Religion

When the “Experiment” Never Ends

Tonight (or last night, depending on whom you ask, as the whole Hijri calendar thing is very complicated) marks the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Too many people think that Ramadan is Muslim Christmas. It isn’t: Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, is. Ramadan is more like Lent or Yom Kippur, except longer and involving less in the way of the permission to drink water during the day.

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There are those who misconstrue Ramadan, and then there are those who see only part of it and decide that it would be fun to try it out. Similarly, there are non-Muslim women who try out their own versions of Islamic “modesty” for set time periods (it’s a little played at this point). Lacking a Muslim background means that such people get to waltz into and then out of their own personalized versions of Islamic practices. Invariably, they are praised for their open-mindedness by fellow non-Muslims and by Muslims alike . They adopt the most showy (read: Other) aspects of Islam, like “modesty” or fasting, abandon them, and then write about it to the applause of the audience.

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How brave. How novel.

Except that there’s nothing novel about it. Plenty of people engage in Islamic practices that they later stop doing, and then start again, and then stop again. They’re called “Muslims” and they’re far from an insignificant portion of the world population. As for the alleged bravery, some people leave Islamic practices behind not to the praise of all, but to severe consequences. My personal “modesty experiment” lasted for about a decade and a half. It was my life. I couldn’t walk blithely away from it when I was done, Salon feature in hand. Due to filial pressure and its accompanying personal guilt, I wore a headscarf and dressed according to Islamic law for quite a while after becoming an atheist.

Goofy picture, but the only one I have of myself wearing hijab when I no longer wanted to. I deleted all the others.
Goofy picture, but the only one I have of myself wearing hijab when I no longer wanted to. I deleted all the others. Too upsetting.

The difference between the experimenters and me is that I actually belong to the community from which such practices originate. When I was a Muslim, taking up a religious habit and then abandoning it meant experiencing a great deal of shaming and even threatening behavior from the community. As an apostate of Islam, while I do not personally subject myself to Islamic rules, I still have to adhere to them to some extent in order to interact with the Muslims in my family and my community. When I don’t, it’s painfully obvious that I am a pariah.

No time is this more true than during Ramadan. I can’t say that I miss the fasting, but I do miss the sense of solidarity, of collective ritual. I could pretend to fast but that might give the Muslims who love me some unfair and totally unrealistic hopes regarding my converting back to my former faith.

My “experiment” with Islam wasn’t chosen by me, lacked in cherry-picking, lasted for 18 years, and hasn’t ended even though, more than seven years ago, I publicly declared myself to be an atheist.

There isn’t necessarily something inherently unethical with trying out different things, even if those things are originally sourced from another culture and/or religion. Visiting another place doesn’t instantly make you a bad person. That said, there is a reason tourists haven’t exactly the best of reputations among natives — and that they are especially maligned for cluelessness.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. I’m a little confused by the last line. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing from other religions and cultures… except for being a tourist, which is what the borrowing makes you. So which is it? Where’s the line?

    1. I didn’t intend to draw a line (that’s another discussion entirely) and wasn’t talking about borrowing (again, that’s another thing). I was making a much more specific statement: that trying out experiments based on other cultures/religions makes you a tourist. They’re not necessarily wrong for visiting, but they do get to leave and are often clueless. It’s important for anyone experimenting in such a way to recognize what they are, i.e. a tourist.

  2. Tourists tend to ignore context. I love thinking about cultural dynamics! I think there’s borrowing or internalizing aspects of other cultures that one admires, which is fine IMO as long as this does not exploit the culture one is borrowing from. If that makes sense. (exhausted) IMO exploitation includes pretending that one represents or has experienced this borrowed-from culture in any meaningful way and/or attempts to forcibly insert oneself into the exotic culture without invitation. Without the context, you will always be Other.

  3. I think a lot of religion is like a BDSM powerplay. Making other people suffer is one way to demonstrate power.

    The rules inevitably end up being tightened over time. And the people who decide which rules to enforce always seem to have some way to make sure that they never see the worst of it.

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