Nowadays, it seems that converts can’t stay out of the limelight.
The latest dust-up about Umar Lee’s video announcing that he has left Islam (and returned to Christianity) is unfolding along the usual lines: Some are questioning why, and mocking his stated reasons for leaving. Others are lamenting that Muslims drove him away “with our bad behavior” and urging that the problems he mentions be decisively addressed. Yet others complain that his criticisms are one-sided and that he doesn’t seem to have noticed all the positive changes that are happening in some Muslim communities in North America. Some claim that he can’t have been a real Muslim in the first place, or that he is being “paid” by “the enemies of Islam” to go through the theatrics of leaving Islam, or that he is really just doing it for money, or media attention. And of course, some are smugly pontificating that the problem is that Lee never really understood Islam “properly,” because he was a Salafi and not a neo-traditionalist (as though no neo-traditionalists have ever left Islam… lol). And yet another claim: his “real problem” is that “he has issues.” That he is “unbalanced.”
In other words, it’s the same tired old lines that are trotted out every time something like this happens.
I didn’t read much of what he wrote, back when he was blogging. And most of what I read, I didn’t agree with. His misogyny and his attacks on people he didn’t agree with were certainly disturbing to me—not because he was too far outside of “the norm” of conservative, Salafi-ish discourse that I was used to, but because he seemed to reflect its most disturbing aspects far too well.
I didn’t know him. I didn’t have any dealings with him. So, I can’t speak to “what really happened.” And my focus here is not to try to diagnose Umar Lee, but to look at these tired claims that are made whenever anyone leaves Islam (or seems to be about to leave Islam, in the view of some Muslims). Especially, the claim that the person “has issues” or is “unbalanced.”
But if people “have issues” or are “unbalanced,” so what??
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when white North Americans (especially when they are male to boot) convert to Islam, that a noticeable number of immigrant Muslims fall all over themselves in, well, near-ecstasies of self-congratulation? That yay, we are da winning team, because “one of them” has joined “us.” So when “one of them” then leaves Islam (or pushes at the boundaries of “mainstream Islam”) then those same immigrant Muslims feel deeply threatened. Betrayed, even. So, they quickly dismiss such ex-converts as “not having understood Islam properly” or having been “paid” or… that they are “unbalanced.”
Thing is, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to such immigrant Muslims (and for that matter, convert Muslim leaders) that “unbalanced” converts pretty much go with the territory of conversion.
I forget where I read that someone-or-other described Roman Catholicism as “here comes everyone.” I get what they are saying—that “Catholic” means “universal.” But if any religious community deserves the “here comes everyone” label in North America nowadays, I’d say it’s the Muslims. Thing is, the Muslims aren’t really prepared for absolutely everyone. I haven’t heard of a single Muslim leader of note in North America who has publicly grappled with the implications of this, unfortunately. The great responsibility of playing leadership roles in a religion that aims to convert everyone, and the range of people that are likely to be drawn into the community, and what this means. What the ethical and practical implications of this are.
Da’wa is given pretty often in North America in scatter-shot ways: Through public talks, that anyone can attend. Through pamphlets, that anyone can read. And nowadays, on the internet, which is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And what sorts of people in North America today are most likely to be drawn to a conservative religious discourse that in its most common da’wa expressions promises simple answers to complex problems?
People who are looking for something. Including, people with problems who are looking for solutions, often on a sub-conscious level.
In any population, there are people who grew up feeling that they didn’t fit in for various reasons. Or who became dissatisfied with their lives as they are. There can be any number of reasons why people have such feelings. Sometimes, there’s a neurological component. In any population, a certain proportion of people have issues ranging from abusive childhoods to undiagnosed mental health conditions. I would venture to say that there are certain features of conservative “mainstream” Muslim discourses as well as community dynamics among converts that some converts with certain types of issues find attractive, such as the notion of brotherhood, the focus on rules, the rigid gender roles, the emphasis on “masculinity” identified with male dominance….
The issue really is not what “issues” a given ex-convert may or may not have, or whether or not they are “unbalanced”… but whether their life as a Muslim helped them deal with their issues, or whether it did the opposite. Whether their life as a Muslim further compounded their problems, providing them with all-too-ready religious excuses for engaging in dysfunctional or harmful behavior.
Who was Umar Lee, really? Only he himself knows, but on Amazon, he described himself as a “Sunni Muslim, father, stranger in this dunya, caller to the deen, product of grassroots urban Islam, student of Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Basir, Sheikh Ali Al-Timimi and Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki.” Reading this, I see hackneyed Islamified phrases that don’t mean very much. Just words that say: “I’m the real deal. I really really am the real deal. And I’m the real deal because I am talking the talk. Reproducing the stock phrases that men claiming authenticity (especially in certain Salafi circles) use.”
There’s no original thought or sense of deep introspection reflected in these words. Which is the point. Authenticity and authority to speak in those circles don’t come from those things, and in any case, they weren’t encouraged.
I don’t want to take pot-shots at the Salafis here—I found the situation much the same among the neo-traditionalists that I have dealt with. Their pet buzz-words and stock phrases are different, but the lack of introspection is in my experience unfortunately much the same.
One aspect of Umar Lee’s blogging (and comments on others’ blogs) that I found particularly disheartening was the preoccupation with Muslim identity—especially, with determining who is and isn’t “really Muslim.” Some of it was pretty awful stuff, as in this comment he made about certain progressive Muslims:
“The question who is a Muslim is a simple one. Does the person belive la ilaha ilulluah and do they belive in Muhammdur Rasululah? Do they pray as the Prophet prayed? Do the believe the Quran is the Book of Allah? Do they fast, pay zakat, and make hajj? Do the believe in the Day of Judgement and that the Paradise and hell-fire are real? Do they accept what there is ijma on? If so they are a Muslim and if not they are a kafir.
The mossad has admitted they have sent people to hajj; does that make them Muslim?
Islam is about submission and when the person says ” well I am too modern or western so I cannot accept A, B and C” then they are not submitting. They are creating their own religion which is not Islam.
It would be OK for me if these people would say ” I used to be Muslim” or ” my family is Muslim” or what not while admitting they do not believe in Islam or adhere to the teachings and therefore are no longer Muslims then for them to try and exploit their Muslim background and create something absurd like the so-called “progressive Islam”.
[Mike] Knight, and those like him, have easy access to American publishers and media because they are giving the message Western liberals want to hear ” Islam as we know it is bad and Muslims are in need of Westernization”.
An example is a recent conversation I had with someone close to the Taqwacore movement in Cali. He told me that almost all of them are agnostics and none of them pray. Yet they still claim to be Muslim because this is trendy and they get some milage from it. I suggest they change the name of their group to Apostatecore; because if you cease believing in the deen you have left the deen no matter if your father was the Grand Mufti.”
This deen is simple. Don’t confuse me. It’s rigid. There’s only one Islam. Either you follow it or you aren’t a Muslim.”
Again, hackneyed phrases, that have been used again and again in innumerable sermons and conference speeches and halaqas (and not only by Salafis). No introspection going on here, no effort to really understand where others are coming from, just judgmental dismissal.
What a fragile thing an identity that is so dependent on dismissing others must be. Because it can’t deal with the complexities of the real world. It labels other ideas perceived as threatening rather than engaging them. And it leaves its adherents with nowhere to go if they begin to doubt any aspect of the system. Because becoming a “progressive” or a “liberal” or a non-practicing Muslim isn’t an option, as it’s constructed as the same as giving in to “the west” and leaving Islam altogether.
In what way does this sort of (all too common) approach to “Muslim identity” help converts who are struggling with their identities (for whatever reason)? Does it give them the tools to live in a complex world… or does it give them a shield to hide behind in order to shore up their own internally shattered selves, or a club to use against others? Does it help them to really think for themselves? Does it foster their creativity? Does it enable them to strive to be their best selves?
A popular myth of North American “mainstream” conservative Islam (often appropriated by immigrant and white convert Muslims from African American Muslims…) is that Islam brings about miraculous transformations in peoples’ lives. That it helps people “clean themselves up,” freeing them from drugs and alcohol and gambling and so forth. But there’s a less positive side to this in some converts’ lives that is not so often examined. The conversion process (and especially, the community dynamics that some converts become involved in post-conversion) can make already-existing problems worse, and effectively cut the convert off from help outside the community.
It is not ethical that some community leaders try to have it both ways: to promote “da’wa” while not concerning themselves with its negative fall-out.