Why does the racism discussed in the previous post matter? aka it’s been talked about before. A lot. And the discussion tends to unfold in predictable ways.
How the discussion unfolds seems to depend on who has raised the issue in the first place.
When white female converts discuss these things, it sometimes gets a polite hearing, depending on where and by whom. Both Huda Khattab (in her books, The Muslim Woman’s Handbook, as well as Bent Rib) and J. Lynn Jones (in her Believing as Ourselves) have dealt with some of this stuff. These books have been easily available through fairly conservative Muslim sites and bookstores for some years now. Lots of Muslims have read them, and have apparently found them insightful. But have books like those, or blogs by white female converts led to any major, concrete change? Certainly not in any community that I know of.
But at least these women got a reasonably polite hearing—a minimal courtesy that in my experience doesn’t seem to be often extended to black female North American converts who want to discuss racism in Muslim communities.
What does it mean that those most severely affected by racism are given the least amount of space to be heard? When they are ignored, or dismissed, or silenced with reproaches that they are “just being too sensitive” or “dividing the umma”?
I am not entirely sure—though I suspect that I know the answer. (That would be another post.)
But then, I am still trying to sort out all those memories, and see them in a larger context. It’s often difficult to make much sense of it all.
And the more that I think about all the sh*t that went down, the more I realize two things: First, that my experience probably wasn’t typical of most white converts, even those who converted at around the same time as I did (the early ’80’s). Which (among other things) makes it hard for me to give a good answer to the question I just raised. I don’t know enough about life in the “mainstream” Sunni communities. Second, that it is all way more convoluted than I had thought. It seems that there was way more self-deception going on around race than there was even with sex. Which is saying something. This cesspool is really, really deep. I don’t know if I will ever entirely understand all the stuff that happened.
For over two decades, I was married to a man who (along with his ethnic community) had at best a highly ambivalent attitude to white women and white people in general. Unlike some born Muslim immigrant men I would later encounter, he didn’t see having married a white girl as some sort of achievement—quite the contrary. He really wanted to marry a girl from his own ethnic community, but wasn’t able to, due to poverty and war and a scarcity of girls from his community available for marriage in North America at that time. Many men from his community had married out for similar reasons—and weren’t too thrilled about having “had” to do so, either.
On one hand, he and many in his community definitely preferred fair skin, especially in brides. On the other, they valued ethnic purity highly, and they looked down on white women. Part of it was a concern about passing on their language and culture (understandably so, given the political situation they were facing in their homeland at that time), but part of it was based on a disdain for anyone—especially, for any woman—who wasn’t Muslim and (preferably) also from their ethnic community. They didn’t even have much respect for women from religious minority communities in their homeland, and saw them as morally “loose.” Apparently, Muslims from his ethnic community had gotten the sexual morality thing down pat, and copyrighted to boot.
White women in their view were not really moral. Because they didn’t value family. Because they flirted and dated and slept around before they got married. Because they were “easy.” Because they weren’t good wives and mothers. Because they didn’t dress modestly. Because they might leave a marriage if they felt they weren’t being treated fairly. Which meant that they weren’t patient and loyal and self-respecting like the women in his community supposedly were… or at least, the women from “respected families.”
So, men like my ex desired fair-skinned women but not white North American women. He and his friends knew all there was to know about white women (or so they said) because they had slept with so many of them when they were at college. He and his friends would trade stories, each more outrageous than the last, which “proved” just how depraved white women (and men) were.
Any attempt on my part to suggest that these stories were not representative of all or even most white women would be dismissed. What did I know? They had slept with all those women, and I hadn’t. (Since they were such homophobes, their premise was not that if I had, I would have been able to dispute what they were saying, but that as a woman, I would never have the penetrating knowledge even of my own culture that they thought they had.)
His attitudes to white women was part of a much larger pattern of racist attitudes. Unconstrained by “political correctness”, he and his friends would sit and drink tea and hold forth on “Chinese drivers”, “black criminals”, “simple-minded Pakistanis”…. He hit the roof when he found out that my oldest daughter had a black female friend who was not Muslim, because he immediately jumped to the conclusion that this girl who he hadn’t even met was going to be a bad moral and academic influence—although the girl was a straight-A student—and forbade our daughter to spend time with her. Even once I intervened and told him that what he was doing is haraam (and told my daughter to go ahead and spend time with that girl), he was got upset every time her name was mentioned.
He had little use for South Asian or sub-Saharan African imams or community leaders either. His attitude to them was: what can they possibly have to teach me about Islam? Do they even speak Arabic? Even if they did, and had studied in an Arab country, he didn’t look to them for religious guidance or leadership, unless even the Arabs conceded that the man was highly knowledgeable and worthy of being listened to.
He was a racist. Though he would never admit it. Because “in Islam, there is no racism” as he would say. He had religious excuses for all of his racist attitudes. It’s not all that hard to do.
Looking back, I wonder why on earth I didn’t realize early on just how racist he was, and leave him. By and large, it was the political situation of the time. His ethnic group was facing oppression and then genocide at the hands of the (Muslim) ethnic majority in his homeland. I could at some level understand why he and his friends had so much hate. As the killing was in full swing, I watched as the majority of Muslims of other ethnicities did… absolutely nothing. Some Muslims in the city we were living in at the time even justified what was going on! I could not believe how anyone could hate a group of people so much that they could justify the atrocities that were occurring. It was clear to me that on some level, they didn’t really believe that people from my ex’s ethnicity are entirely human.
The hints that this was the case had been around me for years, of course. How Muslims from the dominant ethnicity in his homeland would look down on people from his community. How some spoke condescendingly about their language, their culture and their traditional clothing.
I saw the aftermath of all that, and what I saw I will never, ever forget. There are really no words to describe the realization of just how many people must have been involved in order to bring about death and destruction on such a scale.
But understanding (to the limited extent that I could ever understand where he was coming from) is one thing; living with all that hate is quite another, especially when you are trying to raise children—who after all are “mixed.” For that (I thought) one needs a Muslim community, that is open to people of all races and ethnicities, and is serious about building something in North America (as opposed to, say, returning “home” when the war ends and things settle down). This was one reason why when The Cult made overtures, I was willing to give it a try. So, I ended up in a group that turned out to be a cult… and the racial dynamics there were quite something.