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Backstory: What it means to be Muslim

They went to the same school in Saudi Arabia – so how did they turn out so differently?

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Yasir and I had to talk. In his view, "liberal" Muslims outnumbered "conservatives" at the conference. What a relief, I thought. I'm fed up with Muslim conferences at which conservative views are presented as the "real" Islam and against which liberal views must justify their validity.

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But to Yasir's credit, he wasn't beyond making a joke out of the stereotypes that many of us hold of conservatives. A conference assignment was to talk to those we normally wouldn't talk to. So at a coffee break, there I was – a woman wearing T-shirt and jeans attempting to schmooze with Yasir, in his traditional Pakistani-style tunic and baggy pants, and his friend Abu Eesa Niamatullah, a British Muslim in a flowing white robe.

I asked them how they thought the conference was going. "I wasn't going to come at first," said Abu Eesa, founder of an educational institute and publishing house and author of a Muslim blog, who'd been outspoken in conference sessions about how he didn't think Muslims had a problem integrating. "I've been writing an essay called 'No to Integration, Yes to Disintegration.' "

Immediately Yasir jokingly interjected with a suggestion: "Explain to her what you mean by that. You know what she'll think."

Was Yasir joking about the assumption that Muslim men who have long beards blow things up? Now we're talking, Yasir!

It was true – I'd stereotyped the men with big beards.

"People always assume I'm very conservative, but I'm actually quite liberal," California Imam Tahir Anwar said in an exercise that had us place ourselves along a liberal-conservative continuum according to how others see us.

"Yeah, right!" was my gut reaction to Tahir, whose beard was even longer than Yasir's.

As a young man he'd wanted to be a US Air Force pilot, he said. His love for speed has him zooming around California highways, he confessed, where his car is the only one with the license plate "IMAM."

I couldn't resist confessing to him over lunch my "yeah, right" reaction to his assertion that he was quite liberal. He smiled like he was used to hearing that. It had been my gut reaction to his conservative appearance as well as the dismaying feeling that many Muslims are reluctant to embrace the liberal label with pride because it sounds somehow less authentic or wishy-washy.

During the exercise, I stepped forward and said that people assume I'm a liberal Muslim, I'm indeed a liberal and I'm proud of it and I wished more people would openly embrace the term.

At the end of the conference, I found out that my definition of a Muslim – that anyone, including an atheist, who identifies themselves as Muslim is a Muslim – had made me an atheist courtesy of some conservative Muslims who I'd debated with on the point. They'd stereotyped me right back, deciding I must be an atheist. You see why we need to talk?

"Believers are like the bricks of a building. They hold each other up." That saying of the prophet Muhammad was posted on an easel next to a panel on pluralism that included Yasir and his ideological and theological polar opposites.

At a coffee break soon after the panel, I ran into Yasir, fresh from an hour-long meeting with one of the liberal women I had heard he didn't want to meet. He looked stunned.

"But did you shake her hand?" asked another attendee after Yasir told us of the meeting.


It was my turn to be stunned: "You shake women's hands? I didn't offer mine on the plane because I wasn't sure."

Yasir stuck his hand out for a firm shake.

I plan on writing to Yasir to continue our conversation.

Maybe I'll even suggest that we write a book together on how Saudi Arabia made us who we are today.