Towards plumbing the cesspool: experiments with counter-racism

The Cult was a neo-traditionalist group. One of the many (as I found out, much later) that emerged in North America over two decades or so ago. As is generally true with groups of this kind in North America, they identified very strongly with the pre-nineteenth century Muslim scholarly traditions of interpretation. Everything needed an isnad attached to it in order to have any validity, and you had to follow the opinions of the scholars, rather than interpret things for yourself.

Hard to say where this mess begins and ends… what a tangled web we weave. (

So, at first glance, anyone might easily think that race could not be a problem in this group. Since the scholars of the past came from many different regions of the world, from Mauritania to South-East Asia to Albania to Zanzibar and a great many places inbetween, and as the well-known hadith has it, “everyone is as equal as the teeth of a comb”, then surely all that would matter would be the depth and sincerity of one’s faith. Skin color, parentage, ethnicity… would not be important. I and my best friend really, honestly believed that this is how it would be.

We were wrong. Of course.

But we didn’t realize what exactly was going wrong for the longest time, race-wise. Even now, looking back, it is a lot to disentangle. Rather like a huge tangle of fishing-line, with no obvious beginning or end, and several rusty hooks to boot.

The leaders of The Cult insisted that our shared faith is the only thing that should tie Muslims together. Not nationalism, or ethnic chauvinism, or anything of the kind. Nationalism was especially bad, because it was modern and not “traditional.”

There was the theory. And there was the reality: Born Muslims and converts of every hue. South Asians raised in North America with a strong dislike of whites in general. Whites trying to pass as somehow non-white. Arabs raised in North America both resenting and feeling morally superior to whites. Arabs fresh off the boat who adored fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair, but despised white female converts. Pakistanis being condescending to other South Asians. Lots of revolutionary rhetoric about Malcolm X.

At first, the group was welcoming to everyone. But as it became larger and more settled in its ways, a racialized hierarchy emerged. This was more obvious among the women—and at the time, it was presented as all about which kinds of women are closest to living in accordance with what God has decreed. This wasn’t something the women made up all by themselves, either—the (male) leadership taught us all that the best women are “traditional” women. That is, born Muslim women, raised in strongly patriarchal families, who haven’t been “contaminated” by modern ideas such as feminism or egalitarian marriages or career aspirations or anything of that sort.

While of course it was considered important for women to wear hijab and pray regularly and so on, the core of being a good woman for this group was about knowing one’s place: that is, in the back rows, or preferably, at home, in the kitchen. And not only knowing one’s place, but being perfectly content with it. Effortlessly. “Naturally.” If you had to psych yourself into liking it, or try to find reasons why you should accept this as God’s will, then of course you weren’t “traditional.” You had been polluted by modernity.

Which is why female converts were seen as intrinsically lesser. Especially white female converts. Because (the thinking went) white females are the most deeply contaminated by secular, godless modern ideas. (“Modern” was a bad word.) Black female converts, as well as other female converts of color, were believed to be less affected by the evils of modernity, so they got more respect than we did.

As this hierarchy was being put forth in increasingly clear terms as “God’s will,” the group was steadily becoming more and more insular and controlling. Only they (the leaders said) had the true interpretation of Islam that would enable the survival of Islam in North America as a wholistic tradition. The fitan that would herald the end of the world would soon be upon us, if they were not already at the door.

I hated myself. My skin was the mark of my spiritual inferiority. Thanks to my white, non-Muslim parents, the poison of godless modernity circulated in my very veins. I could never be purified. I could never be cleansed. God would never, ever be really pleased with me. I could also never trust my own judgment, because my mind had been polluted by modernity from the moment of my birth. So, I needed The Cult’s guidance more than anyone, or so I thought.

Looking back, it was like addiction to crack or something. You think you can’t live without the very thing that is destroying you. And you can’t. Or at least, when your destroyer is removed, you yourself are almost destroyed.

Anyway. The Cult did its best to be unlike ISNA and groups like that. As far as The Cult was concerned, immigrant-dominated groups that tried to make nice to the white non-Muslim North American establishment were absolutely on the wrong track. In contrast, The Cult idealized Malcolm X and African American converts.

I too idealized Malcolm. I read the Autobiography, and whatever I could find about the NOI. I bought a book from an Ansaru Allah street vendor about how Muslim women are to dress and behave. In that atmosphere, the circle of internalized hate could only tighten as a result. North American Muslims were in agreement with The Cult, apparently, that the only good woman was one who was effortlessly domestic and firmly under her man’s control.

Looking back, I vividly recall my friend and I constantly feeling unworthy, that something was intrinsically wrong with us, our ancestry, our birth families, our cultural habits…. In vain we ransacked our family trees, looking for any escape-hatch into a properly virtuous “traditional” ancestry, and finding none. We envied the other sisters, both the born Muslims and the converts of color, because they had been able to fit into the divinely approved “traditional woman” mold, and we never would be able to. Yet, looking back, I realize now that while the group seemed on the surface to favor black converts over white converts, there was more to that than met the eye.

On one hand, The Cult had a number of black members. But the leaders, and the most influential brothers—aka those who made the decisions and held the power—weren’t black. That did not change even as the rhetoric heated up. They idolized Malcolm. But Malcolm was long dead by that time. They could make him into whatever they wanted. They didn’t have to answer to him.

The leaders held essentialist views about different races and ethnic groups—not only about white North Americans, but about every one, including people of African descent in general. They are the “people of the adhan,” we were told. Meaning, they are “naturally” musical. The leaders also believed that men of African descent have a particularly hard time with monogamy or abstinence before marriage—one of the reasons that in their view, Islam (and particularly Shi’ism, with its mut’a marriage) is supposedly the most suitable religion for them. And this nonsense was supposedly based on “traditional psychology”…. good lord. Anyway, it’s no wonder that that group didn’t end up with black leaders.

Because the group put so much emphasis on tradition and old texts, Arabic and the ability to read it was particularly favored. Which gave Arabs in the group a status which others could hardly compete with… though the Pakistanis gave them a run for their money. The cultural ambiance in the group was a sort of blend between Arab and Pakistani (in terms of food, “traditional” clothing, celebrations, etc.). Black converts’ cultures hardly received attention, much less validation.

Looking back, I realize to my horror that The Cult was really no less racist than the immigrant-dominated groups that they despised. The Cult’s leaders seem to have thought that they could escape racism by trying to turn the “mainstream” North American racist hierarchy on its head through rhetoric about faith being the bond that should unite all Muslims, and idealizing Malcolm. But in reality, they largely reproduced this racist hierarchy.

And since they saw the future of Islam in North America as unambiguously patriarchal, it made sense to them to divide the sisters against one another on the basis of ancestry. It kept us busy resenting one another, and working ourselves into a lather because our efforts to become something that we weren’t bore no fruit. It kept the gossip mills going. Any sister’s real or imagined deviation from “traditional” or otherwise “proper” behavior, or any comment she made about any other sister’s behavior, would be fuel for discussion by the women, with predictable results. And then the brothers shook their heads and pontificated about how women are just naturally catty and tear one another apart and how women have to be even more thoroughly shut out of decision-making, or there will be fitna….

  1. #1 by MK on August 17, 2012 - 12:31 pm

    Nowadays (in the UK at least) white women converts are considered quite the catch in more mainstream Muslim circles.—a status symbol in fact. Not sure how to express this but its almost seen as a validation for many in the community.

    Definitely, there is racism and the dynamics that you discuss in many ways are similar to the mosques in the UK, where mosques and congregations divide along ethnic lines.

    That said, among many of the younger people (particularly those born and brought up here) there is a recognition and dislike of this racism but its going to be a long time before significant changes in attitude will be seen.

    • #2 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 1:25 pm

      MK–Yeah, that was often the view of more “mainstream” Muslims in North America at that time, too. The group I am talking about was certainly not “mainstream” in their ways of dealing with white female converts.

  2. #3 by luckyfatima on August 17, 2012 - 2:42 pm

    I don’t think any of us can extrapolate us from the larger machine of racism, and we see it play out in bizarre and even perverse ways in many microcosmic social bubbles. That is disappointing that even a group who felt empowered by an anti-racist message went on to create and perpetuate its own hierarchies. I definitely see similar strains in the broader or more mainstream North American Muslims groups, perhaps now in ways that I hadn’t thought of before now that I read some of the points you make here.

    • #4 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 4:08 pm

      luckyfatima—I guess it’s like trying to swim in a very powerful current. You’ll end up opposite to where you want to go if you just splash around and let the current carry you. The leaders seem to have underestimated just how much conscious work would need to be done in order to avoid largely reproducing the larger society’s racist hierarchy within their own group. And that anti-racist rhetoric and putting some black converts in pedestals doesn’t actually change anything, in and of itself.

  3. #5 by x_x on August 17, 2012 - 2:45 pm

    I was really surprised when I started to actually talk to South Asian women–of whom I was extraordinarily jealous for their seeming perfection at traditional gender roles–and they felt as jealous of white women and as angry about it all too. They felt horribly oppressed by us. We were used against them (you talk about this in your other post). It was a much more complicated situation with African American women. As you wrote in your other posts, they were crapped on by everyone, including us, even as we learned to recognize and take responsibility for our privilege. There is no doubt they had (have) it the worst in this male-driven divide and conquer affair. It’s really important that we all talk about how we have been used against each other (and as you pointed out, how we used ourselves against each other because damn we wanted to be recognized as pious). Women need to be a united front, but we have so much to account for in/to ourselves and others before that can really happen. So all to say that these posts of yours are important.

    • #6 by xcwn on August 17, 2012 - 4:18 pm

      x_x : This divide-and-conquer thing is part of the ways that men of all races use the intersection of race and gender (as well as other factors, such as class and sexual orientation) as points of leverage.

      We were being used in so many ways, but couldn’t see it, because we were so consumed with what some other sisters supposedly had that we could never have. Which I guess is part of the reason it is so anger-producing—realizing that we were used in a very cynical way, by people we looked up to and trusted as sources of spiritual guidance.

      And also because being played like that is degrading. For those men, it seems that all women were just counters on a board, to be played off against one another.

      • #7 by Anonymous// on August 17, 2012 - 5:20 pm

        You’ve already spoken about gender and race- I hope you can say something about class too.

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