It was thanks to a chance meeting on a North Carolina running trail that Krista Bremer, a surf-loving Californian who studied feminism in college and once worked at Planned Parenthood, met her future husband Ismail, a Libyan-born Muslim. In her new book, "My Accidental Jihad," out next month, Bremer traces the evolution of their relationship and lays bare their struggles as they navigate the push and pull of their distinct cultures and confront uncomfortable prejudices. Here, Bremer discusses the power of surrender, media misconceptions, and the true meaning of jihad.
In the book you say love means surrender. Some women will feel uncomfortable with that word. Can you talk about that?
I think you put your finger on what I felt was one of the most provocative and important ideas of the book. I had exposure to a lot of feminist ideas in college, and they had a real impact on the way I viewed myself and the world, and I was grateful for everything that feminism taught me about strength and ambition and independence. But I came to feel that feminism had nothing to teach me about surrender, because the only way I understood surrender was in terms of defeat. And I think of all the ways my marriage has changed my way of thinking, I think my ideas about surrender are some of the most profound changes. Because I do think that surrender is an inevitable aspect of life.
I don’t trade my ideas about feminism for my ideas about surrender. Someone once said that the sign of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once.
I don’t trade my ideas about feminism for my ideas about surrender. Someone once said that the sign of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once, and I think that this is a case of that, because surrender is such an important aspect of moving gracefully through this life and being in relationship with other people and accepting the limitations of our existence. And I feel like learning to work with surrender is something that has changed me fundamentally as a person and helped my relationship to be as rewarding as it has been. I honestly can’t imagine staying married without embracing surrender.
In the section where I talk about sexuality, I tried to explore this idea just a little bit further. We think of surrender as defeat but also passivity. But I don’t think surrender is necessarily passive; surrender is very responsive to the world around us. It can be a dynamic state of being: intuiting and responding to the boundaries that you come up against.
How are you bringing these insights to bare as you raise your own daughter?
It’s something I’m grappling with everyday. I present one stage of my daughter’s life in the book: when she was about nine and she experimented with wearing the headscarf. And it’s very interesting because even though I explicitly said that I had no idea where this would go, because she’s a child who is experimenting, readers really saw her as a fixed identity. So, I got a lot of feedback from readers. Muslim readers would say, “Alhamdu lillah, she’s found God!”
I got a lot of harsh criticism from Western feminist readers who wrote me notes and said things like, “You’re a shameful parent. You’re subjecting her to tools of misogyny.”
And I also got a lot of harsh criticism from Western feminist readers who wrote me notes and said things like, “You’re a shameful parent. You’re subjecting her to tools of misogyny.” But the reality is my daughter’s identity is very fluid right now. She’s gone from the pious end of the spectrum of experimenting, with the headscarf, to punk-rock. Last year she dyed her bangs bright red and nearly gave her dad a heart attack. She’s passionate about music and she loves Nirvana right now. I think that she challenges me constantly.
The state of Jihad that I tried to make manifest on the page, which is, as I understand it, the struggle to transcend our limitations and sort of become more wise and tolerant for the sake of our relationships and our communities; I try to do that with her. For me, for example, I do think modesty is an important value and I want her to appreciate that. But for me that’s not a matter of covering your head, but maybe a matter of balancing your ambition with a sense of humility and a sense of privacy. I don’t talk to her about modesty in terms of having to have your body completely covered; I don’t want her to feel shame about her body. But I do want her to have a sense of humility in the world, in how she deals with other people, in how she respects her elders. I think we navigate that on a daily basis and it’s an ongoing experiment.
Why did you choose to include the word “Jihad” in your book’s title knowing that people have a negative perception of its meaning?
I was aware when we chose that title that it would be provocative and that some people would respond harshly to that word. The unfortunate thing is that the way the media has most often used that word has nothing to do with the way the vast majority of Muslims, in my experience, you know I have to humbly recognize that I am not qualified to speak for Muslims, but I can say amongst our friends and the Muslims that we know, their understanding of jihad really has nothing to do with how the mainstream media understands it.
I find marriage very challenging and I find family very challenging, and I also find it probably one of the best vehicles for personal growth that I have in my life.
I know that the prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad, or struggle, in our lives is the struggle that takes place in our hearts to overcome our egos and our weaknesses and to become more wise, compassionate and humble people. And I can’t think of a better way to describe what marriage and family is for me, because I find marriage very challenging and I find family very challenging, and I also find it probably one of the best vehicles for personal growth that I have in my life. It takes me right up against my own limitations: my own selfishness, my own intolerance. Family is where I have to confront those things, and I do think it’s unfortunate that that word “jihad,” which does mean struggle, that it has been so thoroughly co-opted by this radical fringe, that people like me are almost made to feel like we’re not allowed to use it anymore. I think that’s something that needs to be corrected and brought back into balance, so the word can be used in a different form.
How did your husband Ismail feel when he first read the book?
I feel incredibly lucky because I think my husband is a bigger fan of my writing than anyone. I think my writing has brought him more joy than anyone, except perhaps my mom. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that he grew up under such terrible oppression that he has almost like a complete whole-hearted faith in freedom of expression, like he really believes that good comes from expressing the truth as honestly as we can. So, he’s always said to me, “Your job is to get as close to the truth as you possibly can, and if I have difficulty with that then let me struggle with that.”
A real cardinal rule I have with my writing is to be harder on myself than anyone else who appears in my writing.
I think he’s also seen over time that a real cardinal rule I have with my writing is to be harder on myself than anyone else who appears in my writing. So he also realizes that ultimately he comes out on top, that I’m very careful about how I expose him. So even in the section where I’m writing about Ramadan and I’m complaining about his bad breath, I really do that as a way to reveal and explore my own intolerance. So, rather than making him look bad, it really reflects poorly on me, and so I think he sees that even in these passages where I appear to be critical of him, it’s really ultimately sort of a love letter to him and a way to acknowledge my own shortcomings and how difficult I am sometimes as a spouse. So, he feels safe knowing how I treat him. He’s also the first person I show anything to, so I always make sure that he’s comfortable before I send it out into the world.
In the course of the book, you admit some prejudices and attitudes that many would not. Did you ever worry about what people would think?
Another place in the book where I felt vulnerable is where I reveal my own prejudice, and I think what’s difficult is when a reader reads that on the page and judges me for that without also taking into account what it requires for someone to put that down and send it out into the world. That’s very different from holding that in your heart.
I hope that by laying myself bare that way I will start some important conversations. Because I really have been surprised by how pervasive Islamophobia is...
When you write non-fiction you create characters, even though it’s non-fiction; you have to characterize everyone who appears in your story because you can’t put their entire complex self into an essay or even a book, and so I have to characterize myself, and I think using those aspects of myself is a form of service, because I hope that by laying myself bare that way I will start some important conversations. Because I really have been surprised by how pervasive Islamophobia is, and perceptions of Muslims and Arabs and Muslim men, so I think those are really important conversations, as well as conversations about diversity. There is a certain hypocrisy that comes with this politically correct language that we use, and so if we can look at that, then hopefully something good will come out of me revealing myself in that way.
Has your husband’s family read this?
We’ve been together about 15 years and we’ve never had any Libyan relatives come to the United States, and just in the last three months, his brother came to the US for some training, he works in the military and they’re getting some training in Texas, so his brother is intensively learning English. We sent him the book and it’s very moving to me, because he called and he told my husband that he’s been sitting and pouring over it with a dictionary, and he can’t stop laughing. He’s enjoying it a great deal. I think that maybe they have been silent for so long that it gives them joy and pride to know that they are represented in a book, and I guess I’ll know more when more of his family reads it. But at this point, when his family have seen interviews with me or essays of mine, they’re just extremely proud that somehow, in spite of everything they have been through and are still going through, that their family has a voice in the world.
You were married for 12 years before you explored Islam. Is that because it took the right messenger, the Shaykh, or because it took you being ready?
I think it’s probably a little bit of both, and it’s also that I don’t receive instruction well from my husband. I mean big things or small things; I don’t like being told how to load the dishwasher. So, not only has my husband not tried to push me towards Islam in any way, but I think he knows me well enough to know I would not receive it well.
I don’t receive instruction well from my husband. I mean big things or small things; I don’t like being told how to load the dishwasher.
I think it’s a combination of the two things you mentioned. One is being in Libya. In Libya I really saw beauty in the faith of my in-laws. I saw that their hearts are really so full and alive and they’re just really beautiful people, and I attributed a lot of that to their faith. And then the other thing is going through life; there are things that are not in the book because they happened too late for me to include them in the narrative, but my husband went through a serious illness and when he was really sick and our family was in crisis about two years ago, I really saw how his faith dramatically influenced how he dealt with crisis, whereas I didn’t have that kind of bedrock. And I was really unmoored. And I struggled differently than he struggled, so those things affected me, and then I think also, discovering this American Sheik, who, on one hand. feels so familiar to me. I come from California. He’s a California guy; he’s the son of academics and civil rights activists, and so when he speaks in some ways he feels like my brother or somebody I would have gone to college with, and yet he’s able to talk about this faith that has always felt quite foreign to me in ways that feel very familiar and make sense.
In the book you say, “If the major religions were schoolchildren, Islam would be the outcast.” What insight into Islam do you hope your book might provide readers?
That we are led to believe that hate is the driving force of Islam and that has never once been my experience. With every point of contact that I have had with the Muslim community, love is the powerful and driving force. It really is a religion of the heart. I think all true religions are about reviving the heart, and I have seen it to be a beautiful path for reviving and expanding the heart. That love has been a really tangible aspect of my experience in the Muslim community at every turn. So, it’s really tragic to see that subverted in the media and for people to believe that hate is really what propels Islam. The community and the vitality that you find in the Muslim world, without idealizing it because obviously there’s a great many problems in Islam, but the grace and the hospitality, that has been my experience.
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