I was recently asked two questions in a public forum that caught me so off guard that I didn’t answer them the way I should have.
The questions were:
- Are you religious?
- Do you believe in God?
These questions are particularly loaded to a Saudi or to a Muslim – whether by birth or belief – in today’s world.
Much modern discourse relies on a dichotomy between a monolithic “West” and an even more monolithic “Islam”. I wholeheartedly and wholemindedly do not buy into this paradigm, which among other problems, oversimplifies and dehistoricises a much more complex world. (If you haven’t already read Orientalism and the many studies it has inspired, please do.)
But whether I like it or not, I have to learn to survive within the paradigm so that I can live to overthrow it. In it, if you admit to being religious, that admission risks alienating you from a Western audience (and compromising your ability to get visas). If you admit to not being religious, that admission risks alienating you from your Muslim audience (and compromising your ability to go home).
An even more dangerous question than, “Are you religious?” is, “Do you believe in God?” If you are born Muslim, there is only one answer to this question that will not get you killed.*
When asked, I should have said that I risked losing too much by trying to answer these two ostensibly harmless questions. I can’t take back my response, but I can write about what I wish I had said.
There’s a wonderful French phrase for the moment you think of that witty response you should have used in a conversation gone by: l’esprit de l’escalier, “the wit of the staircase”. Because by the time you are clear-headed enough to come up with a response, you have arrived to the bottom of the staircase that led away from the time and place of the original conversation.