In the small town of Albany, New York, there is a surprisingly large Muslim community. When my family moved here in 2017, we were amazed by how many people there were at the Eid celebrations and the Jummah in our local mosque. We hadn’t lived with this many Muslims in our community in a long time. That community didn’t just extend to our family and friends, it also extended to our schools. I had never been in the same class or even in the same school as this many other people like me in my life (ironic, considering I lived in India for six years). We all knew what it was like to be Muslim; we sat together during Ramadan since none of us were eating, and we bonded over our shared identity. I am so grateful for the friends I made in my high school, and that my sisters got to go to school with so many people like them and never felt as different as I did at their age.
In their minds, it was difficult to imagine anyone who looks like us and isn’t Muslim. My sisters, at first, assumed that anyone who looks like them is Muslim.
For our parents’ generation, finding a community here in an unfamiliar country, especially after 9/11, where most of the country felt hostile to them, was incredibly difficult. We often take it for granted.
In an attempt to provide us with a community that doesn’t require us to explain ourselves or defend our existence, our parents stayed with people like us: Muslims. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, since it provided so many of us with safe and accepting communities. But our perspectives were considerably limited. Living in these bubbles leave us all clueless to every other culture and faith, and ultimately, when we go out in the world on our own, we end up just as unaware as our parents were when they first came here.
Especially in our community of South Asian Muslims, there is a peculiar tendency to stick with only Muslims who look like us. It is wonderful to have our own community who speak the same language, but we never try to reach beyond it to include Muslims from other parts of the world. We can’t expect others to be inclusive of us and exclude people from our own community, when they belong just as much as we do. We have been taught to be proud of our religion and our community, so let’s be that way. Shouldn’t we be comfortable enough in our own faith to be able to actually create an inclusive community?
This insulation and sheltering leaves so many of us struggling to find our place when we leave home. Our parents’ generation leaves us in the same place as they were when they first came here to the U.S. Many of us will leave home for college and not be able to find a community of people who look like us, but we are still going to have to find a place to fit in. It will be all the more difficult to do that without having associated or spent time with anyone other than fellow South Asian Muslims.
Our religion is not the only part of us that connects us to others. We are from different places all over the world, and from different backgrounds. We are missing out on a whole world of connections, if we don’t even try to understand others. We isolate ourselves from every other kind of person out of fear of “losing our heritage”, but really all we’re doing is losing our potential connections, a whole world of them.
I have come up against the effects of this isolation before. I am an Indian-American Muslim, and many people tend to forget about us, or assume we don’t identify as Indian, because of the rise of Islamophobia in India right now. Our relationship to India is complicated, but we are still Indian. I am not any less proud of my heritage because of what other people think. But when I lived in India, I was told that I couldn’t possibly be Indian because my last name is Ahmad. Granted, this was in middle school, and not everyone is particularly smart during that age, but to them, an Indian Muslim just couldn’t exist. Their entire perspective was informed and shaped by everything they had heard at home, and I assume none of that perspective was informed by Indian Muslims.
Those were extreme instances, but were representative of the narrow perspective people end up developing when only having grown up around people like them. We have completely shut ourselves off from other communities out of fear of feeling like we don’t belong. But we belong here just as much as anyone else, and we should be comfortable enough in our identities to look outward. We should be comfortable enough to venture out of our comfort zones.
Now that I am in college, I have found a wonderfully accepting Muslim community, and I am so grateful for it. But that is not the only community I have found here, and I am just as grateful for them too. My place is with people of my faith, but also with people of many others.
It is truly wonderful to have a community of people like us. But just because we have that, we shouldn’t give up on finding connections elsewhere too. We will find them too, if we’re brave enough to try.