Many Muslim Americans live in secrecy due to one universal human emotion: shame.
In the winter of 2014, as the most secretive aspects of my life came to light, I was forced to come face-to-face with the people I loved most and whom I feared I might one day lose: my family. The lifelong façade I desperately tried to cement around my fragile core finally collapsed.
When I could no longer bear the emotional exposure, I stormed out of my parents’ home and into the frigid night. Reaching the elevated parking lot of our neighborhood plaza, I peered beneath my feet at the speeding vehicles on I-87. My tears were my only warmth, and thus, my only comfort.
As my cell phone buzzed incessantly in my palm, the vibrations intensified the quiver of my hand. A photo of my parents on my wedding day with the words, “Mama and Baba” appeared on the screen.
I swiped left.
Shame is the belief that we are unworthy of love and belonging; that we are not enough. Constantly comparing and evaluating ourselves, our jobs and careers, our levels of religiosity, and the like to media- and culturally-driven criteria of perfection is self-defeating. We devote exorbitant amounts of time aspiring toward impossibly unattainable standards. Sadly, these are always failed attempts, because our measurement tools are unreliable. Our worthiness cannot be measured by illusions of perfection and virtue.
Shame develops when we are incongruent with our values. Oftentimes, these values are codes of conduct we inherit by virtue of the identities into which we are socialized. When we behave in ways that contradict the images entrenched in our minds by our respective cultural and religious communities, we experience cognitive dissonance, the sense that our beliefs misaligned.
We nauseatingly churn through a whirlpool of “what-if scenarios,” which threaten to rob us of the experience for which we are hardwired to fight and die: human connection. Shame ignites our fight-or-flight instinct, forcing us to make a decision. We can either face our fear of disconnection, or hide behind secrets that claim our livelihood. Most of the time, we choose to hide. Doing so provides immediate (albeit false) safety. Here, shame finds its breeding ground, thriving on secrets.
Ironically, harboring secrets in an attempt to maintain human connection actually results in cognitive dissonance, which in turn leads to human disconnection. Over time, if this cycle continues, our shame overwhelms us into near paralysis. We cease to function to our potential. For Muslims, a people who face some of the most severe backlashes of shame from all angles, the consequences are fatal.
Research professor and author, Brené Brown, wrote the book on shame and believes that honest conversations about vulnerability and shame can change the world. Muslims are no exception to this theory.
“Vulnerability isn’t a choice,” writes Brown. “The only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
On that cold December night in 2014, I was confronted with this very choice. When my cell phone buzzed for the twentieth time, I finally swiped right. Unsure what the outcome would be, I chose the risk of disconnection over a life of secrecy.
It would be my father, the person I most feared hurting and losing, who would slay my shame. With an “it’s gonna be okay, kiddo” smile, he protectively tucked me under his right arm and walked me home.
“If Allah is all-forgiving,” he began, “who are we not to forgive?” His empathetic embrace proved it was not only safe to be vulnerable, but necessary for our relationship to thrive.
To overcome shame, Muslims of the West must commit to being empathetic. To defeat shame, we must be a society that staunchly supports courageous acts of vulnerability.
For us, vulnerability is speaking about our lived experiences. It is collectively naming racism within our Muslim communities and admitting the existence of LGBTQ Muslim. It is discussing the contrarian system that is obdurate about the virginity of women, yet wavering about that of men. Vulnerability is not sharing our deepest, darkest secrets with the world. It is having crucial conversations in a safe space with stakeholders.
Unfortunately, our Muslim diaspora isn’t there yet.
We shy from, ignore, or otherwise shun such taboo topics, and by default, those who voice these issues. Many fear that to be open to discussion is to espouse such issues. Ironically, history shows us that dialogue and debate were central to Islam and were requisites in the rise of Islamic civilization.
We ought to realize by now that censorship does not fortify a people; it divides them. Divided we stand today, each in our sea of secrets, and shame is our culprit.