Converts and extremism

I’m not sure that “extremism” is exactly the word I want here. This is part of what makes this subject so hard to think about clearly, much less to write about–what words to use?

Specifically, I’m thinking about converts who get drawn into–or who seek out, or associate with–Muslim groups or movements that have a radical “fundamentalist” political agenda. Meaning, groups/movements that not only believe Islam is “a complete way of life” that should guide everything believers do including their political decisions, but that they seek to impose this vision on others, by force if necessary. And of course, force will sooner or later be necessary, given that many Muslims (much less people of other or no religion living in the countries in question) will not agree with their interpretations.

I was reminded of such converts today by a news story about Khadija Abdul Qahaar (Beverly Giesbrecht). It brought back conflicting, often painful memories of so much of the sh*t that went down during the ’80’s. But it also made me really sad… what? is this kind of thing still going on??

And thinking about it, I realized that yes, it is still going on. This stuff didn’t stop with converts of Rabiah Hutchinson‘s generation. Somehow, I had sort of assumed that since only a minority of female converts had ever gotten heavily  involved in this kind of thing anyway, and that now the internet makes information of the type that tends to get glossed over or hidden from converts so much more easily available, women would stop getting sucked in. Clearly, I was wrong. Reading about Khadija soon reminded me of other newbie converts who seem to be going the political route and end up attracting (often quite negative) media attention.

The media tends to highlight things that are generally considered strange or shocking or dangerous. White female converts are often considered strange in “mainstream” North American (and Western European, and Australian) society. If they are (or seem to be) politically active in support of Islamist causes or viewpoints, they are usually regarded as even stranger, if not perhaps dangerous. A tiny number do in fact prove to pose a threat to public safety, as in the notorious case of  Colleen (Fatima) LaRose.

Converts to any religion (not just to Islam) tend to be stereotyped as excessively religious and given to taking things “too far.” I would agree that conversion is an unconventional, even at times a radical act, in the sense that we cut ourselves off at the roots, and try to put down roots in another religious framework. Under the best circumstances, that can be a difficult, even destabilizing thing to do, even for those who aren’t battling internal demons or trying (and failing) to recover from difficult past experiences.

Ok, I’m trying to understand where these noobz are coming from–and not doing a very good job of it. Partly because I had been assuming that three things had dramatically changed Muslim community dynamics here: the internet, the soul-searching that happened post 9/11 among many Muslims in North America, and the pretty public efforts of some Muslim public intellectuals to rethink issues such as the notion that apostates and blasphemers should be killed. When we have the internet, what excuse is left for anyone in the wired world not to know the reality behind the utopian Islamist slogans? Or the tragic concrete human cost of the extreme rhetoric that used to fly around at many “mainstream” Muslim events? Or that there are multiple “Islamic” approaches to any legal issue, including hadd punishments??

But anyway. The tragic or dangerous examples get media coverage, and because these don’t represent the experiences to many women, they can easily ignored or brushed aside by Muslim communities as anomalies. They don’t seem to be prompting much if any reflection or concern, at least none that I am aware of. But there’s a significantly larger issue here–the long-term effects of the sh*t that used to go on. The lives of women (and their children) that never made the front pages, or any pages at all. Who are still here, still dealing with it all.

I can remember some of the “mainstream” Sunni conservative Muslim discourses in North America in the early ’80’s. Entering that world as a convert was like entering a fun-house–up was down, down was up, the floors and walls were crooked, and every mirror distorted your reflection. It was disorienting. The works of men such as Maulana Maudoodi and Sayyid Qutb (and their various disciples) were freely available. According to their votaries, Islam supposedly held the solution to everything, including (or especially) modern social, economic and political problems. The idea that an “Islamic state” was a good thing was vigorously promoted. The notion that hadd punishments (such as death for apostates) were divinely mandated and unalterable was usually upheld as normative, at least in theory. In such a context, what exactly is “extreme,” and how can you tell??

Looking back, I can also recall that many–perhaps the majority of immigrant Muslims who attended such things, I am not sure–evidently didn’t wholeheartedly accept such political views. For instance, I can remember that even most of the religious Palestinians supported Palestinian secular nationalist rather than fundamentalist political groups, which puzzled me at the time. But their discourses on religion and politics were aimed at one another (or at best, at other Arabs); they were usually conducted in Arabic, with their own frames of reference that made little sense to us.

And there were also political refugees from Iran, as well as secular activists from various Muslim-majority countries who opposed both their dictatorial regimes and Islamist parties/groups such as the Ikhwan al-Muslimin, FIS, Hezb ad-Da’wa, and the Jammat-i Islami. We sometimes encountered them, though not at Muslim events. Fundamentalist Muslims told us that these “seculars” had nothing to say that was worth our time to listen to. Sure, there were inevitably problems in any newly minted “Islamic government” as well as in Muslim political parties, but that was just because problems such as poverty and the lack of “Islamic consciousness” couldn’t be solved in a day. Those whiners should have had patience and continued to work within the (“Islamic”) system for change, not turned against the idea of “Islamic government” altogether. They were like the hypocrites of the Prophet’s time. Or, they were in the pay of the “enemies of Islam.” The stuff they were saying about torture and extra-judicial executions and so forth was made-up or exaggerated… and so on.

We bought into such Islamist claims. Partly because their secular opponents seemed so shrill and (for lack of a better word) bitter. In some cases, the sight of people like us in hijab incensed them. We didn’t really understand why, but dismissed them as secular fanatics who had an irrational hatred for religion. But partly also because we felt personally threatened by them, and drawn to the Islamists for a number of reasons that really had little to do with religion per se, now that I look back on it.

In the ’80’s, it was the fundamentalist political discourses, with their emphasis on pan-Islamic solidarity regardless of ethnicity or national origin, which were most easily accessible to converts. Promoters of fundamentalist political discourses produced literature in English (and other European languages), and tried to tailor their message to Muslims outside their ethnic group. They had utopian visions of what an “Islamic state” would be like that appealed to our idealism. For converts, who had heard or read that Islam promotes justice, the contrast between such ideals and the lived realities in many Muslim-majority countries was very disturbing–but fundamentalism seemed to offer a way to deal with this by becoming involved in activism. Fundamentalism also offered belonging to the umma for those whose ethnic backgrounds would otherwise have marginalized them.

Also, encountering a view of the world that the media and our education had not exposed us to decentered some of us. (We were young and often naive, and this was way before the internet.) Realizing the the usual media narratives about the Middle East, Islam and Muslims were vastly over-simplified (and sometimes flat-out incorrect) really shook our world. Who and what then to believe? We were then open to what we thought (or is that wanted to believe?) were anti-imperialist media sources, which were Islamist publications of various kinds.

Another reason that Islamist movements and their ideas often appealed to us was that such movements usually claimed that one of their aims was to do away with what they saw as wrong or oppressive social customs, and to replace them with properly “Islamic” ones. We in turn often interpreted this through the lens of notions we had about what “Islam says about women.” These notions were based on pamphlets (often aimed at North American audiences), talks we had heard at Muslim events, and so forth–so, they vastly oversimplified Islamic law and the histories of interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith, and usually presented a rosy, idealized picture uncomplicated by scholars’ differences of opinion or lived realities. So, we tended to assume that Islamist movements would improve women’s legal status and give them more choice about how to live their lives–within the bounds of what is “Islamic,” of course. I cringe now to recall how we unreflectively put our own experiences and aspirations front and centre when we made such assumptions.

A rather curious aspect of a number of immigrant Muslim discourses in North America in the ’80’s was the idealization of the Prophet’s female followers who took part in battles, such as Nusayba bint Ka’b and Umm Sulaim. Even groups that were otherwise very conservative, especially when it came to the roles that women could play, as well as quite apolitical (such as the Tablighi Jamaat) still circulated literature that glorified certain early Muslim women for their self-sacrifice and “devotion to Islam”, as reflected in stories about them tending the wounded, carrying water for the warriors, and sending their sons off to fight, as well as occasionally fighting against the enemy themselves.

Some literature of this type went further, arguing that since the Prophet had allowed a few women to not only be physically present on the battlefield (a place that was both masculine by definition and very dangerous to boot) but also at times to take up arms, that it is perfectly “Islamic” for women today to pursue careers, even in male-dominated fields, and also to be actively involved in community affairs and politics. While those who made the latter claim also carefully hedged it around with a number of conditions that did not in fact give any woman carte blanche to pursue any career  or activist or political direction of her choosing if her family, husband, and/or community did not agree, we got the idea that these warrior women from centuries ago were role models. Some of us were drawn to their example, so seemingly different from the prevailing message we were being fed about how our be-all and end-all as good Muslim women was to be obedient wives and devoted, self-sacrificing mothers whose days ought to be entirely spent in cooking, cleaning, catering to all the needs and wants of our husbands, and prayer. Under these circumstances, getting involved in Islamist groups’ activities, whether through attending or contributing to fund-raising events to going to demonstrations was an outlet for our supposedly “unfeminine” idealism and activist energy that an “ideal Muslimah” was otherwise not supposed to have, much less express.

Back in the ’80’s, “mainstream” Sunni organizations in North America supported the so-called “jihad” in Afghanistan. And why not, when the then-president of the USA Ronald Reagan had proclaimed that the Afghan Mujahideen are “freedom fighters”? Money was openly raised to support various Afghan relief organizations as well as political factions. There was no independent oversight of where the money went or what it was spent on. People went to Afghanistan to support the jihad. Fighting and dying in Afghanistan “in the way of God” while fighting “godless communism” was romanticized. It was understood that once the Mujahideen had driven out the Russians that they would establish an “Islamic state”–or at least, that the right-thinking groups among them would.

And an “Islamic state” would supposedly solve all problems, ranging from poverty and social inequality to… well, everything. Islam was supposedly the solution.  Government bureaucracies would be cleansed of bribery and corruption. Jails would no longer hold political prisoners. Torture would no longer be practiced.  Rulers would no longer be able to pass whatever laws or decrees they liked. Education would be universal and free to everyone. Harmful cultural practices than prevented women from enjoying their Islamic rights would be abolished. And so forth.

Even more importantly, its proponents claimed that every Muslim should want to live in an Islamic state, and should support all movements to establish such states. Those who did not do so would die a death of jahiliyya–they might as well have died as pagans. Because monotheism supposedly means that God’s rule should be uppermost everywhere, so those who don’t support a political order that puts pious men in charge of enforcing God’s laws aren’t true monotheists.

I can see why some converts fell into this way of thinking back in the ’80’s. Information and communication were limited, and an “Islamic government” was still an untried theory. Surely nothing that Muslim fundamentalist-led governments could come up with could be worse than what secular nationalists and socialists of various stripes were already doing… or so it was argued.

Limited information also allowed us to believe what we wanted to believe. There was always a plausible-sounding excuse for all the horrifying news coming out of countries or regions where an “Islamic government” or an “Islamic party” was in control: The media exaggerate. Those people who are fleeing the country and claiming refugee status are just hedonists who don’t want to live under an Islamic state because then they won’t be able to buy alcohol or run around half-naked in miniskirts. And so on.

We felt personally attacked by the secular critics of such “Islamic” governments or groups. A couple of times, I was harassed in public places by Iranian opponents of the regime who knew nothing about either me or my views, but evidently assumed that wearing a headscarf (even by a non-Iranian in North America) equals support for Khomeini. It did not really occur to us to wonder what might have caused them to react so negatively at the mere sight of a hijab… though with time, some of us would find out the hard way, once it was far too late.

So what are some of the long-term effects of this type of political involvement?

A lot depends on the sorts and degrees of involvement individuals and families got drawn into. Some went to war zones for relief work, and now have PTSD. If they took their kids, their kids are now sometimes dealing with trauma. Those who spent years doing volunteer or very poorly paid work for Islamist (or Islamist-oriented) groups now have stuff on their resumes that will hinder them getting a “real” job, and may work against them in future. It is astounding to look back and realize that nobody at that time seemed to think that taking kids to war zones might be a bad idea. Or, that PTSD even exists. Or that sabotaging one’s future ability to earn a decent living is a reasonable thing to do, even when you have kids to feed and no financial resources.

But over and above these types of very real problems, what I tend to see is an overwhelming sense of betrayal. Of guilt. Of disillusionment. Of knowing that you were essentially used by others who you looked up to as “good Muslims”, for their own political purposes. Of realizing at long last that despite what you thought were good intentions, that you were drawn into something that caused terrible suffering to many innocent people. And not only that, but suffering that was inflicted in the name of God. Because some of us wanted desperately to believe that “Islam is the solution” to every problem, and were afraid to question the simplistic notion that “Islam is a complete way of life” and that Islamists’ visions of an “Islamic government” must be assented to by every true believer.

We thought–and were led to believe–that every sacrifice was worth it, because it was supposedly all for God.

There are really no words to describe the emptiness that follows the realization of what was really going on behind such seemingly pious exhortations.


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