A generation ago, Tariq’s parents would’ve found him someone. And a generation ago, he might’ve been okay with that, or certainly more composed than he is now, suffering an anxiety attack over the prospect of a parental match. But do you know what scares him more? ‘How,’ he asked me, over a cup of tea, ‘can I find a girl—you know, one who takes her religion seriously?’
Ask her out? Go on a date? Talk on the phone? The hell I knew.
I’d met up with him to learn from him—about life in Dubai—but I heard mostly failures and false starts. How lonely life in a cosmopolitan city can be. Take, for example, the night Tariq joined a friend at the Tim Horton’s in Marina. In the course of their conversation he blurted something about beautiful Bosnians. The woman next to him turned and protested, ‘I’m Bosnian!’
What would our economies, our education, our policies, even our architecture and our culture, look like if we took this mission to marry seriously? Because modernity is not going away, and the only way through it is through it.Haroon Moghul
You’d think this the height of awkwardness. A ridiculous way to make an introduction. But it was a beginning, but only that: a short conversation and then. Once she left, Tariq sighed: ‘I wish I asked her her number…’ This, though, is what held him back: She was Muslim. Not knowing what’d be okay or what’d come across offensive, he erred on the side of loneliness.
Helpfully, he learned later that night, residents of Dubai—I propose the demonym "Dubaiians"—have a way. ‘Sometimes,’ his friend explained, just minutes after Miss Bosnia left, ‘if a girl’s with her friends, and she wants a guy to talk to her, she’ll get her friend(s) to step away—leaving you free to ask. Like when her friend left their table, remember?’
Tariq all but screamed. ‘Why didn’t you tell me then?’
‘With her next to us?’
‘Jesus, man, we speak Urdu.’
The Muslim world needs a sexual revolution
As a Russian friend of mine said to me (in Bosnia, in fact): ‘Islam does not require you live in a fantasy.’ We’re people, and people have needs. For most of our history, that was easy enough—sexual and social maturity overlapped. Before you freak out—ahem, Richard Dawkins—the rest of the planet lived in much the same way. Now, though?
In America, they call it a ‘gap year’—the twelve months between high school and college. We’ve got a gap decade at least, from between the time a guy like Tariq notices girls and when he’d be mature enough to marry. But in Tariq’s case it’s the challenge of not knowing how to find marriageable women. The answers we came up with long ago to translate values—religion—into reality—culture—no longer apply. Worse, that’s the lesser problem.
Many Ahmeds and Mahmouds will only be able to support a family (and thus meet their sexual, emotional, and social needs) quite late in life. If at all. In a culture that binds sexuality to marriage, family to matrimony, and dignity to providing, this is a catastrophe. Your manhood denied. Circumscribed. (We’re already circumcised.) Of course, many Muslims, on top of it all, live in societies that don’t help them get married, and don't even seem to have the ability to diagnose social challenges or propose solutions.
‘Get married,’ the joke goes, ‘or die fasting.’
Lots of Muslims are going to die.
Modernity is not going away
Tariq next recalled sitting next to four fine women on a disgustingly humid Dubai night. ‘I couldn’t help but notice the one in the headscarf,’ he admitted. A few minutes later, her three friends left! But he paused. ‘Can I ask a woman in a headscarf for her phone number?’ Some of us his friends said it’d be wrong. ‘But what if I want to marry a mutahajjiba?’ he countered. Nobody had any idea.
In the Muslim world, we love to proscribe. But to actually take the risk of addressing the real world?
‘Someone’s out there,’ I promised Tariq. Technically true. But cruelly. The very uncertainty that made our rapidly changing world a lonelier place—and thus us in need of more intimacy—makes it harder to find someone. By upending our remaining certainties. Denying us our traditional practices: If a religion cannot speak to changed circumstances, it’ll be left by the wayside.
Either we jettison our moral norms or change our social conditions so those norms become practical again. Did you catch that? We must cultivate the confidence to breed (pardon the expression) the minds who dare to ask: What would our economies, our education, our policies, even our architecture and our culture, look like if we took this mission to marry seriously? Because modernity is not going away, and the only way through it is through it.
But what works somewhere doesn't work everywhere.
I thought about Tariq on my drive, racing down highways big enough to pass for runways, the sunburned glass shards just milestones along the road home. For all his complaints, Tariq had decided he preferred this place. That night I realized why. In Dubai, you can predict the future. It’ll be sunny or sunnier. Somewhat or too hot.
That's what I loved about it. Some things have to stand still or we wouldn’t know we’re moving. Like the values that root us. But also the person we turn to. Muhammad went up to the mountain—peace be upon him—and rushed back to the comfort of his wife’s embrace. “We created you from one soul,” He said, “and from her, her mate.”
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul