A recent comment I received from Shereen concluded with her stating that “5% of me is just really bothered with how your posts reflect poorly on Islam, without noting that you still choose to be Muslimah even though you are not fond of the Muslim community.”
An interesting attitude—and one that I certainly recognize. We were taught to always avoid saying or doing anything that might make Islam or Muslims “look bad.”
This was a multi-layered issue. First, we were taught that we needed to be extremely careful of saying things that might possibly imply that we had doubts about the truth or wisdom of anything to do with “Islam,” because that could very easily nullify our faith and any good deeds that we might have, and we would end up in hell. It was a sort of “slippery slope” kind of thing. So, objecting to the ways that certain practices were carried out was strongly discouraged, because such objections might suggest some weakness in our faith in the divine wisdom—even if our objections were clearly aimed at the ways that such practices were implemented by certain overly zealous people without regard for context or common sense. Even suggesting that certain practices might have been intended for seventh century Arabia but were not practical in twentieth century North America was branded as kufr in the communities I was involved with.
Second, we learned quite quickly through experience that gossip traveled fast and far. Converts who made the mistake of voicing questions or doubts that others took exception to would be labeled as trouble-makers or bad influences, and perhaps even hypocrites. Other converts would be advised to stay away from them.
Third, we recognized that media coverage of Islam and Muslims in the early ’80′s and ’90′s was almost unrelentingly negative (and when it wasn’t negative, it was usually patronizingly exoticizing). We wanted to counter such media narratives, not reinforce them, so voicing any kind of criticism of our Muslim communities, especially where outsiders might hear us, much less expressing them in print (in those pre-internet days…) was a very risky proposition, in our view. As far as we were concerned, any criticism had to be very carefully expressed, and it had to be made absolutely clear that what was being criticized was only “misinterpretations” or “malpractices.” But even then, it would be problematic, so we had better just keep quiet if we wanted to stay out of trouble.
And fourth—we were taught to “make 70 excuses for your brother.” As well as that it is our duty to obey our leaders and follow those who claimed to have knowledge. So, whatever our leaders would say or do, or even if their teachings or advice might be causing harm to people, we should give them the benefit of the doubt, and keep quite about our misgivings.
In other words, anything that might “make Islam look bad” was utterly taboo for us. We were taught that doubt (much less criticism) was pretty much a one-way road to disaster in this life and the next.
Looking back, I can see that what this taboo largely did was to shield community leaders from criticism, and discourage people from talking about their own experiences (when these experiences didn’t match what we were being told that we “should” be experiencing and feeling). Troubling issues—when these were publicly discussed at all—were quickly dealt with according to well-worn cliches.
So, yeah. I understand where Shereen is coming from. But my answer is: so what. Why should we have to continue to carry the burden of “not making Islam look bad” by keeping quiet about our experiences? Who are we really protecting by our silence?
If our community leaders, our “shaykhs,” our Muslim orgs… had really cared that much about upholding the good reputation of Islam, wouldn’t they have behaved better?
What did they really care about, if not Islam? Could it have been more about their own interests, their own insecurities, their own identity issues??
For years we colluded with our own and others’ oppression, sweeping things under the rug and keeping quiet, believing that with time, community leaders would wake up to the abuses that were going on and “do something.”But I have never seen silence move them to action. I have only seen them act in response to pressure, both from inside and outside the community.
But whatever they do or don’t do, in the meantime, those of us who are trying to recover from our experiences need to do that however we can. And that includes speaking and writing about these experiences.
To my mind, what really “reflects poorly on Islam” are the efforts made to silence people who speak up, the denial that there could be any real problems in Muslim communities, the refusal to allow people to talk about their bad experiences with particular groups or shaykhs, the attempts to stifle free debate and honest criticism.
Groups and individuals who try to manipulate people into silence don’t come across as honest, sincere or even self-confident. They come across as paranoid, and as having something to hide.