It's Ramadan, the month when Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours to commemorate the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammed. It's a time of "spiritual detox" filled with prayer, community, good will, charity and self-examination.
For this Muslim, it's also a time to get an earful about how I should be observing Ramadan. Not from fellow Muslims, but non-Muslims. Well-meaning non-Muslims who've read up on and declare that, based on my way of life, I can't legitimately call myself a Muslim — at least not by the letter of the law.
I found myself in one such debate with my friend Karen*. I had recently been invited to join a panel of Muslims, talking about being Muslim in Hollywood, tailored to the Muslim community, and held at an Islamic center. I was extremely proud of the chance to publicly represent my unique experience. Like most religions, Islam's global membership is diverse, and I felt I could speak to what it's like for someone who isn't Visibly Muslim: not conservatively dressed, wearing the veil or displaying other visible Muslim attributes.
Then I panicked. What if I came off as a fraud? I was raised with Islam by parents who were largely spiritual in their approach and taught to believe in the core principles — that people are equal except by their deeds. And though I lived in the Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for five years and learned the strict letter of the law, I only held onto practices that made sense to me. Was it accurate to brand myself a Muslim when I was largely non-practicing, except for during Ramadan and even then not strictly so?
I mentioned my concerns to Karen, who declared I should let the other panelists do most of the talking because: "You're the furthest thing from a practicing Muslim I've ever seen. You never mention praying. Every Ramadan, you attempt to fast but you don't do the whole month, aaaand you like your champagne!"
She wasn't wrong. I don't kneel to pray that often, and I don't eat pork because I never developed the taste. (Bacon-wrapped dates are another thing — everyone knows they're basically candy.) Also, you're more likely find me in the pub than the mosque — probably because the French fries are more delicious in the former than the latter. What I mean is pubs have better happy hours ... what I really mean is ... mosques don't have happy hours. But this might be something to consider to get more people to come. (Whaddya think, tastemakers?) But seriously, now that I've committed enough blasphemy for one entry, I should note that though there are catering situations around mosque entrances, food is never served inside the prayer sections.
As I listened to Karen's views about my relationship with my religion, I got angry. If she were a guy I'd accuse her of "mansplaining" to me. But she's white and Catholic, so what do you call that? "Cathosplaining?" "Whitesplaining?" Karen wasn't being malicious. She was just certain that, based only on what she'd read, I wasn't practicing the religion accurately or correctly, and therefore I had to qualify myself and defer to my fellow panelists who were more devout — or at least the ones who visibly seemed so.
Karen's reaction is why I avoid discussing my religion, which is an especially touchy, polarizing subject since 9/11. I don't like the implication that I'm inauthentic and can't declare I observe Ramadan because I abstain from eating but drink water and juice to stay hydrated. I feel the need to jokingly call it "fausting" for faux-fasting. But why do I have to qualify myself at all? Isn't the point of religion to give you a framework to live as pure a life as you can? No religion should be an all-or-nothing deal breaker, right?
"No. It's like being pregnant," my friend Frank often says. "You can't be kinda pregnant. You either are or aren't. So too with fasting."
The views of my opinionated friends stuck with me, so the night before the panel I crammed as if I were preparing for an exam. I didn't want to be on that panel caught with my pants down (or in this case, veil off). What if these people thought I was being lazy in my interpretation of the faith? What if they found me to be a fraud? I couldn't handle the public humiliation. I brushed up on Islam basics and even downloaded . Then I said a prayer and left it to God.
The panelists and audience were comprised equally of Muslim men and women dressed in traditional hijabs, conservative clothing and casual wear. I started off awkwardly, accidentally using words like "explosive" and "infiltrate" to describe how to get your foot in the Hollywood door. But my "fellow" Muslims couldn't have been nicer, more supportive and more willing to laugh with me, not at. I relaxed, shared personal anecdotes and spoke with the same authority about my experiences as a Muslim in Hollywood as my veiled sister next to me.
That's when my head exploded (figuratively!) with realization — perhaps the biggest "whitesplainer" of Islam to myself was me. Just because I wasn't a letter-of-the-law Muslim didn't mean I was any less a Muslim. Being Muslim is sewn into my fiber like being Iraqi is. I can't stop being Iraqi even though I'm now an American. And I won't stop being a Muslim even if some years I'm lousy at Ramadan.
Since the panel, I've loved meeting even more diverse Muslims — queer, atheist (yep), devout, modern, liberal, relaxed, lapsed. And each of these individuals consider themselves simply Muslim without any other qualifier. And I finally feel like I'm giving myself conscious permission to do the same. It's okay if my Muslim behavior is different from the Muslim behavior you expect. It's real and it's authentically mine.
Ayser Salman is a writer, editor and producer based in Los Angeles. She's currently working on a comic memoir about growing up as the "other" in the U.S.
*Name has been changed.