Choices considered socially unacceptable or unpopular might be labeled crazy, misguided but seldom courageous. Particularly when it comes to religion. For those who lean toward or practice a faith that is not part of the current mainstream, consider the labels that pop up: extremist, fundamentalist, cultist, brainwashed. Fundamental is quite nicely defined “as forming a necessary base or core; of central importance.  Example: The protection of fundamental human rights”. Yeah. We get that. Our basic, we might even say God-Given, rights. But if fundamental becomes fundamentalism – watch out!  “A form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture; strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline.” I loved that they threw Islam in there.

Strict. Ooh. Ouch. No. Stay away.  I’ll go back to my fundamental rights, thank you.

See what I mean?

We love to label things. And once uttered in print or in the media, labels stick like Super Glue – difficult if not impossible to remove. I can remember not so very long ago when certain Christians were labeled as fundamentalists. If not bad guys, they were considered severe, people to stay away from, good material for standup comedians.

I visibly dress the part of a Muslim and so here come the labels. Thankful to be of a social and outgoing nature, (but not thick skinned – so they hurt!), at least the labels are somewhat friendly, positive, giving me excuses for why I dress like that. I am labeled a moderate Muslim, the kind we like, not one of those extremists.

My co-religionists also want to label me: Are you Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi? They need to know what kind of Muslim I am. Those darn labels again. If I say that according to the definition I follow the fundamental view, you might, dear reader, go no further. But if I say I am a practicing Muslim, doing by best to practice what my faith dictates, you might go easier on me and read on.

Now that I walk the path of a nontraditional faith, within Western parameters anyway, I have new-found empathy and respect for the faith traditions of others. It takes a great deal of courage to participate in a society when your lifestyle, dress or habits are outwardly different. A Muslim who doesn’t drink according to his faith regulations has to choose between attending Happy Hour on Friday after work with his colleagues or lose that bonding and relaxation time outside the office, not to mention possible ridicule, rejection or future alienation. A Muslim woman, who might be hands-down the best candidate for a position, is told she gets the job only if she ditches the scarf. She has to make a choice to go for the job, follow her convictions and face another possible rejection or seek legal counsel to ensure her fundamental rights to dress as she chooses. Both cases need courage to stand for what they believe in.

How many countless situations do I face where I must summon my courage? To enter a room, a restaurant, a pool or the beach, a rest stop on the highway deep in the heart of Texas knowing there will always be heads that turn. Even if invited to speak about my faith, that first chilly reception and active distrust in the room is not easily faced, but speak I must.  How nice to have a few kind souls admire my bravery and label me courageous rather than weird, oppressed, in need of saving. “You don’t have to wear that here.” Who says?

Perhaps we can rethink our labels. Someone who follows an Orthodox, or fundamental religious interpretation is more than likely utterly convinced of what they do, proud and comfortable to be part of a particular community and living with faith as an integral element of their life and daily routine. Practices and laws, divine in nature that have been in place for centuries, might be preferable and stabilizing to some compared with what is ever-changing according to whim, fancy or fashion. Remember the respect we once offered to the Catholic sister swathed in her habit or for the collared priest or yarmulke atop the head of a Jewish man?  Religious garb or outward symbols are more often worn out of commitment, even pride, and for recognition among others of the same faith. Adherence, devotion and recognition aside, it still requires us to summon our courage.

Imagine this very Texan scenario:

“Aren’t you hot? It can’t be easy to dress like that on a hot day.”

“Yes, thanks for asking. I am hot but then I think everyone is hot in this 100+ degree heat”!

“Well, at least I admire your courage and your convictions.”

What a wonderful world that would be!