I am in the process of trying to disentangle “Islam” (the world religion with some 1400-odd years of history) and my particular experiences as a North American convert in the early ’80’s.
This is challenging to do for several reasons. First of all, because “Islam” was often used as the justification for everything and anything–by community leaders, and by individuals. It was the ultimate legitimating tool for almost any action.
Second, because I was involved in or associated with different Muslim circles at different times, and they understood or defined Islam differently. Yet, those differences were often rhetorically blurred for a number of reasons. All the differences were particularly confusing to converts in particular, and we often missed the nuances of debates about beliefs and practices–or failed to understand that there was a debate going on at all. We had little or no sense of the history behind different positions, and tended to take what people said at face value.
Third, because North American discourses on “Islam” were ever-evolving. “Islam” was and is a moving target–though few community leaders typically admit that.
Frankly, most internet discourses on “Islam” get inane pretty fast. Remarkably wide generalizations abound–made both by believers, as well as those who are not Muslim and have no connection to Islam whatsoever. People generalize all the time about “Muslim women”, “the status of women in Islam,” “converts to Islam”, and so forth, in ways that they probably wouldn’t do if they were talking about almost any other group.
It has taken me some time to realize that a fair amount of what I have experienced is actually not a reflection of most North American Muslim women’s lives. Although I (and often, my convert friends) were often told or otherwise given to understand that “X is Islamic” and that no “good Muslim woman” would even dare to question Y, looking back, I can see that in some cases we were frankly being manipulated. Things were seldom as simple as we were told that they were.
At present, I (and a number of other converts I know) are dealing with the following issues:
the aftermath of bad marriages, ranging from dysfunctional to frankly abusive
psychological trauma (the effects of which range from depression to PTSD)
disturbed and traumatized children
strained relationships with our birth families (with some relationships damaged beyond repair)
serious financial losses/problems
long-term damage to our earning power; obstacles to career advancement
worries about how we will survive once our health does not allow us to work
the aftereffects of social isolation and alienation from the wider society
a deep sense of betrayal and loss
Responses to the situations of people like me are typically not at all helpful, because the usual discourses on Islam and women (or on Islam and conversion) have little room for complexities. Non-Muslim responses often amount to “Well, duh. Of course conversion to Islam would lead to a rotten outcome. What on earth did you expect??” Muslim responses are typically along the lines of “Well of course what you experienced can’t have been the true Islam. Islam, when correctly interpreted, has nothing to do with abuse of women and children. Don’t blame Islam for the bad behaviour of a few Muslims.”
So no real help there. In order to understand and move past our experiences, we need to avoid getting sucked into “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that paints Islam and Muslims with a broad brush, or Muslim sectarian debates about how to interpret Islam “correctly.”
For me, it was a multi-layered situation. On one hand, I was married to an immigrant Muslim man from a very different culture, who belonged to an ethnic group that had faced discrimination and genocide at the hands of its (Muslim-dominated) government. To say that issues of identity, and who does and doesn’t belong were matters of central concern to him and his friends is an understatement. Looking back, I can see that he and his family were deeply traumatized by war, poverty and a lifetime of discrimination by Muslims of the dominant ethnicity in his country. His personality and ideas also changed significantly after marrying me. I will call him The Ex.
I was a Muslim without a community, essentially. The Ex was immersed in the politics and mundane concerns of his small circle of (male Muslim) friends, who all hailed from his part of the world. There was no room in his ethnic community for me. I was an outsider, who couldn’t cook right and didn’t speak the language and didn’t have the right parentage. His ethnic community didn’t offer me any resources for raising my kids as Muslims either, as their main concern at the time was cultural survival, not religion. For them, converts weren’t real Muslims, and white women could never really be proper wives and mothers. They were generally polite, sometimes friendly, sometimes patronizing… but in the end, I could never belong, despite my efforts to learn the language and culture and how to cook “right.”
Being without a community was lonely, and I worried a lot about how I would raise my kids to have a strong Muslim identity without a community. The wider society was a lot more exclusionary towards Muslims than it seems to be now in some ways. For instance, now in the area that I live, hijab is almost commonplace. School teachers know what it is, and don’t make a fuss about kids who wear it. Back in the ’80’s, though, I remember us walking down the street in hijab and turning heads. Literally. Very few women wore hijab outside the mosque, and almost no girls wore it to school. I knew that my kids would face constant questions and challenges about things such as prayers, not eating pork, not dating, clothing, and so forth. They would be seen as weird. How would they deal with that if they didn’t have a community to support them?
Immigrant-dominated organizations in the place I was living at the time (such as ISNA) were concerned with promoting “Islam” as an overarching, pan-ethnic identity that had room for converts and their kids, all right–but due to my husband’s ethnicity, our poverty, and social class, they did not really have room for me either. I couldn’t possibly have afforded to attend the ISNA conference. Their events were nearly always held off in some faraway place that wasn’t accessible to people without cars. Their target audience clearly wasn’t people like me. Groups like ISNA were also far more conservative in those days, and they typically promoted very limiting notions of what a “good Muslim woman” should do and be. I tried to fit into the mold, but ultimately didn’t manage to transform myself–or even to give a very convincing performance. They let me know that I didn’t really belong. There was no way I could have afforded to send my kids to their youth programs or Islamic school anyway.
I was drawn into a Muslim group that I now call The Cult. They recruited me. They were basically on the lookout for the isolated and disaffected who they thought had the drive to help them get their fledgling programs off the ground. They needed manpower and money. I couldn’t help them with the second, but at that time, they were so desperate for manpower that they sought out women as well as men. Their emphasis on teaching and involving women was quite unusual at the time in the area I was living in. Groups like ISNA had almost nothing for girls and women then, and even their youth programs for boys were pretty sub-par. The Cult allowed and even encouraged women to attend teaching circles along with male members, which was almost unheard of where I was living at the time among Muslim groups. The Cult was much more welcoming to converts as well, and talked about how important it was to establish an authentically traditional yet North American Islam here, focusing our efforts on raising our children to be able to deal with the challenges of North American society. The Cult had really good youth programs in the beginning. They were very critical of groups such as ISNA, and cast themselves as far more in tune with the realities of life here, as well as with the richness of Islam’s complex history. The Cult’s vision of Islam included art, poetry, even music. This was way before the emergence of nasheed bands and calligraphy workshops and what-have-you in the North American Sunni Muslim mainstream. Some of us were starved for beauty and intellectual stimulation, and The Cult promised these things… along with salvation for our kids.
So what does “Islam” have to do with the fall-out from a bad marriage, and from years of involvement in a group that turned out to be a cult?
Nothing, and everything.
Nobody said that marrying this particular man is your Islamic obligation. But the teachings on marriage, with their rigid and idealized gender roles acted to trap convert women in particular in bad marriages, and allowed–often even promoted–abuse.
Nobody said go and join a cult. But wherever I looked, authoritarian approaches to Islam were the rule, whether it was in the mosques or in Muslim organizations. Boards and elections were just for show in most cases. The Qur’an and hadith were quoted to exhort people to obey “those in authority” among them, and to follow those who had more religious knowledge rather than relying on their own judgment. The Cult’s gradual descent into full-blown cultish behaviour wouldn’t likely raise any red flags for us when we had long been told by all sorts of Muslim groups and individuals that “according to Islam,” we had to obey our leaders, avoid close friendships with nonbelievers, and make sure that our daily lives revolved around obeying God’s law, no matter how much that might separate us from the society around us.
I am not interesting in discussing whether or not particular acts of abuse we witnessed, endured, or were involved in are or are not “Islamically justified” or in accordance of “true Islam” or not. That sort of discussion functions as a distraction from the main issue: the need for those involved to take responsibility for their actions. For so many years the responsibility for acts of ignorance and (at times) straight-up cruelty has been attributed to God and Islam. It is time that these types of claims are recognized for what they are–attempts to manipulate often well-meaning people into doing or accepting things that they otherwise wouldn’t.