I still stumble when someone asks me for my name.
“Nur” means “Light of God,” in Arabic. It’s a very Muslim name—in fact, one of the 99 names of Allah is Al-Nur.
It is also, apparently, an exceptionally hard name to pronounce. Growing up, I heard every variation of Nur that you could possibly configure. I would only try to correct someone once before resigning to the mispronunciation. Inwardly, I’d cringe at the fact that the person in front of me was being forced to try to pronounce such an ethnic name in the first place.
My middle name, I decided, was far easier—and less different sounding. So when I entered college, where nobody knew me, I embraced “Aliza.”
Choosing between my middle and my first name was about more than finding a non-confrontational way to achieve a proper pronunciation of my name—it was about choosing my American heritage over my Muslim one. “Nur” symbolized everything I hated, everything about myself that I wanted to renounce.
I hated how different it felt to come from a Muslim family. In school, when I met more conservative Muslims, who openly displayed their differences—by wearing the veil or publicly defending Islam—I became angry. Why do they have to draw attention to how Muslim they are? I’d think to myself. Why won’t they just act more American?
During my first years at college, I would deliberately keep my Muslim background to myself. If pressed, I would firmly displace my identity: “Well, my family is Muslim,” I’d say, “but I’m an atheist” or “I’m agnostic.”
I felt it was important to separate myself from the term Muslim because I didn’t want to be associated with the preconceived images and suspicions that it would invoke—things like, “why don’t you wear the veil?” or “Is it true that Muslim men and women aren’t allowed to touch each other unless they’re married?” Even a slight change in facial expression, the tiniest nervous gesture convinced me that they were judging me differently now.
I would feel angry that I was being constricted by a definition of Islam that didn’t reflect me or my beliefs. Claiming that I was an atheist was far easier than explaining that there were many facets and manifestations of being a Muslim. It wasn’t worth the effort to fight the monolith of extremism often presented by the media. I was still figuring out what I believed in, it certainly wasn’t my responsibility to try to make a case for Islam’s multifaceted existence. I didn’t want to defend a religion—and alienate the person with whom I was speaking—that I myself doubted.
Like any other religion, Islam is flawed. I have my own questions, my own spiritual identity to decipher—as many others do. But, growing up, the burden of fearful stereotypes meant that, consciously or not, I felt like I had to forsake my culture as well as my faith.
Because there is more to being Muslim than going to mosque. There is the strong sense of love and kinship. If I were to find any other member of my community while traveling anywhere in the world, I would be welcomed like family. Despite the strange, scary, and outright Islamophobic portrayals of Muslims I’ve seen on TV, my interactions with my community, and the Muslim community at large have been overwhelmingly positive.
I met some of my closest friends through mosque—people I’ve known since I was three years old. People with whom, regardless of where we’ve ended up, I know I’ll always share a connection.
I’m still working on this bizarre self-hatred that rises like bile when I see Muslim women wearing the veil, or Muslims taking time out of their day to pray. It scares me how much I’ve internalized the message that Muslims are a wildly fanatical people, and that I am an exception. I have to remind myself that freedom of religion extends to everyone, regardless of how different (or similar) the manifestations may be. I have to remind myself that no matter what society may think, most Muslims are not raging extremists; that the choice to wear a veil or pray is an individual right, one that doesn’t actually hurt anyone.
Now that I’ve moved back home, the choice of my name has reintroduced itself. Do I want to be “Aliza,” or do I want to be “Nur”? To be honest, I still don’t really know.
Nur is co-founder of Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. Nur is a freelance writer based in Seattle and enjoys writing, traveling, and collecting more books than she could read in a lifetime. Follow her on twitter at @nuralizal.