Note to readers: I usually don’t publish letters that are this long, but this letter is so poignant, so articulate, and so thorough that I couldn’t bring myself to shorten or paraphrase it. It depicts dilemmas similar to those that young atheists from devout families face in the U.S, but the main difference is the severity of what is at stake.
I’m writing to you from Europe where my family came to live before I was born. While my parents are very religious Muslims and I was raised according to their beliefs, with the age of 11 I started to seriously question the teachings of Islam and religions in general. A time of research, thinking and struggling followed and was concluded after three years with the realization that I came to a point of no return. Some thoughts you can’t un-think. This realization depressed me at first because Islam had been a big part of my identity. All my life I had been involved in the mosque, the success and admiration I earned there gave me confidence. Now I had to come to terms with the fact that I would lose everything dear to me if I revealed myself to people who should love me unconditionally. Not only would those people stop loving me, they would also believe me to deserve death.
I decided to run and never look back the first opportunity I had, because a coming-out was always a non-option. I never doubted that their reaction would be beyond horrible and maybe even violent. The following years I was driven only by planning for my future life. I cut off connections where I could and did my best to not form new ones, I tried to educate myself on the topic of morality without religion and worked on building a new system of values for myself while clearing my mind of old prejudices.
My parents saw how I distanced myself from religious life but they never realized the true dimension of what was going on with me and even today I think I could have made it. I was ready to live with all the consequences of my decision, I knew the price of freedom and I was more than ready to pay it.
So it was all the more bitter for me that I was ultimately forced to abandon my plans. My father got deeply depressed because of a few family dramas including the way I was changing and he tried to take his own life more than once. The last years my first priority was to help him to get better as I am the one that has the best relationship with him and being a part of what caused his condition made me feel deeply guilty.
Against all odds he got better and better and is almost as cheerful as he was before his depression now, although he remains somewhat unstable even today.
Now I’m of age and ready to attend college this autumn. And still I find myself trapped, playing a role, living a lie. The dilemma I find myself in is where to go from here.
As I see it I have two options and I despise them both.
The first would be my original plan of running away. But I know what a severe damage that would cause at his point. Before all this happened this kind of decision wouldn’t completely destroy my family, partly because my parents had a good relationship with my other siblings then. That isn’t true anymore. Somehow I unintentionally managed to become the only hope of my parents, the only child they rely on. Also me running away became a life-or-death situation for my father that it wasn’t before. And I don’t think that I can live with risking someone’s life and happiness this much even if my feelings of responsibility may be displaced.
The other option is to pretend as I did until this day. In a way this is easier and I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt of causing death and misery. But I fear that this kind of life threatens not only my happiness but also my mental stability. I feel trapped if I imagine living like this for any length of time. It’s not even that I want to adopt an extremely different lifestyle. I’m not about living life on the wild side. It’s about being able to be honest about what I am and what I believe or not believe in. As a female “Muslim” I always carry around the sign of Islam with me, a system of values I would never want to represent. I can’t openly criticize Islamic beliefs, I can’t stand up for things I believe in like tolerance and equality of all sexualities and lifestyles and have to suffer through all the discriminating, sexist, judgmental, hateful teachings – and even pretend to agree. I have to live with people who believe me to be one of them but who would hate me for what I really came to be. I don’t think that I can live like this in the long run. Just moving to another place peacefully is a non-option, too, because I’m not allowed to move out before marriage.
What would you advise me to do? Am I being irrational and unnecessarily dramatic about all this?
Thank you for reading and suffering through my English – which I sincerely apologize for. English isn’t my first or even my third language.
A faithful Reader
Dear Faithful Reader,
You stand astride a chasm between two worlds, with one foot in the East, and one foot in the West. The diverging cultural values of each world threaten to tear you in half.
In the East, (often though not always) loyalty to family, to clan, to culture and tradition tends to be emphasized over an individual’s responsibility to be true to her own conscience. In the West, (often though not always) the opposite is true. Individuals are encouraged to seek their own paths and to be true to the values and ideals that they thoughtfully choose, rather than those they unquestioningly inherit.
In both worlds, the pressures of social expectation vs. individuality are frequently in conflict. In both worlds, sometimes family loyalty wins out, and sometimes individual self-responsibility wins out. The only constant is that there are never ever any painless solutions to these conflicts, and often precious things are damaged or destroyed.
So I’m afraid that no matter what you do, in the words of Sixx: A.M., This is Gonna Hurt.
You’re going to have to make a choice. You were born and live in the West, so I advise you to choose to follow the values of the world in which you will probably live out your life.
The choice you must make is to whom does your life belong, and to whom does your father’s life belong. From my Western bias, I say that you and you alone own yours, and your father owns his.
You are not responsible for your father’s mental health. That is his responsibility. You are not “a part of what caused his condition,“ even if he attributes it to you. It is not your duty to keep him sane by denying yourself your own freedom, and putting your mental and physical health in jeopardy.
A series of failed suicide attempts begins to look more like he is trying to manipulate people around him rather than actually trying to end his life. This is blackmail, extortion, holding someone hostage by pointing a gun at himself instead of the hostage, and counting on guilt to bind her to his will.
This ploy was comically portrayed by Redd Foxx in the 1970’s television series “Sanford and Son,“ as a selfish old man who clutched at his chest, faking a heart attack whenever he didn’t get his way. Nobody fell for it except for his son, who usually gave in out of an inappropriate and undeserved sense of guilt. This tactic is only funny on TV. In real life, it’s ugly.
I suspect that your father realized the direction you were going, and that you “knew the price of freedom and were more than ready to pay it.” So he simply raised the price. It might not have been an entirely conscious decision on his part, but it’s a manipulation anyway.
It’s apparent that you intellectually know that your feelings of responsibility for him are misplaced, but that does not immediately relieve you of the emotional bind you are suffering. You must patiently use your rational thinking to coax yourself away from clinging to this false idea that it’s all your fault, your blame, and your duty to fix it. No, it isn’t.
As you say, somehow you ended up being the only child left. I suspect that your siblings have distanced themselves from him out of self preservation rather than selfishness. Your admirable compassion and caring have been exploited, and you have fallen into the role of being a parent for your father. He doesn’t need that. He needs to be an adult.
While I think you are irrationally taking blame for your father’s difficulties, I do not think that you are being overly dramatic in your concern about the possible violence and even death that you might face from your family or religious community when they learn of your atheism. I say “when” rather than “if” because in your present situation, it seems inevitable that it will come out.
To be clear, it would be sad if your father eventually killed himself, but that would be a choice he had made, and it seems that he would be trying to hurt others by his action. It would not be your fault. A far worse tragedy would be for a conscientious young person to live as a slave under such a tyranny, or to be killed by her family or zealous community members, because either one is a robbery of her life against her will.
You say that you can’t just move away because you’re “not allowed to move out before marriage,” but that was your original plan. You’re living in Europe, not the Middle East. You’re a citizen of that European country, and are bound and protected by its laws. If you have reached the age of adulthood, the only power that your family has over you is the power you willingly give to them. “Not allowed” is in your mind, and you can change your mind. Do not, do not give in to any marriage that will pull you deeper into this.
You need a long term escape plan and an alternative short term escape plan in case of emergency. In the long term plan, do whatever you must to start and complete your college education. That is your ticket to greater independence. In college, you will find supportive friends who share your views, and with whom you can vent your frustrations. Use the internet, carefully protecting your identity, to make connections with other ex-Muslims who will have particular insights and advice for you. You are not alone. Find your allies. In these ways you will better preserve your sanity. Finish college, start a career and move far away, perhaps to another European country. Do not live in or near any Muslim community, but assimilate into the generally secular European society. I’m sure there are complicating factors that I don’t understand, but you must think in terms of possibilities and break the spell of your hopeless/helpless thinking.
The alternative short term escape plan, prepared before you need it, will be if your atheism is fully revealed and your physical well-being or life is in jeopardy, or if you are too strongly pressured to marry someone who will be a barrier to your freedom. Dust off your original escape plan and use some of your ideas. You will need money secretly set aside, contacts who will help to shelter you yet not exploit you, and means of transportation, all available at a moment’s notice. It will be difficult, but you will be alive and your life will still be your own.
I think what you have needed is for someone to give you permission to take care of yourself and to act in your own best interests. I have no particular authority to give you such permission, yet I do so anyway, and I hope that many others will too. You have the right to live your own life. Self-respect is not the same as selfishness. You are a brave, intelligent, caring and worthy person, and you deserve to be able to live according to your own principles. With the right combination of patience and courage, you can. Plan for it, work for it, fight for it, and run for it if you must. A challenging life of freedom is preferable to a predictable life of servitude. My very best wishes for your success. Please keep us informed of your progress.