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Believers: Separating Faith From Culture

For many religious followers, faith and culture often blend together — to the point where the two can sometimes become indistinguishable. Faeiza Javed is a young Muslim woman who can relate to those who don’t understand her beliefs or culture. Because for a long time she didn’t either.

Growing up in West Valley, the daughter of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Faeiza Javed understandably felt a little out of place. This became especially apparent after 9/11. Javed, then just a fourth-grader, began hearing classmates at her elementary school criticizing Islam, the faith of her family.

"I found myself in the classroom standing up for Muslims. I don't even know what that meant but I knew the conversation in the classroom was negative and so 10-year-old me was sitting there trying to tell my classmates, 'No. Muslims aren't bad.'"

But this desire to set the record straight about Muslims didn’t mean she was totally on board with her beliefs.

“I thought I hated Islam until I was in my early twenties. I ran away from it. I didn't want to be Muslim and a lot of that is because I mixed the Pakistani culture and Islam together. This isn't to say all Pakistanis are this way but the environment that I grew up in was very misogynistic. Gender roles are very carved out. I had been groomed to get married since I was like 6 years old.”

This clashed with what she was learning at school. Her teachers were telling her she could grow up to do be anything she wanted — a lawyer, an engineer. But that wasn’t the message at home. In fact, in her teens Javed was arranged to be married. She didn’t go through with it and as she grew up, she began to shed some of her cultural worldview.

"Until I was about 20 I was a very confused individual. I can now honestly say that I am wholeheartedly, proudly Muslim and I embrace that completely. But I have really had to learn what it means to be Muslim, and I take classes every Sunday with a teacher in Jordan over Skype with. We go through fundamentals and basics because things get so muddled and I just want the authentic source."

Going to the source challenged a lot of her preconceived notions about Islam. She realized history told a different story. Especially when it comes to the Prophet Muhammad.

“I believe that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the first feminist. I say that because 1,400 years ago he basically made it mandatory for women to go get an education. It was mandatory for a girl’s dad and brothers to make sure she got an education. He allowed girls to have a say in whether or not they wanted to get married.”

As Javed sifted through the history of the Islamic faith, she realized a lot of what she didn’t like were relatively modern interpretations. She distilled her beliefs down to their roots, and for her it’s all about a direct connection to God.

This awakening led her and a few Muslim friends to create the Emerald Project. They organize public panels to combat Islamophobia. The conversations combine history with firsthand experiences of life as Muslim in America.

It's really about separating the culture from the religion ... being a young Muslim in America means something very different than being a Muslim in the Middle East.

"It's really about separating the culture from the religion. I feel like here in Utah, LDS people really resonate with that. When they come to our events they often say, ‘Oh, we thought you were talking about our culture and religion because we face the same sort of issues and stigmas' ... being a young Muslim in America means something very different than being a Muslim in the Middle East.”

Part of what it means to be Muslim in America is the same thing Javed has been learning since the fourth grade. She has to explain herself. She can’t expect others to understand her beliefs without some help.

"I think at the end of the day we forget that we all have this human connection. We begin to isolate ourselves. But I think if we really just looked at the human element, even putting the religion to the side for a minute, we'd be really shocked.”

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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