First place: Stepping off the tightrope by Zakaria Sharif

FFRF awarded Zakaria $3,000.

By Zakaria Sharif

Mom, it is not because you raised me wrong. Dad, it is not because you did not take me to the mosque enough as a child. For the first time, this is all on me.

My father is a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh, and for him, religion is a lifestyle. In my father’s eyes, the spicy scent of curries roasting in the oven and the romantic hymns of South Asian music meld together with the stories of Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea. His cultural identity, his very being, is tied in with his religious belief. Without Islam, my father is not himself.

My mother is a small-town African-American woman raised in the pews of the church. She attended Christian school until high school, did not wear pants until she was 16, and had to sneak over to her friend’s house if she wanted to watch television. My mother is the most honest and humble person I have ever met. With every movement, she espouses her morality, never satisfied to pay lip service if her actions will not follow suit. For her, God is the source of all goodness. Without God, there is no morality, no reason. My mother defines righteousness by the bible she reads.

Growing up, I learned that my already complex identity was inextricably linked to religion. I was Zakaria, of course, but that meant that I was both black and Asian, both Muslim and Christian. I navigate the treacherous terrain with great care, sure to never offend one part of my being as I tiptoe across the tightrope of identity. However, my balance always wobbled. The truth is, I cannot define myself by an imaginary force. I cannot envision life based upon preordination by some unknown power. I had to step off the tightrope and allow my true beliefs to be displayed for the world to see.

Dad, I no longer believe in God, but I have not lost touch with our history. My culture, my Asian pride, is located in my bloodstream, in my very DNA. I do not need to justify my heritage by subscribing to a doctrine that does not fit me. Mom, I am a good person, or at least I try my hardest to be. That is not because I fear God or Satan, it is because I fear failing myself. You taught me to always be my best, to treat others with respect and demand nothing less in return. Those ideals did not come from an otherworldly being; they came from you.

I love working on being the best version of me possible. That will never change. Mom and Dad, I love you, too, but for once I have to make a choice for me, and I choose to not believe. I choose instead to embrace who I am and reject any masks that obfuscate my real self. It is nothing you did wrong; it is everything you did right. And for that, I thank you.
Zakaria, 18, graduated from Pickerington High School in Pickerington, Ohio. He was president of the student council, captain of the mock trial team, founder and president of Youth in Government and president of the school’s JSA chapter. Zakaria graduated first in his class and was a National Merit Finalist. He will be a freshman at Stanford University.

Freedom From Religion Foundation