Commentary  The manifestations of Muslim identity

Being a cultural Muslim at McGill

Content warning: Islamophobia

The misconceptions I face when introducing myself as a cultural Muslim lie mainly in the lack of information about the concept. My culturally Christian friends, both here on McGill’s campus or back home in France, seem to have less problems navigating expectations associated with the religion they grew up in. I often hear about my culturally Christian friends only going to Mass for Easter and Christmas, and entertaining some affection for religious practices on the premise that they are a reminder of their childhood. This casual approach to one’s religion is often denied to the culturally Muslim youth in the West. This is not because people mostly refuse to acknowledge the phenomenon of being “culturally Muslim,” but because mainstream conceptions of Islam in Western media are outdated, inaccurate, and often both racist and Islamophobic.

This casual approach to one’s religion is often denied to the culturally Muslim youth in the West.

Who is a Cultural Muslim?

To start with a simple definition, one might characterize cultural Muslims as “religiously unobservant, secular, or non-religious individuals who still identify with the Muslim culture due to family background, personal experiences, or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up.” People identifying as cultural Muslims must not be confused with liberal Muslims, who advocate for a different understanding of their religion to adapt to the modern environment, but still affirm their beliefs and identify with Muslim religious practices. The struggle of living as a cultural Muslim comes from feeling a certain level of disconnect between what Islam signifies and how you, personally, practice Islam. Unlike some religions which have evolved into less demanding practices over time, the core of Islam requires a deep understanding and time commitment. Growing up in a Muslim family, I learned all of the main prayers and attended Koranic classes, despite not understanding a single word of Arabic. I witnessed my family members praying five times a day, fasted with my cousins throughout the month of Ramadan, and recited the Shahada prayer every night before going to bed. However, I eventually grew away from considering myself extremely religious, despite originally accepting the confessional identity of my parents. This is the case for a lot of other cultural Muslims, who often grapple with Islam’s commitment, practice, and unwavering core. The disconnect I felt also stems from growing up as a second generation immigrant in an extremely liberal and constantly shifting environment in France, which contrasted with my unchanging Muslim traditions.

Being accepted within your family and community as a cultural Muslim is honestly a difficult task. Practicing Muslims, especially from older generations in my family, have a rather definitive view of religion — either you believe and accept “traditional” Islamic teachings and practices, or you don’t. On the other hand, non-Muslims around you seem to have a particular view of your religion. Mainstream Western sentiment concerning Islam and Muslims in our generation has broadly been racist and Islamophobic, and media depictions have not been kind or forgiving in any way. Even those who try to defend Muslims’ right to practice and work towards ending Islamophobia have a certain conception of what a model Muslim is supposed to look like. Finding yourself caught between keeping your cultural roots and having to constantly defend your religion to the rest of society is exhausting. I often have had to abide by the misconception that I am, in fact, a practicing individual, to legitimize my involvement within anti-Islamophobia groups. Cultural Muslims have the double bind of being religiously unobservant while still identifying with their upbringing in the Muslim faith and wanting to pursue activism in these religious circles. This all comes to a head on politically active Western campuses like McGill’s.

Cultural Muslims have the double bind of being religiously unobservant while still identifying with their upbringing in the Muslim faith and wanting to pursue activism in these religious circles.

Cultural Muslims on Campus

Cultural Muslims, while diverse in opinions, beliefs, and political views, all have a common frame of reference passed along through parents or relatives. As such, criticizing certain Islamic positions without appearing anti-Muslim is another struggle we face both on and off our university campus. Cultural Muslims on campus might disagree on a variety of subjects, yet still share a history and similar experiences with Islamic discourses that have shaped their questioning of the faith. This manifests most poignantly to me when I try to reconcile Islamic culture and feminism. I have lost count of the number of times people have approached me and emphasized that I was one of the “good Muslims,” or reacted strangely when I advocated for feminist stances. I have had to defend my right to criticize sexist and patriarchal Islamic traditions to both my religious family, and my politically active acquaintances. The question of the veil is a whole issue in and of itself for Islam. Particularly for culturally Muslim students, there is often a lack of direct experience with compulsory veiling by the state; yet we cannot afford to stay silent on the issue, either.

When accepting our Muslim heritage, a lot of cultural Muslims also accept the responsibility of speaking up against oppressors of the Muslim faith, given our upbringing. But what non-Muslim activists often don’t grasp is that I am not in a position to speak for my veiled sisters, practicing folks, people discriminated against outside of mosques, or those trying to balance a full class schedule while remaining obedient to prayer times. One of the only real solutions to this lack of understanding and the implicit homogenization of all Muslims by western expectations about our beliefs is to demystify the Muslim faith, and remove the burden from culturally Muslim students to speak on behalf of all Muslims.

Identity & Activism as a non-practicing Muslim

“Fitting in” and assimilating to Western models of being a Muslim, student, feminist, immigrant, and activist is alluring. Completely assimilating with white Western culture is thought to be so easy for white passing cultural Muslims. Shedding your traditions, history, and identity have long been a requirement for acceptance into Western society. Wouldn’t it be easier to just get rid of it all? It raises questions about culturally-Muslim activism, and whether we should be accepted within Muslim safe spaces. Further, many cultural Muslims on McGill campus feel the need to prove that they deserve a voice in anti-islamophobia discourse, regardless of the way they express their religion (or lack thereof).

These intersections of identity and activism as a non-practicing Muslim have culminated most significantly to me in my existence on campus as both queer and culturally Muslim. LGBTQ+ groups and events at McGill work to make spaces accessible to all members of the queer community. However, queer folks coming from a Muslim background often experience deep confusion, as the spaces dedicated to our specific experiences often lack inclusion of queer Muslim community members (practicing or not). Islam, as a religion, does not have a hierarchical body akin to the Church and Pope which are able to rule on contemporary issues like queer inclusion in the faith. Due to the belief in the Ummah, the universal body of Muslims, it is often left in the hands of Muslim youth to figure out their own stance on issues regarding religion, culture, and personal belief.

These personal beliefs are inevitably influenced by mainstream queer culture in the West, which can be difficult to approach when you’ve been raised in particular frames of religious and cultural ideas. Muslims are no more or less intolerant than practicing members of other religions regarding LGBTQ+ issues, which is yet another stereotype we are often faced with. Western media’s domination of perceptions of Muslims and our organizations lead to the oversaturation of media representations with white organizations. Due to this, we are left with little knowledge of the Muslim LGBTQ+ organizations and figures within our community.It is not always a question of reconciling religion with identity and sexuality, but an issue of compartmentalizing and honoring all of these aspects of our identities as multifaceted Muslims. Personally, I have never been more open about my queerness than since I arrived at McGill. Here, I was able to explore this facet of my identity despite not fitting the image most people have of a young Muslim woman. My entire experience at McGill as a cultural Muslim has raised many personal questions, reconciliations, and compartmentalizations. The difficulties I have faced on campus as a cultural Muslim have enlightened me to the preconceived notions I was expected to uphold in order to portray an “accurate” model of my own heritage. I have often struggled to find common experiences around me, and wished that I could witness other examples than the singular, stereotypically religious, Muslim immigrant I was offered by Western media’s ignorant view. I hope that we can change mainstream conceptions of Muslim identities, starting with more stories, like mine, about our multifaceted identities beyond our shared cultural experiences.