Label Me Muslim



by Taslim Jaffer | @taslimjaffer

The other day we were invited to a potluck dinner. The host was going to provide the main dish and everyone was asked to bring an appetizer. My heart beat a little faster when I was told the main dish was going to be pulled pork. These are new acquaintances my husband and I have recently made, and here I was in that fluttery, blood-pumping moment I have gotten to know so well. The moment where I decide whether or not to out myself as a Muslim.

I could remain quiet. After all, there would be plenty of other food my children, husband and I could eat. People may not notice if we don’t touch the pork. Or, I could speak up and ask if there would be a non-pork option. Then it would be obvious that we follow a religion that has never been more misunderstood—and more feared—than it is now. How would this group of people react to my family? Would it change the way they laugh with us, joke with us? Would it change things? I had a choice in that moment, as I have in many moments past, to don a label that often feels like a lead cloak.

Like you, I will never forget where I was on September 11, 2001. I was living in the small town of Orillia, Ontario, a couple hours north of Toronto, where the mosquito population is larger than the human population. I rented a room in the basement of an older couple for a year so I could pursue a post-graduate diploma at a community college. That morning, my landlady banged on my bedroom door, “Taslim! Taslim! Come quick!”

I threw my door open and saw her run back to the television set. She perched herself on the edge of her armchair, her hand on her mouth. My heart was already pounding before I laid eyes on the airplane that flew into the second building. I saw people, tiny ant-like dots, jumping from the building to their deaths. Now nauseous, I prayed in my head, “Please don’t let these people claim to be Muslim.”

In the days that followed, my landlady, who knew I was Muslim, tiptoed around me cautiously. One day she called me into the kitchen. As she opened up her kitchen compost to toss in some broken egg shells, she asked me, trying to be casual, “You know in Julius Caesar? There’s this line: ‘Beware the Ides of March?'” She paused.

“Yeah?” I prompted, confused.

“Isn’t that an Islamic holiday or something?”

“The Ides of March … I think that means the middle of March.” I paused at the realization of her unspoken words. “You might be thinking of Eid? Eid is … it’s a festival.”

My words came out choked, nervous. I was suddenly unsure of everything around me. My landlady, a charitable, kind Christian woman, was trying to find a link between my religion (and subsequently me) and something evil. Something to beware of. What an uncomfortable feeling. Living away from home for the first time, moving to a small, homogenous town was already a challenge. It didn’t matter that I was also in a state of shock from what I had witnessed on television, from the knowledge of what human beings can do to each other. It didn’t matter that I cried, too, for all the families who lost their loved ones in such a horrific way. Because of my label Muslim, there are people who judge the sincerity of my reaction to such attacks accordingly.

When I was in graduate school for speech-language pathology in the United States, the world was still reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Centre just two years prior. I was observing a therapy session conducted by a fellow student from behind a one-way mirror in a space large enough for about five students and a supervisor. The patient was a young woman with a language processing disorder, and part of her therapy was to engage in simple conversation. I admit, I was only paying partial attention until the conversation turned to 9/11 and the patient said something about, “Those Muslims.”

“Oh, I know,” my fellow student rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I just don’t get that culture at all.” I drew in a sharp breath and looked at the handful of other students in the observation room. No one batted an eye. Not even the supervisor. I was horrified and saddened and angry all at once. But I was also silent. It is a silence I regret.

There were so many ironies I discovered during my time in the US. One time I looked over at my classmate’s feverish scribbling during a lecture. I didn’t know why she was burning a hole in her page, writing like mad, when the professor wasn’t even speaking that quickly. I noticed she was writing out Scripture from heart. Impressed with her dedication—and her memory—I turned my attention back to the professor. But I knew that if I had been caught writing out Qur’anic verses in my notebook, the school would have shut down until every closet, nook and cranny was investigated for a homemade bomb. You and I both know that is not a joke.

Part of the baggage that comes with this label is the need to explain myself and my faith to Every. Single. Person. I do it because I feel it is my duty to my children and to those who want to say something, but can’t. But inside? I feel exhausted sometimes. Every time someone decides to do something insane and criminal while spouting the name of God in Arabic, I am called to say something. Why? Mostly because of the kind of person I am. I have a voice and I feel like if I can use it to help others, then I should. But also because the world is expecting this of “us”–the Muslims who aren’t blowing stuff up. The so-called Moderate Muslim. I reject that label vehemently. 

Label me Muslim but not Moderate Muslim, because that means that extremism is somewhere on the spectrum of my faith—and it is not. There are 1.6 billion people in the world who identify as Muslim so there is bound to be variation in practice (among other things like language and culture), but ‘Muslim’ does not stretch to include the deviations that some have chosen, just as ‘Christian’ does not stretch to include the same.

I ended up asking about a non-pork main course option for the potluck dinner, and the knot in my stomach was gently released when my question was met with a smile. “Absolutely! We want to include everybody!” My gratitude was sincere, not just because we could avoid questions at the dinner but because it was a well-received step taken in the direction of friendship. Because beyond ‘Muslim’ I have so many other labels; ‘friend’ is one of my favourites.


About Taslim:

taslim-jafferMy comfort zone is my home with my incredible husband and 3 vibrant children. There you will find me writing, reading, cooking and refereeing squabbles. I stretch out of my bubble through writing and speaking because I know at the end of my life, I will be thankful I did. My journey has been paved with colourful events and mundane moments, and I feel blessed by them all. Even when I’m drowning in laundry. I love connecting over tea with old friends and new. I am a woman of faith, and I find my bliss in mossy tree trunks, the slice of a kayak’s oar in a still lake, and floating on my back in water, ears submerged, face to the sky, arms and heart wide open.