Years ago, thirty to be precise, I was buddy-buddy with all the “religious” girls in university. Eventually, not only was I buddy-buddy with them, I was among their “leaders”. I couldn’t be buddy-buddy with the religious guys, mind you. Mixing between the sexes wasn’t allowed. That did not mean in any way, shape or form that we weren’t always eyeing each other up for a potential future spouse.
At the time, I was living in a new country (and loving it) without my parents and most of my siblings. For years before, I had listened to my father’s adventurous stories about revolutions and Islamic movements from when he was a school and university student. My father was a fabulous oral storyteller. He loved telling his stories and I loved listening to them. He loved telling his stories so much that he’d tell us the same story over and over along the years. I loved hearing his stories so much that I never bored of hearing the same story multiple times. The result was that I couldn’t wait to go to university in Egypt so I could go “underground”. I wasn’t sure what that meant or what I should be looking for, but by golly, if I was going to go to university in Egypt then I would be going underground. My father’s final words before he left me alone in the country were along the lines of, “Surround yourself with religious friends.” I didn’t need him to tell me that. I was going to seek them out anyways because I was pretty sure they were the key to my long-sought-after underground.
I found the underground, of course. They weren’t very good at keeping themselves secret. Actually, they were lousy at it. Not that they really meant to be totally underground anyways; otherwise how else would they recruit new members to the “righteous path”?
They were good days. I have a million fond memories from the times. I had a family away from my family. I had sisters, the numbers of whom I could not count. I belonged. I was appreciated. I was even, in a way, adored. I was listened to. All I had to do was read a couple of books and suddenly sisters and “those who like the sisters” were coming to me for words of wisdom or for rulings on whether this or that behaviour was “halal” (allowed) or “haram” (prohibited) in Islam. This thing you’ve seen in me where I spout out eternal wisdoms all the time started all the way back then.
But gradually I became disillusioned. In the beginning, I became disillusioned with various Islamic movements, choosing to affiliate myself with only one. Eventually, I became disillusioned with “the one” Islamic movement as well. As I grew, as I read, as I listened, as I learned, as I gained more experience and met more people, I began to believe there could be no such thing as “a one”. Rather, there were “many”. I began to believe that what might be right for me doesn’t necessarily have to be right for others. I started to think that just because other people’s choices are different does not make them wrong.
So I un-affiliated myself completely from the movements (as opposed to the religion). And instead, over time, I gained friends from all over the world, each of whom was different from the next. The one thing that might connect them all would be their acceptance of others despite differences. Lots of differences. Not the I’m right and you’re lost acceptance but let us be brothers anyways because by associating with me you will learn how great my path is and you will want to join me (unless you’re a lost cause, that is). But the kind that just lets people be the way they want to be. The kind that celebrates difference and embraces it.
Gradually, instead of my life seeming to focus on bringing sisters into “the light”, it became more focused on trying to be a better inhabitant of planet Earth. Instead of proselytizing and directing people to the one and only path of righteousness, I looked inward. It turned out, there was a lot that needed to be dealt with.
As long as I did not outwardly discuss my new direction in life, I was generally left alone. I still looked the part. I still wore the “robes” of virtuousness. Whatever might be going on inside my head was not apparent to most of the rest of the world. So those on “the real righteous path” were happy and had nothing to complain about.
But that is rapidly changing. I don’t look the part anymore. It’s clear to all who have eyes that I no longer follow the “herd”. I have questions. The herd’s answers don’t suit me. In fact, no one’s answers suit me right now. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue searching. It does mean I need to open my mind to search in new places.
And that FRIGHTENS THE HECK out of “the righteous ones”. The same righteous ones who urge the non-righteous to question their paths lest they discover (and they will otherwise they’re just stupid) that the paths they were born into are the wrong paths, go completely mental when they learn that someone already on their path has questions of their own. If you are already on “the right path” and begin to have doubts, you are in need of an intervention. You need to be saved. You are heading down the slippery path towards the hellfire. And whatever you do, DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE IN PUBLIC! If you do, you will cause “fitnah”. You will tempt the misguided and the confused away from the path of righteousness because people, as we all know, are weak in mind. They can’t make their own choices out of their own free will. They need their hands to be held. They need to be told what to do. They need to be directed towards right and away from wrong. And if you do voice your doubts, then it must be because you are looking for acceptance from the misguided. There can be no other reason.
This story could be the story of practically anyone belonging to any religion – or cult. This story, more than raising questions about religion itself (and it does that in my case, I must admit), raises questions about human psychology and group/herd/mob mentality. In my mind, the only way I will ever be able to figure things out is to step away from the herd – all herds – to focus on thinking for myself rather than being told what and how to think.
I think 47 is a good age to decide to think for myself and to not be afraid or intimidated about expressing those thoughts, however misguided they may sound to so many others. And I will express them, mainly because I need to hear my thoughts out loud, but also because I know there are so many people out there who have been and continue to be intimidated as well. I want them to know they are not alone. I want them to know it is all right to think. Your doubts, your fears, your questions belong to so many of us. Do not be afraid of them. Ask, and worry not where they may lead you.