

Over the past few months, people close to me have begun wondering when I began calling myself a Muslim. I understand their confusion — until recently, I didn't identify as Muslim, and those who have known me for a long time have never known me to attend mosque or speak of anything other than my Arab identity. Since Donald Trump was elected, I've struggled with my response to my friends' questions, because identifying as Muslim has been part of a quiet internal revolution. I began identifying as Muslim after the Orlando Pulse shootings, but this complicated identity has been developing for years as I navigated the world as a queer white-passing Arab with a Muslim name.

Religion and ethnicity have long been topics of interest and conversation for me and my communities. I was raised primarily by my mom, a white former Muslim convert who joined the Unitarian Universalist church 20 years ago, and with that second conversion raised me to believe whatever I chose and to respect Islam as much as all other world religions. Whether I was discussing the hypocritical faux-feminism of France's burqa bans while studying French (the language of my country's colonizers) in college or responding to the newly apparent Islamophobia I and so many others have lived with since 9/11, I always danced around Islam as something I identified with conceptually and culturally, but not a religion I practiced.

Courtesy of Noor Al-Sibai

In hindsight, it should have been obvious to me that I had a deeper connection to Islam than I realized when I began regularly telling my mostly white, liberal arts classmates that I'd be Muslim if I were "into organized religion." It wasn't until the Pulse shootings last summer, however, that I realized the political and personal implications of that identity, and that I could no longer deny my Muslim-ness along with my queerness.

It's not an understatement to say that Pulse changed everything. It marked a turning point for our country politically, and made many otherwise-privileged queer people realize that the advancements of marriage equality didn't protect us from violence. It also marked a turning point for me as I watched then-candidate Trump take a page out of Geert Wilders' Islamophobic playbook and attempt to pit gays against Muslims in his response to those horrific attacks.

In the days and weeks following the Pulse shootings, I, like so many queer Muslims, found myself unnecessarily torn between mourning with my queer community and struggling to find words of defense and support for Muslims who were once again demonized in response to the ill-conceived actions of an extremist. But something else happened then, too — in my mind, I began referring to myself as Muslim.

I don't recall the first time I noticed this shift, nor can I pinpoint when my former resistance to it began to fall away. I only knew that there were tons of queer Muslims out there crying to be heard (including in my own community in Durham, North Carolina), and my place at the intersections of queerness and Islam suddenly seemed both clear and natural.

Despite regularly alluding to this internal shift I'd experienced, I don't believe I said the words "I am Muslim" until after the election. "My family is Muslim" had been my refrain for as long as I could remember, but over the years, it had begun to feel less and less accurate. Yes, my dad's family is Muslim and goes to the mosque fairly regularly, but that statement always lacked something important — and I realize now that what that statement lacked was me.

My current Muslim identity is complex due to a lot of factors — I'm queer, I'm also involved in New Age spirituality (though I've synthesized Islam and alternative spirituality as a relic of my Unitarian upbringing), and I don't currently attend mosque. Nevertheless, I am Muslim. I move through the world with a Muslim name, I survived a religiously motivated war in Lebanon in 2006, and every new instance of Islamophobia hurts me as much as it did when I was a confused 10-year-old after 9/11 who couldn't understand why people seemed to hate families that looked like mine.

Courtesy of Noor Al-Sibai

I recognize how privileged I am to have such white skin, how easily I "pass" as non-Muslim because I don't cover, and even how much safer I am by not having found a mosque that fits me. None of that makes my complicated Muslim identity any less real.

My spirituality and identity may seem strange to non-Muslims and other Muslims alike, but it is mine, and it's here to stay.