By Rawan Hamade, Engage Minnesota
Two years ago, I sat nervously in one of my professor’s offices. He asked a very simple question that changed my thinking completely: “Are you Muslim?”
I had expected the scarf on my head to identify me as Muslim, even though there are many other religions around the world that use the same clothing. In the days and months that followed, I came to realize that even if it was obvious that I was a Muslim, the way I looked would not serve to bring my identity forth unless it was accompanied by a voice. My scarf could not speak for me.
My “voice” can be an utterance of knowledge that I deem important. But it is not limited to what I say; rather, it may come out in an action.
Does a person “speak” through his or her mere visual appearance? Not in the case with my professor, when the image of my scarf did not clearly convey my voice. Sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words. I might even suggest that the word is worth a thousand silent pictures. Yet a well-chosen picture, one that provokes thought, can definitely exceed the value of senseless talk.
There are many ways of expression, and the best one for every individual depends on what type of voice he or she is most comfortable using.
Why Muslims silence themselves in America
Unfortunately, I have seen many people who shy away from voicing their opinions. There are several factors that can lead to this problem.
Some minority groups avoid speaking up for fear of being misunderstood or for fear of being viewed as not conforming to the larger American culture. Muslims, in particular, have a problem with voicelessness, because many are afraid to put themselves in the spotlight more than they already are. They are reluctant to intensify the light that has been shining on them for a long time. There is an old Arab saying that I believe applies to the current situation: Stay away from danger, and sing to it. Many would just rather not confront all the stereotypes out there and risk starting a whole new series of debates.
One factor that helped me overcome this reluctance was attending a private Islamic school. The experience helped me understand myself and my religion better, and it provided me with the foundation on which I can give myself a voice and communicate with others.
Some people argue that when young Muslims attend a private, Muslim-only school, they become isolated from the general society and deprived of the chance to interact with other religious groups. What we have to remember is that these children are still young, and they need to acquire a lot more experience before they can assess the world around them. Once they have enough formative experience, they can continue learning about the world through communication. You can’t tell a bird to fly simply because you don’t want to keep it in the same nest all day. The bird needs to gradually learn to fly. Then it can visit any part of the world it fancies.
One cannot understand others before understanding oneself. I cannot learn from other religions and cultures before learning my own, because only then can I make wise choices through well-defined comparisons. In fact, when I understood my religion better, I realized how similar it was to other religions, and that similarity provided an easier way to connect.
The private school gave me the basis for dealing with others for the rest of my life. I currently attend the University of Minnesota, where some of my classes are twice as big as that whole private school, but I can deal with that because I know who I am and what I want from life. My discovery and assessment of the world is proceeding well in college because I have my foundation.
Some Muslims and non-Muslims believe that Islam prohibits people who are viewed as a weaker part of society from speaking out. This belief stems from two misconceptions, and both can be refuted by the very essence of Islam. The first stereotype concerns Islam’s regulations on gender interrelations. Although Islam does set limits on how women and men interact with one another, it by no means prohibits them from voicing their opinions to one another. The second misconception comes from the media’s portrayal of Muslim women as oppressed. There are some cultures that don’t allow women to speak out, but that tendency stems more from the culture than the religion Islam. To the contrary, Islam encourages women to make their voices heard: The Holy Qur’an recounts how women in the past spoke out against injustices, Virgin Mary being a prominent example.
When Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) first came out with his message, he sought to give a voice to those who didn’t have it. Islam was the first religion to free slaves and to give them the right to speak out like anyone else. In fact, one of the first muezzins—those who call believers to prayer—was a slave freed by the efforts of one of Muhammad’s companions. This religion was the first to give women the right to vote and to act as witnesses. It forbade domestic abuse and compulsion in any form. Hence, there is no manner in which Islam in itself can be a reason for voicelessness.
The solution, please?
How do we urge Muslims to make their voices heard?
There are many different solutions that have been given for this problem, but the real solution lies in our way of thinking. Many of us think that we cannot handle this world’s great injustices, and that speaking out against them could make them worse. Many of us would rather leave it to others, because it is indeed a heavy challenge to find the right way to bring out our voices.
Islam encourages us to overcome such self-doubt. This religion tells us that, although we have to start by learning the basics of life and by engraving important values that we learn from others in our hearts, in the end it is our own experiences that matter most. The path is laid for us to tread; we cannot reach the gate while riding on another’s back. The stones may bloody our feet, but if we do not experience it ourselves, neither can we feel or remember the soothing water that washes the blood away. We can’t stand by and watch what others do and simply learn from that. We have to apply our beliefs, make our own mistakes, learn from them, and teach others not to make them.
We cannot always rely on having representatives; we must try to represent ourselves in some way or the other. We must speak and be heard, and learn from the replies given to us. Only then can our shaky voices become stronger and stronger until no dusty wind can dry our throats.
When I first came to Minnesota, I realized that the American society is very diverse in religious and cultural backgrounds. However, we are all united in our desire to make a statement. We all need to have voices so that we can learn from each other and initiate a collective effort at creating a future of true knowledge and understanding. After all, one of the defining aspects of a voice is the fact that it is heard and answered.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told his followers that if they could not change a wrong by their hands, they should change it by their tongues; and if they could not change it by their tongues, then they should change it in their own hearts. In trying to find your voice, start where it begins – in your heart. Absorb what you see around you, and listen to yourself, analyzing, assessing, and finally believing in what appeals to you most. Then, when you are ready, let your voice be heard by others and learn from the call they send back to you. If we can listen to each other and learn from one another, then we can pave a way of better understanding for the next generation. Through this cycle of learning, any community can achieve a strong and wise posterity.
–Rawan Hamade is a student at the University of Minnesota.