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Backstory: What it means to be Muslim

They went to the same school in Saudi Arabia – so how did they turn out so differently?

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Yasir Kazi was the last person I wanted to sit next to on the plane taking us from the US to Copenhagen for the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) conference last month. But airline ticket counter agents – and divine intervention perhaps – determined otherwise, for there he was, on the aisle seat of my row as we boarded a connecting flight from Iceland to Denmark.

I spotted him immediately at Kennedy Airport. His beard screamed "Muslim." No. More than that, it screamed the kind of judgmental Muslim who would give me a hard time because nothing about me screamed "Muslim." So I had an unfair advantage knowing he was Muslim: If he knew I was, perhaps he, too, would have wished a flight free of conversation with me.

We'd been called to Copenhagen to discuss the integration of Muslims in the West. But it was really the question "What does being a Muslim mean?" that boarded the plane and sat in the empty seat between Yasir and me. The brainchild of the not-for-profit New York-based American Society for Muslim Advancement and the multifaith Cordoba Initiative, the conference brought 100 Muslims of diverse backgrounds from 15 countries to Denmark to discuss how Muslims are faring in integrating in Western societies, in light of the clash of civilizations mentality that has set in since the terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, and New York.

But Yasir and I hadn't even landed yet. We'll get to Denmark later.

I'm a board member of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America. A core tenet of our mission is that anyone who calls him or herself a Muslim is a Muslim – no litmus test, no scorecard for ritual or dogma. Self identity is all we consider. Perhaps it really was divine intervention that I was seated by the window and Yasir by the aisle – that empty chair between us couldn't even begin to convey the space between our outlooks on religion and life.

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