Living as a Muslim in a Secular Countryby Khairunnisa Rahim
Suryani Omar, Muslim Pro’s community manager, shares her experience living in the United States (US) for the past decade. She sheds light on the reason for her Transpacific move, the challenges she faces and the positive takeaways from being a Muslim in America.
Practicing My Faith in America
Coming from Singapore, where most Muslims adhere to the same school of thought or madhab, America is like a melting pot. It is a beautiful reminder that Islam is not a monolith and the diversity that is present in Virginia is a reflection of the global Muslim community. This diversity is our strength reminds Suryani of the following:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَـٰكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍۢ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَـٰكُمْ شُعُوبًۭا وَقَبَآئِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوٓا۟ ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتْقَىٰكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌۭ ١٣
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allāh is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allāh is Knowing and Aware.”
[Surah Al Hujurat, 49: 13]
The different cultures within the Muslim community is a testament to our rich heritage. Arab Muslims, Pakistani Muslims, Asian Muslims, African American Muslims, Latino Muslims, and Caucasian Muslims – breaking fast together during Ramadan, praying side by side, sharing stories, and serving the society as one.
Her Ramadan experience is never complete without enjoying Somali sambusas, Palestinian katayef (mini pancakes stuffed with cheese, cream, or nuts similar to other Arab cultures), Syrian ma’moul (date-filled or nut-filled cookies), Turkish locum and Pakistani kheer (rice pudding). Eid and Friday prayers at the mosques she attends are a colorful array of different traditional outfits from abayas, salwar kameez, thobes, diracs to Malay baju kurung and smart, crisp suits.
One memorable experience that Suryani encountered was stopping by a small mosque in Petersburg, Virginia for Friday prayers while she was on a family road trip. The congregation were elderly Muslims from the local Black American Muslim community. They welcomed her with immense warmth and kindness by giving salaam and chatting with her, even though she was a new visitor to the mosque.
Traveling The Rocky Road
Being a Malay/Muslim living in the US is definitely not easy. One of the most prominent challenges is the microaggressions that Suryani faces as a minority. For instance, people are surprised that she can speak English (“You speak such good English!”) and the cropping up of repeated assumptions that Muslims in the US are all immigrants from less developed countries or were forced to flee to the US due to war.
“I’m not just a minority, I’m a minority within a minority. I’ve had other Muslims who are surprised I can recite the Quran, or who assume I don’t know Islam. They don’t realize that Islam is also thriving outside of the Arab world,” shared Suryani.
However, that does not hinder Suryani from connecting with Muslims from other communities like the Uyghurs, Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Egyptians and Palestinians. Suryani feels inspired to see how hardworking these Muslims are as they hold all kinds of positions, from being neuroscientists to lecturers in academic institutions.
The two most commonly asked questions she gets are how tough is it to find a mosque and accessibility to halal food in Virginia. Fortunately, the diversity in Virginia means that there are many choices for halal food. Also, there is a mosque that is a ten-minute drive away from her place, and another “pop-up” prayer area for Ramadan and Friday prayers just five minutes by car. During Ramadan, she gets to choose which mosque to go to and experience the different environments.
It is also a common misconception that being a Muslim living in the US means that there is very little access to religious classes. This has been partly contributed by reductive portrayals of Muslims through mainstream media.
Stereotypes are a reminder that not enough stories are being told and reinforces the need for authentic Muslim narratives.
A piece of advice from Suryani: “Do it for the sake of Allah, make dua and make an effort to bring yourself closer to Him. We should be open to learning from other Muslim communities and other Muslims, without judging how they look or what they wear.”
In Singapore, it is easily accessible for Muslims to find a halal place to eat and a musollah to pray at. Meanwhile, in the US, Suryani has to make a conscious effort to bring her prayer mat to do her salah. Now, she prays everywhere and anywhere, the park, car park, or even the dressing room – her Muslim Pro app comes in handy to determine the direction of Makkah!
Despite all the hardships and differences, she faced since moving to the US, Suryani’s resilience and grit did not stop her from seeking more knowledge for the growth of her deen. In fact, moving to the US has helped her become a more open-minded Muslim! She currently takes Islamic studies, Arabic, and Tajwid classes with Ribaat Academic Institute (the learning arm of Rabata, a non-profit dedicated to promoting positive cultural change through creative educational experiences). Rabata helped her cope with the loneliness of being far from her family and guided her, which strengthens her confidence in practicing her faith.
As a Malay/Muslim living in the minority community in the US, one has a role to be part of the larger Muslim community. Do not be passive — instead, participate in the local organizations by giving your time and talent. Doing so would help tremendously in bridging the gap between being a minority and finding a community that one could identify with. It could be hard initially, but with the right footing compounded by the right intentions, the path to Allah would be wide open, InshaAllah. Seek knowledge continuously to affirm your identity and confidence to be unapologetically Muslim!
About Suryani Omar
Suryani moved to Utah, US a decade ago to join her Singaporean husband who has been working there since 2008. A few years after living in Utah, she had the opportunity to teach the Malay language and culture at a local university in the Beehive state. Her students were undergraduates who had served missions with the Latter Day Saints church. For Suryani, this was a great way towards sharing her culture and sparking conversations about Islam. Recently, her family of three moved to Virginia due to her husband’s work.
Edited by: Helmy Sa’at and Farida Haji