Being caught in the middle of a sectarian war is no fun, I know that firsthand. It rips apart the fabric of community, spreads hatred and discord, and is constantly politicized on a global level. But what continues to surprise me is the way it manifests the most in the mundane minutiae of life. I spent the last five years of my life coming to terms with the many ways religious divides can cause harm to even the purest of things: love.
I am a Shia girl. I wouldn’t say I’m terribly religious, but I have a connection to my faith, and now, to my Shia identity. I try to offer my prayers when I can, I’m trying to be better about it, but this is the truth. I recite the Quran every now and then. In almost every aspect of Islam, I am just like all my Sunni friends, who have never made me feel different. I’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the terrible violence and persecution that so many in my community have faced, big or small. I have never felt like a minority, ever. Until it came to love.
The first time it happened, I was 20. It was very innocent, in an almost embarrassing way. We met through mutual friends in university, and talked in person maybe twice before he sent me a friend request. The next few months were spent happily chatting on Facebook pretty much 24/7. He was the first person I would talk to when I woke up, and the last person before going to sleep. We didn’t get a chance to hang out too much during university, because as luck would have it, we had completely opposite schedules. But we didn’t complain, we were content with the five minutes we got to say hello to each other in person before rushing off to class. Maybe this also contributed to the mad rush of feelings, and the intensity of their eventual crashing down.
Then Moharram rolled by. I posted a photo about the sanctity of the month on my Facebook profile, not thinking much of it. Later that night, I get a message from him. “Hey, I need to ask you something.” In my naivety I thought this was finally going to be some grand declaration of love. Quite the opposite. He told me he had seen my post, and wanted to know if I was Shia. When I told him I was, he seemed to be upset that I hadn’t told him before. I was confused, I didn’t think it had been something worth bringing up just to state, as if it was some sort of disclaimer or warning? He didn’t seem to agree. He thought this omission on my part was me lying to him, and I had to ask: why did it matter? Why was it such a big deal.
He told me that in his family, Shias aren’t considered Muslims, and that he couldn’t believe I had lied to him about being a ‘kaafir’. I was appalled. I had never experienced this kind of prejudice anymore. Before I even thought of explaining to him that Shias are not majorly different from Sunnis, and that no human has the right to decide who is and isn’t Muslim, he blocked me. Just abruptly, without any remorse or sadness or anything. Anytime I saw him at university after that, he would completely ignore me, not even daring to look me in the eye. There are many ways it could have gone much worse. Things could have taken a more violent turn if he were a certain kind of person. I could have had have genuine reason to fear for my life. None of that happened, but still, I felt like a criminal.
I think his response is what brought me closer to my Shia identity, because it made me feel protective of it almost? How dare someone vilify me for my faith? This incident also made me more cautious going forward, because is this something I need to disclose now before I talk to any guy? What if the next one has the same feelings about my community? And even if I somehow manage to find someone who accepts me for who I am, all of it, will I have to worry about their family not feeling the same way? All of a sudden my prospects for love seemed to shrink to the size of my own community, which while not a terrible thing of course, did seem restrictive somehow.
A part of me feels rather silly for being worried about something so trivial when there are actual atrocities being committed. But then I think about how small, seemingly insignificant incidents like this one add up to bigger more communal concerns. And if nothing else, it reveals a whole lot about human nature. And why shouldn’t I talk about it? If things like this lead to me censoring myself, or worrying about my safety, why should I remain silent? Bigotry deserves no silence, no matter what it comes out from.