“So tell me,” she says after asking me to stand up in class, “why is your religion so violent?”
I’m 16 years old, and not even sure I understand my religion fully, let alone feel able to be a spokesperson for a belief that spans areas as far apart as Indonesia and Ethiopia.
“Um,” I say, “Islam means peace,” I say because that’s what I have heard over and over again at family gatherings. I scan my memory for something to back me up. Some stats, a verse or two perhaps. Come on, the future of Islamic perceptions in this classroom depends on you.
I got nothing.
It’s not that I don’t have a way to discuss differing religious viewpoints, that is at once completely personal to me and entirely different in countries around the world to millions of people – it’s just that my answer, no matter how refined, how nuanced, and how balanced, is falling on the ears of someone who isn’t ready to have a conversation.
Being Muslim in a Catholic school in India is just plain confusing. I remember once asking my mother if the ‘Father’ we prayed to in school, was my dad at home. And asking my Hindu friends what the little silver Ganesh idol was when I saw one in someone’s car. My convent school was the most socially and culturally diverse place I have ever been, giving me glimpses and insight into the cross-section of India’s social fabric, but it also brought into sharp relief how different I was.
Growing up, in a Muslim, female heavy household, I wasn’t allowed to wear clothes that showed my legs or arms. But I was allowed to wear my convent school skirt because that was different. No one at home insisted I pray five times a day, but I had to say the ‘Our Father’ every day at school. As an adult in distress, I’ll often sing hymns to calm my nerves, because they come a lot faster than verses in Arabic. My life in convent school helped me forge a new, complicated, messy and freshly branded identity for me.
Which is why questions like that, from a teacher, aren’t just difficult to answer, they’re reductionist. In one instance, they take away years of my identity as someone who sat next to people in school, someone who has eaten out of the same dabbas and sat through long, boring assemblies. And turned it into a simple, alien ‘Other’.
That is the real damage.
But far more deep than that, is the lasting feeling that Muslims at school in India grow up with – to be apologetic, to keep their head down, to rub away the pieces that make them conspicuous, to apologise for some misplaced ownership of a ‘violent’ identity that they had no part in creating. Years later, someone would tell me that he was bullied in school, but that’s just part of having a Muslim name in an all-boys school, right? Right?
It raises children in school in India to believe that they have no place in India, that they are and always will be the foreign other – alien, misunderstood and dangerous.
“But surely, it is more in your religion, to be violent,” says the moderator at an inter-school debate when I was fourteen.
“Um,” I say, all over again, “Islam means peace.”