Archive for June, 2013

Converts, wtf?—More on women leaders

Years passed. Years of being in a neo-traditionalist group (that turned into a cult). After years of that, I had undergone quite an attitude adjustment. I had long ceased to question the idea that marriage and community order had to be patriarchal. I wasn’t expecting female leaders or scholars to uncover some sort of egalitarian “hidden history” or to interpret the Qur’an or the hadith or fiqh in an egalitarian way, either. I mean, the texts say what they say, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it.

But still, when I realized that “mainstream” Sunni conservative immigrant-dominated groups such as the MSA and ISNA were rethinking their past opposition to the idea that women can be leaders, I was intrigued, and hopeful. Maybe, some sort of change in thinking about gender roles was in the offing?

But I didn’t really move in those circles. They were middle-class and immigrant-dominated. Their events were too expensive for me to even think about attending, usually, when they weren’t too far away to begin with. So, it didn’t seem likely that I would actually encounter any of these fabled new female leaders.

But then, 9/11 happened.

Shortly after 9/11, I attended a conference put on by a large and well-funded “mainstream” conservative Sunni Muslim organization. I was in search of solace.

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Converts, wtf — Women leaders?

Continuing with the question of what exactly is up with white North American converts… in my experience, anyway….

Last post, I talked about how we convert women used to think that if only we had community leaders/imams/shaykhs from our own backgrounds—meaning, men who spoke English as their first language, had converted to Islam in North America, and who came from ethnic and geographical backgrounds like ours—then they would be able to provide the sort of preaching, religious advice, etc that was relevant to our lives. They would understand where we were coming from, what sorts of families we had grown up in, the problems that could result when women like us married born Muslim immigrant men. Their priority would be establishing Islam here, not on raising money for whatever the immigrant Muslim cause du jour on the other side of the world was. They would understand the problems involved in raising kids here. Oh, and that they wouldn’t have this “Western women = whores” kind of thing in the backs of their minds, shaping how they dealt with us and the sort of religious advice that they tended to give.

Well, things didn’t work out as we had hoped with many male convert leaders.

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Converts, wtf — leaders, opinion-makers, spokesmen

Where do (Sunni) white convert leaders and opinion-makers come from?

Once upon a time (way back in the early ’80’s), there were few converts where I lived at the time. I would actually get excited when I encountered one. Wow, someone like me!

In those days, there were a few converts who were in the process of becoming household names among conservative, mostly immigrant North American Muslims—but this was usually because they gave inspirational speeches at conferences or MSA events. They spoke on topics such as why they converted to Islam,  or on why Islam is “misunderstood.” They were trophy Muslims, because they were white and (usually) male and reasonably articulate. But few if any immigrant Muslims looked to them for leadership or religious guidance.

There were a few white male converts who spoke at less “mainstream” Muslim events, because they were political activists (or more often, politically opinionated and holding eccentric political views). They weren’t really “leaders” either in any sense. Their political views were welcomed to the extent that they agreed with those of the immigrant Muslims organizing these events.

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Converts, wtf — Impossible predicaments

It’s hard to begin to get a handle on white converts. Even if I limit myself to North America—though I’m not sure that doing that would be entirely accurate. Even back in the stone age (aka pre-internet days), when communications were so painfully expensive/slow, our experiences as white converts were affected by whatever contacts we had with the experiences or ideas of white converts elsewhere (particularly in western Europe). It seems that ours is a transnational experience.

There really is no “white convert community” in the sense of a fixed entity. It’s more like a flowing river… or less poetically, a revolving door, with people entering and exiting all the time (and some still whirling around and around). The convert population is forever in flux. There don’t seem to be many statistics available, presumably in part because it must be hard to study such a small population that is geographically dispersed. One study in Illinois by a Muslim researcher in the late ’90’s found that about 75% of American converts (race not mentioned) leave Islam, but how applicable these numbers might to elsewhere in North America or to the situation now even in Illinois is unclear. But speaking from experience, the converts I knew were often highly mobile in more ways than one: Some left Islam. Some left conservative Islam for much more liberal interpretations (which for us at that time meant pretty much that they had left Islam… and we lost contact with them). Some moved across the continent… or to the other side of the world. Some moved repeatedly.

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Converts, wtf?? — Introduction

The recent news items involving converts and extremism continue to really bother me. I mean, wtf??? What on earth is going on here?

Part of the problem is (for lack of a better word) the horror. Who on earth would have thought that it could be in any way appropriate to hack anyone to death? Some things are just beyond belief.  Young men barely out of high school going somewhere half-way across the world to blow sh*t up and kill people they don’t know much if anything about, inspired by apparently little more than… propaganda videos with men in fatigues with Arabic slogans on their headbands and carrying guns while nasheeds play in the background??

There’s that type of horror, and then there is the quieter, yet somehow even more chilling horror. The stories of converts who get sucked into the role of enabler for extremists. Whether knowingly or unknowingly… or somewhere in-between. Extremists not only in the narrow sense that tends to dominate media coverage—those who use violence—but extremists in terms of social and/or political attitudes.

Part of the problem (again for lack of a better word) is the shame factor. In the public eye, these are my people.

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Entitlement… and identity blues, and persecution complexes

In the last post, I talked about how “The Thaw” reminds me so much of similar North American Muslim discourses that I encountered when I converted. In particular, “The Thaw” reminds me of a particular Muslim rap song by Native Deen that I encountered well after I converted, but when my kids were young and thirsting for all the worldly things that we were trying to censor or prevent their access to.

For us, worried about keeping our kids Muslim (meaning, very conservative and inward-looking Muslim), the cassette tapes of “Muslim rap” and nasheed boy-bands and folk-y stuff that were slowly becoming available in the place we were living in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s seemed like a godsend. At least, Muslim songs with English words for a change that went beyond kindergartener-sounding stuff like “A is for Allah.” Music that sounded cool enough that it could engage our increasingly restless preteens and teenagers. We were perennially short of money, true, but we bought those tapes whenever we could get them, and played them for the kids (and to be honest, also for our own musically-starved selves…) at home and in the car.

Some of the lyrics of these songs disturbed me to varying degrees, but I tried to shove my reservations to the back of my mind. Here we were, after having endured years of music drought, making do with a few Arabic and Urdu nasheeds that we either didn’t completely understand or understood too well (and didn’t like their message…). We now had something half-way decent in English, that the kids would actually listen to. Far be it from me to start raising picky questions about lyrics. I’d better just be grateful, and hope that they’d keep on writing and performing, and that the writing would get better.

We didn’t have that many tapes, so as we played them, the same songs would come up over and over. I soon unwillingly learned the words to Native Deen’s “M.U.S.L.I.M,” and tried to suppress a twinge of… I wasn’t quite sure what… whenever it came on:

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Creating an “entitled” generation… is all too easy

Back to our discussion of converts and downward spirals….

Recently, an evangelical Christian youth group’s video, “The Thaw,” has been making the rounds. (For the video, a transcript, and Libby Anne’s take on it, go here.) Watching it brought back so many memories.

It was fascinating to see a process in action, laid out so clearly… that I had lived through, and that we had tried to put our kids through. A key part of the downward spiral that converts can so easily get caught up in… and that can end up mentally and emotionally trapping them in what amounts to an alternate universe.

Some of “The Thaw”‘s detractors have compared the military rhetoric it uses to a jihadi video. [Which is rather absurd, btw—do the folks who made that point seriously think that hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” owe their existence to jihadi or Muslim influence? Just lol. Christians have never had too much trouble being violent all on their own.] But that’s not primarily what I’m talking about here. While we were steeped in this sort of militant rhetoric as well, what I found most striking about this video is the sense of entitlement that these young people have.

Righteous entitlement. For me, the most chilling part of the video was when the girl with the turquoise and white striped shirt and braces claimed that non-Christians “have stolen our country.” What an incendiary claim.

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