On Belief vs. Identity: Letter to a Young North American Muslim

07/01/2015 05:36 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2016

Do you find yourself feeling personally insulted or targeted when someone criticizes or satirizes your religion?

If yes, it's likely that your faith isn't about the ideas in your religion as much as how you've incorporated them into your identity -- individual, family, cultural, and more. This is why it feels so personal. If it was just about ideas, it wouldn't feel as offensive, and disagreement from others wouldn't feel like prejudice or bigotry.

But when you conflate your religion's ideas with your sense of identity, defending your people becomes the same thing as defending your faith.

Consider that for a moment. Then, take a step back, and try to imagine divorcing the ideas in your religion from the person that you are, or the community you belong to. Are you able to see a distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity?

Suppose someone told you you could keep your family and community traditions, enjoy the feasts of Ramadan, and celebrate the Eid holidays with family and friends like always -- but without the burden of defending every line in your scripture. Would you consider it?

I did. And today, I enjoy the Muslim experience much more without the burden of having to believe in Islam.

Unfortunately for most Muslims, the two are tied together. If you give up on the faith part, you may have to say goodbye to your upbringing, your childhood memories, the holidays, the gifts, the family dinners -- forever. That's scary. Increasing numbers of young people from Muslim families have been rejected and disowned simply for changing their mind. Does it really have to be that way?

Remember, your religious beliefs are not you. They are simply part of the medium you were cultured in when you were raised.

You know, deep down, that if you were born in a Hindu family, you'd be Hindu. You know, deep down, that your faith is really just an accident of birth. How can it possibly be about ideas then? Ideas don't come with birth. But much of what makes up your sense of identity does.

Many religious communities have now evolved beyond their religious beliefs. In effect, they've secularized their religions. Judeo-Christian scripture isn't vastly different from Islamic scripture. Yet many Jews are able to hold on to their cultural identities and customs without the burden of believing in Judaism. Many Catholics are able to celebrate Christmas and Easter without the burden of believing they'll go to hell for using birth control or being pro-choice.

Similarly, just because you identify with the Muslim experience doesn't mean you have to justify and defend every line in your book. Especially when you know, deep down, you don't really agree with all of it. No rational, thinking person can agree with every single idea in any book.

You know, deep down, that reading some parts of it for the first time made you jump -- sending you scrambling to Google to find some kind of explanation or "interpretation" that would make it all fit better with your personal sense of what's right and wrong.

You know, deep down, that in that moment, you weren't getting your moral guidance from your holy book -- but you were using your already-present morality to interpret it.

Think about that for a second. Do you really think you need your religion in order to be good? Or look at it another way: if the only thing keeping you from being bad or immoral is your religion, what does that say about you as a person?

You know, deep down, how it looks to others when you twist and turn just to make an ancient verse about wife-beating or killing non-Muslims sound somewhat palatable so you can defend your faith, and therefore, in your mind, your heritage. You know that some things in Abrahamic holy books that are dismissed as being quoted "out of context" wouldn't be acceptable in any context.

You know, deep down, that you try to convince yourself as much as others that the elaborate explanations from cherry-picked "scholars" justifying these verses must be right -- because these modern human explanations feel more morally sound than the supposedly divine verses themselves. You know that you'd never go to such an extent to justify the same ideas if they came from any other author. You know how frustrated you feel when yet another heinous jihadist attack happens, with the terrorist quoting verses from your book, and you have to find a way to explain those verses, despite feeling that you shouldn't have to.

You know, deep down, that it's becoming increasingly difficult and exhausting to keep convincing yourself, and others, that your progressive, reasoned values are somehow completely compatible with those words written 1400 years ago.

I'm here to let you know that you don't have to put yourself through this. There's a middle ground that is both more honest and more comfortable: divorcing your Islamic belief from your Muslim identity.

Why must young Muslims have to subscribe to an infallible, unquestionable belief system in order to stay part of their families and communities? Why must they be excommunicated from their own lives for thinking differently? How can we expect these young men and women to move forward if simply disagreeing with the rest of the club carries the risk of lifelong isolation, ostracization, and even harsh punishment?

There needs to be a way for Muslim youth to be able to think freely, question ideas, and come to different conclusions without having to lose their sense of identity or their connection to the life and people that they love. We need to let reformist Muslims, secular Muslims, questioning Muslims, agnostic/atheist Muslims, and ex-Muslims into the dialogue on Islam, to make it as diverse, varied, and complex as the Muslim world itself.

I understand if this sounds strange, contradictory, or impossible to you. At one point, it did to me too. But do take the time to think about it -- and be truly honest with yourself.

Yes, loyalty to your loved ones and your people is a noble virtue. But being unwaveringly loyal to an ideology or a belief system shackles the mind, fetters the intellect, and taints the conscience. When the two come packaged together, you're being asked to give up your intellectual independence and your freedom to think and make your own choices for admission to the club. And because you've been in the club since you were a child, choosing that freedom too often means getting kicked out of it. Does that sound fair to you?

It may take some time to wrap your head around this. Un-learning years of religious upbringing isn't an easy thing to do. As you read this, you may have countless counter-arguments and disagreements developing in your mind. That's okay. It's healthy, and it's actually the only way to go through this process. I've been there too.

But please do think about it. When the realization finally comes, it is exhilarating and liberating. Enlightenment is the best rush there is. And once you get to the other side, you'll see a lot of us here to welcome you -- including those closeted within your own families and communities whom you may never even have known existed. You will be appreciated not only for your honesty and consistency, but for your loyalty to yourself.

Happy Ramadan, and happy Eid. I'll be celebrating with you.