I found out my best friend was converting to Islam five years ago, while I was a student living in Turkey. I thought of myself as a pretty open-minded person; I was a 24 year old who’d chosen to live in Turkey, after all. Yet, although the vast majority of Turkish citizens are Muslim, it was the height of Erdoğan’s rise to power, and the lefty-intellectual types I hung out with (the cigarette smoking, beer drinking kind of Muslims) feared the ramifications of an Islamist party gaining foothold in a rather newly stable Turkey.
In the minibus on the way to school I saw girls carefully remove their hijab before the campus guards scanned the bus for anyone not complying with the headscarf ban on public university property. As I studied the secular foundation on which Turkey was established, I echoed my classmates’ worries about what it might mean if women were suddenly allowed to cover their hair in universities and government offices. The headscarf debate in Turkey dates back to the 1920s, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and doing away with this key tenet of Ataturk’s republican ideals seemed a particularly slippery slope.
So when I heard that Blair was becoming Muslim and would be covering her hair, it was not just my American Liberalism that was thrown off track, but also what I viewed as an enlightened perspective on the Middle East. Islam remained a dubious, potentially destabilizing force, and I felt vindicated in my hesitance towards readily embracing my friend’s entry into the world of the pious. In the months that followed, Blair and I had more of a falling out than we’d ever experienced, which I perceived as her moving into her newly devout life and leaving me behind, and she saw as me turning my atheist back on her when she needed me most.
By the time we reached out to one another, I was living in Berlin, Germany, in an area with far more hijabi women than my neighborhood in Ankara. In Berlin, I felt I could dress as I wanted, live as I wanted, and simply be myself in a way that I had rarely experienced elsewhere. It became clear to me that the young women around me donning colorful headscarves were embracing precisely the same freedom. This juxtaposed with the understanding I’d gained in Turkey (and in the US before that) of headscarves representing something conservative and dangerous, prompting me to confront the delusions under which I had been laboring.
It was not the religion itself that was inherently threatening, but rather the men (yes, generally men) who improperly wielded power in its name. Moreover, as I came to understand that, for the vast majority of women around me, wearing hijab was a proud, personal choice, my feminist self shuddered at my previously casual questioning of whether or not women should be “allowed” to embrace this most fundamental expression of their own identity.
Through a series of long emails, Blair and I reconciled our friendship, acknowledging one another’s positions while pledging to work through the little bumps of living on opposite sides of the globe and holding diametrically opposing views on the existence of God. The longer I remained in Berlin, the more chances I had to see Islam in the daily life of a city where I felt at home.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, anti-Muslim sentiments grew and I lost myself in Facebook disputes with well-educated friends about whether it was really the right time to bring up Islamophobia, even as the number of hate crimes shot up across Europe. Was I not just making excuses for terrorists? Why was I defending religion, which is obviously the root of all evil? Such thinking reminded me of college – the liberal arts bubble where comments about the stunted evolution of anyone who believes in God were met with reaffirming laughter.
Though my tolerance for bigotry, homophobia, or clearly, terrorism, in the name of religion had not grown, my openness towards the reverent had, and my tolerance for vitriol in the name of openness had vastly diminished. I came to see that such jokes were on par with the casual anti-gay or anti-woman remarks I’d always been quick to condemn, and once this was clear, I was taken aback by how I’d ever thought otherwise.
Blair joked that the place where she felt most afraid was the Whole Foods parking lot. She said the waitress at a diner in our hometown of Albuquerque hadn’t batted an eye before calling her sweetie and taking her order, while women in Birkenstocks scowled at her hijab and muttered under their breath as she did her shopping. This type of entitled discrimination no longer surprised me, though it did make my heart ache.
Donald Trump and others’ dogmatic and anti-Muslim remarks and policy proposals ring all kinds of alarm bells, but we cannot claim they’re out of the blue. Such over-the- top bigotry is hard to compare with a cold shoulder in a grocery store, but the two are distant cousins, and both need to be addressed. Many who condemn Trump’s remarks are the same people who have trouble making connections between daily experiences of discrimination and a lifetime of feeling disconnected, or not accepted for who you are. These are the same people whose eyes grow wide when I say my best friend wears hijab, and then want to know if she’s allowed to travel or leave her house without her husband (um, yes, she is).
Blair didn’t change much after converting – her sarcastic wit remained intact, her feminist ideals and her caring nature were still there. But she became happier, she finally felt like herself, while simultaneously knowing that this step towards personal wholeness left her divided from a society wary of just letting her be her.
For me, living in a city with a large Muslim population helped me see the utter normalcy of what it can mean to be religious. Politicians condemn my neighborhood as part of the feared “parallel society” they are sure Muslim immigrants and their descendants are bent on creating. Interpersonal and systemic discrimination do not weigh into such discussions, nor do the importance of community, and being near people who might not judge you for simply being you.
Although my studies and time abroad may have been enough to provoke critical self-reflection and greater openness, I fear that without Blair, I may not have rooted out my own glib lack of understanding and casual judgment that remains so anchored in our society today. Thus, as hate and fear once again dominate the headlines, I can’t help but think about Blair, be thankful for our friendship, and hope that she steers clear of the Whole Foods parking lot.