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.

The way more extreme end of my people, to be sure (insert all the usual caveats about “the vast majority of peaceful, law-abiding…” here), but the ones most often in the public eye. The jihadi wannabees, both male and female. The white, angry bearded men whose preachings can be easily found on the internet, justifying striking “disobedient” wives with toothbrushes or voicing other absurd notions that would be quaintly old-fashioned if they didn’t cause so much harm to actual people.  The overly-zealous or remarkably unquestioning female converts in documentaries like “Turning Muslim in Texas.”

In the eyes of my non-Muslim birth family, these are my people. In the eyes of their neighbors and work-mates and friends, these are my people.

Part of the problem is also probably… age. I’m not young any more (my teenagers seldom miss a chance to remind me that I’m “old”). I’m at the age where people tend to ask themselves what on earth they are doing, whether they have achieved anything worthwhile yet, where their lives are going….

Last time I felt like this was after 9/11. I couldn’t concentrate. I would spend hours walking in the woods and thinking. All the fiery anti-western rhetoric that I had heard in Muslim contexts up to that point seemed to coalesce in my mind and say: This is where it all can lead. Yes, this is just the sort of thing that all this can lead to.

Now I’m asking myself: wtf is up with the whole “convert culture” that I was part of for so many years—and am still tied to in some ways? What has it become, and why? Where is it going?

Things were just embryonic in the early ’80’s when I converted. The population of Muslims was small where I was living at the time, and the few Muslim orgs didn’t have that many resources. There were few converts, and as this was before the internet, we were often rather isolated from one another. While a few (mostly male) white converts had a fairly high profile as what could most politely be called “motivational speakers” on the MSA circuit, not that many white converts were leaders with significant followings, at least not where I was living.

Things couldn’t be more different now. Thanks to the internet and 9/11, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a reference to a Great White Shaykh or a book/CD/article/youtube clip of one of them. (Not that the Salafis have been slouches in this regard either—they too have their prominent white scholars, conference speakers, authors and so forth.)

My convert friends and I used to think that if there were more converts who were recognized as community leaders (especially women…), and if more converts studied Islam abroad and returned in order to teach their knowledge in English, and wrote books on Islam in English… then so many of the problems we faced would be significantly reduced.

But somehow the problems haven’t vanished. And… well… my criteria for measuring what is and isn’t a positive sign of community growth have shifted over the years. Part of getting old, I suppose.

But still. Out of curiosity, I googled “what have converts contributed to the world” and got… two main types of results. The first were videos and stories posted by Muslims containing starry-eyed convert testimonials, and articles about the “Golden Age” of scientific and philosophical thought under Muslim empires centuries ago. The second were the usual “all that Muslims have contributed to the world is death and destruction” kind of thing.

Sigh. Which is one reason why these questions are difficult to write about. The discussion is highly polarized. And this discussion isn’t about converts, so much as about either born Muslims’ or hostile non-Muslims’ self-images and insecurities. It’s hard to make the discussion about converts and convert culture, to be critical and honest, but not to get pulled into dealing with outsiders’ issues instead.

I am not interesting in bashing white converts, or white convert culture. But I am interested in asking hard questions. Questions that I should have asked years ago.

While in North America white converts are a tiny minority of the total number of converts, I am going to discuss white convert experiences and culture specifically for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m white, and that’s what I have first-hand knowledge of. Black convert experiences involve a lot of factors that white ones seldom do. Second, in my view one aspect of white convert culture that is deeply problematic is the tendency on the part of some white converts to appropriate aspects of black convert history and culture, as though it’s somehow their own. But more on that in another post.

So, ok: What’s up with white convert leadership, including women’s leadership? What about white converts and politics? What sort of art, music and literature do white converts give to the world? What sorts of religious thought? What about community activism? What about all sorts of other things that help make the world a better place? And if this isn’t happening at the rate that one might hope, then why??

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