This is going to be a really intimate, personal series of posts. I feel I need to caveat them and reiterate that I am happy to be Muslim, I have no regrets, and that it still feels like the right decision for me. But this process has been so difficult – mostly navigating the mental struggles that come with being a revert, and a secret one at that.
I have often felt like I am the only one going through this strange situation, and that I must be doing something wrong to have it never feel quite right. In the age of social media illusions, it seems like other reverts I know online are so put together and solid in their beliefs – and of more interest to me – they have this ability to live as a revert to Islam so authentically, so casually. It *seems* easy for some people to live comfortably in this major decision they made, transitioning quickly to hijab or even feeling secure enough to show their face on the Internet. I do not feel that, and it makes me wonder why my path has been so difficult and unsteady. I desperately want my relationship with Islam to feel easy and natural, but it does not. I should be able to be open about my religion and my experiences, but I hold myself back. I deliberately keep the Muslim side of me hidden away. The Jekyll and Hyde aspect of me being Muslim feels critical for me to protect, even though I am realizing how damaging it is. Keeping the Muslim me separate from the other part of me is a habit, but it is making coexistence ugly and impossible.
I have always been averse to people knowing my business. I have always been cagey with friends or family about personal things, preferring to keep things private and close to the chest. Friends in college would laugh when I would suddenly disappear from parties, or slink in halfway through, without really answering where I was going or where I had been. When I lived in the Middle East alone for a few months, I relished in the raw power I had each day to come and go wherever as I pleased. I like not having to answer to people; I like being the sole decision-maker. But I recognized where that was getting me into trouble: I was so restrictive with details it was obvious to those around me that I was not willing to let them into my life, and that makes it difficult for people to want to be friends with you or trust you with their life. That hurt me because, despite my evasiveness with others, I actually yearn for deep friendships and connections with people, and would do anything for them. So I had to adjust and became more open and willing to share (within reason).
But this is also why I struggle with not being as vocal or open about being Muslim as I want to be. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I would have no problem if someone figured out I was Muslim and asked. In that instance, I feel as though I would be able to control the narrative to some extent, through talking to them and explaining the decision. One of my biggest fears is someone getting the wrong idea, and knowing there could be people out there with a twisted view of me becoming Muslim upsets me. Islam is horrifically misunderstood as it is, and to be a white revert who works in national security who happens to be dating a Muslim guy gives way too much fodder for speculation than I can even handle. Still, even for myself, I suppose it is the act of admitting I converted, of being the one to blow my cover, that also gives me anxiety. I view my conversion to Islam as arguably the most private, intimate, personal thing I have in my life, so my natural reaction is to keep it away from prying eyes and gossip. It is sacred. And finally, there is a control aspect: if someone were to find out somehow, without my consent so to speak, exposing who I really am, it takes the control away from me.
Despite this, I have not kept my entire relationship with Islam a secret. I have told a few people that I converted. I did not fast in secret during Ramadan. I have tried to be open about things to the extent I feel comfortable doing so. But it is not enough. I feel so strongly this division between the ‘original’ me and the Muslim me, and it feels as though the two are incompatible. My friends who were born Muslim have learned in a way I envy how to grow up and become the persons they want to be, with different interests and personality traits, while still being Muslim at their cores. I feel like I grew up and figured out who I was, then added this attachment onto myself that does not seem to be meshing the way it should.
I feel like to be a ‘good’ Muslim, there are certain things I have to change about who I am at my core. Then I feel like these traits or feelings that seem at odds with Islam are somehow ‘wrong’ – except they are me, and I grow frustrated trying to figure out how I am supposed to make both work. This struggle is exacerbated by the fact that I have an extremely Type-A personality; I would even argue compulsively perfectionist. I feel a compulsive need to be ‘perfect’ at Islam – but it is literally impossible. When I inevitably fall short, it erodes my confidence as a Muslim. When I honor the ‘original’ me, I feel guilty for shirking my duties in Islam, even though I have no desire (nay, I refuse) to radically change who I am. I need balance and I do not know how to find it.
I recognize there will always be some back and forth between these two versions of myself – but I let this feeling like I *must* have everything together set me back. As my confidence as a Muslim erodes, I feel less and less connected to Islam. I feel less like reverting was something that was meant to happen and more like I am stumbling along, lost, and not really sure if I made the right call. Being a revert by default brings an enormous amount of insecurity and doubt. Not only do I fret about how I will be perceived by the Muslim community, but also about how my family and friends will receive me, how I will ever gain all of the knowledge I am supposed to, and perhaps most significantly, whether I am legitimate.
These feelings, of insecurity and inadequacy, are crippling. It is one of the reasons why I have struggled so fiercely with salat – though I will save that story for another post. In short, when I do not feel confident, I start to question what the point is of me trying to be a good Muslim. I am a perfectionist – which most of the time is a positive thing – but the ugly side is not wanting to do something if I do not feel like I can do it well. That is where I am at with Islam more often than not. This is why Qur’an 94:5 speaks to me: Verily, with every hardship comes ease. I may feel the pain of each and every shortcoming now, but inshallah eventually I will get to a point where I learn how to overcome them and be at peace with myself and Islam.
I need balance between ‘me’ and the Muslim me. I need to figure out the right way to honor both – to uphold my responsibilities as a Muslim while remaining true to who I am. I need to let go of my need to control everything; I need to let go of what is beyond my control. I need to learn how to be okay when both sides of me are not perfect. I need to understand that an imperfection on one side does not threaten, nor negate, the other. I need to figure out how to be me and Muslim at the same time.