Anyone who has met Noreen will tell you that she is made of sunshine; a joyfully upbeat and energetic character, but someone who also demonstrates a great care and depth of thought. These latter qualities in particular are on full display as she discusses her approach to faith.
As we will learn, Noreen grew up in a Muslim household in America, but was exposed from an early age to a variety of faith communities. While she would be hesitant to subscribe to any particular tradition, she nonetheless holds them in high regard and retains her own relationship to the divine.
In this first half of our conversation, Noreen considers the impact of her mother’s beliefs and involvement in interfaith communities, unpacks the misguided views of Islam in the media, and takes us along on her own journey of discovering who God may be.
What role did Islam play in your life as you were growing up?
Islam was definitely tied to my immigrant identity, and how my mom tried to reconcile her Persian-Muslim background and culture with this new culture that she was living in and raising children in by herself. She moved to America in the late eighties when she was twenty-seven, and was married to my dad until around the early 2000s, but even when they were married she was basically functioning as a single parent.
She didn’t actually speak English when she came to America. Before marrying my dad she had no real intention of moving here, but he was an academic and had done all of his higher education here, so she moved with him and ended up going back to school and learning English during her Master’s degree, which is pretty incredible.
Islam basically served as a foundation for her to say: this is our family, these are our family’s values, and these are the foundations upon which you can build your character and your beliefs within this American culture you’re finding yourself in. And so, as with I think all people, religion functioned as a tool for morality. That’s something that my mom always made an association between: faith, and what it means to be a good person, a conscientious person, a mindful person with a growth mindset. It just speaks to how incredible my mom is as a person who really practices the essence of faith rather than seeing it as a divide between people.
To that point, growing up with my mom as a Muslim who really believed in the goodness of her faith, seeing it hijacked by terrorists following 9/11, and the misconceptions of Islam that were in our society, she felt really passionate about giving us, her kids, an interfaith education and exposure. So we were always at temples, mosques, synagogues, churches, and Islam interestingly became a vehicle for me to learn about other faiths and find my unique combination between my mother’s culture and background, and my own as a first-generation American.
You've spoken of Islam's link with your values and culture, and within a lot of religions, there will be the particular ways that beliefs are expressed through values and morality, but I guess at the heart of Islam is Allah. How did you and your family relate to the idea of the divine?
I’ve always grappled with that question, and that is actually one of the reasons why I have always had a really academic relationship with faith. I think my mom really believes in God and Allah and his role in the world. When she looks out to nature and the beautiful things around her, she proclaims, ‘This is God’s work!’ And when she sees her kids whom she worked tirelessly for and sacrificed for, it’s always: ‘God blessed me with them.’ Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Mom, take credit too, you raised us!’ And she’s like, ‘No, it’s all God.’ I think that shows her humility. But she does believe in the presence of God within the world, and that’s maybe where we differ a little bit.
I remember as a young child thinking, is God on vacation when he doesn’t intervene and awful things happen? I couldn’t rationalize how God would allow the things I was hearing about and seeing to take place; this is the whole question of theodicy. I still struggle with this so many years later. I think that because I was raised in Muslim family I do just automatically believe in the presence of a God, but I still don’t know if I think that God intervenes in the day to day, or as some philosophers postulate, that God set the world in motion and took a step back.
Going into medicine as well, when you really hope and pray for a miracle because there are limitations to medical and scientific interventions, you want a God to intervene! This is an existential question that I haven’t been able to resolve for myself, but my mom’s orientation to it is different than mine.
Did you ever have what felt like a close relationship with the divine? Or was that always clouded by questions of where he was and what he was doing?
Yes actually. I went to Sunday school, we had Qur’an studies growing up, and we learned how to pray five times a day. I was doing that as a young person in elementary school. One day I was praying, and I felt this warmth around me, and at that time as a young person I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this God? Hi God!’ It made me really keen to keep praying for a time.
I think that because I was raised in Muslim family I do just automatically believe in the presence of a God, but I still don’t know if I think that God intervenes in the day to day,
In Islam, praying is very meditative, it’s this time that you purposefully take outside of your day to connect with God to put everything else aside. As a young person in that moment I felt that, but I never felt anything like that after that point in time. I wouldn’t say that’s really related to my questioning, but I’ve always been curious about religion, and so my interest in studying it academically and personally has always come from a place of curiosity.
You mentioned that your mom was involved in interfaith groups and communities. What was your experience of an interfaith community?
There was this time where my mom said, ‘Noreen, we’re going to a synagogue to learn more about our Jewish community members.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, mom, let’s go!’ We would go with other attendees of our mosque; on Friday nights I was always at the mosque with my mom, and then during the weekdays or weekends we went to other places of worship. The thing that I remember most as a young person was the annual night of comedy that our mosque hosted. That was my mom’s brainchild and one of the reasons I love comedy so much now as an adult. There’s nothing more unifying than laughter.
My mom would invite comedians – I think the most recognizable comedian was Maz Jobrani who’s been on different TV shows – and she would invite members from our Christian community or our Buddhist community, Hindu community, Jewish community, and we were all together for that night just laughing. It was so wise and creative on her part to invite comedians who had a Middle Eastern background to engage with some of those really difficult stereotypes like terrorism. One show was poking fun at all of the different ways that the Middle Eastern community was being depicted in the media, and so here you have wonderful comics who bring topical issues into their comedy in a place that is a house of worship for these very people being depicted as terrorists in the news.
I felt people were really ignorant about my faith. Instead of saying ‘I’m Muslim’ with any kind of pride, it was something I kept very close to my chest. I didn’t want people to know
Growing up in a society that really stigmatized my faith background, I felt people were really ignorant about my faith. Instead of saying ‘I’m Muslim’ with any kind of pride, it was something I kept very close to my chest. I didn’t want people to know. When people said really negative things about Islam, I wasn’t sure if I should speak up. And it was rampant. When I was in high school, I would walk by and in the hallway and kids would say, ‘We should just carpet bomb the whole Middle East.’ One girl at my high school said, ‘We should all name our dogs ‘Allah’’. Just really offensive things, unsolicited as I’m walking by. People had no idea I came from a Muslim background, but it was in the rhetoric of teenagers who were probably just regurgitating vile things that they heard adults say.
So to have the audience at the comedy nights be such an incredible interfaith community does wonders to combat the stigma and the misinformation that’s in the media. Though of course this is a selection bias, because the people who are coming are all going to be more open and interested, so maybe it didn’t always reach the people that it needed to most. But the fact that my mom spearheaded that effort, as an adult I appreciate it way more than I did as a kid, and as a kid I loved it.
You’ve talked about the association of terrorism with Islam; from your experience, are there other false assumptions or things that people misunderstand about Islam?
I think there are a couple of things, and one of the most salient ones is the idea that Muslim women are inherently oppressed. When people see a woman in a niqab or a hijab, that’s the association. I would say that oppression of women happens in eastern and western countries of all religious associations; the patriarchy has existed globally for all of history. But the Islamic faith isn’t inherently oppressive towards women, and there are actually some phenomenal ayahs in the Qur’an that talk about how mothers should be respected and revered by their children, and that when women are pregnant or on their periods they should be cared for and nurtured. I think that is one of the few faith traditions I’ve seen that actually takes the time to make this clear point about this wonderful treatment of women when they need to be treated well. Taking a book that was written 1,400 years ago mentioning this compassionate treatment of women, for me is just powerful.
Going back to this idea that Islamic practice is oppressive to women, I would say that a lot of the manifestations of that are cultural, not inherently religious. And that goes into every faith tradition. In Christianity, not having female religious leaders is in large part because of culture. So, yes, to a certain extent there is that association, but going to my personal roots in Iran, it is entirely cultured there. Women are well-educated in Iran; my cousins have PhDs. But they exist in a society that devalues them in the name of Islam because we have a state-run Islamic regime that’s only hungry for power. Every institution, including religion, has this tendency toward greed, because who is it run by? Human beings.
When we’ve spoken before, you’ve said that the treatment of women is actually one problem that still frustrates you about elements of Islam, even if it is predominantly a cultural issue. Did that play into your movement away from the faith of your childhood, or was that only something that you reflected on later when considering the relationship between the faith and the culture?
I’m not sure how much I was conscious of it as a young person, but I remember not really understanding why I had to stand behind men during prayer, and to this day I don’t like it when I see sons praying in front of their mothers. I think that if prayer is really about meditation, focusing on God and being present in that moment, it shouldn’t matter about the order; it shouldn’t matter if women are in front of men. That’s definitely something I was more cognisant of as a young person, but to say that it moved me away from being as ardent of a Muslim? I’m not sure.
My mom – so much of this conversation will reveal the amazingness of my mother – she wore a hijab until I was sixteen, and I saw her as this incredible force in the world. Just absolutely rebellious, making her own way and paving her own path against all odds. So, as my role model and the adult in my life, she defied all those stereotypes, and so they weren’t as strongly associated for me because my lived experience was my mother who didn’t seem to be held down by that. She definitely was a victim of people’s stereotypes, but she herself seemed to defy it all.
Even if that wasn’t as much of an issue, you did mention questions of theodicy and wondering where God was, as well as your more academic approach to religion. Would you say that there was a point at which you crossed a threshold and thought to yourself: I no longer identify with the Muslim faith? Or was it more of a gradual journey?
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but later in high school I felt that there wasn’t that cognitive resonance, the sense that, I agree with everything in this faith. I wanted the freedom to be able to not assume things are true and fact, like that the Qur’an was revealed by God to the Prophet, or God talking to Moses in the flaming bush. That not to say I look down on it, I’m always very careful to say that I deeply respect faith, and the peace and compassion it brings to the people who practice it can be beautiful, but I felt this need to be able to ask questions and study it. I was always curious to ask my mom about her experience with faith, because I knew she had survived a lot in her life, and she always attributed it to the strength her faith gave her.
At this point in time, I was trying to think about what I wanted to study in college, and I ended up coming across this interdisciplinary field of bioethics, which was the first time I saw how religious studies and cultural studies could be applied in very effective ways to dealing with issues of health, how we protect people and provide them with healthcare, and how we form policies and care practices. Seeing how philosophy and religious studies and history and psychology intersected in this field was like a light bulb moment: what I’m really trying to do is understand people; people are really interesting. The fact that there are so many faiths out here, and people are naturally dividing themselves into these faith communities. Why? What’s the purpose? What does it do for them?
What do you think you learned the most from being so closely exposed to those interfaith communities?
I learned two things. It was my first real introduction to the power of observation; if I’m a newcomer to a space, if I am walking into another place of worship that’s not a mosque – which I consider myself very familiar with – I want to learn the customs of the people in this space and follow their lead. So I have to observe them. The goal of that intentional observation is to understand, and I think that the happy side effect of that is some sense of humility. I don’t walk into a space and go, ‘Well, this isn’t my faith tradition, so I’m just going to act as normal.’
There’s also the idea that this is another community’s very sacred space, so I want to treat it with the same reverence that they do. I don’t need to be a Christian to walk into a church and feel that solemnity and that community and that connection. The second part of that humility is it’s made me very hesitant to say, ‘My faith tradition is the right one.’ I’ve seen incredible people from different faith traditions, and I’ve seen not great people from every faith tradition, and so all I know is that I need to make it my business to understand other people, and I need to be mindful of my own assumptions, because they’re often going to be wrong.
When you began to understand these different faith traditions and communities, how did that affect your own personal beliefs about God?
I think in a weird way, the answer is in the question; I felt that by engaging with other faith communities, I realized how personal one’s relationship with God is. I felt like I shouldn’t be modeling my relationship with God after anything anyone tells me. And again, growing up in a culture that really stigmatized my own faith, I felt like faith is something that’s a private matter. I don’t believe in trying to evangelize people, and in Islam you aren’t meant to go out and tell people, ‘You should become Muslim, you should change faith, your salvation is with us.’ Rather, we’re taught: practice your faith piously, focus on becoming the best person you can, and if people demonstrate an interest in Islam, then you welcome them.
God gives people confidence to survive in a world that is often brutal, is often ugly, and we don’t know how to make sense of it.
It’s all about you starting to be the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi says. That became truer for me, realizing that I don’t have to belong to a faith tradition to a have a relationship with God. I do still think of my God as Allah, and I talk to God when I’m feeling nervous, or when I really want something good to happen for someone, or if I’m worried about someone I love. I’m like, ‘God, this person is so amazing, and I want the best for them, please protect them,’ or, ‘I’m about to take this ridiculously hard exam, please give me the strength to do it!’ And it just takes my stress away.
I think that’s what everyone’s doing, but they call it different things. I don’t mean to be reductive at all in saying that, but I feel like it boils down to: God is confidence. God gives people confidence to survive in a world that is often brutal, is often ugly, and we don’t know how to make sense of it.
When you’re in that place where you’re stressed and you speak out to God, do you believe that there is something external that hears you?
I hope that there is. I do my best not to fall victim to human hubris and be like, ‘I’m this rational being and I know everything and there is no God, pfft,’ and then when I’m really stressed being like, ‘Oh God! Please!’ There’s that really interesting study, I wish I could cite it, where people who don’t have a religious association think they’re in their last moments, and they pray to God when they’re faced with their mortality.
I’m not sure that God intervenes in the day to day, but I still pray to God when I’m hoping that the circumstance will come out with a positive ending, and I realize that those don’t quite align. I don’t think it’s exactly like Pascal’s wager where it’s just worth it to believe in God to be on the safe side. If you boil down all of my academic interest in religion, at the end of the day I’m still someone who prays to God when I’m feeling nervous; I’m still this little powerless human that feels comforted by the idea that there’s something out there that can maybe help a little.
Even if in that moment I’m just putting out my worries into the world and unburdening myself of them, I still do it, and it’s still really helpful, and it’s one of the reasons I still have this ongoing existential debate with myself and discussion with myself about: what is God?
In the second half of our conversation, Noreen will share her experience of attending church as an outsider, and suggest the ways in which her own field of healthcare could learn from religious communities.