A Reflection by a member of UPF UK’s Inter-religious Youth Council
by Asmaa Soliman
I am one of those youths who have been brought up within two different cultures. My parents are originally Egyptians, they moved to Germany about 33 years ago. Initially they planned to stay only for a few years, however the new life in Germany has taken them and they started to establish themselves in the new country. Year after year Germany became their permanent place of residence. For me as well as for all my siblings Germany is our home country, yet we feel attached to Egypt and we can identify with Egyptians. We feel Arabic as well as Western and European.
Islam has always played an important role in my parent’s education and in my own spiritual journey that started in the first years of my adolescence. The presence of God, Islamic teachings, prayers and religious practices were always essential components of my life. This ‘Islamic flavour’ was not really problematic during my childhood, at least I have not become aware of it. To put in other words as a child I did not experience a ‘Muslim difference’. Minor issues like not eating pork at school or wearing a much longer swimsuit did not really make me feel different. I was like all other kids, I played, I laughed, I cried and I met up with friends. Life was normal, I really admired my childhood as we lived in an area that was very child-friendly and full of families.
However, things have changed over time. The lack of awareness changed more and more into a form of an ‘enforced awareness’, often imposed by others. Since the beginning of my adolescence I started to incorporate religion more strongly into my life. I prayed five times a day, I decided to wear the headscarf, I read the Quran and I attended Islamic classes to deepen my religious knowledge. I engaged in various activities all aiming at a more profound relation to God. Religion for me is not an issue of identity or a feeling of belonging. It is something that goes much deeper than that. It provides me with essential insights about life without which I would not find peace in my heart. This is also why I did never decide to suppress, hide or get rid of my Islamic attachment, even in difficult times during which my Islamic identity might have turned into a burden.
Unlike practices, such as the prayer or the fasting that are not necessarily visible as such, the wearing of a scarf marks one’s Muslim identity. Even if this was not the intention behind the Hijab, it inevitably became a ‘marker of difference’ in a country where Islam is foreign. Due to the lack of knowledge as well as misunderstandings and stereotypes about Islam in Germany, the general attitude towards Muslims is not very positive. Unfortunately it is full of fear, suspicion and prejudices. I need to admit that some negative images about Muslims are based on true stories, however it is inaccurate to draw general conclusions and to ascribe bad behaviour to religion itself.
As a visible Muslim I have come across various experiences at school, on the street, in shops and in other places. My Muslim identity that has become more visible started to turn into a problem. These negative experiences culminated in the 9/11 attacks. Since this happening things have deteriorated drastically. I have been accused as a terrorist, I have been told to go back to where I come from and I was made responsible for Islamist terroristic acts. Unease with my scarf, with my restricted way of life and more generally with my Islamic religion became more noticeable. Still these rather negative ways of treatments cannot be generalised of course. However, even if these experiences were not generalisable, their influence on me was heavy. Every day I left home, I knew it would be a new struggle. I will have to justify specific practices and behaviours of Muslims, I will have to face insults and I will have to expect bad gazes. As a young individual this time was rather difficult and I increasingly did not like life in Germany. My solution was to escape. I begged my parents again and again to leave the country and to move to Egypt, a country where my Muslim identity will not be a problem case. However, my parents did not agree.
A couple of years have passed and things have started to become a bit calmer, yet the relation between Muslims and non-Muslims in Germany was still tense. The ‘Muslim fear’ did not vanish. However, my personality has changed. I grew up, I became much more confident and I started to see things differently. Rather than escaping or getting upset about bad treatment, I decided to confront people productively and to look for solutions. With regard to bad experiences, I tried to talk to people, to ask why they think what they think, to explain Islam-related issues in cases of misunderstandings but also to just ignore provocative behaviour if I felt people were not ready to talk. In respect of good experiences, I tried to engage in deeper exchanges and sometimes also in relations with people. I became active in various interreligious and intercultural dialogue associations as well as in peace NGOs on a national as well as international level. I felt that there is a high degree of misunderstanding about Muslims and Islam as such which is totally detrimental for a healthy relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. That is why I esteem the essentiality of interreligious dialogue and of approaching one another very strongly.
Since this turn in my life there was one important development that I became increasingly aware of. I more and more felt that it is something very positive to have multiple identities. I realised that unlike those who have been brought up within mainly one culture, I had access to various set of values, customs, ideas and beliefs. Moreover, being in this position enabled me to take a critical stance towards both the German as well as the Egyptian culture because I always had points of comparisons. As someone who is not only used to one specific way of life, I could easily step back and reflect upon certain values and contents. This made me feel very autonomous and powerful in a way. It also made me appreciate the worth of carrying an Egyptian, an Arabic, a Muslim, a German and a European identity. This is not to say that individuals with one cultural background are not capable of doing this. However, I think that it is much easier for those who have a multicultural background.