Secret Muslims

Comment is free | Monday 10 December 2012 10.31 GMT
Muslim women face an uphill battle against prejudice to find work
Many Muslim women feel pressured to change their appearance to get a job. Employers must question their own assumptions
Myriam Francois-Cerrah

I’m sure it is true. In my naivety as a new Muslim, I ruined many a perfectly good interview by asking in the follow-up questions whether there would be anywhere to perform salat. Jolly faces turned sour, the atmosphere turned frosty. I quickly learned not to be so daft.

Conversely, I always felt compelled to shave off my whiskers before an interview, fearing it would count against me. In the end, after a long spell out of work, I concluded that my Lord probably wasn’t impressed by this, so threw caution to the wind and attended with that strange growth on the end of my chin. Perhaps some employers just like an eccentric. Over the years that followed my colleagues would call me d’Artagnan, Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare in that hilarious mocking manner of theirs. To beard or not to beard, that is the question.

I have every sympathy for Muslim women entering a work environment like this. It’s easy for a white male like me. I learned long ago not to publicize my religion in the workplace and it is easy to hide it. Not so for those that wear hijab. People just consider me mildly eccentric and an irritating scrooge at Christmas.

A colleague did once let slip that I’m a Muslim in a team meeting. Shortly thereafter my post was miraculously dissolved. But it was good for me. I moved on to better things. But I remain a secret Muslim. It’s a bit of a cop-out, a bit weak… but I have a family to support. I’m sure I’m not alone.

What happened?

Do Muslims really exist? I often find myself pondering this question. Do they exist in the workplace? Where are they? Whenever a new member of staff with a Muslim-sounding name joins the team, there is a momentary, fleeting sense of gladness: company at last. But, alas, such glee is always quickly spirited away when they head to the pub each Friday lunchtime instead of to the mosque, and when they dive into the birthday cakes half-way through Ramadan. So do Muslims really exist, except online, where they teem in great numbers, safe in the knowledge that the keyboard is mightier than the sword? Alhamdulilah, I just spent the day with real, breathing Muslims; I know my question, in reality, is really rather foolish.

But something has happened. I wonder what became of all those zealous companions of mine, who championed the hijab and ilm and the ummah when we were students 15 years ago. Where are they now? What became of those bold realities? Why did we disappear? Yes, something has happened. Five years ago, the interwebs teemed with ardent voices, upholding the toughest of stances on this, that and the other. They were critical of those they deemed to have fallen short: orthodoxy was the order of the day. But now? While we were away there was a great exodus. Old homes have been left abandoned. Words scattered like dust. The hot embers have been cast aside.

Who is left who will walk with us? Where now are our companions? Will we grow old and grey and wise together, or will we each cast out on our own path, to wander on alone, chasing after whichever new cause takes our fancy? Will the generation that replaces us fare any better, or are we set to degenerate, to promulgate a faith that blooms momentarily, only to wither away and become dirt under foot? Is there any hope in longevity for our faith? Or will we forever repeat the cycle of zealotry and mockery, turning back on the early days of faith in favour of this ugly cynicism that we have now adopted. Now we are the enlightened: those that come after us are the fools we once were! Really? Or is it just that once we were sincere and passionate and true, and now we are just jaded, compromised and fake?

These are troubled times. A beautiful elixir tastes mostly bitter. The world calls out to us, and we call out for it. We go whichever way the crowd goes. We have learned to laugh much, and to make comedy of our beliefs. We have replaced our heart with virtual spaces, where we speak all, sell all. We have replaced the inward gaze with the outward performance. Where is all that polish we once sought? Where that mission to refine and reform and to be reformed? Where has that desire to be better people gone? What is left of us? What happened?

What did it do for you?

What did your sufism do for you? You sneer at me whenever we meet, critiquing my faith as nothing but actions. To you I am like a withered pod on a bean stalk, an empty shell devoid of spirit. You seem to know my heart better than I as you remind me yet again of the importance of ihsan. You barely veil your contempt when you address my better half: “True faith is not about wearing perfect hijab,” you say, as if there is nothing beyond the folds in the fabric on her head. Our faith looks childish to you, rough and unrefined. Our faith is like dust, worthless, unreal. You are quick to judge, quick to condemn. If only we were refined like you. If only we were deep and spiritual and true. If only we emitted light whenever and wherever we walked and talked. If only we had achieved such excellence. We are neither mu’min nor muhsin in your eyes, nor aspirants of those heights. You have judged us well.


In the past we transgressed many boundaries, wandering into the lives of others, into private homes, into relationships between people. A website: a gateway. We wandered in where we were not invited, entering private realms, unconscious of the realities of virtual worlds. We came to demand and expect; to cherish and hold; to love and admire. We befriended strangers and suddenly, unknowingly, transgressed boundaries well established.

What causes these meanderings of the mind at midnight? The chatter on the street outside, even at this hour, the sudden heat drawing neighbours together, shunning their beds? Or an encounter with abandoned websites on the internet, with all of those departing remarks followed by great eulogies in the comments?

Tis perhaps just a realisation that has been dawning on me over recent months. The wife of a close friend of mine has started keeping a blog. My reaction to it? The same as if I were a guest in his home: to lower my gaze, keep my eyes down, to mind my own business. Yes, though it exists in the wilds of the web, I do not approach it, seek to read it and certainly not entertain the thought of leaving comments. The notion of doing otherwise feels so alien, and yet this is exactly what happened with the scores of disembodied voices now departed. Somehow a kunya became a nickname, not a title or a reminder of the status of the individual as a mother and a wife, or as a father and a husband.

Would I engage my friend’s wife in deep conversation on a visit to his home? We barely exchange greetings, except for generic salams at the door. No, no, there are barriers: lowered gazes, doors, walls, dress and expectations. What was it that removed the shyness and modesty from our hearts on the world wide web? What was it that removed our self-restraint, that inhibited the lowered gazes of our typing fingers, that knocked down the virtual walls? Was it the unreality of a stranger’s life, the apparition of existence? Or was it simply the negligence of the writer and the reader in tandem?

Now on Facebook strangers dance a jig. On a forum they do a waltz. On Twitter they do the tango. For his audience the writer must perform. What followings we have, what quaint interactions. What a brave new world. What a new way to live.

In this time of disregard, we transgress many a boundary, wandering into the lives of others, into private homes, into relationships. We wander in where we are not invited, entering private realms, unconscious of the realities of virtual worlds. We come to demand and expect; to cherish and hold; to love and admire. We befriend strangers and suddenly, unknowingly, transgress boundaries once secure.

Unspeakable Evil

As the years pass by I grow ever more depressed by our reaction to evil in our midst. We care more about how we are represented than how we represent ourselves. How many more years must we engage in futile public relations exercises, while amongst us are those that promulgate unspeakable evil? For too long now we have used the notion of “Islamophobia” as a mechanism of denial, a means of avoiding taking ourselves to account. Is enough not now enough?


Sometimes my ego petitions me: “Why does nobody care what you have to say?” Why are gatherings too intolerant, too impatient? Why do forums wander on as if I never uttered a word? Why are my thoughts and concerns between friends so readily dismissed? My ego harangues me with questions like these, prompting all kinds of contemptuous innervation.

But to my ego I eventually reply: “Why does it matter?” For, lo, what freedom! To be able to be talk and not be heard, or write and not be read — what a magnificent freedom is that! When all that one puts forth is of no significance — indeed, when you are insignificant — there comes the freedom to say what is right, or true, or good, or mistaken, foolish, unwise. The insignificant one has a freedom that the significant could only dream of.

Soul Mate

Oh how I love my wife. What a shame such sentiments hit with such force when she is so far away, when I am ill like this. In a moment of delirium wrought by the altercation between those biting shivers and the piercing sweaty heat late at night, I dispatched a message: ‘Come home early, if you can.’ Of course I know we cannot afford it — we have rescheduled the flights once already and paid a penalty for it — but it felt romantic and right, calling her back from her family afar.

When this fever leaves me, the shuddering thoughts will leave me too, if the Most Merciful wills. I will return to work, stand once more at the foot of that mountain of toil and begin to dig… to bring down the chaos of competing deadlines and tasks that intimidated me before this illness drove me away. The weeks will fly by with the workload that awaits me when I return.

But this love: as the Most Merciful wills, she is my companion, my soul mate, my truest friend. When beyond the realm of the video call, I resorted to raiding a box of photographs nearly forgotten in our digital age. I see her smile again and I feel relieved. We believe in the words of God without a doubt, for they came alive before our eyes:

“And among His Signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.” — Sûrah Rûm: 21

We were two strangers from different lands, different cultures, different tribes: and yet He brought us together and planted that seed in our hearts. Through marriage we have discovered worlds that neither of us knew existed. We have travelled far together, hand in hand, by each other’s side.

The years have changed us. I have lost my gaunt frame — thank God — my bony cheeks at last swathed in flab, my chin now disfigured by the sparse beard that continues to invite persistent ridicule. Standing before a mirror I no longer shy back repulsed, but look at myself reconciled to the decree of Allah. Life and experience shapes us, makes us what we are.

By the wonders of modern technology and the immense generosity of Allah, we set our eyes upon one another this afternoon — and I on two other gifts from God, our Ramadan babies, oh how I love them too. What a relief, what joy. May the Eternally Generous, the Most Merciful grant them all a long life, the best of this life and the Hereafter.

I don’t express my gratitude properly: to Allah or my soul mate. These brief lonely moments remind me of those years when I rejected God, stumbling between the certain belief in the pointlessness of existence and the awkward innate conviction that God was indeed real and true. Recalling the road behind me, should I then not be immensely grateful and obedient to His will, a true Servant of God? He shows us signs on the horizon and within ourselves.

I pray that Allah reunites me with my loved ones soon and that from hereon I may be a better husband, father, soul mate, companion and friend, but more than that, a better Servant of Allah.

Undue Praise

I return once more to the word of our Prophet, peace be upon him, when he told his companions to throw dust in the faces of those who praised people in their presence. I was in Turkey, taking tea with our Muslim neighbours, when conversation turned to my conversion. People always assume that I converted because of my wife, but she was putting them straight, explaining that it all came to pass before we ever set eyes on one another. And suddenly all that hideous praise. It is humiliating, for I am the worst amongst them. They put you up on a pedestal which you do not deserve, oblivious to the pain within: that to be good is such a struggle, such a battle. They talk of you as a pious saint, when in truth you are a wretched sinner.

But worst is all that follows. Those words are so true: ‘You have destroyed the man’s back.’ There seems to be some strange metaphysical link between the act of praising and the well-being of the recipient. Thrown down on my face, all that follows the laudation is absolute proof that their kind words were unwarranted. And yes, my back is now killing me too. It causes a horrible sickness, both physical and spiritual. How many good men and women before us have been destroyed by the excessive admiration of their companions?



Muslamic Ray Guns

Indeed, how hilarious: those Muslamic ray guns. How our sides split when we encountered the slurred petitions of the EDL supporter interviewed by Press TV last year. Or not.

No, instead I just think of that video and the vile reaction to it — the sniggers, the mocking words, the superiority complexes — whenever another news story like today’s breaks.

It sums us up. The hideous humour went viral, sending the accidental satire to Muslim inboxes across the land. Somehow we didn’t notice the other story going viral, landing in all the other inboxes.

It is a dark day when we can make light of atrocious crimes like this, laughing off the complaints of a nation because the messenger was illiterate. Muslamic rape gangs, and we laugh.