To Be a Muslim in the West

Laila Lalami at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, July 2010, during research for her novel The Moor’s Account
Alexander Yera
Laila Lalami at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, July 2010, during research for her novel The Moor’s Account

Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, an essay by the Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami appeared in The New York Times Magazine. In “My Life as a Muslim in the West’s ‘Gray Zone,’” Lalami, whose Ph.D. is in linguistics and who regularly produces opinion pieces, criticism, and essays on a range of cultural and human rights subjects, discussed some of the challenges she has faced during her quarter-century as a Muslim immigrant to the United States:

Some months ago, I gave a reading from my most recent novel in Scottsdale, Ariz. During the discussion that followed, a woman asked me to talk about my upbringing in Morocco. It’s natural for readers to be curious about a writer they’ve come to hear, I told myself. I continued to tell myself this even after the conversation drifted to Islam, and then to ISIS. Eventually, another woman raised her hand and said that the only Muslims she saw when she turned on the television were extremists. “Why aren’t we hearing more from people like you?” she asked me.

“You are,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Right now.” I wanted to tell her that there were plenty of ordinary Muslims in this country. We come in all races and ethnicities. Some of us are more visible by virtue of beards or head scarves. Others are less conspicuous, unless they give book talks and it becomes clear that they, too, identify as Muslims.

Ordinary or not, Lalami calls herself “not a very good Muslim”:

I don’t perform daily prayers anymore. I have never been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I partake of the forbidden drink. I do give to charity whenever I can, but I imagine that this would not be enough to save me were I to have the misfortune, through an accident of birth or migration, to live in a place like Raqqa, Syria, where in the last two years, the group variously known as Daesh, ISIL or ISIS has established a caliphate.

Under ISIS control, Lalami writes, what it means to be a good Muslim in Raqqa has been made all too explicit. Women must wear niqabs and not circulate without male supervision. Smoking and profanity have been outlawed and chemistry eliminated as a school subject. Through such edicts and their policing, ISIS has effectively divided the world into two camps: that of Islam under the caliphate and that of the West under the crusaders. Citing an article in a recent issue of the ISIS recruiting magazine, Dabiq, Lalami explains that ISIS has coined the term “the gray zone” to describe “the space inhabited by any Muslim who has…

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