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Can devout Muslim and atheist Jew make it work?


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Dear Cary,

I was born in the States to a conservative Muslim Indian family. My mother, younger brothers and I moved back when I was around 11, while my (very religious) dad stayed on as a small business owner and came to see us three to four times a year. I came back to the States when I was around 18 to go to a small liberal arts college in the northeast, graduated and moved back to India with my mom and brothers.

Although I didn’t realize it growing up, I was in the middle of a hot identity mess. While I have an American passport and have somehow retained the accent I had growing up, I’d always considered myself more Indian than American, and felt distinctly out of place in ‘white’ cultural settings. I have a lot of white friends – black, Filipina and Asian too for that matter – but my closest are a group of brown girls at college who are similar to me – they have parents who grew up in Pakistan/Bangladesh and moved to the States and raised their kids there. The only difference is that they stayed there, and don’t really have meaningful relationships with people back home -‘home’ for them.

This is confusing for a lot of reasons to do with identity. Add to the mix a headscarf and a definitively non-Muslim boyfriend with whom I fell in love and it is all the more tricky. We decided to stay together and do distance after I moved back to India with my mom because we love each other, because we want to make this work, even though the only way for this to function with my parents’ blessings is for him, a raging Jewish atheist, to convert to Islam. And believe it or not, he’s learning. Semi-enthusiastically and slowly, but he is learning.  And for his part he’s agreed to go through with the motions and participate in rituals so long as our lives afterwards have minimal interference from my family, which I imagine to be the case judging by the level of involvement my parents had and have in my younger brother’s marriage (he married quite young by choice). They are very hands off once we’re out of the house. I eventually met his parents and we got along well although they were initially horrified at the idea of their son being with a Muslim. I think they’ve accepted us, and have an idea it’s serious.

Yes, it’s serious. We’ve talked seriously about marriage for a few years down the road – he’s in the middle of applying to PhD programs, and I want to start an MFA. He also wants to wait till he’s of a socially acceptable age in his family to marry. I don’t really have the luxury of time (my parents made me consider a total of FOUR proposals while he and I were dating and they’re not slowing down) We’ve talked about telling my parents at the end of the year and when he’s learned enough to convert to Islam.

There are obviously a number of problems that I need to address, like for instance, the ethics of this man pretending to be a Muslim so that he can marry me , the strain of the compromises we’d be making on us individually, and on myself –  I’d have to leave my mental health non-profit plans (inspired by own bouts of depression and rage during our relationship) in India behind to settle down in the States and give up ever really living there. He’s made it clear he can’t which makes sense – it’s not politically very safe for a Jewish man to be married to a Muslim girl from the hood ya know?

I’d have to make some lifestyle changes as well. The most important to me is that I dislike alcohol for religious reasons and he likes his occasional drink. He’s very controlled when he drinks, so I don’t ever mind if he does when I’m around and I’ve agreed to continue that policy. But truthfully I don’t know if I can live my married life rejecting a value that I grew up so observant of, even if I’m not quite as religious as I used to be. Not to mention that I’d be married to a man who doesn’t have any kind of religious ideals besides his cultural values which are very different from mine.  He says he’ll fast and pray with me, but how long can I realistically expect that to last? This strikes me as vaguely hypocritical at least – I’ve compromised other values by the sheer fact of dating him and I am in practice not very religious at all despite what the headscarf might imply- but I do believe in God and I am attached to my faith and culture.

Now, our relationship is wonderful.  Despite being from such a radically different background (or is it really all that different? I spent my formative years here after all), and his belonging to the ‘white’ culture at school I spoke of earlier, I was instantly comfortable around him. Even though we had different tastes in *everything*, we’re similar people in personality and we connected, and expanded our interests to learn about the other.  We’ve also had major trouble, and I had my serious doubts about him earlier on when he was more self absorbed and less communicative, but he’s changed a lot, and he’s put up with a lot of my own flaws. Also remarkable about him is how he handled my depression when the first symptoms emerged and I started seeing a therapist. Despite having no exposure to this from within his own family, he didn’t scarper as I was afraid he might, and is supportive and involved in my treatment.

The best way I can describe it without going on for pages at length is that we’ve been through a lot, enjoy each other’s company immensely, have changed and grown a lot from our experiences together, and are deeply committed to one another. And from another perspective, the people who know me best and have watched my relationship with him evolve think we make sense together. His friends apparently really like me as well.  And no man I’ve met since  has made me want to put everything on hold to spend the rest of my life with him.

But even then, the reality of what I am proposing to do is weighty. Let’s not forget the religious father and relatives who might pick up on the fact that he’s not a real Muslim and reject our marriage on the grounds that Shari’a doesn’t recognize a marriage between a non Muslim man and Muslim woman? Even if that were to work, what about the reality of the lifestyle and religious adjustments I’d inevitably have to make to make this marriage work? What of our children who will be confused as eff caught between two cultures and world views? I cannot begin to imagine telling my parents that we’d need to have a Jewish wedding ceremony too, to respect his parents wishes, or that their grandkids would eventually probably have a bar mitzvah and go to the mosque. What of him and his potential resentment towards me for making him convert, and what of me and my potential resentment towards him when he inevitably fails to fast and pray with me? What of my scarf, and the multitudes of spiritual, social and political complexities of dating him and wearing the hijab at the same time? What of this long distance? We’ve been apart for three months, and we’ve been good with communication so far, but I’m terrified I won’t see him again for a long time, and that distance will drive a wedge between us eventually especially considering that communication is not his natural strong point. Also consider the alternative – that if things dont work out between us, I’d have to marry a Muslim man who’d accept that I dated a Jewish guy before I married him, and while those guys exist, they’re not exactly the proposals my religious family is drawing in. And I have no idea if those guys exist anywhere near where I live or work.

Sorry for the spiel but I’d love to hear how you wrapped your brain around this. Is this worth it? Do you see such a marriage working out without long term bitterness and resentment? How?

Sincerely,

love’s got me looking so crazy right now

Cary Tennis Loire Valley Writing Retreat

Dear Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy,

This answer is not going to help you if you propose to each keep your religion and somehow blend them. I have no advice about how to blend two religions. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Your best source for that would probably be your own religious authorities.

I am going to take a different tack. I am going to argue for secularism and the abandonment of personal religion.

I am going to argue for the one solution that does not require either one of you to adopt views and beliefs you do not have. Rather, it requires both of you to stand in opposition to your own faith and culture and proclaim, together, your secularism. It requires both of you to give up a good deal. But this is the American promise: that a person is a fully determined and responsible individual who can live his or her life in any way he or she chooses, as long as no one else is materially harmed.

Renouncing personal religion requires us to take the position that the resulting heartbreak of others is not our responsibility, even though our actions may be said to cause it. We may cause it but it isn’t our primary responsibility. Our primary responsibility is to our own nature, our own primary relationship, and our own truth.

I’m not against religion. I just think that in cases where maintaining its beliefs may do more harm than good, it is wise and noble to relinquish it, in favor of what is real.

This is very freeing. It is a wonderful thought: Religion is optional!

Many Americans have made this choice.

The contradictions of your situation are in your religious beliefs themselves. How can either of you maintain a religious belief that requires the other person to act or be in a way contrary to his nature, and still proclaim your love? If you are not willing to do this, it may mean that you are not willing to make the kind of sacrifice your situation requires.

If you weren’t with this man, it wouldn’t be complicated. You could simply bow to the power of your religion. But since you and he are uniting, your unity requires that each of you comes into conflict with your religion. There is no escaping this conflict. When you are in conflict with your religion, then you have to choose who is more important: your partner, or your religion?

I am suggesting that it is possible to relinquish religion and abide by a yet higher law, one that is not written, one that asks for faith in the unknowable behind the unknowable.

I also say this because it seems to me that the possibility of two individuals coming together in secular love is one of the few amazing gifts American culture can still offer the world.

This doesn’t mean you change what you like to do, what appeals to you, what you think is right or wrong, or how you like to dress or anything like that. You will remain the same person and will do many of the same things you did before. But in those areas in which your religion and your relationship are in conflict, I am suggesting you place your relationship first. Take onto yourself the power to decide what is right and wrong. If your religion tells you you can’t do that, just say, Well, I’m doing it. What will your religion do then? Will it punish you?

That is the interesting question: What will your religion do when you take a secular stance? Will it threaten you? Will it put in place measures to keep you in line? And what does that say about the sanctity of the individual? If your religion cannot tolerate you, then how can you tolerate your religion?

Of course you can muddle along. Or you can face the fact that it is indeed your religion that is most important to you. That may be the case. But you must choose. Whatever you do, I am suggesting  that you face the intellectual contradiction squarely, and consider the choices that inhere in your situation. And recognize that there is no law — no secular law, anyway — that prevents you from renouncing your religions and living as secular people, responsible to each other for your actions, and accountable to no religious body.

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12 thoughts on “Can devout Muslim and atheist Jew make it work?”

  1. I think Cary’s solution will work — if it is the solution for your true heart. The beauty of this solution is that it requires the same commitment from both of you — to each other, and your relationship, above religion and culture — rather than one commitment from him (to go through the motions for you without his heart being in it, which already strikes you as hypocritical) and another commitment from you (to lower your standards and values to be with someone who is just going through the motions).

    I see a lot of problems ahead for you if you continue down the path you have described in this letter. You’re not even married yet and already are fearing feeling hypocrisy…which is steps away from contempt, which is a death knell for a relationship. You cannot be with someone you do not respect. It sounds like you respect your boyfriend in the role of boyfriend, but as a potential husband he is not ticking all the boxes, not when you look in your heart of hearts.

    The line that struck me was “And no man I’ve met since has made me want to put everything on hold to spend the rest of my life with him.” Why do you have the idea that you have to put your life on hold (which I view as meaning compromising on your fundamentally held religious and cultural views) in order to be with someone? It sounds to me like you are wonderful friends and partners but it is maybe not meant for you to have a long-term family life together, at least not in the context you now find yourself situated in.

    You also present a false alternative to marrying your current boyfriend (marrying a Muslim man who would have to tolerate someone who once dated a Jewish man). It’s a big world out there, not just Muslims and non-Muslims. I agree with the advice of another commenter that you should seek out someone who is bicultural like you, someone who understands where you’re coming from when it comes to culture and religion. In the meantime it sounds like when you really think about what your married life would be like with your current partner, you are dissatisfied and unsure. Unless you can make the kind of commitment Cary advocated for, I would be doubtful that this relationship, wonderful as it is, can transition into the kind of marriage you really want.

  2. “If your religion cannot tolerate you, how can you tolerate your religion?”
    Excellent point.

    Her parents are pushing potential husbands on her and she’ has a strong reaction against the type of men they’re choossing. I wonder if she’s trying to forge ahead with her boyfriend because it’s her only escape.

  3. I can only assume that most of the people responding here have only a dim notion of what a religious life is and means. You don’t simply choose to be involved in it or not – at least not if you were raised in one. It’s like saying you can “simply” choose to be an American or not. No. If you were born and raised in America, you will never completely stop being one, even if you emigrate and give up your citizenship. If religion were merely a moral codex – and that’s what I think some people think it is – it might be easier. But it is a life, and this woman has lived it. It is part of how she eats, drinks, dresses, how she does things and when she does them. The religious life, if it is really lived, is what gives shape and meaning to everything else.
    I think üeople who have not lived a life shaped by religious ritual can barely grasp this point. A woman I know, talking about her religious life, put it this way: “We don’t just do whatever we like. We want to do what is intended. How things should be.” I’ve lived both lives – the religious life and the non-religious life. Yes, the non-religious life is freer and easier. But it’s also more superficial. There is an emptiness in it that you may not notice unless you have lived the difference. And that’s why I am skeptical about the ability and desirability of this woman “choosing” not to have a personal religion anymore.

  4. I actually didn’t read the entire letter from “Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy”, but I read enough to understand her dilemma. Cary’s answer stands alone as a refreshing outlook on religion and our ability to choose to be involved in it or not.

  5. I absolutely love how Cary so simply suggests – abandon religion. Is there some subconscious drive this woman has towards atheism OR how I interpretted Cary’s response is indirectly be suggesting.. freedom. (Is he saying that?) And it’s interesting to read the comments and see that some people believe that this is impossible! it’s your personal identity! maybe – but why is she attracted to this man to begin with? I also thought …well.. i’m a feminist! Can I give up feminism? But.. is that the same thing? I believe all women should be treated equally. Religions, generally, do the opposite. Does she want freedom? Is it possible to be “free” in her religion? wow..there is just so much to think about here..

  6. She’s clearly deeply religious and the poor guy she says she loves is being forced to make serious lifestyle changes. For god’s sake, she is still wearing scarves and hijabs. She’s moaning about his taking an occasional drink as if it’s a big deal.

    He gets enormous credit for trying to comply with her wishes and she’s worried about someone in the distant future discovering he is not a deeply religious Muslim. She does not sound psychologically strong enough to overcome her doubts about him and her religious fears.

    Why did she return to India and her deeply religious family anyway\ Already she’s worried about their ability to communicate or, rather, his ability to do so. She seems to have no compunctions about herself and her own abilities to communicate what sound to me like her religious demands. She clearly has no respect for Judaism.

    LW, stay in India. Find some deeply religious man and be happy ever after in your scarves and dress codes. You sound too selfish to appreciate all the changes this guy has already undertaken for you. I find your arrogance and naivete distasteful. Clearly you did not learn very much about cultural integration during your few years in the States.

    Admit to yourself that your religion binds you and move forward on that path. Let this poor guy go.

  7. While ones religion may not define one, the resulting spirituality does and is usually indivisible from ones religion. I do not sense from the LW that she isn’t “all that much into it.” I sense tremendous anxiety (rightly so) and intellectualizing. No matter how smart and thoughtful she sounds, and no matter how many questions she posits in an effort to gain some control over this, I suspect already out-of-control, situation, it cannot cover over a basic truth. And it is this that, by falling in love with this genuine “other,” and committing to the course that this charts, she has enacted one of the most significant–and perhaps most tragic or liberating, as the case may be–acts of revolution against her family and culture (if one places religion in the arena of culture). Admittedly, to do so through the act of falling in love is the most accessible and most common, but it is not lesser.

    This course, without a single doubt, and no matter how it is undertaken, will destroy something. Perhaps her family’s trust, perhaps the completeness of her faith, her familial connection, safety and support, perhaps her imprisonment in a context that does not afford her the freedom of being an unfettered individual, perhaps her naivete or her idealism, or her narrow-mindedness. Whatever it shall be, there will be destruction. (Of course there will also be creation, perhaps even wondrously so).

    It would be a grave mistake for the LW to choose this relationship for the love of this man or for the man himself, alone. Given the, potentially, abyss-deep consequences of such a choice, it is imperative she do it for herself, her life, her vision of that life and of herself. She must know that this choice will require such uncommon strength, depth and sense of individual identity that it can weather a dismantling of the scaffolding that supports and defines her present life, a deconstruction that is sure to come, however slowly or quickly. She must know her essence. Her present course of action may give rise to discovery of such. That may be what, on a higher level, is drawing her to creating this sweetly thrilling, yet upheaving scenario.

      1. Thanks, Ellen. I might have added that the journey of the soul can often only be undertaken when one doesn’t know the cost. If one did, it would be too daunting and seem easier to avoid life. So it should be all right for the LW to continue without understanding the ramifications. We tend to want to save people from themselves, but probably shouldn’t.

  8. I agree with Cary that the only way it could work between them is if they were to give up their religions. But I don’t think that’s very likely. As the first respondent said, a person’s religion is intertwined with their identity, history, family, etc. I think what would work best for her is to find someone in the same boat, someone who straddles two worlds, someone raised Muslim overseas who then moved to the US and now has aspects of the two often conflicting cultures. There are so many people in that situation these days and they could really help each other navigate the confusing waters together. I imagine there must even be groups or websites devoted to bringing together people in that circumstance.

  9. Interesting answer, definitely worth considering. But religion is not just a set of beliefs. It is part of a person’s identity. It is like a native language, a home country, a family. It would be dangerous in my opinion, if even possible for this woman to abandon “personal religion”. Yes, she is in a quandary because it is also wrong for her future husband to pretend to convert to Islam just to marry her. That is a violation of his truth and personhood, too. I think she has better chances of really being happy if she would wait and find someone else. Love happens a lot in the course of a life. And I do not believe that there is jus tone person with whom we can have a happy relationship or marriage. There are probably shockingly many people with whom each individual could make it work and work well. Abandoning those things that are at the core of our identity, however, is perilous.

  10. Simple, elegant answer – and possibly the only one that will work. Especially since your love is an atheist and you are not that religious.

    Great answer, Cary.

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