When the “Experiment” Never Ends

Tonight (or last night, depending on whom you ask, as the whole Hijri calendar thing is very complicated) marks the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Too many people think that Ramadan is Muslim Christmas. It isn’t: Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, is. Ramadan is more like Lent or Yom Kippur, except longer and involving less in the way of the permission to drink water during the day.

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There are those who misconstrue Ramadan, and then there are those who see only part of it and decide that it would be fun to try it out. Similarly, there are non-Muslim women who try out their own versions of Islamic “modesty” for set time periods (it’s a little played at this point). Lacking a Muslim background means that such people get to waltz into and then out of their own personalized versions of Islamic practices. Invariably, they are praised for their open-mindedness by fellow non-Muslims and by Muslims alike . They adopt the most showy (read: Other) aspects of Islam, like “modesty” or fasting, abandon them, and then write about it to the applause of the audience.

How brave. How novel.

Except that there’s nothing novel about it. Plenty of people engage in Islamic practices that they later stop doing, and then start again, and then stop again. They’re called “Muslims” and they’re far from an insignificant portion of the world population. As for the alleged bravery, some people leave Islamic practices behind not to the praise of all, but to severe consequences. My personal “modesty experiment” lasted for about a decade and a half. It was my life. I couldn’t walk blithely away from it when I was done, Salon feature in hand. Due to filial pressure and its accompanying personal guilt, I wore a headscarf and dressed according to Islamic law for quite a while after becoming an atheist.

The difference between the experimenters and me is that I actually belong to the community from which such practices originate. When I was a Muslim, taking up a religious habit and then abandoning it meant experiencing a great deal of shaming and even threatening behavior from the community. As an apostate of Islam, while I do not personally subject myself to Islamic rules, I still have to adhere to them to some extent in order to interact with the Muslims in my family and my community. When I don’t, it’s painfully obvious that I am a pariah.

No time is this more true than during Ramadan. I can’t say that I miss the fasting, but I do miss the sense of solidarity, of collective ritual. I could pretend to fast but that might give the Muslims who love me some unfair and totally unrealistic hopes regarding my converting back to my former faith.

My “experiment” with Islam wasn’t chosen by me, lacked in cherry-picking, lasted for 18 years, and hasn’t ended even though, more than seven years ago, I publicly declared myself to be an atheist.

There isn’t necessarily something inherently unethical with trying out different things, even if those things are originally sourced from another culture and/or religion. Visiting another place doesn’t instantly make you a bad person. That said, there is a reason tourists haven’t exactly the best of reputations among natives — and that they are especially maligned for cluelessness.

When the “Experiment” Never Ends
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