27 June 2007

Reconciling the Heart

Between my soul and God lie my heart and my deeds. Nothing else lies between us. It is fifteen years since I departed from the religious tradition of my family. Although I was confirmed into the Anglican Communion on Sunday 2 December 1990 by Bishop James Jones, my faith was already wavering. Within two years the doubt outweighed my faith: the doubts within my faith gave way to religious agnosticism, which in turn gave way to atheism. In time belief in God returned, but belief that a man was God never did. I became a searching agnostic, one who sought the truth. I did not know where this quest would lead me until I arrived at that destination—and it was only a destination within the journey, not its termination, for this pursuit of mine goes on. When I came to believe in Islam in 1998 it was not the end of the road, but its continuation.

By its very nature, agnosticism need not cause particular problems in the relationship between people, even if it is disliked. The agnostic has no commitments to observe, other than the call of his heart regarding sincerity. Thus he may attend family gatherings with ease, his presence never an intrusion. In the case of one who adopts another faith the situation is quite different: he has rites and principles he must observe which create difference. I have experienced both scenarios and I am acutely aware which is the most problematic.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that my belief in Islam causes deep unhappiness within my family. Despite suggestions to the contrary, this is a reality I have never denied. Yet doubt is cast on this claim of mine, for I apparently continue to stubbornly cling to my principles. Is this not evidence enough that I am unaware of the impact of my beliefs?

The answer is no. I am acutely aware of the feelings of those around me, but matters of faith—and of the heart—require action. While I am not a good believer and my practice is hugely wanting, I do believe sincerely. My faith is not something that I take lightly, nor is it something that I took on as a choice of fashion. I came down this path because I believe it to be the correct way to worship God. For this reason I cannot turn my back on it to bring ease in my personal relationships.

The heart and our deeds are all that lie between us and our Creator. Only two know what is in our heart and they are God and our selves. Faith or doubt, love or malice, sincerity or hypocrisy: these are known to us and to God alone. For me, the one aspect that recurred time and again was sincerity versus hypocrisy. It was this question that forced me to sit at the back of church and to utter only a few lines of the Nicene Creed for over two years. It was this issue which made the question of faith seem so difficult as I engaged in my search for the truth. In 1997 I was continuously writing about the matter, much to the distaste of friends whose rational minds had long since abandoned belief in God. The following reflects my feelings at the time:

You don’t want to reject their faith, you don’t want to be different, you don’t want to be an outcast; you just don’t have their faith, but at least you’re trying to find it. But it’s so hard to admit that. They prefer to hear that you’re lazy, because that’s not such a disgrace. You’re filled with fear, so you don’t admit openly that you’re completely lost. You’re hoping that someone will pick up on your blatant hints.

Half way through my first degree, I found myself with an intense thirst to find my way in faith. On the one hand I wanted to believe like every other member of my family, on the other I was adamant that sincerity before God was essential. Thus that same piece went on:

…I can listen to the readings, the gospel and a psalm. I can listen to the sermon and learn. But how do you think I feel when we all stand for the Nicene Creed, and all I can say is ‘I believe in one God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’? You want me to say it all, but faith isn’t about you, it’s about God. Do you want me to be a hypocrite before God? Of course you don’t. I don’t go to church because I don’t have the strength or the knowledge to claim your faith and I refuse to lie in the Name of God.

Later on, having learnt something of Islam, I expressed similar concerns. I recently came across an old notebook into which I had poured by thoughts as my interest in the Muslim faith grew. Penned over two sides of lined note paper, I found a lengthy answer to a question somebody must have asked me around that time. I had obviously said that I could never be a Muslim and had thus written a series of paragraphs under four headings to explain why: the hypocrite; knowledge of one’s self; true belief; and fear of rejection. Each passage focussed on a matter that troubled me within. Of true belief I wrote:

I must believe: truly and truthfully. Of course I believe in God, our Creator, but the faith through which I should worship Him is still unclear to me. I refuse to have a blind faith; this is obvious, for would I have gone astray otherwise? To be convinced by man of the right path is not enough. The proof should be in the religion itself.

A fellow student, hearing my complaints about my lack of faith, once told me, ‘The problem with you is that you question it. I’d never question it.’ I was never able to accept this view, for I felt that it was important to be able to say what I believe with conviction. I was one who would say, ‘I’m not really sure, I’m confused, I’m lost,’ in contrast to the person who could simply say, ‘I don’t have a reason, I just believe it—it’s just my religion.’ The source of this lies in the heart.

21 June 2007

Let us not be judgemental

He does not want to learn English,’ said the day centre volunteer as he pointed his finger at a young man sitting in the corner, a moment before going on to explain that if the man wanted to integrate into society, he must learn English.
While I agree with the comment, I was dismayed by my colleague’s misconception of certain immigrants, for as a recent refugee himself, I thought he ought to know better. Intrigued about where this conversation was leading, I asked why he said that.
‘The other day,’ he replied, ‘I met an elderly man who has been in the UK for 49 years, but cannot speak English.’ Glancing back at me, he continued: ‘He told me that he had been in this country for 49 years and that all his children were born in this country.’
Noticing the inconsistency in his story, someone else asked, ‘Where was he from?’ Apparently hesitating about saying he was a Muslim, he said, ‘I don’t know—some Arab country.’
I looked at him and thought my initial response should be to remind him that as someone who works at a day centre where newcomers and refugees are the main clients, he should not be judgmental. I reminded him that many young adults who come here are very confused and do not really know what their future holds.
He seemed to note my professionalism, yet he was still keen to put forward his comments. Just as I thought I had had enough, another colleague picked up on our conversation and added, ‘It’s a fact that Islamic people are a cause for concern at the moment for the government but it’s acting too late.’ Soon after that the conversation shifted onto the subject of ‘Islamic’ terrorism and the question of alleged Muslim non-integration.
The relevance of this was not clear to me—and I also knew that such talk was inappropriate in this work setting. Not wanting to get into an interminable debate, I pointed out that they were sitting in front of four Muslim women who were—with one exception—first generation immigrants. We had obviously made efforts to learn English and indeed are still learning. Amongst ourselves we speak at least two European languages in addition to our native tongues. Before they could respond with an argument concerning the mores of modern Muslim women—which to some extent is used to signify women without the headscarf—I reminded them that at least two of us were overtly Muslim in appearance.
It is a fact that some immigrants already have knowledge of English, either through direct experience or from study, prior to their arrival in the United Kingdom. My colleague who has strong views on the necessity of immigrants learning English comes from a country that has English as a second language. Others like myself, however, have a lot of catching up to do in terms of learning the language and continuing their education.
Unlike my colleague, I try to acknowledge the efforts of individuals to communicate in English, however little that might be. Just the other day I was walking down Euston Road in central London when a Portuguese woman asked me for directions. As she did not understand much English, I decided to show her the way as I was heading in that direction myself. In using many Portuguese words, it was clear that she hardly spoke English at all, although she had resided in the United Kingdom for a year and half. A year and a half after my arrival here as a refugee from Somalia, my English was much better than hers, despite the fact that I did not have an opportunity to go to school for over a year due to immigration statutes and other factors. Still, I did not judge her, for maybe one day she will go to English class and learn. Sometimes it takes time to learn a new language. We all have different abilities where learning languages is concerned. Thus in my opinion we should encourage people to speak and learn English, rather than labelling them as not interested.
I believe that nobody chooses not to speak the language of the country they have made their new home, but rather that some find it more difficult than others, while some find it almost impossible to learn. In addition, as many of us will appreciate, there are different levels of speaking a language: there must be a difference between communicating in a language and being fluent in it. Could we not say that the elderly man did well in telling part of his history in the United Kingdom to a stranger? Alas, this has not been appreciated by those that should know better. I can imagine that he has worked in factory for decades, paying tax like the rest of us and is now a retired British citizen, whose children use English as their primary language.
As for the notion of integration, I do not know what this means anymore. No doubt it means something different to each individual, but suffice to say, it is not only a question of language, but also of learning to live amidst a culture you may not understand or even agree with, but are willing to accept as the chosen culture of the citizens of the given country.
It is interesting to note that the debate on integration and immigrants often concentrates on Muslims, not just in print but also in social conversation. Yet it is never more irritating than when these views are championed by other immigrants.