“We have to go to church on Friday evening, but we’ll see you on Saturday!” With a quick
goodbye to our friends, we followed our mom out of the building. It was a warm autumn
afternoon in Birmingham; the trees were a riot of color, the sky was a crisp blue, and there was a
definite hint of holiday cheer in the air.
All of a sudden, our mom said, “Guys, can I ask y’all something?” Slightly surprised at the
seriousness of her tone, we nodded. “Why did y’all say we had to go to church on Friday? We’re
Muslim, you know we pray in a mosque, or as is the case with our sect, in a jamatkhana. So why
did you say ‘church’ instead of ‘jamatkhana?’”
It was a simple question, but we had no simple answer. While it immediately made us realize
that we had distanced ourselves from an integral aspect of our Muslim identity, it took us a much
longer time to understand and explain why exactly we had done so.
Allow us to introduce ourselves. Our names are Tanviz and Tanya Devani and we have a lot in
common. First off, we are your average brother-sister duo from Alabama. We enjoy traveling,
cooking, and watching reality television. Most importantly, we have had similar experiences
growing up as Shia Ismaili Muslims in the United States.
When we were very young, it was not easy integrating our faith into our daily lives. In school,
we would face kids who were quick to call our religion “weird,” simply because it prohibited us
from eating pork. On television, we would watch countless news reports denouncing all Muslims
as “violent jihadists.” At the airport, we would encounter extra security checks simply because
our parents have traditional Muslim names.
Eventually, for us, and for many of our Muslim friends, it became easier to “fit in” if we simply
de-emphasized our “Muslimness.” Some of us started to skip school on fast days, so as to avoid
questions about our faith. Others avoided replying to the derogatory comments that were made
about Islam in their presence. Many substituted their ethnic names with “easier-to-pronounce”
English ones, all in the hopes of being accepted by their American classmates or colleagues.
After a while, people stopped asking us questions about our religious beliefs and
fewer-and-fewer people made insensitive jokes and comments about Islam around us; we felt
like we had succeeded.
It was not until we had that fateful discussion with our mother that we finally understood that the
only thing we had succeeded in was giving up the chance to be ambassadors of our faith. We
were not speaking out against the unwarranted hate crimes committed against Muslims, nor were
we proactively promoting the pluralistic, philanthropic, and peaceful values of our religion. We
had chosen silence out of fear, fear of being seen as different.
Today, we are silent no longer. When one of our non-Muslim friends asks us about our opinion
on Islamic terrorism, we do not hesitate to say that Islam is a religion of peace; only a very, very
small number of Muslims commit acts of terror and their behavior does not define what Islam
stands for as a whole, nor is it accepted by the majority of American Muslims.
When people suggest to us that Muslims “only spread violence in the world,” we point to the
work being done by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, (the 49th hereditary Imam of the
Ismaili community). Under his leadership, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has
provided clean water, healthcare, and housing to millions of people, both Muslim and
non-Muslim, over the last 60 years.
If there is one thing that we have learned growing up as Muslims in America, it is that there are
no gains to be made by staying silent. Someone much wiser than us put it best: “Let your faith be
bigger than your fear.” So do not be afraid to be kind, tolerant, and generous. Do not be afraid to
spread hope, not hate. In short, do not be afraid to be Muslim.
-Tanya and Tanviz F. Devani