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.
With no real community, there are few real checks and balances either.
White converts have to deal in one way or another with several challenges—impossible predicaments, really. Which they usually aren’t warned about in advance, and which their lives before conversion usually haven’t prepared them to handle. Especially if they convert in their teens, as a number do.
Impossible predicament #1: Forever A Guest
“When did you convert?” “What made you convert?” These are questions that white converts hear pretty much from the moment that they convert… and for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t matter how young we are when we convert, or how many years we devote to study of Islam or worship or service to Muslim communities… we will never be anything more than converts. Put on pedestals, fetishized, objectified, held to higher standards of behavior (especially if we are female), yes. Accepted as full members of the community, no. We are trophies, curiosities… and handy targets for born Muslims (or sometimes even converts of color) to condescend to or to dump on in order to prove their superior Muslimness (again, especially if we’re female).
Being asked personal questions by complete strangers who think they’ve the right to know your story, having born Muslims (especially Arabs) acting as if you’ve no right to the Muslim name you have because you’re white, being judged constantly, being held to higher standards of belief and practice than born Muslims while receiving less benefit-of-the-doubt, being the “safe listener” who gets to hear supposed “friends” who are born Muslims dumping on “the West” and “white people” in general… gets really old. Especially once you come to realize that there will be no end to it. Ever.
Impossible predicament #2: Forever squaring circles
The predicament of being forever a guest would not be nearly so problematic if it wasn’t for this… as well as for #3. After all, realistically, why would a white person expect to be accepted in what is not only a community of color, but one in which many people understand their identities in opposition to whatever-it-is that “the West” or “white society” here in North America is supposed to represent (whether it is foreign policy or “hedonism”)?
Partly, because in the case of those of us who converted in “mainstream” conservative immigrant-dominated communities in the ’80’s at least, we were taught to see Islam as a total identity, as deen wa dawla. We were led to believe that upon converting, we had become part of the umma, and that it is to the umma that we should look for friendship, guidance, support, community. Because the believers are all brothers (and sisters), and the only thing that makes one person better than another is his (or her) taqwa.
And we were sold a bill of goods, of course. (Just one of the many bills of goods that we later found we had been sold.) “The umma” as an identity that overrides all others, exists in theory, as a utopian idea, but rarely in practice among born Muslims. In practice, ethnic and racial and national and regional origins, as well as class and tribe and family (of course) sect matter a whole lot more to most people. And such differences are quite often seen as making some people’s lives worth more than others.
We weren’t so removed from reality that we didn’t realize that people often hold ideals that they don’t or can’t live up to. But still, it was a shock to many of us once we began to see just how wide the gulf between theory and reality was and is—especially as we’d been encouraged to believe things like that racism is a much more serious problem in “the West” than in any Muslim country.
The ready-made apologetic answer we gratefully grabbed onto in our confusion was that the problem was “culture, not Islam.” That is, Muslims who didn’t act according to the idealistic theories that we had been taught didn’t really know Islam—they were either following pre-Islamic cultures without knowing that this is what they were doing, or their formerly pure Islamic cultures had been contaminated by the views of alien Others (Hindus/Zionists/Christian missionaries/Communists/secular nationalists/western colonial powers/whatever). A neo-traditionalist variant of this apologetic move is to argue that the problem is “modernism, not Islam as traditionally understood.”
Except that it doesn’t take much interaction with Muslims and/or study to realize that it’s not that simple. There are all kinds of “Islamic” reasons for discriminatory attitudes and practices. Take the hadiths limiting the caliphate to Arabs of the Quraysh tribe (and the related legal debates about the qualifications of the caliph, which deal not only with ethnicity but also spell out that the caliph cannot have certain physical handicaps). Or the legal discussions about what it means to marry a woman to a man who is kafa’a to her (i.e. not her social “inferior”).
All this is not surprising, given the social conditions at the time these hadiths were collected and these legal discussions took place. But we weren’t taught to read hadiths or legal rulings with their historical contexts in mind—quite the contrary, we were taught to read them as truths that were beyond history.
Nor did we realize that the da’wa pamphlet version of Islam that we were taught belongs to a very particular historical time and context—the twentieth century reaction of certain specific secularly educated urban political-religious groups against colonialism, “western” influence, and secular parties. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i Islami, who were trying to beat the secular nationalists and leftist parties in their countries of origin at their own game by imagining an “ideal Islamic society” in which “Islam” would be “the solution” to every modern problem.
We were unaware of these historical issues, and didn’t think of inquiring into them… we were too focused on trying to make sense of it all. And there were no shortage of apologetic rationalizations to grasp onto. Somehow, even slavery supposedly was compatible with the visions of umma and brotherhood/sisterhood that we had been taught. And even if we doubted that it was, we had been taught that we should be very, very wary of even seeming to criticize any practice that the Prophet or his Companions engaged in, because that would be the same as criticizing them, which is haraam.
The issue of umma was just one of the many issues that had us forever trying to square a circle.
To be sure, this kind of dilemma is not unique to converts. Born Muslims also sometimes have to deal with such questions. For that matter, anyone born into any faith community that sees ancient texts (written back when things like slavery were accepted as normative) will face such dilemmas if they are at all concerned about social justice.
But I think that these types of dilemmas hit converts especially hard, particularly if you are a white convert in North America. As a convert, you are typically expected—by Muslims, and by non-Muslims alike—to be able to explain why you converted. While converts of color in North America (particularly African Americans; also sometimes Latino/as) can plausibly claim the desire to get in touch with their roots as a factor in their conversion, white converts can’t. We are expected to give answers that indicate why we believe that Islam is the only true religion.
And we often expect that of ourselves, too. Because why did we accept Islam, and remain Muslim, if not because it is the one and only true religion? Female converts who wear hijab and/or are married to an immigrant Muslim man sometimes feel a lot of pressure to be able to give some sort of sensible answer to common stereotypical or fairly accurate but unflattering ideas about Islam or Muslims, in order to disprove the assumptions that some people will have that they are “brainwashed” or “stupid.”
And as a convert (at least, if you converted in a conservative community), you are usually expected to make a number of changes to the way you live your life, that affect everything from when you wake up in the morning to how you socialize with your friends. Many of these changes can’t be concealed for long from family, friends and work-mates, who naturally want to know what’s going on. The more changes you make (and the more you have to explain/justify them to others), the greater the personal psychological investment you have in the process of becoming a recognizably believing and practicing Muslim. As time goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to think about backing out, to admit that you have doubts about whether this is really what you believe
Impossible Predicament #3: Forever A Freak
There’s no getting around it—white converts to Islam in North America are a small group indeed. And it’s hard to be a practicing, conservative Sunni Muslim in North America and not stick out, especially if you’re white into the bargain… and most especially if you are female.
It’s hard to blend in. Especially if you wear hijab. You will often be expected to explain or even rationally justify your conversion, as well as whatever conservative Muslim practices you take up (not drinking, eating halaal meat only, not shaking hands with the other sex, etc). Some non-Muslim white people may think that what you are doing is kind of neat (and even say so), but others will probably express reservations. Some will see your conversion as an attempt to reject your identity. Others (especially parents) may dismiss it as a phase you are going through.
Your family may take it hard, at least at first. Sometimes relatives will cut ties, at least for a time… and sometimes permanently. You may find that your parents, siblings or others relatives are embarrassed or ashamed to be seen with you in public if you wear hijab. Or they may be trying so hard to deal with it all, and be accepting regardless of how uncomfortable your conversion makes them—and you feel so guilty for putting them through all that. Sometimes, issues like alcohol and pork suddenly become elevated to valued markers of identity by your family, and you wonder where the hell this is coming from. You may lose friends—especially if you start to take up conservative practices that put significant barriers in the way of socializing with them. Or you may start to feel as though you don’t have much in common with them any more, and spend less and less time with them.
You may find yourself caught between two worlds: born Muslims expecting you to prove that you are a “real” Muslim by making an effort to fit in with them socially, but never really accepting you as one of them… and non-Muslim white society. You’ll never be truly, authentically Muslim, because you’re white. Some white non-Muslims will see you as a white person who is “playing dress-up,” so to speak. Pretending to be something that you’re not, and never can be. Or, as a deluded liberal who doesn’t understand “what Islam really is.” Or a terrorist sympathizer.
In some white non-Muslim people’s minds, Islam is foreign and Muslims are brown or black Others, who are most likely immigrants (or immigrant-descended). When even African American Muslims, who have been Muslim for three generations in some cases, still aren’t usually treated by the media or the government as able to speak on behalf of Muslims in North America, it isn’t surprising that white converts aren’t perceived as “real Muslims” either by many white non-Muslims.
Being constantly expected to defend one’s identity as a Muslim, to explain the whys and wherefores of one’s conversion, being treated as a curiosity, as an eccentric, perhaps even a traitor or a fool… gets old pretty fast. Especially when it becomes clear that there is no end to this, as long as you remain a visibly practicing conservative Muslim. And that even if you try to be a lot more low-key—by not wearing hijab, for instance—certain things are pretty hard to hide from those who are close to you.
Part of the issue here is, well, privilege distress. As white people in North America, we grew up (in most cases) belonging to the unmarked majority. We didn’t usually have to constantly account for and justify our presence, or explain the intricacies of our identities to strangers. We weren’t treated as undesirable Others, in most cases.
Even those of us who for various reasons never quite felt as though we fitted in (due to learning disabilities or gayness or other factors) usually weren’t prepared for experiencing the level of Otherness that can come with putting on hijab. As white people who weren’t Muslim, we could express disagreement with the government’s policies and get involved various types of activism without having our loyalty to our country be questioned. Whatever religious beliefs we had or practices we engaged in (or didn’t have or didn’t engage in) didn’t usually draw anything like the same degree of scrutiny and judgment from those who came to know about them.
But there’s more to it than privilege distress. It’s the weakening or loss of a feeling of rootedness, or of belonging… anywhere at all. Except perhaps among other white converts who are dealing with the same sorts of issues.
Such alienation can seem all the more painful because it seems that no other group in the Muslim community is experiencing it. Everyone else has their own ethnic group to belong to… or so it appears. It’s not that simple in reality, of course.
Thinking about these three intertwined “impossible predicaments,” I wonder to what extent they are a factor in some of the situations that white converts end up in. There’s nothing quite like the feeling that you are trapped in this way—unable to go forward or back, whatever you do—as a foundation for some really out-there behavior. Especially when community conditions allow for it… or at least, don’t have any real checks on people’s behavior. Especially when converts are encouraged to take refuge from their alienation in imagined utopian visions of Islam.
But to my mind, they don’t excuse it…. More on this later.