“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I have always struggled to answer when people ask me about my family’s heritage. Since my parents and grandparents spent their lives across several countries – Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India – before immigrating to America, I have never felt connected to a specific homeland. However, my family has always embraced religion as a stabilizing force in our lives. My identity as a Shia Ismaili Muslim was instilled in me through regular prayer and attendance at our community Jamatkhana. I did not grow up as an “Asian American” as much as I grew up as a “Muslim American.”

However, all too often I felt the tension between my identities as American and Muslim. When I started to get questions about my faith, I defaulted to simplistic explanations defining myself as a good Muslim surrounded by a sea of Muslim extremists because I lacked an understanding of Islam beyond my specific sect. Instead of adding to the discussion, I trafficked in stereotypes myself.

Since then, I have made a concerted effort to overcome my own ignorance and gain a broader perspective on my Muslim identity. I studied history and the intersection of religion and politics. I spent two years in Mombasa, Kenya, where I experienced the dynamics of Swahili Muslim culture. Rather than feeling burdened by my identity, I built the confidence to share my evolving personal story as both American and Muslim.

In an environment where it has become tempting to oversimplify and caricature those with different backgrounds or perspectives, I will fight for nuance and deeper dialogue. Only by better understanding the world around us can we better understand ourselves.

— Rafiq Ahmed