By Pranati Parikh, Harvard College '21
In one of my favorite classes this semester, a religion tutorial, we read an ethnography about German converts to Islam called Being German, Becoming Muslim. Written by a Turkish American Muslim, Esra Özyürek, the book is an academic exposition on the phenomenon of converts living in Germany and their ideas of and experiences with Islam—personally, with respect to beliefs and practices, and socially, with respect to their interactions with other Muslims and German citizens.
As most seminars do when confronted with a difficult perspective, the twelve of us turned most often to the parts of the book that felt the most unjust. The narrative throws the harshest light onto the growing social gap between German converts and immigrant born-Muslims in Germany. On the one hand, German converts claim to practice the purest version of Islam by stripping Islam of “burdensome” immigrant traditions. Their engagement with Islam, they believe, is critical and consonant with a progressive civic identity in contrast with the indiscriminate, conservative inheritance of born-Muslim traditions and beliefs.
On the other hand, we could not help but acknowledge the ominous elephant in the room. Islam, a tradition historically Orientalized and yet newly embraced in a predominantly Christian society is certainly a testament to the potency of pluralism in spreading ideas and humanizing the other. What is this conundrum, of the fruitful dialogue which engages traditions across geographical and cultural frontiers and yet in the end draws sharp boundaries between the very people among whom the exchange occurs? One answer is outright racism. The German converts, despite sharing in large part in immigrant Muslim life when it comes to theological commitment, feel consistently prejudiced toward Turkish Muslims. A fellow seminar member put it this way: white people always think they do it better. But in the rawest terms, those that see simplistic whiteness and non-whiteness in a diverse place and leave it at that miss a much more subtle distinction between prejudice and critical engagement. There is something more to this conundrum, I think, than kneejerk racism.
I am reminded of a passage from the book about Jolanda, one of Özyürek’s subjects, who talks about the way she celebrates Ramadan. She prepares “calendar for her son just like the advent calendar that is popular among Christian Germans.” Decorating it with “moons, camels, and minarets, instead of the snowflakes and Santa Clauses that embellish advent calendars, Jolanda does not believe that she has to give up everything. She is a German, and can only celebrate her Islamic holidays in the German way” (47).
What is this “everything” that Jolanda is reticent to give up? It is the German culture that infuses her identity even as a converted Muslim. On the one hand, she painstakingly extricates what she sees as immigrant influences from religious practice and thought. On the other, she fills that space with a syncretic German Judeo-Christian cultural influence which is somehow more palatable. Whether or not other converts would be biased toward the German interpretation of Islamic traditions is difficult to ascertain, but we can imagine that they might prefer the Ramadan calendar to shiny headscarves—which are common to Turkish Muslim women but condemned by German Muslim women as markers of poverty, marginalization, and ethnic status.
The Turkish headscarves and the hybridized Ramadan calendar reminded me more of myself than of anything else, and the ways I have also conceived of religion and culture, both nebulous concepts, as distinct from each other. As critical as I was of testimonies like Jolanda’s, I could not stand on a high ground of objectivity. Undermining my reproach—which came easily as a majority opinion among seminar members—were memories of my own culturally complex religious life.
Suddenly, during a Thursday night seminar, I was thinking that though I learned to speak Gujarati first, because that was my parents’ only defense against their children inheriting a language shot through with Christian vocabulary, I began speaking almost exclusively English at an early age. Because we went to the mandir every week, I learned to explain my weekend commitments to my friends at school as “temple,” where I listened to “sermons” and participated in “youth group discussions.” I was thinking of my family’s Christmas tree, which we used to put up when we were young and my parents didn’t want us to hear about our friends at school receiving Christmas gifts and feel left out. I was thinking of my elementary school choir, for which my brother sang one of the most beautiful solos the school had ever seen in third grade: “Jesus, our Brother, kind and good, was humbly born in a stable wood / and the friendly beasts around him stood. / Jesus, our Brother, kind and good.” Our graduations and baccalaureates were always in churches and my favorite piano solos, Christian hymns. I became accustomed to finding my own Hindu spiritual meaning quietly in the overwhelmingly Christian contexts of a rural Missouri town. My experiences at the mandir were formative and the core of that meaning, but I never viewed the rest of this supplanting with contempt. God is everywhere, my parents told me. You can sing to God in English. Culture, for me, became a concoction of both the rich Gujarati mandir heritage and the ancillary environments in which my lived religion manifested itself.
Gradually, I began to prefer the English because it was palatable to my peers. I liked that there were words like “prayer” and “meditation,” or that my theology of a loving, personal, living God resembled that of my Christian friends, whose descriptions of the ways in which God worked were always somehow more articulate and moving than mine. I tried to adopt those words. Of course, though we had both grown up talking about God in English, my God was an exercise in translation, and theirs was common knowledge, so like fluttering wings beating against the bars of a cage, the beauty of a Sanskrit adjective or a Gujarati verse remained pinned under rudimentary English translations which were only the best I could do.
I prayed in private, pulling the window shade down under the pretext of enjoying the softer darkness of the mornings but really just wary that someone would see my elaborate setup and wonder why I couldn’t just bow my head and pray like an intellectually spiritual person. I refused, in certain instances, to follow rules about menstruation to the degree some of my Gujarati friends did. I called my parents from college, too, and often insisted that I was American more so than I was Indian, and for them to challenge that was to deny the inevitable effects of choosing to raise me in the United States. Separating the Hindu thought and practice from its cultural manifestations was possible—I just needed to be able to distance myself sufficiently from the other traditions, which I sometimes saw as patriarchal and unnecessarily ritualistic, and which I did not experience with as much immediacy as those that were in English or those that could be easily explained and practiced away from home.
When a professor of mine told me in a conversation about Sanskrit literary theory that prayer in the Hindu context was really just recitation, I was torn. He claimed that if you said a vowel the wrong way during the recitation, you might as well have not prayed. I pushed back a little bit, insisting that you could pray however you wanted to pray and in whatever language and say whichever words. He laughed good-naturedly and told me that my idea was too Protestant. I did not know which part of his argument to rebut—that he thought I could not identify as Hindu and pray in a cultural context that better spoke to me, or that he had decided that freeness in prayer—and by extension, communication with God—was monopolized by Christianity.
In the end, I said nothing. In making my faith my own, I had forcefully transplanted it from one context to another, from a traditional context to a foreign one hellbent on intellectualizing it. In making my faith my own, I wondered if I ran the risk of making it something it was not. My religious practice was tainted more by culture than I thought—it was simply a culture I avowed, thinking it made me more intellectual, more politically suitable. In the end, it was a bias.
My urge to separate the Indian culture from the Hindu practices which I so love and imbue them instead with a rhetoric that made much more sense to me as an American college student brings me to the other side of Özyürek’s token. On the one hand, we condemn the German converts for their seemingly racist dissociation from the immigrant born-Muslims. On the other, we encourage ourselves to strike a cultural balance, insisting that the two worlds I grew up straddling need not be so inconsonant so as to never cross paths and leave my capacity to hold on to them hanging by the barest thread. On the one hand, we insist that religion and culture are separable, apologizing and editorializing for God when prescriptive injunctions or social mores are deemed anachronistic and culture-specific. On the other hand, we alienate people with whom our relationships are rooted in the very concepts we are trying to make palatable or consonant for ourselves and others. Are religion and culture truly separable? What is at stake for complex identities like mine if they are not?
My parents have never forced anything upon me. Rather, they have always encouraged my seeking, encouraging me to understand beliefs and concepts and scripture thoroughly in the languages, literally and figuratively, in which I feel most comfortable. So too is my theology conducive to affirmative rhetoric and critical thinking, which is a guard against common criticisms invited by some religious people. And yet, my attitude toward the generations that come before me and to the tradition to which I owe so much of my thought and practice is to give and take, to be selective and harsh toward aspects which I feel are too Indian or too conservative or too far away from the culture within which I exist to make sense. I may not be racist in the ways that some German converts to Islam may be, since the people and the practices I reject are in a way my own. Neither I do claim that that which we find problematic we ought to ignore. But I am arrogant, perhaps, in my conviction that my own intellectualization and personalization of the practices which belong to my own people and so many others are inherently better approaches. I neglect to acknowledge the tremendous cultural residue that permeates my own practices still, whether I credit it or not, in the same way that Turkish Islam is essentially what brought Islam to Germany in the first place. It is not so much about rote remembrance or paying homage for the sake of giving credit so much as it is about an awareness of the people and the many social and cultural currencies that I have overlooked.
Is religious and cultural consonance possible? If it is the case that they are mutually implicit, that well-intentioned favoring of culture, in my case, and religion, in the case of the German converts to Islam, inadvertently pockmarks the other, how is one to synthesize a life, which consists of both? I was once looking for a friend’s dorm room and I walked past a room with a poem taped on the door.
To see the fields and the river
It isn't enough to open the window.
To see the trees and the flowers
It isn’t enough not to be blind.
It is also necessary to have no philosophy.
With philosophy there are no trees, just ideas.
There is only each one of us, like a cave.
There is only a shut window, and the whole world outside,
And a dream of what could be seen if the window were opened,
Which is never what is seen when the window is opened.
The poem has come back to me time and time again, and in this context, I think it is especially relevant. To see the trees and the flowers, it isn’t enough not to be blind. It isn’t enough to acknowledge diversity in culture and in religion. It is also necessary to have no philosophy. That is, to see the way and the truth of the world as it is, with human expression and participation, it is necessary to open the window. The window is only a futile barrier between two realms of our own construction—religion and culture, Truth and truths. Beyond the window is the possibility that “pure religion” and “culture” are not so different things. In making my faith my own, I do not run the risk of making it something it is not. Rather, there is an open totality, free of human demarcations—should I wish to rise above the illusion of incompatible milieus, and instead, to existence as an intentional unity of many things at once.