5 Reasons I Kept My Religion a Secret

Me dressed for Eid celebrations in Bangladesh. When I started this project, I’d have rather died than share/disclose the fact I was Muslim.

Today is Eid-ul-Fitr. In Islam, this is a day of celebration marking the end of 30 days of fasting for Ramadan. I’m one of the people celebrating because I’m one of the many Muslims around the world who have fasted for 30 days.

If you’ve known me for a while, you know how difficult it is for me to write that.

Back when I started this project, I took great pains to keep my ethnicity and my religion secret. I hid all traces of my last name (an obvious giveaway – Ahmed) and gave non-answers when directly questioned about my religious beliefs.

Why did I do that? Here’s five reasons why:

5) The Uncultured Project Isn’t a “Muslim Project”: We live in a world with double standards. A Christian can say that Christ inspires them while still being able to claim their work is secular. This is the case behind the people who founded Charity: Water, One Day’s Wages, and even Invisible Children. In a post-9/11 world, whether or not it’s fair, the same isn’t true for Muslims. I feared (and still fear) the cost of speaking about my religion would (and will) be less support for my work.

4) YouTube Haters: Before starting this project, I did a quick search on YouTube on videos that were done by Muslims or mentioned Islam. Needless to say, the comments on those videos came straight from the deepest cesspools of humanity. YouTube is a big part of how I connect people to my work and it’s hard to build an audience and momentum on YouTube if haters are flooding your videos with vitriol and pressing dislike on every video.

3) Real-Life Islamophobia: I don’t want to be treated like a terrorist. But, even when lecturing at a university and not even touching upon my religious beliefs, I’ve been accused of being (and I quote) “an Islamic terrorist gaining dupes”. If that’s how I’m treated simply for being brown and having the last name “Ahmed”, imagine what doors (and minds) will close if I “come out” as Muslim?

2) Aid Bloggers: “Hack”. “Idiot”. Comments about my masturbation frequency. These are actual comments sent to me by aid bloggers. Why? In 2010, without stating explicitly my religion, I started to openly talk about traditional Muslim approaches to aid and development. Online, aid bloggers lauded and applauded the vitriol coming my way saying one needs to “man up” and just take it. Offline, I received sympathy and support that eventually led me to learn that some of the most vocal anonymous vitriol (including one from a prominent anonymous aid blogger with over 3,000 followers) were actually from employees working at a large Christian NGO with a Christian-only hiring policy. My experience with the aid blogosphere left me feeling that aid bloggers were intentionally cultivating a vulgar (or “snarky” if you’re being euphemistic) and unaccountable atmosphere (due to the ease of creating anonymous social media profiles) with a bias against minority and non-Western viewpoints. What sucks is that, if I were to be more vocal about my religion and put my experience with aid bloggers in its proper context, aid bloggers could say that I’m “playing the race card”.

1) I Don’t Represent Islam: I’ve had Muslim friends on Facebook unfriend me for my pro-LGBT rights tweets and posts. I’ve had Muslims say its Islamically forbidden to listen to music – or use them in videos. I’ve had Muslims call me a coward when they felt I tweeted or said something that didn’t make Islam seem superior to other religions. I’ve had Muslims argue with me at length about my views that Israel has the right to defend itself or by supporting Rabbi Berkowitz and his message calling for the (now successful) release of Gilad Shalit. The number one reason I didn’t want to talk about being Muslim is because, while I happen to consider myself Muslim, I don’t know how Muslim other Muslims consider me to be.

The reason I decided to not keep my religion a secret anymore is because, in order to build bridges between different cultures and religions, you can’t keep your own culture and religion a secret. So, for better or worse, I hope you stick around for whatever comes next.

  • http://www.facebook.com/katcomix Kathryne Meadows

    Shawn, you are one of the most incredible human beings on the face of this earth, and I wish I could support more to Uncultured.
    It is a shame, that still after 11 years many people feel hatred against an entire religion for the acts of the few zealots. These are people found in all religions, yet only Islam seems to get heat for it. I find most people ignorant once they venture outside of their little worlds. Especially where I live. I know this isn’t the case everywhere, but it’s still heartbreaking and mind boggling. Keep doing what you do. Thanks for keeping my faith in humanity alive!

  • penryn

    I’m so sorry for the actions of these idiots (expressing sympathy sorry, not taking blame sorry), especially fellow aid workers. You would think somebody who devoted their working life to help people wouldn’t be hateful and close-minded.

    I think the work you’re doing is incredibly important and I hope your enthusiasm for it doesn’t lag as a result of vitriol.

  • Tara Seguin

    Yay Shawn!

  • sittingonanmm

    Dear Shawn, ever since I found out about your project, I’ve seen you as an incredibly inspiring person. I feel I have learned a lot from you – from how to think critically about how NGOs operate, to the different types of needs people in developing countries have. But the one thing that I’ve always admired the most about you and your project is the way you talk and teach empathy and tolerance. I am sure that most of us who follow you will stick around because of the VALUES you hold, practice, and teach – regardless of your religion or how religious you are/aren’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BlairSanne Blair McCulley

    Shawn, you are one of the most fantastic people I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the internet. The love you show the world is a huge inspiration – your actions and passion make me want to act. That’s all I’ve ever needed to know.

    I never like discussing religion or spirituality with people because people tend to make assumptions about you or your values as a result. I work at a hospice, and any time religion comes up (usually from our chaplain or volunteers) I just get very quiet. I have never been one to defend my own beliefs, and I have always felt that it’s nobody’s business.
    Religion has a way of setting people on fire and starting wars against others who follow a different path, and I’ve always hated that. Most religions are actually about love and betterment, but I digress.

    I didn’t even think about what your religious views might be because you are who you are regardless of what I know about you.
    Knowing that you are Muslim doesn’t change that.
    In fact, I think there are very few religions you could have listed that would have changed my opinion on you (and only because their beliefs seem counter to what values you’ve shown – for example Satanism is a very selfish religion, and you’re clearly not selfish).
    I’m a straight, white, cis-female. I have a lot of privilege. I also have a lot of gay, trans, “POC”, etc. friends. I have some Muslim friends, some Christian friends, some pagan friends, etc. The thing about it is that their religions work for them – and they don’t push them on me. And that works for me.

    Your project has never been about converting your subscribers to any religion, so knowing that you’re Muslim shouldn’t change people’s opinions of you. It probably will for some people. And that sucks. But the people who stick around are people who support what you stand for and want to hear your perspective on things, rather than people who want you to have the exact same perspective as them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katherine-McLemore/139300003 Katherine McLemore

    I am well aware of the hate and Islamophobia out there, but I am appalled and ashamed and deeply saddened by the reaction you received from other aid workers.

    I applaud your courage in “coming out,” and I pray that the kind of people who support you will also be the kind of people who realize that it is your actions, and not your ethnicity or religion or last name which make you a force for good in this world.

  • Raf

    Bro, I am a Muslim, as well. And I don’t consider myself to be a “know-it-all” but religion & faith is something I have studied long and hard for years. It is not our place to judge one’s “Muslimity” (lol), but I can tell you that you represent Islam better than many other people. And I say that because Islam, from all the books and various sources I have learned, teaches compassion. Teaches Interfaith dealings, teaches one to help everyone in need no matter what their religion is. It’s beautiful to see a Muslim working with a Jew, to help Christians. Or the other way around. That’s the beauty of the world, the beauty that God would prefer any day over all the wars and hate that ‘satan’ has instilled on humanity.. Keep doing what you do man… Let the ignorant people judge. God will be the final judge, and He knows what you have done in this world, He also knows how much you have done for the needy people in the world. You have inspired millions, and continue to do so. You are one who will win a Nobel Peace Prize one day, InshAllah. I just have a feeling I will be right :)