PENANG, Malaysia — It was unfortunate that in my childhood, I grew up having very little knowledge about Islam that it naturally caused me to be more afraid of it than feel safe and at peace. Such is the challenge of children who have parents of different religions, and in my case, with my parents separated and much of my early years being influenced more by my mother’s religion—Roman Catholicism.
I was born a Muslim, bearing a very Muslim name, but was enticed to be a Roman Catholic due to immense influences of family, friends, and a majority Catholic community I was surrounded with. I have always taken note, and sometimes was puzzled, of how my Catholic family would often introduce me to others…”Muruz na siya” or, “She is a Moro.” Such a term already made me understand that there was something wrong with me somehow. At the age of 6, I remember having attended my first communion in a school in Davao. It was a festive event and all the girls were dressed up in specially-made white dresses and veils. My auntie made me this pretty long white dress with pearl beads which I proudly wore to Church. I felt I belonged. Otherwise, the idea of being left out was a scary thought.
I am one of those privileged youth whose parents made a conscious effort to send me to the best schools. In this case, the private schools also happen to be Christian schools—either Catholic or Protestant. In Mindanao, I went to the Catholic schools, while in Manila, I went to a Protestant school. Being an ignorant young Muslim and Moro, I lived a double-life—on one hand trying to silently reflect on my identity, while on the other, I coped up by belonging to the majority—and following their ways.
Thus, it was very easy for any Christian missionary who intended to persuade me (to become a Christian) to either make me feel bad about my identity and reinforce the fear that I already have inside by telling me that…”If I do not accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I will not be Saved and will not go to Heaven…” I dread those words. Not only because of its consequences as obviously stated, but more of the realization that I can never be happy in life if I am different and that I do not belong to the majority identity—Christian. I was then a very impressionable youth, afraid, and very much lost.
Perhaps it was my education at U.P. Diliman that gave me a turning point in the search for my identity. U.P. being a non-sectarian institution opened a world of different religions to me—this, besides the rich ethnic identities from the entire country. Just like an enthusiastic student, I immersed my self with friends who are Born-again Christians, Protestants, Seventh Day Adventists, Church of Latter Days Saints, Iglesia ni Kristo, Hindus, Buddhist, and Muslim. I became more open-minded and more vulnerable at the same time. In the end, I would label my self as a “New Age Believer.” To this day, I am not really sure what a New Age Believer really means…but somehow it located my perspectives and religious philosophy—neither here nor there. In short, I became more afraid to be alone and instead have chosen to be part of everybody!
To be lost and always afraid became a constant challenge for me. Until one day I resolved that I had to put an end to my crazy religious philosophies. I decided to decide on my religion and identity. From that day onwards, I prayed like I never prayed before—day and night. Similar to Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment, I experienced an awakened consciousness that was pleasant and light (no burden and force). It was as if it was naturally meant to be. I woke up and saw, and felt, my self as a Muslim and a Moro. I have stopped being afraid of being lost since I have found my self. It became very clear to me how valuable my life is and all that it offers. If in the beginning, I was too afraid to become a Muslim, now, I am thankful more than ever that I returned to my roots.
All the trials that I have come across were hard to forget. I have learned many things from them. However, one thing stands out: I would never want to wish that any child would be lost again—just as I was.
Happy Ramadhan to Everyone! (Ayesah is the coordinator of the Mindanao Peace Program at the Research & Education for Peace Universiti Sains Malaysia or REPUSM in Penang, Malaysia. You may email her at email@example.com.)