This post is mostly for Google, and for my own future reference to put up as a link. Razib Khan refers here to the blogger for the Gene Expression website (his Twitter). I am sometimes referred to as an ‘atheist/and or/cultural Muslim’ on the internet. I don’t take offense to such a term being applied to me, but I generally attempt to correct the impression, and am of the opinion that it misleads people. The reasons are mostly personal, and since I do not share personal details of my life much on the internet it is a defensible prior to assume that I am a “cultural Muslim” (at least if you haven’t followed me for 10 years, and so could not have gleaned aspects of my personal disposition and history from chance references).
I don’t think there is an OED definition for “cultural Muslim,” so I’m going to cover all bases.The idea that I am a Muslim because other people think I am Muslim is silly on the face of it, because my physical appearance is such that many more Americans seem to assume I am Hindu (those who believe I am “Arab” or “Iraqian” also would believe the same of South Asian Hindus, so most of the time I am pegged as Muslim is actually a quasi-false positive!). I doubt the individuals making the argument that public perception matters would then concede that I am must “claim” or “embrace” my Hindu religious heritage (and yes, this is an argument that has been made by some to me; that I must accept a Muslim identity due to exterior perception).
Though Islam is not an explicitly national religion like Judaism (i.e., Jews adhere to a set of religious beliefs and practices, and, conceive themselves to be a descent group with a national identity), there are components of Muslim tradition which can align with such an ideal (e.g., patrilineal descent. And radical jihadists do sometimes refer to the “Muslim nation”). But I will forgo engaging this somewhat abstruse issue. All eight of my grandparents were Muslim, and fourteen of my sixteen great-grandparents were Muslim. Additionally, one of my great-grandparents was a pir, and I do come from a long line of ulams. So if descent is one’s sole criterion, I think it is a defensible proposition to term me a cultural Muslim, though then Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is also a cultural Muslim (albeit a more attenuated one).
On the other hand, I do not socialize with Muslims in my day to day life. I am not married to a Muslim (or someone raised as a Muslim), my close friends are all non-Muslim, and I do not celebrate any Muslim holidays (the only ‘religious’ holiday I celebrate is Christmas, though since my wife was raised without religion there is no ‘Christ’ in the season). My daughter does not have anything about her name that is Muslim besides her surname. I was not married in a Muslim ceremony. The last time I was in a mosque was in 2004 when visiting Bangladesh. The last time I was in a mosque in the United States was probably before my teens. I do not adhere to any Muslim religious belief, and the only Muslim practice which I follow is that I have a moderate aversion to ham, though I have no objection to pork, and relish bacon (I drink alcohol on occasion). If cultural affiliation has to do with day-to-day interaction with people of a similar cultural affiliation, then my cultural identity is that of a white secular liberal (though I am not white or liberal). If cultural identity is inflected by those whom one grew up with, I am a white conservative Christian, or a white Catholic (my teens were spent in the interior West, my elementary years in a white ethnic milieu in upstate New York; evident in my dialect).
A few years ago The New York Times profiled comedian Aziz Ansari. Ansari’s family is Tamil Muslim, and the first version of the article mentioned that he was Muslim. Ansari communicated back to the author and stated he was an atheist. First, if the author had profiled an Italian American comedian I doubt the they would have made much of the presumed Roman Catholic background of the subject unless they offered that up in the course of the reporting. Though the majority of Italian Americans are Roman Catholic, enough are not that it’s not useful to assume this as a prior without consulting specific individuals or knowing something about their religious practice. This is America, and substantial minorities (on the order of 30-40%) switch from their natal religion. But because Aziz Ansari is a brown skinned person with a “Muslim name” these assumptions probably went out the window. In modern liberal multiculturalism the choice of cultural self-definition is granted, and assumed, for white Westerners in a way it is not granted to non-whites, whose identities are implicitly indelibly associated with their familial historical background. In pretentious liberal parlance ‘essentialism’ something that is acceptable for non-whites if the aim is toward a multiculturalist ends (though it is a no-no if it supports illberalism, defined by the peceptions of white liberals). To see what I mean, note how one observer at Beliefnet implicitly critiques Ansari for not owning his cultural Muslim identity. The reality is that asserting an atheist identity is just as deviant in American society, so I obviously think this is totally unfair. On the other hand I do think that as a matter of numbers, if not principle, an assumption that someone with a Muslim name is a Muslim is probably warranted, because far fewer Muslims than Jews, for example, seem to have defected to irreligion or other religions in the West. I don’t think that this assumption will be warranted in the future though.
Earlier I focused on the present. What about the past? Because most South Asian Americans are immigrants raised abroad people sometimes are confused about my status in this regard. I was raised in the United States, and all my schooling was in this country. My friends growing up were almost all non-Muslim, and most were white. In fact my adolescence was spent in a part the country that is much whiter and politically more conservative than is the norm in the USA (2000 Census reports that the county I grew up in was 95% non-Hispanic white; certainly it was a higher fraction when I was a resident there).
Not only was my milieu totally non-Muslim, but I have never had an attraction to the Muslim religion. By this, I mean any Islamic identity I ever had was purely cultural and affinal. At age eight I realized I was, and am, what is termed an atheist. Unlike some people I have never had an attraction to spirituality (whatever that mean), or a longing for God. In fact I suspect I’ve never truly believed in God as other people believe in God, as a person or conscious entity, as opposed to a vague abstraction. This is relevant because unlike some who are irreligious I don’t look back to a past where I was a believer with any nostalgia.
Nor do I have warm memories of religious collectivism through communal functions. I’m not much of a collectivist in personal disposition, so that is not surprising. But probably because I never had religious belief I found attendance at religious festivals like Eid rather tedious, boring, and they left me irritable. In addition, my family was never particularly fastidious in observance, so there was never a strong ritual routine aspect to Islamic practice in my household (in any case, I was early on alienated from many of my parents’ values). The few times I spent in youth social groups at mosque my perception was that they were laced with pretense and hypocrisy.
Finally, to move it to a more intellectual dimension, the late Edward Said, an atheist by belief, and an Arab Christian by background (though exceptionally due to familial conversion, an Anglican, rather than any of the traditional Arab sects), once stated that Islam was his civilization. This then might theoretically apply to me, even if I have no personal connection to the religion. But what is defensible for an Arab who has no religious connection to Islam is not so defensible for someone from a South Asian Muslim background. Those Muslims who engage in Islamicizing reform movements are arguably anti-traditional, and strip away the synthetic complexities of Islamic identity in the subcontinent. If Islam is my civilization, than so is Hindustan. Because of my physical appearance I could change the spelling of name, and take one of my Hindu ancestral surnames (Sarkar or Thakur), and transition to a superficial non-Islamic Hindu identity, false and deceptive though it may be. Without a deep intellectual commitment to the idea of a cultural any affinity is totally false.
More concretely I really have a background and affinity to once specific culture: the Anglo-American culture of Greater New England. This is not a function of choice, but a function of where I was socialized. Living in a particular region results in an internalization of particular folkways. There are attitudes toward a wide of values and practices which mark me as American, and more particular a specific subculture of American. That is what is probably most concretely informative about me, as opposed to the contingent fact of my family’s personal history.