“Are you a Muslim?” A Corporate Attorney Answers Hesitantly…


MEMORANDUM By FATIMA KHAN

——————————————–

Subject:  Research regarding duty of candor in a forum nonconveniens (translation:  Being honest even when it isn’t convenient)

Question Presented:  Are you Muslim?

Short Answer:  Hesitant yes.  Please see analysis below.

  1. Introduction
    1. A lawyer has the duty to duty to disclose all relevant, pertinent and truthful information.

As soon as she asked me if I was Hindu or Muslim I felt paralyzed.  The time between the question and my answer felt like an eternity.  During that eternal pause I could feel the sweat trickling down my outlet bought polyester shirt.   I quickly tried to find an escape route and found myself toying with the idea of telling a white lie.  I could have just said something like, “Oh my family isn’t very religious,” or just lied and said I was Hindu, or maybe I should have distracted her and pretended like I was experiencing an unexpected medical emergency.  Instead, I did the unthinkable – I answered, “Muslim.”

I was in the middle of talking to a partner at my law firm about why my family was never supportive of a legal career.  I told her that most Indians encourage their children to study either “maths” or medicine, anything in between is for failures.  She being the ever curious cross examiner began asking me questions about the exotic customs of the Far East, which ultimately led her to ask about religion.  At that moment my secret had been discovered.  I felt as though I had been found out.  I had gone from being the non threatening, exotic, yoga practicing dots not feathers Indian to the enemy.

  1. Background – The Facts of the Case

I have always been grateful that my grandparents stayed in India post-partition.  I have delighted in being able to tell people I’m Indian, not Pakistani, allowing their assumptions to lead them to the conclusion that I’m a harmless vegetarian that watches Slumdog Millionaire and wears saris.  Also, it helps that my name is neither Khan nor anything glaringly Muslim for that matter.  This has been a particularly useful identity while working as an associate at a prevalently Jewish law firm.

I should have reconciled the issue of being a minority in a very white and heavily Jewish profession while still in school, but it was easy to ignore when studying at a rather diverse university.  It was not until I graduated and started interviewing with firms that I began to become increasingly aware of how much I seemed to stick out like a character on the “Which of these do not belong?,” covers of a Highlights magazine.  During the application/interview process I started becoming more sensitive about acknowledging my religious affiliation.  This made for some very awkward diet coke filled happy hours.  Instead of telling people I chose not to drink because of religious reasons I let them assume I was a typical Asian lightweight.  When my mentor told me to wear a skirt suit for interviews I let her think I had a thyroid problem which made me feel cold at all times, so I had no choice but to wear modest clothes.   Eventually, all of these ridiculous antics and networking events paid off when I landed a job practicing litigation at Steinbergmaneinsky LLP.

I was very excited about my first day at work.  After a quick tour and orientation I was shuttled off to an all attorney monthly meeting.   Ten minutes after a round of awkward introductions we began to discuss our pro bono assignments.  Project one-restitution petitions to Germany for Holocaust survivors, Project two-trust and property management for Jewish families in need, and Project three – Holocaust committee.  Everyone was profoundly supportive of all the projects, nodding their heads up and down with complete unwavering approval.  I too felt compelled to force my face into that sympathetic and compassionate look.  I could feel my facial expression trying to overcompensate for my not being from a Jewish background.  The last thing I wanted them to know was that I am a Muslim.

For almost six months now I have become the go to person to send to any South Asian, Hispanic (my personal favorite), or pan Asian bar event for the firm.  It is pretty incredible being able to be all these wonderfully neutral identities.  Anytime someone asked me what language I spoke I would happily offer up Hindi as my primary language.  Urdu?  What’s that?  I’m Indian I speak Hindi, phew.  These super educated souls unassumingly thought I was “Hindi.”  I had veiled my identity so well that I was beginning to get away with disappearing off for one and a half hour lunch engagements every Friday afternoon and washing my hands up to the elbows while doing a balancing act on one leg to casually splash water over the other foot in the communal bathrooms.  I had it all figured out.

  1. Duty to Disclose – The Verdict

Just as soon as I became comfortable with my third eye, the earth shook, the moon split, time began to pass very quickly and suddenly judgment day was upon me.  “So are you Hindu or Muslim?,” she innocently asked.

And that’s when I really had to figure out why I felt so nervous and anxious about answering that question.  I felt ashamed about my identity.  In retrospect, this is such a strange phenomenon because once upon a time I used to wear hijab and proudly claim my Muslimness.  Now that I’m older, and clearly not much wiser, I am suddenly scared to identify myself as Muslim.  It is tragic.

In the business/legal world it is easier to be silent than to be heard.  A large part of the job is about developing a repertoire with the other lawyers and clients.  I fear that being Muslim might jeopardize any hope of forging strong connections and alliances with my colleagues.  Unfortunately, it seems as though the axis of evil transcends the military world and divides the conference table.  This sentiment may be a result of some sort of unique paranoia, but I do wonder if this is a terror other Muslims in the professional world are facing.  It is an especially delicate situation for those of us that are just starting out in the legal or business arena since we are constantly trying to impress our superiors and secure these job opportunities.

  1. Conclusion

I want to share this fear with my fellow non-Muslim lawyers and colleagues.  In a time where people are hyper sensitive to issues of harassment and impropriety in the workplace, maybe we should recognize how religious differences can breed insecurity, especially when one is a minority.  This does not mean firms need start providing us with magic carpets in every office, but it is important that they recognize that this sensitivity and fear exists.  Hopefully, the next time superiors or colleagues inquire about religion they will understand why some of us reserve the right to remain silent.  I am afraid to admit to being Muslim because I do not want to be perceived as the enemy, nor do I want to deal with the burden of proving the fact that I am moderate and different from the scary ones on TV.  This coupled with trying to figure out Bluebook citations makes for a very crazy work experience.  See above.

 

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17 thoughts on ““Are you a Muslim?” A Corporate Attorney Answers Hesitantly…

  1. It is very interesting to me that this issue is also sometimes faced by conservative evangelical Protestant Christians, especially for institutions that are in ‘blue’ states. Getting admitted to graduate school, gaining an academic appointment, or sometimes professional positions may be negatively influenced by disclosure of one’s supposedly ‘fundamentalist’ views. I suspect that this situation may also apply to political conservatives (of which I am not one) who face similar situations in places like San Francisco or New York. I realize the the situation is much more dire (or at least perceived to be so) for Muslim professioals who may face prejudice similar to that previously reserved for African-Americans and Jews.

  2. I have had similar issues from the blue collar side of the coin. I am a white male convert who works at a major hardware retail outlet in a southern ‘red’ state. It is easier for me to fit in with the rednecks and ex-military co-workers with my beard, however the prayers and not going out for beers was a lot more difficult. I finally outed myself when they started talking about that dang ‘sharee’ law!

  3. Thank you very much for this brilliant memo. As a 1L at a school that has a well respected international law program, we have a large number of Muslim students. I never really thought about the awkwardness they must feel from our heavily booze laden events. No wonder I don’t see many of them around at out social gatherings. EVERYTHING seems to center around alcohol, even our international law society events. This has open my eyes and I will try to incorporate some non-drinking events into the mix.
    Thank you very much, again, for your courage to speak out on this issue. I also love that it is in proper legal memo format! (Can I count this as studying?)

  4. I appreciate the above perspective. An observant Muslim woman who wears hijab and who will be working for a V50 firm, I think the hypersensitivity is much more for Muslim women like myself. In spite of that, many firms (including mine and those I declined offers from) are viewing the diversity of employing Muslims as something to be desired – especially when many of their clients are multi-national corporations with a presence or relationship with majority -Muslim nations.

  5. What was the reaction of the partner? What has been the reaction of other attorneys at your firm?

    I ask because my own personal experience and the experiences of other Muslims I know has lead me to conclude there is deeply rooted animosity towards Muslims in law firms, (at least in some parts of the country).

  6. Not just unique to law but also to those of us in medicine. Favorite line: Urdu. Whats that? which totally happened to me last week. Somehow waving the banner of India with the green stripe at the bottom reaffirms that no matter what, being an Indian Muslim will always carry its challenges and joys.

  7. I commend the author for highlighting some of the issues faced by Muslim-American professionals. I hope your post helps educate others in recognizing that questions relating to religious affiliation are not appropriate in the workplace.

  8. Thank you for sharing a simple blog that most of us all face, but think its quite unique to ourselves. As mentioned above its not just in Law, but also other professions too.

    Its a simple need to not be lumped with the crazy people within Islam and sit there trying to express “you see I am a cool Muslim” or “Oh, they are really not Muslims..” or “you see I am a tolerant Muslim..” they are all back strokes to try to distance yourself among your peers.

    Before someone (I am sure I will get it anyway) jumps down my throat and states “Brother you are weak in your faith” / “you are not doing duwa by hiding.” I agree, but what about it. So, does being weak in this area make my five daily prayers less? does helping purchase meals for our senior neighbor (who is not Muslim by the way) less of a good deed?

    All this proves is that we are living in an odd time that we have two distinct worlds closing in on us. The first from the Islam fearing monger that will blame us for anything and the other the crazies that are willing to kill other who are not 100% believing manner of Islam.

    These are our realities that we face and now thanks to this article I know I am not the only one.

    So, again thank you and may Allah make it easier on you and make it easier for all of us – ameen.

  9. I am so glad you wrote this article! I completely feel you. It is difficult to find that balance in the world of law without being stereotyped. I rarely ever talk about my background at work, although most everyone knows I’m Pakistani. This morning, I walked into work and some co-workers were discussing a movie. I commented on how the movie made me sad. One of my co-workers immediately stated he knew why, “must be because they wanted to bomb the Middle-East.” At this point I generally like to inform people that Pakistan is not part of the Middle-East but of the Sub-continent. I suppose because I’m Muslim I can only be sad about a movie for that reason and clearly not because they killed someone’s family member in the movie (who by the way was not Muslim).

    Anyways- great article and thank you for writing it!!

  10. Great article, thanks for sharing. As a Muslim working in finance, I too find it difficult to talk about my religion, but I never hid it. I felt optimistic that people around me would be educated enough to know the difference between an educated Muslim and a terrorist. Recently however, my attitude has changed because of certain anti-Muslim protests taking place in the US. Seemingly ‘normal’ and educated people are voicing such hatred toward Muslims that I was shocked. How can I not wonder that some people I work with might share the same attitude? It’s an uncomfortable feeling of paranoia. I think the problem with this feeling of paranoia is that people start sticking together because they feel more protected which closes lines of communication and prevents understanding among different people. The result is more misunderstanding, lines of division, and more fear mongering. Even if its not that extreme, it’s definitely not constructive.

  11. “A coward dies a thousand deaths…”

    As a Black man and Muslim I’m well aware of having to navigate being a minority amongst the majority especially in the workplace.
    I do agree with the author that questions about someone’s religion shouldn’t be part of workplace discussion.
    I don’t think hiding is the way to go though.
    To each his own

  12. Great memo.

    First, may Allah give you strength and grant you jennah for your struggles. Despite not wearing hijab and trying to hide your identity you insist on making salaat and even making Jummah, which is not even an obligation on you. Made me want to cry. I hope you grow in strength to the point where you won’t have to be worried. Some woul have just as easily abandoned their deen and gone drinking, etc – I have seen that as well. Allah never let’s the good deeds of his servants go to waste.

    Second, I can kinda relate to you. I think its easier for a male to assimilate than for women. I had the good fortune of working for a not for profit that was more open than the conservative corporate world. But, I was also clear that I am Muslim, don’t go to the parties, don’t drink, don’t shake hands with sisters, etc. But, its easy for me to say it. Its different for each person. Trust in Allah and he will make ease for you.

    By Chance

  13. I understand the frustration as being a Muslim in America. At the time of the 9/11 terrorist, no Muslims in America came out to condemn the terrorist act. Why would the people of America accept Muslims? It’s sad that this is happening to peaceful Muslims, but we all saw it coming.

    Additionally, how do you expect people to respect your faith when you state, “I had gone from being the non threatening, exotic, yoga practicing dots…?” Is that not generalizing Hindus?

    • Anand –

      Thank you for your comments. Allow me to reply to your first statement:” no Muslims in America came out to condemn the terrorist act.” Please allow me to swing very hard at this comment since I am so tried of hearing this over and over again.

      Thank goodness for the internet since it holds the various outcry form Muslim institutions (in America an out).

      Please take a look at the links;

      http://islam.about.com/cs/currentevents/a/9_11statements.htm

      http://www.mpac.org

      http://islam.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=islam&cdn=religion&tm=240&f=00&tt=2&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//groups.colgate.edu/aarislam/response.htm

      Additionally International Well Known Scholars:
      http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/terror.htm

      Just in Case anyone states where are these American Groups here you are:

      In a Joint Statement on 9/12 by American Muslim Alliance, American Muslim Council, Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers, Association of Muslim Social Scientists, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Medical Association of North America, Islamic Circle of North America, Islamic Society of North America, Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, Muslim American Society and Muslim Public Affairs Council, stated:

      American Muslims utterly condemn the vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. No political cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts.

  14. Religious fanaticism, wishful thinking, human rights and solutions
    Please send this appeal to every quarter for the sake of humanity
    Dear Madam/Sir,
    You gave us law and democracy, thank you. You helped us, again thank
    you very much. But all your money went to the drains to this date. You
    are promoting criminals and your opponents with your money. Really,
    this sounds to be strange but this is the only fact. My conclusion of
    decades’ thought in  plain words is that simply  work for the cause of
    easy, speedy, cheap and corruption free justice and then things will
    settled amicably. Look at the poor and pathetic condition of our
    rotten system. For example: I cannot afford the fee of lawyers anymore
    and traveling is prohibited by doctors. Therefore how can I get my
    Constitutional Petitions, D-736 & D-455 both of 2006, for pension,
    promotion and,etc, transferred from Honorable High court Bench @
    Sukkur to Hyderabad, Bench? What should I
    do for it?

    I wrote many letters with affidavits to Chief Justice of Sindh, Chief
    Justice of Pakistan, by registered mail and
    sent scores of email. But all are of no use. Both chiefs justice can
    do it, easily. I mean, The Honorable Chief Justice of Sindh and
    Pakistan.
    But who cares? Will you?
    Doctors prohibited to travel and I cannot afford the fee of lawyers.
    Is there any remedy in our worm eaten judical system? We are again
    thankful to your gifts of democracy and law. Please compel us to get
    rid of worm eaten system. Promote just judges, true lawyers and
    judiciary helpful to the commoners. I think every fanaticism will stop
    if our courts function with integrity and simplicity. Just to the
    concept of Late Sir Winston Churchill. I salute him. Keep the legacy
    and send my message to every quarter for the sake of humanity.
    Syed Farzand Ali Shah, (An age-bent retired person living with the
    enigma of existence, that is, several diseases plus sufferings of the
    spouse)
    03337595535
    Spread the word around as cheap popularity of suo motto has nothing to
    do with the actual justice. Right under the high chair of honorable
    justice palm greasing for the date of hearing’s business is a routine.
    Please send this message to every quarter for the sake of humanity.
    I will never recede but fight  up to my last breath. Help me in this
    crusade as you can do this honorabley.

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