The Problem is Fundamentalism, Not Islam (or Christianity).
When I started my transition, the first troubles I had were with the tenants in my building, though the conflicts weren’t overt. Instead, it seemed as though I’d had the plague: neighbours shunned me. Someone talked loudly in the hall on more than one occasion (probably deliberately) about how they didn’t think I “should be allowed” (to live there, I assumed from the context, although there are other possible meanings), “especially in a family building, where there are children present.” Within a week, I received notice that I’d be getting a special bonus rental increase (just a month after the last rent hike) which essentially doubled my rent — an increase that no one else in the complex received. Since there was no proof that the increase was because I was trans*, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it, other than pay it or move.
One family I was particularly worried about in the beginning was the Middle-Eastern couple who lived downstairs from me, with a toddler and a newborn. The husband stood about 6’3″ and was stocky, much of it muscle, and he frequently took cigarette breaks outside the back entrance. I’d often pass him on the way to and from my car. When the family had first moved into the building, I assumed they were devout Muslims, given that when the wife (rarely) left the apartment, she was wearing a hijab and chador. In later years, this changed a little, and I saw her travel about more frequently, in contemporary clothing plus just a lighter version of the headscarf. My experience with religious objections to the existence of trans* people was not pleasant to begin with, and given all of the stereotypes that circulated about Muslims after 9/11, I was fairly apprehensive.
This quickly changed, about a week after I started presenting as female. One evening after I arrived home, I heard a soft knock at the door. I answered, and there she was, smiling slightly as I opened the door. She was a bit nervous, but knew what she wanted to say:
“Hello. We, um, have seen you coming and going, and wanted to let you know that we know what you are doing. And that we support you completely…”
We spoke for about fifteen minutes while I awkwardly tried to keep my cats from racing into the hallway, and then again a couple days later over tea in their apartment — though the husband was mostly away during the latter conversation, just stopping in to pick up a few things, give a polite greeting and leave for work. (I’d only realize later how significant it was that she was the one who first came upstairs to talk to me.)
They were a fairly young Afghani couple, who had moved to Canada in the months before the war, in 2001 (they had actually started the immigration process some time before 9/11, so the timing was more luck for them than anything). They had come to the country mostly to escape an oppressive political regime (the Taliban were not so much a religious sect as a hardline political faction), looking for the freedom to seek a direction that was still in keeping with their faith, but which they felt was truer to what they understood in their hearts. It was not a coincidence that they seemed to westernize somewhat: they were following their faith on a personal level, and it was leading them away from fundamentalism and toward what they felt was a truer spirituality.
It turned out that they had some familiarity with trans* people (albeit in a different cultural context), through a relative on her husband’s side of the family. In Afghanistan, there had been a fairly common practice in which girls dress as boys — especially in (but not limited to) families in which there was no male heir — so that girls could acquire a number of benefits and freedoms. My neighbour admitted that she had even done so for awhile as a child, in order to escape scrutiny when attending school. But her husband also had a niece [she used the word “nephew,” but that was because of some of the limits of the language and understanding about trans* people at the time] who had made the transition to live as female. This was not looked upon quite so fondly, since crossdressing is considered punishable in a strict reading of the Quran. Afghanistan historically had an occurrence of bacha bazi, of young, effeminate males becoming dancers, concubines or sex workers, but it was most often out of coercion and exploitation, rather than something chosen because of one’s gender identity. Nevertheless, their niece had elected to live as female, and had found a (wealthy — there may have still been some bacha bazi aspects to the arrangement) patron in Pakistan, and seemed to be quite happy in her chosen life — even though it did cost her the support of many people in her family. My downstairs neighbour did express regret that her niece’s options in life were so limited, but they had come to accept that she had at least found a situation in which she could be happy.
I wasn’t able to get to know them well. The rent-doubling increase had forced me to move, and so those were the only conversations we’d had.
But I think of them any time I hear people making assumptions about Muslim people, or coming up with racially, religiously and socially jaw-dropping attitudes, and offensive ideas on how to combat terrorism.
Assuming the worst about Middle Eastern peoples is not helpful. Religion can absolutely be a problem, but on a macro level, it’s a bull$#!t argument about which religion is “worse” purely based on one measure of degree or other, or to assume that everyone who subscribes to a religion is guilty of the excesses of its extremists. The problem is fundamentalism.
Christianity has gone through a number of evolutionary changes — indeed, Christianity itself is a kind of evolutionary change beyond Judaism. The Reformation, the Renaissance era, the Anglican schism, the rise of science, a humanist evolution, the rise of LGBT-affirming churches (although that is only one measure)… there have been many stages at which ancient traditions were questioned, and when found wanting, replaced with new tenets. And yes, more are needed.
Islam has not gone through as many changes, although with the rise of the Internet and the global community, it has been forced to adapt. Rapidly. And this, I believe, is why fundamentalism is militantly attempting to reclaim, police and speak for Islam aggressively, visibly and sometimes violently. And caught in the middle of this intensely polarized ideological civil war are the Muslim peoples themselves, sometimes struggling between the hardliners’ policing of their faith, and their own genuine soul-searching and life experience.
That said, Islam is not the only belief system that has a fundamentalist problem. For all of its evolutions, there are still hardline elements within Christianity who attempt to reclaim, police and speak for that faith as well, and impose a radically polarizing version of it upon Western cultures. There may be differences in degree (although there are certainly radicalized individuals who become capable of terrorism), but the intent is still very similar. [In fact, there is a very specific reason that I use terms like “far right” or “religious conservative” to describe radical socially conservative personalities or organizations: I refuse to accept their assertion that they speak for all of Christianity. It is flawed framing, and I will not perpetuate it.]
In fact, many other ideologies also have the capacity to become dangerously fundamentalist and radicalize individuals to a menacing level. This is on all sides of the political spectrum. The Floyd Lee Corkinses don’t happen as frequently on the political left, perhaps, but denying they exist obfuscates that fundamentalism is possible in any form. Fundamentalism is an infectious, rotting presence that eats away at any ideology from within, until it manifests itself explosively. Even Atheism, though not a religion of itself, can become a fundamentalist ideology when an adherent becomes militant about not just simply separation of religion from state, but the idea of eradicating faiths — again, rare (in fact, I can’t think of an example, offhand), but possible. And with the growing awareness about economic disparity, we as a society are starting to see the harmful effects of economic / market fundamentalism — a different sort of toxicity. The particulars can vary; the harm still results.
In the meantime, look at this statement for a moment: “Christianity promotes cannibalism.”
Of course, I don’t actually believe that statement, but bear with me, because it’s a good example that most people in Western countries will be familiar with.
Most Christian churches engage in a sacrament known as communion. Of course, we know that it’s a traditional ritual that’s sort of done as a commemoration of the Last Supper — although it’s really not that different from some early pagan rituals that were seen to have a bit more esoteric significance. But either way, when you look at the Last Supper, Jesus actually told his disciples that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” It was meant to have a totemistic significance.
Additionally, in the particularly Catholic subset of Christianity (as well as some other offshoots), there is a tradition known as transubstantiation, in which the Eucharist (wine and wafer) are said to literally be changed by a priest into the body and blood of Christ.
But for the moment, forget about whether you see this as a symbolic gesture or as a ritual in which the Eucharist acquires something more. Look at it from the point of view of an outsider, from the verses themselves, from the tradition, and without any context. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was ritualistic cannibalism or at least borderline (in lieu of any actual flesh and blood) — indeed, it might be hard to come to any other conclusion.
This is what Westerners are often doing when they scrutinize contextless Quranic passages, and fixate on the most violent, shocking ones they can find, and create this mythologized terror-specific form of Islam to assail. It’s a kind of fundamentalism in mirror opposite, from the outside looking in. And in an age where things like sex education that is carefully scaled in an age-appropriate way by grade can be spun to sound like children “as young as kindergarten age” are being encouraged to engage in anal sex, we really do have to parse and fact-check the sensationalism that we are being fed by media and ideologues.
I’ll admit that there is still I don’t know or understand about Islam, but I did learn one important point: a jihad, in Quranic essence (or at least as explained to me by my neighbour, years ago), is a process of keeping and safeguarding one’s faith. Sometimes, it involves a spiritual quest. The couple who lived downstairs from me were on a personal jihad… and it caused them to contemporize. It only becomes the terrorizing concept of “Jihad” when poisoned by a fundamentalist will to police and impose a purist form of ideology on entire populations. Or when responding to it in a similarly fundamentalist, purist way, framed as a righteous / religious war.
Now, personally, I’m not fond of any religion. Religious traditions have tended not to be kind to women and other minorities, and provide excuses for bigotry. But I do also recognize how belief can be an important means of finding strength and passage through life, and mitigate its spiritual somersaults. I don’t care if someone believes in Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Yahweh, Brahma, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a squirrel that farts magic coconuts. I’m prepared to accept one’s faith up to — but not including — the point at which it seeks to define or impose upon others (and that’s where “religious freedom” legislation oversteps and becomes a license for bigoted action and special rights). And this place of peace wasn’t achieved without a whole lot of personal hurt from a toxic influence of religion on my life, either… but I had to let go, and achieve this equilibrium.
Because that’s where my spiritual quest has led me.
I didn’t really understand all of this when my downstairs neighbour knocked on my door that evening. I think I understand it a lot better now.