My parents inhabited a world in which Islam didn't occupy a lot of mental space. Their generation, at least compared to mine, had the luxury of being indifferent to its central tenets. Religion was not the main topic of conversation. The subject could be changed. It was more easily marginalized. There were subtle ways of dismissing its centrality as a subject matter in their otherwise busy lives.
My dad, for instance, always insisted that religion was about how you treat other people. It was his way of dismissing the need to pray or fast or go on the pilgrimage, his way of letting others know that his religious views or practices or lack thereof were really none of their business. He never expended any psychic energy arguing for or against particular religious beliefs or practices. That phrase- al din mu'amala- spared him a lot of heartache. He rarely felt the need to enter into energy sucking arguments with anybody trying to convert him or to reform his ways.
Such strategies opened up a live and let live space that was supported by the relative tolerance of the larger culture. Nobody could accuse my father of being hostile to religion. He simply went underground with his indifference even as he affirmed to us the possibility of being good without being pious. There were various ways in which my father's indifference allowed him to change the subject and open up a private space to show us what he deemed worthy of our attention.
One time, for instance, my brother spent the entire day at the local mosque with his friends. When he got home my father gave him a spanking and reprimanded him for wasting his time at the mosque instead of focusing on his school work, an infinitely more useful endeavor as he saw it. In private, then, my father opened up a space in which secular knowledge was sacralized and linked to worldly success. Prayer was a mere distraction or lahw from the more important task of doing well in our academic studies.
To this day I view books as a locus of the sacred and feel that reading is a meditative practice. We were educated in private American schools but my father always insisted that I study Arabic with private tutors. He valued the Arabic language more for its potential to open up economic opportunities than for its capacity to unlock the mysteries of the Qur'an.
Things began to change for my generation. It became increasingly difficult to marginalize the ubiquitous talk of all matters relating to religion. It seemed as everything had to be seen through a religious lens as though people born in Muslim majority countries or to ''Muslim'' families were marked by an exceptional attachment to their faith. To veil or not to veil began to seem like the big existential question of the times. Televangelist like Amr Khaled were on a mission to veil all Egyptian women and make inroads into the upper and upper-middle classes. The country was abuzz with intra-religious missionary activity. Books were written and sermons delivered admonishing women to don the veil.
This religious discourse was supported by powerful players in the Gulf who spent a lot of money spreading their less tolerant version of Islam. Society became more polarized and views more militant. It wasn't so much that one had to veil as one couldn't escape veil talk.
Can we please change the subject? I longed to recapture my parent's spirited indifference and the freedoms it afforded. Two things helped me escape this suffocating discourse. First, my parents never burdened my psyche with religious beliefs that would have made me easy prey for the conversion brigades. Secondly, through my love of the Arabic language and my abiding love of reading I was able to cultivate a humanistic space to nourish my intellect and my longing for meaning.
This is where Muslimish comes in.
I had always been looking for a community with whom I shared a common cultural background minus all the religious baggage. There was a comfort in knowing that some members of the group still identified as cultural Muslims and felt a deep affinity to their communities without necessarily sharing their religious
views. We were becoming friends and supporting one another. The broad spectrum of views starting from militant atheists to agnostics to deists to doubters to progressive Muslims gave me hope that we have a fighting chance to reproduce the pluralism that has evaded my generation and is tearing the Arab world apart. My hope is that we as a group can set our own agenda and cultivate what we are for rather have others always determine what we must speak out against. That is a freedom of sorts.