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Breaking Up with God

"I was working at IBM, veiling. People thought I was a fanatic. I was 33 and divorced. Nobody wanted me."
Tony Nelson

Nuzhat "Nuzi" Haneef first started veiling when she was 10 years old. Growing up in Pakistan, she knew that the Koran stated in no uncertain terms that women should be chaste and cloak their beauty from men. All around her, however, Western culture had been embraced by many Muslims, including her parents, two educators who, in her opinion, were not abiding by the word of God.

"If in fact this is the word of God, then we should live it," she says, cradling a Styrofoam cup of water. "What I saw was that my mother was neither here nor there. She believes that the Koran is the holy book; she wants [to follow] certain rules. But she puts on makeup and dresses up and goes out among men. There was no dancing in Mohammed's culture, but at certain celebrations there was haphazard dancing, and I was very uncomfortable with this inconsistency.

"I'm a very rational, scientific kind of person, and also principled. So if there is a principle I hold, I abide by it. Or I won't hold it. So as a very young person I used to think, 'I will follow Islam very properly or I will not follow it. But I'm not going to be like my mother, neither here nor there.' I decided I was going to be religious because I like to follow rules."

Haneef is wearing a white veil bobby-pinned to her brown hair, and an oversized ski jacket. She is sitting in a large conference room of the Ramsey County Public Library in Roseville on a Sunday afternoon. The other people in the room mill about, eating cookies, drinking coffee, and talking about the future of their organization, which Haneef has recently joined: the Minnesota Atheists.

"My whole life has been a very lonely life," says Haneef, who is 53 years old and a software engineer at Lockheed-Martin in St. Paul. "I've always been doing things off on my own. I belonged to a segment of society that was modern, liberal, and Westernized, and I was like a born-again [Muslim] 30 years ago. The girls' college I went to was daughters of diplomats and Christians and Pakistanis, and everyone just thought I was weird. Which I was: Here I was, veiling, and upholding my banner.

"My father thought I had gone off my mind. My parents thought I was a fanatic. But I was more sincere and thorough, whereas they were hypocrites. I have had trouble with this all my life. I like to be true and honest and precise in my life. If it is the case that I understand something to be gray, then I should state this position and behave as if it was gray. But I shouldn't call something white and act as if it's black. I have that trouble at work all the time."

Haneef did not come by her original Muslim faith easily. She studied organized religion as a child and rejected the only other two religions she considered, Judaism and Christianity, because "they're all hoaxes." But Islam and the Koran passed her rigid test: Mohammed was a messenger for all people, she thought, and the time was right for a universal religion.

She came to the United States in 1978, got a master's degree and a green card, started working as a software engineer, and covered her face. Haneef joined the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, a reformist branch that she found "very intellectually and morally satisfying." She started practicing her religion more fervently than anyone she knew, studied the scriptures, and wore an outfit that made her look like "a nun." She wanted to marry a man who had converted to Islam, belonged to Ahmadiyya, and was dedicated to the mission of preaching Islam with his wife.

"I didn't even want a marriage based on romance--much as it was appealing," she says. "I didn't want to have these principles for the sake of having these principles and get married and put them on a shelf. I wanted to live that life in my person. I wanted someone like myself: rational, devout, dedicated. I prayed to God for this man."

Haneef was living in Kansas City at the time and an uncle in Chicago arranged her marriage with a man who met most of her specifications. The marriage lasted two years. Her husband wasn't up to snuff ("emotionally disabled") and the cultural differences between an African American man and a born-again Muslim from Pakistan superseded their shared faith and intellectual bond. To this day, she lives alone.

"I was all alone, holding up this chalice," she says. "I was working at IBM, veiling, which is a whole other complication throughout my life. People thought I was a fanatic. I was 33 and divorced. Nobody wanted me, regardless of the fact that I didn't want the kind of man that was available. They didn't want me anyway. I was at a dead end.

"So many friends were supportive and well-wishing, but they don't share my views. They feel I've gone a little too far and I'm bringing this difficulty on myself. So I'm still alone. I was a strange combination. And I couldn't make friendships with men because of the religious difficulty. Even just intellectual friendships you have to sit and talk, and all of that was denied."

Haneef moved to St. Paul from Maryland in 2004 and started questioning her immersive involvement with Ahmadiyya. Slowly, her questions about Islam were mounting, and she was seeing the human flaws in Ahmadiyya. After much study ("I am a person who likes to get to the bottom of things"), the devout believer became a nonbeliever, and she started forging her own relationship with God. Thanksgiving weekend in 2004, she decided she was no longer a Muslim.


All this personal history is a roundabout way of explaining how Nuzi Haneef landed a few Sundays back at a meeting of the Minnesota Atheists. The group's brochure states that an atheist is "a person who has no god beliefs. We don't believe in any gods--including Zeus, Thor, and Yaweh. We do not believe in devils, angels, spirits, or any other supernatural, mythological characters. We rely on ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the real world around us. We look for scientific, rational explanations for natural phenomena rather than fill in the gaps of our knowledge with god beliefs."

It is the ultimate outsider group, a club to be joined by non-joiners. And it would appear that after all these years of trudging down her own lonely path, Nuzi Haneef has finally found kindred spirits. A home, even.

Except it's not, not completely, at least. "They have their own tunnel vision to some extent, and arrogance," Haneef says. "Religious people are not stupid. They are not blind. They really seriously believe there is a god who tells them how to be holy. I was extremely invested in God, and purifying myself, and praying, and so it doesn't come naturally to me to think that there isn't a god.

"I have issues with the Koran, and Christianity, and now I have an issue with the word 'atheist.' I am much more of an agnostic. I don't need to be concerned with this creator. He has given me a mind, and a heart, and compassion, and he has left me on my own. I don't need to figure out who it is.

"I think I am more of a humanist. I can call my sister in Boston and tell her that and not have her go, 'Oh no, Nuzi is an atheist now!' My point was that there is no code of conduct that I can satisfy. And so as a humanist, the code of conduct is, 'From your mind, from your heart, do good to the universe, be a good citizen.' But I went to the Humanists of Minnesota meeting, and they were very unwelcoming."

It's closing time at the library. The lights are going off, the librarians are packing up, and the atheists are talking amongst themselves about their agenda: gay marriage, National Day of Prayer, intelligent design, "In God We Trust" on America's money. The atheists will continue their meeting at a Chinese restaurant in a nearby mall. They invite Haneef to join them. Haneef declines. Maybe next time.

"I have paid an extremely high price in terms of loneliness, and [being] socially and romantically unfulfilled for all this [questioning]," Haneef says. "It's not easy, you know. It's terrible. I would like to be married. I would like to meet a man. I have uncovered my face; I still cover my head but you should have seen me back then. I used to look like a tent. The final transition of my dress code will be complete maybe next year. That's when I will stop wearing my veil."


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com

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