This, essentially, is how a woman explained to me the change that had taken place in her life since her conversion to Islam.
Since then, I’ve thought about her many times, especially because at that time I didn’t know very much about Islam. Now I’ve learned more, have gotten to know many more Muslims, and just begun to worry about her lack of thought.
When she explained what was liberating about Islam, it amounted, more or less, to the following: “There are rules for everything. I’m spared from having to think. I just have to learn the rules, and then act. So I know that I’m doing the right thing. It’s liberating.”
To me, it sounded as if she had entered her second childhood. She was an adult, but had freed herself of responsibility for her actions. Responsibility lay elsewhere. Later, to be sure, her explanation caused me a good deal of unease, mainly because I have become acquainted with a number of the rules she lives by.
When she decided to become a Muslim, it was a free choice, but having made that choice she is not free to choose which Islamic rules she will follow and which she will not.
I have since mentioned her attitude to other Muslim women, and to a large extent they shared it. But these are women who were born into Muslim families, and who thus face another “challenge,” as they call it: namely, the family.
The “family” in question, however, is not a standard-issue Western family consisting of mom, dad, and two kids, but rather an extended family that includes father and mother, their five children, plus the father’s siblings and their offspring, plus the mother’s siblings and their offspring, and, as time goes by, the spouse’s equally sprawling clan. And then there’s the “community,” in which it isn’t necessarily people’s national origin that shapes their identity (there is, for example, a great difference between a Pakistani from a big city and one from a rural village), but rather the sheer fact that they are Muslims.
If, in such a context, you don’t follow the established rules, you have enough to fight against. In addition, these are collectivist cultures, so the struggle that you need to undertake is not an individual one; everything you say or do involves others in the family – it affects other people than oneself.
The responsibility lies in the rules, and a violation of them, or an attempt to redefine them, will have consequences for the rules themselves.
This piece originally appeared on the website of Human Rights Service, www.rights.no, and has been translated from the Norwegian by Bruce Bawer.