37

Dark Comedy

Ben Hoja (United States)

Melancholy is the blackest of the four humors-and the most incisive. While I enjoy on occasion phlegm-inspired gross-out-comedies and Three Stooges choler, mockery of absurdity is the bile closest to my heart. But despite my delectation of the satirical arts, I've never had the talent to do stand-up. If I did, Allahu 'alien' where my material would come from. "Have you heard the one about the `halfJew, half-Catholic' nerd boy who `reverted' to Sunni Islam at age sixteen?"

The one joke without a punchline still manages to deliver a Wrestle-monomania smackdown to any notion of self-respect. I grapple with the former Johnnie Taliban2 within, and imagine the relief of detachment-if it had only been some other schmuck pinned to the mat. But no, honest shahadah,3 it was I who in the first days of the World Wide Web, in the licentious domain of the Great Shaytan.us,4 was "muslimed" Abdul-Something-or-Another.

No, there wasn't a fetching Muslimah damsel to chase. No, I wasn't imprisoned with two scary bunkmates in a high-security penitentiary. No, I wasn't such a rabid Yusuf Islam aka Cat Stevens fan that I felt the need to join him. "On the Road to Find Out" there is only one tune to hum. Rather, it was a matter of abnormal endocrinology-an overactive absurdity gland. I had all the presenting symptoms: guilt by the gallon, worm-worthiness, intolerance of all divergent opinions, anhedonistic, yet, by the desires of adolescence, a hypocrite.

As I examine the etiology of my hyperreligious malady now, I realize the operation of hindsight bias-the past molded by present beliefs. My motivations for conversion were vintage Homo sapiens, as they were for apostasy. Not all the reasons or personal qualities that led me to Islam were diabolical, though the stern and hateful side found easy expression.

The negative pallor comes from the recognition that the sellers of eternal sanguinity make promises incommensurate with observed results. In Sufi terms, Islam seeks to have us pull the wool over our own eyes, condemning us to servile sheep-hoods The wool weaves the illusion that all rays of goodness emanate from the heavenly herder, and that if we don't find that promised goodness the actual problem is that we are black sheep, shorn of any worth (IV.79). That I assented to Islam as the all-encompassing cure-all leads me to recount the litany of vulnerabilities that left me all too ready to be fleeced, and if the letter of the hadith were to be implemented-slaughtered.'

As I ponder retrospectively how I could have fooled myself, I see there were no major precipitators until junior high. In elementary school, I associated Catholicism, the religion of my upbringing, with absolute boredom. On one occasion, I hid my shoes in my clothes hamper to avoid going to the doldrums of Sunday mass, my mom shouting to high heaven before finally acceding. By way of contrast, during that time I had a massive surge of enthusiasm for science: marine biology, model rocketry, computer programming, and robotics. I would spend my time in catechism classes sketching sharks and F-16 fighter jets, wishing I could dispense with the exercise book telling me how to behave and go back home, where I was taking apart an old Atari game system for the robot that I was going to tell how to behave. I didn't think about God and its accompaniments to any degree, except on the handful of occasions that I observed Judaism.

Although my dad hadn't practiced Judaism since he was a kid (he stopped going to the synagogue when a rabbi wouldn't answer him who Cain went to live with in exile if Adam and Eve indeed were the first people on Earth), he did arrange it so that I experienced some of its holidays and passages. The foreignness of the synagogue, the Torah scrolls, and the Hebrew language all contributed to me perceiving Judaism as more interesting (and by virtue of that alone superior to Catholicism). My neighborhood friend's family was Jewish, and I attended a Passover Seder at their house, disliking the matzah-ball-soup but not minding the prizes from the hide-the-matzah-game.I also went to my friend's sister's bat mitzvah, but didn't gain much from the experience, as I realized midway that I had worn pants with a broken zipper and had to hope no one would notice my fly being open, and my futile attempts to zip the unzipable. Though I had only brief "exposure" to Judaism, I've come across a school paper from that time where I identified myself as, of all things, a "CathJew."

During junior high, this dual designation began to raise insoluble questions. How could both religions be correct? How could a person combine them? Although it wasn't yet anything close to an obsessive quandary, I was also confronted with a greater awareness that there were even more religions than Catholicism and Judaism. A girl I flirted with was Buddhist. In a small extracurricular group for an interscholastic creative competition, a Protestant had disparaging things to say about Judaism, Catholicism, and Mormonism. Islam, however, did not register. My only memory of it was when a social studies teacher gave a bare, imprecise outline of Muhammad's life and influences, explaining that he came into contact with Jewish and Christian ideas through his caravan travels.

But it was in other classes that I would learn a less impersonal lesson-the price for intellectualism. My math teacher perhaps meant well by praising me in front of the whole class for solving the extra-credit problem no one else solved, but the result was more ridicule and bullying. In other classes I likewise had the know-it-all audacity to raise my hand and provide answers, with just as beneficial results. My devotion to science (in writings from that era I foresaw attending MIT) was sufficient cause to be labeled forevermore as a dork, the preferred target for random abuse. Whereas in elementary school, on the rare occasions I ever got into an argument or fight, I'd fight right back (I played tackle football then-my nickname was "the Animal"), the ferocity and number of my opponents in junior high resigned me to avoidance, self-doubt, and alienation.

When an opportunity to flee from my tormentors came, I took it. I skipped the last year of junior high and hoped to start anew at an all-boys Catholic high school (yes, that desperate). Although in some measure switching to a parochial school from a public school reduced the amount of conflict, it did not eliminate it. For my first semester I benched football ("played" is not the appropriate verb). The many hours I spent in the weight room the summer before didn't overcome not having yet had a growth spurt. After being set upon anew by two rich, preppy, jock a-holes during the season, and having to deal with the same characters again when I tried lacrosse in the spring, I quit all sports.

The ease with which trifling troubles could make me yell "uncle" didn't stop with the pigskin and my thin skin. My first semester of high school, I got D's on a few grammar tests, "scraping by" with a B+ in English. No greater catastrophe. I quit my attempt to get perfect grades, disregarding how negligibly close I was to completing that goal. My hypersensitivity to perceived failure and the degree to which all humiliations replayed in a mental Mobius loop began to reach neurotic proportions.

Two humiliations suffice to explain in part why I didn't see anything to lose in the rigors of Islam. The summer before my freshman year, I went with my older brother to an amusement-at-my-expense-park where some of his friends were starring in a '50s musical theatre show held on a stage in a '50s-style diner. Unbeknownst to me, one of my brother's friends told one of his costars to select me from the audience as a dance partner during part of the show. That this costar also happened to be a cheerleader for a professional football team and the epitome of gorgeousness didn't magically impart knowledge of how to dance. A peck on the cheek from the lips of Venus at the end intermixed with the kiss of death felt by a thirteen-year-old at having just performed a dance best described as the John Ashcroft boogie in front of ninety people.x

Despite the anxiety it caused, when the first school dance of freshman year came, I vowed not to remain chicken of the funky chicken. Summoning a muja- heed's courage (and ever-present lust for booty), I asked a girl to dance. The dance floor was ours, as we gyrated and whirled and in general, "got down." So flashy were our moves that the sea of dancers parted to watch our acrobatic interpretation of "Kung-Fu Fighting," clapping with uproarious enthusiasm. Oh, wait a minute. I must've been thinking of the movies. Back in reality, where there was no chance I'd ever be mistaken for John Travolta, I left the cafeteria/disco inferno hall with the notion that if a bookie was placing odds on me finding a girlfriend, ten to one on one of the elderly priests haunting my school beating me to it.

Luckless in love, destined forevermore to be more celibate than the celibates, I had the further misfortune to be luckless in friendship. In my sophomore year my dad asked me whether I thought I needed to see a psychiatrist because of an certain Arabic numeral: sift-zero. I had no friends. I was upset that he mentioned it, since I was well aware it was true. I had acquaintances I would talk to on occasion, but mostly kept to myself, never hanging out with anyone on the weekends. I didn't want to frame it in psychological terms, because I had started framing it in religious ones. I tried to pretend loneliness was solitude.

My religiomania sprung from unrelenting introspective reflection, free from the corrective of having friends who might challenge my assumptions and force me to reconsider my beliefs. Since my parents could not afford to pay full tuition, I had to take part in work-study. My first year, I was assigned to clean the school chapel. I enjoyed it because the stained glass and tranquility put me in a reflective cast of mind. On one of those occasions I prayed to find out who God was. Although I tried to take Catholicism seriously briefly during that time-taking Communion and reading all of the New Testament-the question of which religion might be true lingered. A less presumptive question I pushed aside: Is there a true religion? I took for granted that atheism was meaningless, and that if it were true, all that would follow would be to kill oneself.

It was terribly ironic that in seeking only religious alternatives, I sought to kill myself-at least metaphorically speaking. I was all too willing to believe that I needed to be destroyed and remolded in the forge of an attested, ancient truth. The panoply of interests that had previously sustained some self-confidence withered as I became obsessed with excising the reject within-the gods infallibly and invariably concurring with my peers in their rejection. The notion that there was something fundamentally wrong with me found easy company with the notion that something was fundamentally wrong with the world. I resented the effortless enjoyment of life I witnessed from afar: the hypocrisy of classmates who read from the Apostolic Letters during Wednesday mass and bragged about their weekend beer runs and "home runs" on Mondays. If it turned out that American society was corrupt and needed to be razed, all the better the rationalizations for that resentment.

Throwing around counterfactuals-what ifs-I thoroughly believe that any number of different cultic ideologies could've channeled my resentment and selfloathing. For a year or so I was a regular viewer of a radical, anti-abortion Protestant television talk show that favored replacing the government with a theocracy and Mosaic punishments. That the ideology of my discontent happened to be Islam, and not neo-Puritanism, was virtue of my participation in Model United Nations (MUN), a competition where teams represent nations at mock assemblies and councils. Having given up sports, I tried MUN my sophomore year, representing Syria at a couple of tournaments. In the midst of reading about Syria, I also began to read the Koran and visit Islamic sites on the Web.

Though, true to fashion, I eventually quit MUN because I was petrified of speaking in front of large groups of people, my reading didn't cease, but redoubled, as I checked out large portions of the Islam section at the city library. As I had grown skeptical of the Catholic Church by learning more about its less-thanholy history and, through doubts about dogma like transubstantiation, I became particularly interested in the Muslim polemics that contrasted Islam to its predecessor religions. Ditties on the irrationality of the trinity, and the lack of priesthood were quite enough-in a short time, Islam became the victor. The strange aspect of this acceptance was that I rarely felt inspired by the Koran, the ad naseum repetition and the disconnectedness of verses were apparent even then. The immemorial cliche that a person must read the Koran in Arabic to capture the unearthly beauty was enough to quiet the literary critic for a time. The veil of language and distance concealed hopes that the world could be as simple as the monotheist formulae would have it. Like foreign Judaism, the even more foreign Islam could transcend detailed questioning so long as it kept a due romanticizing distance. Even after the rites of faith became old kufi,9 the eventuality of questioning could be deferred by deference to the parallel universe where true religion was practiced, free from the blatant defects of earthly praxis and interpretation.

Soon after I clung to Islam, the distance began to ebb, and the parallel universe no sooner had to be invented. I had never met a Muslim until my sophomore year. The first words a Muslim ever spoke to me were while I was in the lunch line, "Hoja, why do you always have a stick up your ass?!" "Najmuddeen" was a junior then, who knew of me from Model United Nations. Granted, Najmuddeen told the truth, though I'm not certain what precisely prompted him to say it, as I'd never said a word to him before, but he did so in a manner I thought belying his acculturation to the West. Despite the put-down, I did eventually broach the topic of Islam and had a few forgettable conversations at lunchtime and study period about it.

There wasn't any charismatic figure to brain-wudui10 me, nor any Muslim of deep piety to inspire me. I didn't meet any more Muslims until midway through my junior year, when I outright converted to Islam. In the interim, to a few fellow students I mentioned my intention to convert to Islam when I went to college. They had varying reactions if they didn't have polygamy jokes on tap, from the hypertolerant liberal atheist who was supportive and thought religion had the power to promote good works to the nominal Christian who never tired of mentioning the brutality begot in the name of Islam, such as the suicide teen mine clearers in the Iran-Iraq war. To the latter I had only my aforementioned multi- verse theory, that on a parallel earth there is an Islamic utopia, and the rhetorical strategy of to quoque."

Nearing the end of my sophomore year, the Oklahoma City bombing bolstered my view that Americans were unjustly biased against Islam. The day of the bombing, when it was unknown who did it, I had the experience of being told repeatedly, in sarcastic tones, "Good job. Good job. Way to go Ben." A day or two later, I spoke to Najmuddeen, asking if the local mosque was okay and expressing the hope that whoever committed the bombing would get strung up. He said it was okay, that it had last been vandalized during the Gulf War. When the primary suspects turned out to be white Americans, I saw it as a rebuke to charging Muslims with collective guilt whenever a pack of nutcases decided to use American targets for demolition practice (and then charged America with collective guilt for their assignation of blame).

Influenced by Muslim and leftist critiques of the West, I increasingly viewed Americans as caring only for their own tragedies, rather than having a broader circle of concern for all humans. I wrote an unpublished editorial at that time asking whether Americans were in a better position to understand the situation of the Bosnians and the Rwandans after being interrupted for a moment from pax Americana. Taking the sweeping thesis that Americans view non-Westerners as subhuman one step further, I began to feel the American government was responsible for inflicting massive tragedies throughout its history, from the genocide of Native Americans to the Vietnam debacle. Although I didn't learn of Noam Chomsky until I went to college, I read a few like-minded leftist activists such as former attorney general Ramsey Clark, who wrote a book that particularly excited my indignation: The Fire This Time: U.S. Crimes in the Gulf 2 Among the book's claims were that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie gave a free hand to Saddam Hussein to resolve Iraq's financial and territorial disputes with Kuwait a few days before the invasion, the Pentagon overstated use of "smart" weaponry, and the seldom-mentioned civilian casualties were astronomic.

The practical effect of my disgust at the American government was that I harbored revolutionary fantasies that for the most part remained misshapen and ill defined, but added to my already opinionated and disputative nature. My first published letter to the editorial page of the city paper my sophomore year was a pro-life tirade in response to a feminist's column. The first letter I drafted relating to Islam corresponded to the eve of my "reversion," galvanized by a national basketball controversy involving a Muslim Denver Nuggets player and a question of allegiance.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, fka Chris Jackson, refused to stand for the national anthem, contravening NBA league rules. When it became known, I was among the very few supporters of his position, as the "Love It or Leave It" crowd skewered him in the newspapers and on talk radio. In a letter to the editor and a call to a talk radio station, I expressed the view that a Muslim would be committing shirk, the worst possible sin, by paying reverence to a symbolic idol. i " I seconded Abdul- Rauf's comments that the flag represented oppression, and opined that nationalism had led to most bloody century in history. When Abdul-Rauf eventually capitulated to the threat of suspension and the potential loss of income, I had to acknowledge that there was humor in complaining of societal oppression while making millions. But to me, it was non sequitur humor, as I saw as the primary oppression that which the United States exerted on poor-to-moderate-income countries, where the Cold War had lead to Machiavellian dealings, such as using Iraq in the 1980s to bludgeon Iran. The main domestic tyranny I saw was Roe v. Wade, although the Muslim positions on the matter were less decisively "pro-life" than the Catholic position (Abdul-Rauf probably had different tyranny in mind).

Amid the fallout from the Abdul-Rauf affair, Najmuddeen's mosque decided to have an open house. My dad, perhaps having misread "How to Tell if Your Teenager Has Become a Muslim Radical," was the one who suggested going to it, to what end I'm not sure. I hadn't gotten my driver's license yet, and was Oberinhibited in experiencing new situations and people, even if it was Allah's happening hangout. If I hadn't gone to that open house, my phobia of new surroundings might not have dissipated, and I might have remained an ummah-less Muslim until finding another obsession. But a shoeless tour of the facility by a behejabed high school girl, followed by Arab desserts and refreshments, da'wa brochures, 14 and a video playing in the background about the scientific miracle of the Koran quieted my unease.

As soon as I got my driver's license, I heeded the pressure tactics of the da'wa literature that warned that you could die at any time, so you had better propel yourself into the arms of the mother ummah.15 I told Najmuddeen of my intention, and he arranged so that I might meet a scholar sheik he knew at a scheduled time. Next I told my dad. He objected. He repeated the truism that it was possible to be a good person no matter what the religion, but said he didn't think I was in a state of mind to have discretion. I said that a person ought to practice what he believes, and not let societal pressure dissuade him from what he thinks is right (if he possessed the true religion, that is). He asked me to wait, not to rush into something I might regret: "There's no reason to hurry." I said that I had been studying Islam for more than a year, and that I had read more about religion than most people do in their entire lives. My dad also wanted me to speak with my mom about my conversion, as she was already upset that I had avoided confirmation as a Catholic. I refused. I wanted him to tell her, rather than tell her directly. Ultimately, my dad didn't try to stop me through coercion, though he told me I was making a mistake.

Sadly, I didn't have flashing green lights and a takbir'6-droning-megaphone to put on my car as I drove on the way to take my emergency shahadah. As I drove up the mosque's driveway, I saw Najmuddeen up front, dressed in a shawar qamees. We went inside and he showed me to the footbath and taught me to perform wudu'. We then went in to the musallah'7 where a few Muslims had gathered around the sheik for a class. Once the class was finished the sheik gave an overview of the ageedah's of Islam, and asked if I had questions. I had two. I asked about halaal" food-if it was permissible to eat meat at American restaurants-and posed a rather tougher question about Islam's position on predestination and free will. I only remember the gist of the sheik's answers. His answer to the second question was confusing and perhaps a bit contradictory. More important, my stomach protested against his answer to the first. But if kaafir-burgers had to be sacrificed for the true religion, so be it. Ashhaduanlailahaillallahwa- muhammad-rasulullah.21

Soon after the preliminary salaams and the welcomes, I prayed for the first time in congregation, already having learned the basics of salat from a free book on practicing Islam, courtesy of good of King Fahd and his merry band of Wahabbis. My emotion, though guarded as usual by my ever-stoic face, mixed excitement at possibly annihilating Ben Hoja with discomfort at having to meet so many people. Since I'm probably listed in the Guinness Book as possessor of the world's biggest personal bubble, I was also put off by the manner some welcomed me, with a hug. From the first day there was a process of adjusting to a subculture with customs sometimes diametrically opposite to that of the American culture I was accustomed to.

A few of my new "brothers" offered brief words of advice, perhaps some in anticipation of adjustment to minutiae like eating with one's right hand sans fork. The bromide that affords me the biggest groan today, probably because I don't recall the exact wording: "Remember, Allah has made Islam easy." Certainly elements of Islam were easy, but in many respects, particularly when it bent human nature, it was anything but. With the initial burst of convert momentum, I could give away my devil music to my brother and my CD player to my parents. I could give 2.5 percent of my wealth to noble Muslim charities (only to find years later that one of the them had its assets frozen after September I 1 for terrorist ties). I could give up baloney for its metaphysical equivalent. But give up movies? Television'? Glances at beautiful kaafira women alternating with the Koran-mandated look-away? My austerities were lopsided and inconsistent from the start.

I couldn't consider human appreciation for beauty, art, music, and bodily function humor as an implacable foe in my quest to abolish enjoyment of lifeuh, I mean to follow the path of the Prophet sal Allahu alaihi was salaam. The party line was that Islam merely frees that appreciation from the taint of disobedience. As the iconoclast who destroyed the pencil-and-ink sketches that brought pride when I created them in art class, I was following two directives: the prohibition in the hadith of creating images of living beings, and my personal directive of abolishing Ben Hoja. I sought to purify myself from the taint of my personal jahiliv.va,2' even if much of what I did seems now about as rational and beneficial as the Taliban ban on kite flying. Living among the kufaar hordes, I had a ready-made excuse when I inevitability couldn't imitate the Rasulullah to the nth degree: "I'm surrounded!"

I didn't discuss the travails of "Learning to be a Super-Wali22 in 30 Days" with Najmuddeen, but rather with compatriots who had similarly tried to slough off past selves. After the Asr afternoon prayer at the mosque one day, two brothers, one an American convert in his midtwenties, the other a slightly older North African "born-again" repenting from his libertine days of wine and women, introduced themselves. After learning I was a convert, they took upon themselves the role of mentorship during my remaining year and a half in high school: giving me rides to the mosque, inviting me to meals, and taking me to hear speakers on Islam.

Our conversations during those occasions would drift from the ever-important sunnah of growing a beard to discussing how to annex America to Dar-ulIslam, the realm of Islam. "Mahdi," the American convert, related his experience of his family rejecting his conversion, while telling me that my family's willingness to accept my conversion meant that they were prime recruiting material for the deen. Mahdi thought I had the potential to study abroad and become a Muslim scholar, so he encouraged such a course.23 "All Americans would become Muslims if only they had ten good Muslim scholars to teach the faith correctly." My mentors encouraged me to adopt visible signs of Islam, stating that it aided da'wa and was sunnah to distinguish oneself from the unbelievers in appearance. To this end, "'Abd-us-salaam," the North African, gave me a white kufi.

The day after the Dhahran bombing of a U.S. airbase, I remember wearing the kufi on the bus to downtown to visit 'Abd-us-salaam and Mahdi at the Oriental rug shop they managed, self-consciously wondering if anyone was staring. Then it hit me. Whenever I wore a kufi in public, most non-Muslims would think it was a yarmulke. Good thing the confusion was limited to them, because as I became more familiarized with the masjid and its inhabitants, there were occasions when I was confronted with anti-Semitism that made me uncomfortable: e.g., finding a radical publication in the masjid's foyer containing cockamamie theories equivalent to or perhaps derived from a white supremacist's ranting on "Zionist-occupied government," and several times hearing less than flattering remarks about the Yahood during Friday khutbah sermons or during social occa- sions.`4 Yet at the same time I was bothered by what was barely concealed, I harbored indignation at Zionism, buying into the theory that defensive military action against Israel was justified because it was a colonial oppressor (while rejecting suicide bombers on the Islamic grounds that it was an attack against civilians and a suicidal act).

When I spoke with Mahdi and 'Abdus-salaam that day, lounging around rugs more expensive than my car, I asked them what they thought about the killing of American military personnel in Saudi Arabia. Mahdi the hajji gave the Allahu Akbar cheer in so many words-he felt it was a justified military attack. 'Abdus- salaam demurred in his thick accent, "No brother, you gotta-to try to show them Islam." On previous occasions, Mahdi expressed the desire to kill one of the munafeeq hypocrite autocrats ruling in the Muslim world, even if-or perhaps because-it would give him martyrdom. In spite of the crazed fanatic you may imagine, Mahdi was on the whole personable and above average in intelligence. I didn't see a remote chance for his rhetoric to be translated into action, because he was saddled with a wife and baby and never came across as a military or gun nut. But between the two choices offered by 'Abdus-salaam and Mahdi, I thought that Mahdi had the more correct Islamic interpretation, if one accepted the scapegoat premise that the U.S. government was the force of oppression responsible for most of the miserable state of the Muslim world. At the same time, my conscience quibbled with the thought that foot soldiers should perish for the sins of the generals. I questioned my consistency on the morality and immorality of violence: How could I think the slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops (having perhaps more hatred for Saddam Hussein than any American patriot) was immoral and then turn around and say that a sneak attack in an undeclared war against presumably low-level American airmen was any more moral?

Thankfully, I was not so completely impressionable or wholly convinced that I lapped up every extremist belief that came my way. Not that my armchair extremism didn't have jagged edges. I vacillated on the question of how best to deal with ash- Shavtan al-Akbar, while having little compunction in siding with the Arabs on ash- Shavtan al-Asghar. I floated the idea of an American Islamic party, to promote Islamic principles of governance, rather than envisioning any military confrontation with the United States. While formulating the party platform I had the problem of selecting model examples for Islamic principles. The "Islamophobic" American news media cunningly managed to hide the success stories of the modern Islamist project. Instead, they would publish stories about barbarian buttheads clamoring for legalized female genital mutilation in Egypt, slashing throats in Algeria, eye gouging in Afghanistan, and engaging in modern-day slavery in Africa.

"Culture not religion ... un-Islamic ... Allah will punish the unjust...." I could explain away some of the nauseating injustices done in Islam's name and just plain ignore how the sexual strictures of Islam contributed in part to the continuation of pre-Islamic customs like clitoridectomy. But then there were some cases where I would know the direct origin of the justifications: the Koran and Sunnah, the way of life of the supposed exemplar of humanity. In a da'waganda brochure on the perfect criminal justice of Islam, a Dr. Islam Akbar or a Mrs. Muslimah Kamela could spin whatever rationalization they wanted for slicing off hands and feet, and then proclaim such mutilation to be a necessary step in achieving a crime-free Muslim utopia. Though I could understand that stealing would have a greater detrimental influence in a society where each of its members struggles to obtain his basic needs, limb chopping didn't seem all that sensible to import to the West. A person doesn't face starvation if a crook makes off with an expensive home entertainment system, he faces a missed Seinfeld rerun. And yet the penalty for theft was just the tip of the sand dune. There were plenty more tricky questions in store for my conscience to contend with, if I didn't bury them in the sands of denial. I could not accept without lingering repugnance many of the teachings of the ahadith, such as the de facto permissibility of raping enemy women captured by Muslim forces in ajihad.25

Left to my own devices to defend the indefensible, I think now that I would have left Islam within a few short months, if it weren't for the social reinforcement of my new "brothers and sisters" and the adversarial feedback that my lessthan-conciliatory remarks generated at school. If I were going to be voted "most likely to blow up a large building" in the yearbook, I might as well oblige by demolishing the perversions of Christianity and the fascism of the American government. I needed an intellectual distraction, because one surety of an American convert to Islam is that both non-Muslims and Muslims will ask him to explain his reasons for conversion. To Muslims, my usual answer was, "It just made sense to me," with a tinge of discomfort at not being able to expound upon those reasons to the extent that the Dalai Lama would convert to Islam upon hearing them. To non-Muslims, I parroted the latest astounding proofs peddled by da'wagan- dists like Ahmed Deedat and Maurice Baucaille: "Muhammad is mentioned right there in the very Bible the Jews and Christians tampered with!" "The Koran coincides perfectly with science, whereas the Bible is flush full of errors. The Koran contains the blueprint for cold fusion, interstellar space travel, and the Pet Rock! The mother of the books, the mother of invention."

Justifying belief in Islam, whether to myself or others, made me aware of the doubt that the Koran denies just a few ayaat into its pages: "This is the Book; In it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah" (11.2). Just a month after my conversion, I was again in the Islam section of the library, when I spotted a new addition to the collection: Why I Am Not a Muslim.21 Under the premise that Islam and reality could not contradict and that any opponent of Islam could be shown to be factually or interpretively incorrect, I checked out the book. I didn't finish half of it. I remember being upset for a good while, half-wondering if I had made a mistake in converting to what might be a palpable lie. Not to be deterred, I searched the Internet for an antidote to soothe the inner zealot, which came in the guise of a review by an academically credentialed American convert who dismissed the book in a largely ad hominem attack as the work of a bitter exMuslim relying upon bigoted orientalists. But in my searches of the Internet I found that Shavtaan the accursed had yet more fronts from which to lead astray, such as a list of Koranic contradictions on a Christian missionary Web site. I created a Web site to counter the missionaries via the "cut 'n' paste" Sunnah,2' but in the end I just slipped into the lazy logic of an intellectually defeated zealot. The missionaries were just evil or full of anti-Muslim hatred-and saying so was enough of a refutation.

As I was nearing the end of high school, sifting through stacks of college brochures, I was also considering what career I wanted. My favorite subject in high school was biology, so I envisioned myself as a research biologist of some variety. The more I read about Muslim reactions to the theory of evolution, the more I envisioned myself making a career out of reconciling science with Islam. Though I never fully doubted evolution, the Sunni Muslim views on the subject that I came across usually repudiated it. On one Web site of a Muslim association at a British university, the webmaster had posted wholesale a series of antievolution articles written by a Christian creationist. When I researched it further, the only article I found suggesting the complementary nature of human evolution and Islam was written by a member of the Ahmadiyya, a "heretical" sect.

I was capable of my own heresies. Writing my college application essay, I expressed the naive Mutazili hope that my philosophy (science) and religion could be reconciled. Responding to a critic I referenced who said that Islam had not reconciled with the theory of evolution, I went into my trademark style of tirade:

[I]t would be hilarious if this stupid 17 year old actually figured out that there are very interesting statements in the Qur'an which talk about Allah being able to create his creatures in whatever form Allah wishes (like dinosaurs, aliens, jinn, monerans, whatever). It would also be a very comical occasion if this same 17 year old figured out that Adam (`alai his salaam) and Eve might have just been the first two homo sapiens to have been given free will and human souls. Another fascinating event would be if this same 17 year old decided to be open to many different theories of evolution over the past few billion years rather than just blindly accepting natural selection as the only mechanism for it.

Needless to say, I sometimes wonder if the admissions committee admitted me for the sheer entertainment value of the kook theories they figured I might spout on campus. "We have to let him in, Dr. Usuli needs a lab assistant to help with the Genii (Jinn) Genome Project!" Alas, unfortunately I cannot say today that I am on the verge of perfecting a Genii cloning technique, nor have I discovered the fossilized remains of a rapacious kafirsaurus or mushrikodactyl through a dig funded by the Islamic Paleontology Association.2s My cryptozoology/parapsychology career was cut short soon after I started my freshman year.

I had decided to go to a private out-of-state university based on my usual decision-making criterion-the relative level of anxiety it provoked. I had already hung out with some members of the Muslim Students Association during a preview weekend, and from that experience I was ecstatic about meeting Muslim thinkers my own age. When I came to the university, I largely forgot about Mahdi and `Abdus-salaam and the handful of other, mostly older Muslims I had met. I simply did not feel any deep friendship, though I had spent a great deal of time with them. I was also annoyed at Mahdi for repeatedly pointing out before I left that it would be difficult for me to afford the university I had selected while avoiding usury: "It must be tough." I had difficulty thinking of any other options that I could find acceptable, and so contrary to the mandates of the Koran I went ahead and took out the loans I needed to be able to go to school. When I saw the Mercedes and Audis of some of my fellow Muslim students, I tried to beg an exemption from Allah on the grounds that I didn't think the best education should be limited to the children of doctors or millionaires.

Legitimate or not, I started with the intention of studying neurobiology fi- sabil-lillah, only to find out within a week I didn't have the stomach or the brains for the level of work demanded in my science and math classes. I changed my major to indecision, all the while redoubling my efforts in my first-year Arabic class, which I already had a leg up on because I had learned the alphabet and some rudimentary grammar on my own during high school. My pronunciation of Arabic could only get better; once when I tried to speak Arabic in full guttural glory back home, an Algerian "brother" laughed in my face and told me I sounded like Hitler. By the end of my freshman year, I could understand patches of the Friday khutbah in Arabic, and decipher the meaning of portions of the Koran. My fitful efforts to download the entire Koran into my brain, however, met with meager success, as I found it dull to read the same ayaat over and over again. Rather than focus on rote memorization, I believed it more important to understand what I was reading.

Except maybe for al-'arabiyya, schooling was secondary in importance to me in comparison to the friends I made. Although I realize it would be a relatively bland experience for those who aren't social retards, for the first time in my teenage life I had what would be considered a halfway normal social life of going out to restaurants and movies with a circle of friends on the weekends. Sure, if our iftar parties ever got wild 'n' crazy, it'd be because we'd chugged kegs of Mountain Dew. And if we got to the part in the R-rated movie where the actress flashed her breasts, we might avert our eyes and say "Aghstafirullah," or, if we were a second too late, "Subhana Allah."29 But for an outwardly stolid hermit, the idea of having simple fun was sheer wahy. It was a long-overdue revelation and a relief that life could be lived without needing to assign a purpose or goal to every action beyond enjoyment.

Despite this discovery, my rigid fixation on academic success, coupled with an inability to adapt intelligently to college life, began to wear on my health and mental well-being. I did not adequately prepare to handle the stress of going to one of the toughest universities in the nation by taking practical measures such as exercising regularly or becoming organized. I just thought it would be another of Allah's tests that I'd endure. Each new week, my ego took a flogging at the whip of tests, homework, TAs, and the discussion groups where every time I spoke up, I embarrassed myself (the whipping perhaps a penalty from Allah-a result of his omniscient foreknowledge that I'd take to drink once I started to believe my qualifications and ambition were third-rate). My mood took a nosedive as my sleep schedule became chaotic and I consumed large amounts of sugar and caffeine. The rest of my diet consisted of what I like to call carbo-con-queso--all cheese and all carbohydrates, all the time. There was no halaal meat in the dorm cafeteria to give greater balance, so I pigged out whenever I went to a restaurant with halaal food in a manner kosher only for tipping the scales. Ramadan only made my situation worse, because I have a susceptibility to migraines and more often than not I would be in agony beyond a growling stomach right around the breaking of the fast.

In an attempt to relieve some of my stress, headaches, and fatigue, I downed plenty a bottle of ibuprofen. When things really seemed bad, I bowed down to take my tranquilizer. Though I had prayed all five prayers every day since I had become a Muslim, in times of greater distress, I would often pray the extra individual prayer after the congregational salat. Sometimes, I would pray to Mr. Al Lah for an hour or two in a solitary, quiet room, my forehead pressed against a prayer rug, tears welling in my eyes. Similar to the calming rituals of an individual with obsessive-compulsive disorder, my mind sought relief in prostrating before an unseen benefactor.

Though I prayed for world peace and the usual yada yada, I prayed with more fervor for a selfish object: "Allahumma, come on man, you owe me. Somehow make this non-Muslim woman that I spend every walking thought about turn out to be as great as I imagine, and then if you could bring her to Islam, and then I don't know, make her see past this exterior to fall madly in love with me, well, that'd be swell." Yes, I was then well on my way to becoming the expert on psychokinetic courtship that I am today. My expert analysis: believing in magic if you don't have the luxury of extroversion, money, or looks will make you go psychoor worse, look like a psycho-even if it turns out that the object of your wanton infatuation may not have even been a remotely good fit to begin with.

Grasping with greater recognition that what I did or I did not do then might have reverberations for the rest of my years, whether it be love, friendship, family, or career, near the end of my freshman year I was reexamining my aspirations and meditating upon the possible effects of my choices to date. I envisioned life if I followed the path of marrying the pious Muslimah. I followed the trail of stinky diapers, familial and financial responsibilities, indoctrination/ moral upbringing, and I saw at the end of this life I created a theological dilemma: Was it in any way moral to have children if there was a possibility that by existing they could go astray and suffer eternal torment? I was roaming hypothetical land, wondering if perhaps the only reason I would try to get the hookup that many of my friends anticipated for themselves was because I was too gutless to pursue who and what I wanted, feigning deep spiritual reasons for my cowardice.

In the summer before what was supposed to be my second year of college, grimness enveloped my vision. I came home broke, and very much needed to work and raise money. However much my parents pestered me, I could not summon the strength to find work. I slept as much as possible, often waking up each afternoon at one or two o'clock. When I couldn't be distracted by escapism, my waking thoughts were dominated by the emotional dilemmas my conversion to Islam generated. I pretended I was writing a roman a clef novel whose protagonist successfully navigated those very same dilemmas-only I couldn't figure out how. My family and the other non-Muslims I cared about were not going to convert to Islam by my giving them the Koran or sets of brochures proclaiming Islam's blanket superiority. I wasn't going to turn into a superhero, becoming the model son who, so the theory went, they would completely attribute to the influence of Islam. They appeared perfectly content with their religious beliefs, and I felt guilty about the lack of "live and let live" reciprocity inherent in shunning traditional family holidays like Christmas and Easter because of their Trinitarian roots.

One day during the summer, I was staying with relatives who lived a fair distance away on a farm. My mom was coming with my siblings to pick me up, but she was late, and various unpleasant scenarios entered my head as hours passed and we hadn't got a phone call, and I couldn't reach her cell phone. I watched cable with unease, until my aunt got a call from another of my aunts: "They've been in an accident, but they're okay." Our piece of crap American car crapped out right on the busy highway, and my mom couldn't pull over to the side of the road because of the volume and speed of traffic. They were in terror for a few moments, because they realized the traffic wasn't slowing behind them. A pickup truck slammed into the back bumper, pulverizing the trunk of the car and partially crunching the back seats. "Alhamdullilah," praise be to Allah, they all got by with minor scratches.

That night, staying in the farm's guest house, I began to face the issues I had tried to duck because they seemed to offer no satisfactory reconciliation with the Koran and Sunnah. I imagined the alternative scenario, if it had been not a pickup truck but a Mac truck. Was I to believe that for mouthing the Apostle's Creed, my own mother would burn in hellfire for eternity just because it says so in some revered fourteen-hundred-year-old book? That a humorless, woman-beating Taliban idiot pronounces the proper magic formula of "la ilaha illallah" and believes it, and Allah's ticket counter issues admittance to paradise? I could not accept belief in such a God. There's no crueler wager than Pascal's. None more stupid, either.

My practice of Islam began to degrade while I sought a gentler, more humane interpretation that would not condemn human beings to an eternity of torture. I associated an "out" for my predicament in becoming a Sufi, as I vaguely recalled some Sufis equating hell with a metaphorical place of purification that would eventually be free of inhabitants. The fatal flaw in this attempt at an interpretational shift was that not one second of the sanctified tortures described in the Koran would be remotely humane. The project was akin to the different bibles that have come out attempting to sanitize or make more palatable any sexism or retrograde ideas within their pages. The new, sanitized version of the Koran would simply have the parenthetical "metaphorically speaking, of course" suffixed to every iteration of threats of hellfire or inhumane temporal punishments like amputation and crucifixion.

My hermeneutic quest was preempted by a khutbah I heard that summer. When the imam made reference to the hadith that said the prophet Adam was sixty cubits tall, with no hint of suppressed amusement, a profane voice descended upon me: "This is all fucking absurd." It was absurd that I even had to tell myself after two and a half years that it was absurd. It was absurd that I would question my judgment of absurdity based on another tall tale that there was an invisible creature whose sole purpose of existing was to try whisper subliminal advertisements for evil.;0 It was absurd to waste untold hours seeking the profoundest wisdom in a brier patch of overrated scribbling that I would have to spend the rest of my life making excuses for thanks to its ethical and intellectual bankruptcy: "Oh you who believe! Beware. Shaytaan loves dominoes and houses of cards."

I never returned to that masjid or any masjid again. But indicative of why religion is so successful at persisting, despite my melancholy state, I still, incredibly, harbored hope that some heresy would save me from having to stare the universe straight in its nonface. Brand X Islam with superdeluxe stain-fighting action could still come to the rescue. Only problem: I couldn't think of a Brand X I could trust. The closest competition was the Submitters, a newfangled anti-hadith sect, but I had spotted back when I was a Sunni the trick behind the numerological shell games they liked to say proved the Koran's divine origin.

When I came back for my sophomore year, I couldn't concentrate very long on any academic task beyond the difficulty level of reading the funny pages. Instead of going to classes, some days I would sit on a park bench and imagine dying or killing myself. I knew from the first week that things could not continue as they were, but I was at a loss to do much of anything. It was no matter, as random events plotted my course. Little more than a month after I returned, I dropped out of college, dropped out of Islam, said my goodbyes, and skipped town.

My apostasy at first did not feel like in measure a liberation, but rather a betrayal of the community and a descent into nothingness. I felt extreme guilt at the hospitality I enjoyed and the friendships I had forged. I felt like my existence was a contagion and, in a reverse of the movie It's a Wonderful Life, that it would have been better for all involved that I never had lived. My delusion dissipated over time, as I realized I wasn't equally close to everyone in the community and that even if they were affected in the least, I hadn't met anyone as hypersensitive as me whose hurt would likely last for long, or who would be isolated in any way by my leaving. In a reflection of the absolutist thinking that helped propel me into zealotry in the first place, I felt if I had so much as inflicted an ounce of hurt on any human being, I merited a place in hell whether it existed or not.

Freedom from religion doesn't necessitate individual happiness or success anymore than a religion guarantees it. In the half decade since I cast Islam aside, my life as a whole hasn't metamorphosed drastically for the better. After a sequence of unsuccessful pill regimens and dealing with a series of three therapists and three psychiatrists, I've given up on mental-health experts. I keep melancholy at bay by lowering my ambition and stress levels. I pay homage to the reality of the physical mind by trying to get eight hours of sleep and exercising three times a week. I have a handful of friends, and those I see rarely. I am a recluse. The few dates I've gone on went nowhere, and I haven't even tried for a long while. I've never had a romantic relationship even though, or perhaps because, I idealize it to be one of the greatest goods. What could've been, if the "younguns" I observe at theaters and restaurants are any indication, the best of times is beyond half spent, and if I think about where I'm at, instead of watching cable, reading a book, or surfing the Internet, I sometimes think about making a final exeunt.

On the other hand, after half a decade of kufr, I have been able to analyze with greater candor what might be the causes of my despair. There is no prefabricated answer I have to accept, no "Don't pop a Prozac, just dream of the gardens of jannah. Your struggles are all a test. `Testing. 1. 2. 3. This is just a test."' Although, I've acknowledged it two or three times prior to this year, each time letting it drift from my attention, the primary contributor to my long-term melancholy is my avoidant personality. I say "could be," because there is a danger in treating fickle categories as immutable, rather than as a starting point to analyzing whether one's behavior patterns are self-detrimental. If my behavior didn't cause me or anyone else the degree of grief it has, then regardless of whether the psychiatrists had "thunk" a standardized label for it, that label would then be best ignored.

Although if you asked me in the days of iman why I was Muslim, I would give you the proximate causes for my conversion wrapped in layers of emotive homilies and specious argumentation, I have found the ultimate cause in my most pronounced deficit-I simply find it hard to relate to people. Eric Hoffer in the book The True Believer summed up the persistence of my religiomania well: "The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft ... take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless.";'

I see no greater confirmation of this aphorism than when I once declared my love of becoming an automaton, ruled exclusively by calcified dictates: "One aspect of Islam that I love is that it is not a compartmentalized religion. If you are a Muslim, you have to strive to be a Muslim twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in what you say, do, and think. Islam is not something that is secondary in life, but primary and central to the believers, the only reason for living."

Given these dour and embarrassing confessions, I must confess to the one salvation I gained by leaving Islam and religion-unconstrained laughter. Fear may have created the gods, but laughter can banish them. Not that Allah lacks a sense of humor. It's just that, speaking as a reviewer, Allah's dark sense of humor in the Koran was too sadistic for my taste. Sometimes I imagine that if Allah could perhaps tone down that overused Shar'iah routine, maybe relax a bit more on stage when the jokes on him or he's being heckled, trash all of his mean jokes on the kufaar and women, there would be more comedy in the world and less tragedy.

NOTES

1. Allahu `Alien-Allah knows (best). Corollary: people don't know jack squat.

2. The Californian Talib-John Walker Lindh

3. shahadah-witness/testimony, the first pillar of Islam, the act of saying "I bear witness there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger" in front of at least two Muslims. It's a remarkable feat; bearing witness to things you have no manner of witnessing.

4. Shavtan-Allah's fall guy, Satan.

5. "The answer of the Believers, when summoned to Allah and His Messenger, in order that He may judge between them, is no other than this: they say, `We hear and we obey': it is such as these that will attain felicity" (XXIV.51).

6. Some believermobile out there probably has "Islam is the solution" plastered on the bumper. If there were greater honesty, it would also append "Or else."

Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to 'Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn `Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's Apostle forbade it, saying, `Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire).' I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Apostle, `Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him."'

al-Bukhara, vol. 9, book 84, of Sahih (New Delhi: Kitab Bharan, 1987), Hadith no. 57, p. 45.

7. Afikomen

8. John Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general who considers dancing a sin.

9. Kufi-Muslim equivalent of a yarmulke. Old hat.

10. Wudu'-the ritual washing that purifies for prayer.

11. Tu quoque-you too. Nanny-nanny boo-boo.

12. Ramsey Clark, The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992).

13. shirk-in Islam, the sin of worshipping anything other than Allah, who still has his cosmic self-esteem issues to work out.

14. Da'wa-the call to Islam, Muslim proselytizing. I just picture a vendor at a sporting event, "Get your faith here, faith here, good in the here and hereafter! Just like Christianity, except better! Red hots! Avoid the red hots! Malcolm X, the slugger against injustice, endorses our fine, 100 percent pure product. Along with the countless millions rushing to revert to the fastest growing belief, you can too!" The vendor always waxes over the no-returns policy.

15. ummah-community. The Koran says that Muhammad's ummah is da' best ummah.

16. takbir-saying "Allahu Akbar!" Arabic for Allah is da' bomb.

17. musallah-place of prayer.

18. aqeedah-set of beliefs. What must be swallowed to gain entrance to Club Islam. The books. The prophets. The angels. The day of judgment. Burraq the flying horse.

19. halaal-permitted.

20. Arabic for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Polytheism is simply quite atrocious.

21. jahiliyya-the pre-Islamic days of ignorance, e.g., the ignorant American disbelievers going to the moon, curing polio, synthesizing antibiotics.

22. wali-Allah's buddy. Symptomatic of needing an imaginary friend at age sixteen.

23. I got the application for al-Azhar in Cairo, but never filled it out because the mangled English made me suspicious of the scholarly level of the institution.

24. One Muslim told me one reason he knew Islam was the truth was because Muslims never had a Holocaust. Perhaps he never heard of the Mongols. Apparently, it's off to mass-murderville if you're not in God's select group of favorites.

25. The Prophet doesn't condemn raping captive women, but rather casts disfavor on a primitive form of birth control!

Narrated Ibn Muhairiz: "I entered the Mosque and saw Abu Said Al-Khudri and sat beside him and asked him about Al-Azl (i.e., coitus interruptus). Abu Said said, `We went out with Allah's Apostle for the Ghazwa of Banu Al-Mustaliq and we received captives from among the Arab captives and we desired women and celibacy became hard on us and we loved to do coitus interruptus. So when we intended to do coitus interrupt us, we said, "How can we do coitus inter- ruptus before asking Allah's Apostle who is present among us?" We asked (him) about it and he said, "It is better for you not to do so, for if any soul (till the Day of Resurrection) is predestined to exist, it will exist." ' "

al-Bukhari, vol. 5, book 59, of Sahih (New Delhi: Kitab Bharan, 1987), Hadith no. 57, p. 317.

26. Ibn Warraq, Why 1 Am Not a Muslim (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995).

27. The number of small Muslim Web sites consisting largely of articles cut and pasted from other Muslim Web sites leads me to believe there is a hadith somewhere that goes like so: "Narrated Abu Huraira: `The Prophet, SAWS said that every true believer with AOL access should post a crappy Web site and cut and paste articles reminding of how great Islam is. Each digital jihad is greater in Allah's sight than a thousand years of fasting near the North Pole."'

28. Allah doesn't directly mention it in the Koran, but he threw the asteroid at the dino-sinners because they disobeyed their prophet Barney the Purple One `alaihis-salaam.

29. Aghstafirullah-forgive me Allah; Subhana Allah-glory be to Allah

30. On second thought, it's not totally implausible. Maybe Iblis is related to Joe Camel.

31. Eric Hoffer. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper Perennial Library, 2002), pp. 14-15.

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