This cesspool is really, really deep

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.

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  1. #1 by luckyfatima on August 17, 2012 - 2:17 am

    I don’t think the topic has been overdone. Maybe in certain little bubbles. But not really.

    I wrote this a couple of years ago, and it still stands true.

    http://luckyfatima.wordpress.com/2009/06/04/everything-i-say-is-to-myself-some-thoughts-on-white-privilege-in-the-ummah-for-brookes-carnival/

    What you wrote here about your ex makes me think of point 7 from that post. Recent US immigrant Muslim racism is inexcusable and just plain ugly. It hurts individuals, is divisive, and wounds the entire community. But it does exist in a larger framework of racism.

    7. Yes, I know a lot of native Muslims, either in Muslim countries or immigrant Muslims, are very openly racist. They are not politically correct. Whatever group it is, they think they are better than other groups and they often make comments about other groups as if their opinions were fact. They are shocked and think you are crazy if you point out their racism because they view their racist opinions as fact. “But such and such group IS miserly!” “But they really ARE dirty!” and so forth. Their home countries did not have a civil rights movement or a political correctness movement that altered the way that people talked publically about race, and it shows very often in the comments they make. In the American context, they also tend to filter, concentrate and repeat racist ideas that are part of American racism, such as dislike and fear of black Americans, thinking of Latinos as low class, etc. (and non-Americans get these stereotypes of Americans of color from the globally dominant American pop-culture) This is terrible, too, and very worth addressing. We as white Muslims enter these communities and become privy to these kinds of racist discussions. Well, it leads back to basic anti-racist principles: People of color do say racist things and are indeed prejudiced. But systematic, institutional, power bearing structured racism is White like Us. Though the native Muslim racism does have implications in immigrant mosques, and abroad very deeply in Muslim majority countries, the most powerful face of racism is still white. So it is simply more dangerous for whites to be racist. Not to mention that whatever racist hierarchies persist in the Muslim countries, or within immigrant communities whites are still on the top of the heap. When whites are in these spaces of people of color and hear the open racism spewed about, while in polite white Western society racism is very present but not so direct, whites tend to feel smug and superior to these Muslims because whites think “We are not the racists, They are so very racist.” I will reiterate that our communities in the Ummah have a lot of work to do on racism in general. But white Westerners are not better than them just because we generally use more politically correct language. And any white readers know that in the privacy of white spaces, anti-Jewish, anti-black, anti-Chinese, etc. racist stuff has been said overtly in front of us before at some point in our lives, too. So maybe whites are politically correct in polite company more than some immigrant Muslims of color, but privately white people can often sound the same as if there were no such thing as political correctness invented as a concept. Another observation is that I have seen white Muslim converts intermarried with men of color who pick up an repeat some of the same prejudices that they get from their adopted communities. Where I live there is a hierarchy in which Arabs are above South Asians, and some white women married to Arabs feel superior to white women married to South Asians, for example. Or a white woman married to a Lebanese starts to dislike Egyptians because she hears Lebanese people talking crap about Egyptians. I have seen this. This is really sad because it means that despite being raised to be politically correct in polite society, we seem to pick up these racist habits without even recognizing it.

    ****

    I also view recent immigrants’ prejudices in the light of trying to get closer to whiteness, trying to get on top of the heap, trying to prove what and who they are not since mainstream society juxtaposes those things with whiteness. We see it with a lot of immigrant and minority communities, not just Muslims. (No, I wasn’t pulling a “but they do it, too.”) More like it is all related. Step on black Americans to push oneself to the top. We are not like them. We still hate whites, especially because of how powerful they are, so we revel in our moral superiority to them to lessen the smarting of lack of full access to power. They have their privilege but we have our moral superiority and our place in heaven, their women are trash, their families are broken, blah blah blah. But we still want a piece of that pie. So here we go climbing on the heap. Once again, NOT excusing, just parsing out the “why.”

    I hope that little parenthetical statement about another post will come to fruition.

    • #2 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 4:20 am

      luckyfatima—Thank you for your comments. You make a lot of really insightful points. Especially about how white converts are sometimes very judgmental of immigrants’ racisms, yet also pick up the prejudices of their husbands or communities. I have seen that happen often enough. As well as how recent immigrants step on African Americans as a way of trying to “belong.” Very true.

      As for the notion that it is somehow less dangerous for people who aren’t white to be racist: I don’t agree. If what you mean is in North American mosques, I can see the point, but even there (especially in very insular Muslim communities) racism perpetrated by anyone can be incredibly damaging. As for elsewhere in the world, my post mentioned genocide, for heavens’ sake. If that’s not dangerous than what is?
      All this is not to let whites or anyone else off the hook for racism. I have absolutely zero interest in playing the “but they do it too” game.

      • #3 by Pamela (momtotsan) on August 17, 2012 - 4:14 pm

        I think many white women who convert are actively aware of and working against the insidious racism that we all inherit as part of our culture. The leap from the privileged state of white Christian (even if you aren’t christian, it is assumed you are if you don’t make it clear you aren’t by dress or other means), to brown-aligned other is often after a lot of soul searching about race, color, and the relation of all humans to the Divine. So confronting racism and being the object of racism within that new culture can be all the more difficult to deal with, especially when it is pooh-pooh’ed. Not to say that other converts of whatever back ground aren’t also consciously rejecting racism when they convert, but that it is a dynamic that many white women are very aware of and sensitive to, and perhaps a bit proud of, that they are rejecting the racism and religious bigotry of their own culture. Being confronted with appalling racism within their new, adopted culture is often really shocking, especially because there is no shyness about it.

  2. #4 by x_x on August 17, 2012 - 3:47 am

    “dividing the umma” I heard that!

    • #5 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 4:34 am

      x_x : I know that you would never, ever divide the umma. Whoever told you that was way off base.

    • #6 by luckyfatima on August 17, 2012 - 1:00 pm

      Global white supremacy and global structures of white privilege—both part and parcel of white racism, really are more dangerous… It is propped up by colonialism and empire, both past and modern, and the ways modern white power structures are deeply connected to white colonialsim. White racism and supremacy makes us feel fine meddling in the affairs others and has for centuries, ultimately because we are white and they are not. It makes the powerful modern Anglophone nations feel perfectly comfortable perpetuating other nations’ ethnic divides by having the power, means and sense of entitlement to decide who to support (when it benefits us, and change “sides” when it benefits us), who to arm, whose strife to ignore, whose to label genocide, whose to make a “cause,” and so on. We decide who to secretly put in power, who to support the over throw of, who to assassinate, and we can actually fund and manipulate to ensure our desires happen. We can violate international laws unquestioned and bomb Cambodia and set the dominoes into effect that let the Khmer Rouge take over. We can arm Saddams and Contras. We can decide who needs some drones dropped on them. We can decide to be the best buddies of certain people because of the oil under their soil and ignore that they were being killed by people we armed before. We can decide to support guys who we know are evil. White racism in the form of global white supremacy lets us get away with this. We feel that our will is best because we really know what is best for the world and we have the power to take these actions to perpetuate our standing in the world. Many of the conflicts we see today (including the one I guess your ex is connected to) have been perpetuated due to the fact that powerful whites whose actions form the base of modern white supremacy felt entitled to divide land and set modern national borders on top of people. That is the same case in many, many conflicts we see in the region, in African nations, and beyond. Then we (whites) generally tend to see things in terms of brown, black, and yellow people killing each other due to prejudice and their own vying for power, but we fail to remember how our own peoples have had a hand in setting the stage for the conflicts. Can you see how our power bearing white racism is more dangerous in this sense?

      • #7 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 1:55 pm

        luckyfatima—On what you could call the “board-game level” of world politics, certainly, I would agree that white racism is more dangerous. And yes, powerful white governments (or white-dominated multinational corporations) have their hands in practically any conflict that’s going on anywhere today, including the genocidal campaign I was discussing. (Which was something we never forgot.) But ultimately, it wasn’t governments or arms-dealing corporations who carried out the actual atrocities.

        Though, I don’t think the blame was just on the men who did the killing either. In order for that sort of thing to happen, there’s a complicated web of complicity that has to be in place, and everyone caught in that web is mainly focused on their own and their family’s survival. Individuals are brought to the point where they don’t think they have choice. And they don’t have many, unless you count choosing death over following orders. But racism and other sorts of prejudice are an important part of what makes constructing that web possible, and sustains it. And those in North American mosques who remained silent while all this was happening, or worse yet justified it DID have choices that they chose for their own racist reasons not to make.

        This is a whole complex issue that has a lot to do with mental health issues, actually, and how they are often not being addressed. North American mosques and Muslim communities contain god-only-knows how many people who have been through these things on whatever side of the conflict, and have never worked through it, or gotten the help that they need. In many cases, poverty is a barrier to accessing professional help; in others, there are other factors involved. Some people’s way of working through this stuff is to hate. I’ve seen that first hand, and yes, it has real-life harmful effects of those who live with such people.

        But I think that at the micro-level (rotten patriarchal marriages, Muslim cults) that non-white racism can be very harmful and do a lot of serious damage. The issue here is power and who has it. In the (very unusual) situations that I am blogging about, there is an unequal power dynamic (that is at the intersection of gender and race… and sometimes also, class), and the people who do have the power wield it in the name of God, which makes it all the more difficult a situation to get out of.

        I am not blogging primarily about the problems of the world, nor am I interested in telling Muslim communities of color what to do. I primarily focused on trying to recover from my own experiences.

  3. #8 by luckyfatima on August 17, 2012 - 2:27 pm

    “But I think that at the micro-level (rotten patriarchal marriages, Muslim cults) that non-white racism can be very harmful and do a lot of serious damage. The issue here is power and who has it.”

    Very much agree.

    • #9 by Pamela (momtotsan) on August 17, 2012 - 4:22 pm

      And I don’t think it is such an isolated situation, either. My (also now ex) husband was warned against marrying me because I was a white convert, and we are all “experienced” and demanding.

      On another point, I think that white folks have to guard against falling into another form of racism, which is almost a form of arrogance, that white people are the most dangerous ever. Given the romance in American popular culture with the bad-ass hero, the idea that whites are more rapacious, more lethal, etc, is almost a point of pride. Violence, racism, avarice, exploitation, etc are not uniquely white, they are part of the human condition. Whites have been historically in the right place at the right time, but I hope no one seriously thinks that if it had been Arabs, or black people, or chinese, etc, etc, etc who had been in the same situation at the same time, that the world would have turned into butterflies and god’s rays and multicultural groups of children dancing in the daisies.

      • #10 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 4:35 pm

        Pamela—My experiences in these insular Muslim situations (a bad marriage, The Cult) showed me that no matter who is in charge, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Regardless of race.

        But the larger racist system is not the same thing as individuals. It seems to have a momentum of its own, at this point in time, at least. I didn’t begin to realize just how racist the wider society is (as a system) until I exited my conservative Muslim community and dehijabed. But that’s another post.

  4. #11 by luckyfatima on August 17, 2012 - 6:13 pm

    Pamela, conquering and annihilating others is not an inherently white trait. We are for the time being the most dangerous collective group in the world, though. That’s hardly a point of pride or arrogance, more like a realistic condemnation. We are the only group with so much power from our current empire and who collectively benefit from past conquers. One could look at the Mughal Empire or any numerous other situations of empire that had nothing to do with white people, we know the histories, but the difference between today’s white empire and those empires is that the descendants of those conquerors are not still benefiting from the history and establishments of that empire. If they were, I’d say they were part of the problem. But they are not. Huge difference. Turning things around like you have done, and saying anyone else would do the same in our position, that seems like white deflection to me.

  5. #12 by Heather Rawlings on August 19, 2012 - 9:45 pm

    just curious, when you speak of the “cult” what exactly do you mean? Are you refering to a particular school of thought or perhaps a Sufi group? I’m just trying to put it in a framework here. Thanks.

    • #13 by xcwn on August 20, 2012 - 4:26 am

      Heather—No, not a school of thought or a Sufi order. While mosques, Muslim organizations or Sufi orders can be authoritarian and controlling in some ways, this group that I am talking about went way beyond that. When I call this group The Cult, I am not trying to insult them; I’m saying that they were hyper-controlling to a degree that was psychologically harmful.

      For example, we weren’t supposed to have friends outside of the group (not even Muslim friends). We weren’t supposed to attend events put on by other Muslim groups, unless our intention was to recruit others and bring them to our group. This article lists some of the characteristics of Muslim cults; the group I was in fits the profile pretty well (except for “confession”–fortunately, we didn’t do that).

      While at the time we rank-and-file didn’t know it, I now find out that there have been and still are quite a number of Muslim groups of that sort in North America.

  6. #14 by H on December 24, 2012 - 3:22 am

    As-Salaamu Alaikum,
    Thanks for your posts on this topic. I converted to Islam six years ago, and I never expected to experience so much racism and hatred. I have been humiliated by Muslims and the two Algerian men who I married in ways that no one could possibly imagine. It wasn’t until recently that I recognized the immense hatred for the white race that seethes from Muslims. I wore the hijab for six years, and I never made any Muslim friends. They always had an excuse for not being friends with me. On top of that, I was ostracized by my family and friends for becoming Muslim. It was torture, the whole thing, I was completely terrorized by Muslims, you have no idea. They should definitely not be allowed to practice their religion in our country which is the United States. I hope they are destroyed. I have never hated a group of people so much.

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