New York Times: Islam is a Last Resort

by Racialicious Special Correspondent, Fatemeh Fakhraie

The New York Times has an article about the frustrations of Egyptian youth.

It opens with a profile on one Mr. Sayyid:

Once, Mr. Sayyid had a decent job and a chance to marry. But his fiancée’s family canceled the engagement because after two years, he could not raise enough money to buy an apartment and furniture.

Mr. Sayyid spun into depression and lost nearly 40 pounds. For months, he sat at home and focused on one thing: reading the Koran.

The NYT piece makes a direct connection between Mr. Sayyid’s loss of a chance to marry (like he’ll never ever get another one) and his interest in the Qu’ran. Enter the idea that Muslims are only Muslim because they’re sexually (or politically or socially) frustrated.

Then we meet Ms. Ashour, a 22-year-old university graduate. She wears the niqab. Why? Because she couldn’t get married, of course!

There was a time she dressed and acted like her friends, covering her head with a scarf but wearing blue jeans and bright shirts […]

She was engaged to Mustafa, whose last name she will not disclose, for more than two years….But Mustafa’s father had no money left after setting up two older sons, and the young man was unable to raise enough money to finish the construction. Ms. Ashour wanted to help, secretly, but she has been unable to find a paying job. When her mother told her to end the engagement, something snapped, and she sought solace in increasingly strict religious practice.

So, according to the NYT, she couldn’t get married, so she went crazy and covered her face!

The idea that we’re all devout Muslims because we can’t get a piece of ass is insulting. It feeds into this idea that devotion is an all-or-nothing game: you’re either a Muslim who always prays five times a day, always fasts during Ramazan, and never has sex before marriage…or you’re not “really” Muslim. Muslims aren’t allowed to just be, to struggle with things like enjoying a glass of wine even though most interpretations of Islam forbid alcohol. We’re not allowed to have grey areas like every other religion. Most people won’t look at a Catholic who doesn’t eat fish on Friday as not really Catholic.

But wait, it gets better:

Here in Egypt and across the Middle East, many young people are being forced to put off marriage, the gateway to independence, sexual activity and societal respect. Stymied by the government’s failure to provide adequate schooling and thwarted by an economy without jobs to match their abilities or aspirations, they are stuck in limbo between youth and adulthood.

In their frustration, the young are turning to religion for solace and purpose, pulling their parents and their governments along with them.

We’re “stuck in limbo between youth and adulthood” if we’re not married. And here I was like a sucker, feeling all grown-up because I had reached a certain age, had accomplished certain life goals that are important to me…but since I’m not married, I must be some sort of girl-child.

I won’t argue with the fact that marriage has a definite societal weight, both in Muslim communities within the U.S. and in other predominately Muslim parts of the world: there are many in the Muslim community who look sideways at those who aren’t married after reaching a certain age. Sociologist Azza Korayem says this herself in the NYT article.

I also won’t argue that weddings in the Middle East and South Asia are expensive and can even cross over into exorbitant, and that probably has something to do with some weddings being postponed or canceled. But the NYT assumes that’s the only reason for not getting married:

But marriage is so expensive now, the system is collapsing in many communities….The result is delayed marriages across the region. A generation ago, 63 percent of Middle Eastern men in their mid- to late 20s were married…That figure has dropped to nearly 50 percent across the region, among the lowest rates of marriage in the developing world, the report said. In Iran, for example, 38 percent of the 25- to 29-year-old men are not married, one of the largest pools of unattached males in Iranian history. In Egypt, the average age at which men now marry is 31.

So people are getting married later now. That’s happening in the west, too. In the west, higher ages for first marriages are attributed to high education levels, high literacy rates, and changing values. Countries in the Middle East have these things, too. But if we as Muslims or Middle Easterners get married later, it’s just because we’re poor?

This builds onto the idea that Muslims and people in the Middle East are radically different from western non-Muslims. This difference hinges on the Orientalist idea that we’re “backward,” that our reasons for not getting married can’t possibly have anything to do with increased literacy and higher education levels. Despite several references to university graduates in the article, the NYT assumes we don’t have these things, and so we’re not getting married because we’re just plain poor.

So what’s a poor, sexually frustrated Muslim to do? Buy a Qur’an, I guess.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.