Conversion, privilege, leadership… and taking responsibility

Did you know that:

Slavery actually wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, it gave slaves the priceless opportunity to be rescued from paganism and an awfully low standard of living.

Women should never have been given the right to vote. Because women just can’t handle power. Society would be so much better off if women would focus their energies on their homes and families, like God commands, and leave politics to men.

Executing rebellious children is not such a terrible idea, either. Because if kids only knew that their parents had the legal right to end their lives, then they would behave far, far better. So, the law should be changed in order to allow rebellious kids to be stoned to death—after due legal process, of course.

These particular nutty notions have all recently been brought to us by extreme right-wing American Christian opinion-makers (for those who didn’t follow the links).

Reading about such pronouncements from ultra-rightwing Christian fundamentalist men (and occasionally, women) is depressing, but also enlightening for someone like me, who is trying to work through a lot of the truly crazy stuff that went down in (some) North American convert circles in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Because in trying to make sense of so much stuff that was said, sometimes advocated, and sometimes even acted upon, I have long been wondering where exactly this all came from. I mean, how is it that there were converts who were actually defending, justifying, rationalizing… or sometimes, even advocating practices that had (I thought) been rejected decades ago as cruel, inhuman, oppressive and beyond any kind of rational justification??

On one level, I understand the rationalization impulse very well. I was taught that Islam is a package deal, so therefore, you can’t reject any part of it because you don’t think that it is in accordance with your ideas about fairness or human rights or anything else. Of course, the question of what exactly “Islam” is and who gets to define it is central here. In the early ’80’s, “Islam” was mainly defined for me by conservative immigrant men who had been heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami—or in some cases, by the 1979 revolution in Iran. Later, it was defined for me by various neo-traditionalists, who spoke with the authority of “Tradition” (TM).

While these men’s visions of what “Islam” is didn’t always agree, they all left us with a number of things that we supposedly had to just accept as God’s will—and therefore, we had to somehow deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance (as well as with hostile questioners from our families or other outsiders, who tended to bring these issues up). It did seem as though rationalization was all that we could do with things like hudud punishments, polygamy, slavery and concubinage (though only in the past, not the present), the marriage of minor girls, and wifely obedience—which, we were told, included the husband’s duty to discipline his wife, and his right to prevent her from leaving the house.

Yes, the pressure to rationalize, explain away, minimize, etc. was intense. Supposedly, our faith, our salvation, and our status as believers in the eyes of the community we belonged to was at stake. So much was at stake that who would dare to be wrong?? It was hell or your conscience, it seemed. Yes, I caved. For years. I rationalized all this, and more.

So, how can I hold it against other converts who were older, wiser, better educated and apparently highly intelligent that they too caved and played the rationalization game?? Presumably, such pressure was far more intense on converts who had been tapped as having potential to play leadership roles in the community than it ever was on me.

While I can understand why people would fall into the whole rationalization thing (I barely know any converts who didn’t, at one point or another), looking back, I have been wondering where it all came from. Aside from all that pressure. Sure, we wanted to be right, we wanted to be saved, we wanted our worlds to make logical sense, and we wanted to belong. But what else was going on there?

There was a white convert—let’s call him John—who had acquired a certain level of fame among certain conservative North American Muslim communities. He would give talks about how “Islam” was just “misunderstood” and misrepresented in the North American media. He’d talk as though he was an expert on everything from journalism to the ins and outs of Islamic law. Though, looking back, I doubt that he knew much more than who you could learn from the widely available English pamphlets and books written by conservative, often Muslim Brotherhood-influenced immigrant male authors. It wasn’t so much the content of his talks that drew people (including many conservative immigrants), it was his ability to speak about these ideas engagingly (he was a pretty good speaker), as well as the novelty value of seeing a white man talking about Islam as his own personal belief.

In a talk he gave, somehow the issue of the “correct” interpretation of Q 4:34 came up. He defended the notion that men could strike their disobedient wives, if trying to reason with them and then refusing to sleep in the same bed hadn’t worked.

For some reason, this really bothered me. Not the argument itself—I was already very familiar with this “stages in disciplining your wife” discourse, and how it was used to minimize the issue almost out of existence. After all (it was often argued) talking to one’s wife should usually be effective in putting a stop to her disobedience. And if it wasn’t, surely being shunned in the bedroom would drive home to almost any woman that her husband means business, and she would quickly see the error of her ways. So (it was claimed) actually striking one’s wife would almost never happen—at least, if these stages were adhered to. (And if wives were actually being struck, then it could easily be argued that their husbands probably weren’t following the Qur’an properly, which implied that we didn’t have to deal seriously with the issue—a win-win all around.)

But still. There was something chilling in seeing a white, apparently educated, urbane convert spouting this stuff. Someone who looked kind of like my male relatives, the male teachers I had had at school, the male neighbors I had had growing up….

I had barely heard anything about wife abuse growing up. (Looking back, I can now see that it wasn’t became there was no abuse of any sort going on, it was because in my family and in the circles I grew up in, such things weren’t discussed. Women put up with it, and sometimes got out of abusive marriages, but nothing much was said about why they had left, at least not when kids were listening.) So, it was a shock to me when I moved to the big city in the early ’80’s and encountered posters sponsored by some government-funded initiative or other denouncing men’s justifications for hitting their wives. Do people really do that, I wondered. Hit their wives? Which made swallowing the typical conservative Muslim apologetics around Q 4:34 fairly easy too, at least at first. For me at that time, the idea that men might hit their wives was largely abstract. Theoretical. Not something that happened often in the real world.

I had grown up really, really sheltered from the realities of wife abuse. When I was young, the “right” of adults (parents, teachers) to hit children was generally accepted, though there were some dissenting voices. Children could be punished very severely, in ways that resulted in marks, severe pain and real humiliation. I certainly was punished repeatedly in such ways. But that was because children are children—illogical, impulsive, naughty, undisciplined, and therefore supposedly in need of discipline by adults. Part of growing up was supposed to be that you don’t get hit any more. Or so I had assumed.

The dissonance involved in seeing that man on stage making that argument was too much, so I approached him afterwards, and asked him (very politely and hesitantly) how hitting a wife could ever be ok. Looking me in the eye, he responded that it is “shock treatment” intended to bring her back to her senses.

I was the one in shock after that. Shock treatment? What?? I am talking about hitting—hitting!—a woman, and you are talking about….? I didn’t know what to say. He turned away in order to deal with another questioner/fan.

Where did that come from? (I wondered) He seemed affable enough. His wife seemed cheerful, calm and happy in her marriage. Didn’t it bother her to sit in the audience, listening to him say things like that?

Where did their tolerance of such ideas come from?

I didn’t know, so I filed that in the back of my mind, along with all kinds of other pronouncements or written opinions given by converts down through the years (a steadily bulging file, that’s for sure) that I didn’t really know how to interpret.

There are so many things we would like to believe are dead and buried. That they belong firmly in the past. That they cannot reemerge today—or that if we see anything like them today, that these are just exceptions that don’t point to any larger trend.

It took me a while to make any sense of this, helped along by the internet buzz about the views of some extreme fundamentalist Christians on slavery, women’s franchise, and executing rebellious children: I grew up believing certain white, middle-class, “mainstream” myths about my society. Certain myths that sanitized the present and even the very recent past. Myths that conveniently—all too conveniently!—disposed of various kinds of cruelty and oppression by dumping them in the past, where they were supposedly dead and buried.

But that stuff was neither dead nor even really quite buried. It had been marginalized, and the voices of those who used to publicly defend it temporarily muffled. But it was still very much there if you knew where to look.

Those converts who justified, rationalized and even sometimes advocated the unjustifiable weren’t just influenced by ideas about Islam that originated overseas. The content of many such ideas—that slavery wasn’t really so bad, that wives need to be kept in their places, that women and children have too many rights nowadays—isn’t as alien to North American society as some might like to think.

But there’s another dimension to it that is even more disturbing. While ideas like that certainly survive (and sometimes receive media attention) they are still pretty fringe. Except in certain very conservative religious communities, where there’s a market for them. Some pastors/authors/opinion-makers have been fairly successful in establishing followings/ministries/readerships for their illiberal ideas. But by and large, this tends to be (again) a rather fringe thing—and competition within such ultra-conservative Christian pools is fairly stiff. For every man who succeeds in making it (somewhat) big selling his books/tapes/”vision”, many others are elbowed out.

In the ’80’s and ’90’s in a number of conservative, insular North American Muslim communities that I was involved with or had ties to, the pool was a lot less crowded. There was no over-abundance of North American convert would-be leaders, and those there were pretty much had the field to themselves.  They had ready-made audiences of second-generation immigrant kids as well as converts who were looking to them to show they “how to be Muslim” in North America. And also in their favor was the generally authoritarian atmosphere in many of these communities.

And, the bar was low. Very low. Men like “John” could get away with saying things that in almost any other middle-class, urban educated circle would have immediately branded him as a nut-job or worse. The more successful among these speakers/leaders/would-be scholars/shaikhs played upon their “North Americanness” plus their North American educational privilege (which gave some of them the ability to glibly quote Aristotle and Shakespeare along with hadith and medieval Muslim scholars seamlessly as they spoke) as a way to package what were otherwise quite unoriginal ideas about human beings, social order, and gender. And, they would often be celebrated for it, as the hope of Islam/Muslims in North America… or something of that sort.

There is so much privilege going on here that I hardly know where to start. For those who were white, white privilege. For any convert born in North America, citizenship and passport privilege, and usually also, various levels of educational privilege. For those from middle-class (or upper-middle-class) families, class and social privilege. For those who were male, male privilege. For those who were heterosexual and cisgendered, straight and cis privilege….

Privilege means you don’t even have to think about it. So, you can get up there and justify, rationalize and even advocate oppressive ideas that seem quite theoretical to you. Because whatever happens, it isn’t likely that you are going to have to suffer any real negative consequences if anyone decides to put them into action.

It was such a destructive dynamic. Between conservative immigrants all too desirous of any link (however illusory) between their worldviews and the wider North American (white) society that they wanted to be accepted by, and North American converts with varying degrees of privilege and entitlement. Both fed off one anothers’ insecurities and desires.

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