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.
The men (and it was virtually always men, in those days) who were generally recognized leaders in my community were typically immigrant Muslims from Arab countries or South Asia. The few African American leaders were usually expected to lead African American converts like themselves, not the immigrant-dominated community as a whole.
In those days, few of the men playing leadership roles where I was living at the time were really all that knowledgeable. Some were Arabs who had had the usual basic religious education classes in school in their countries of origin, and were self-taught through reading and attending halaqas, but had degrees in engineering or medicine. Others were South Asians who had gained their knowledge of Islam through their involvement with groups ranging from the Jamaat-i Islami to the Tablighi Jamaat “back home.”
A lot of the preaching and religious advice given by such people was… remarkably unsuited to the situations we found ourselves in as converts. At that time, we were still steeped in the whole apologetic “any problems are from culture, not Islam” mind-set, so we assumed that the root of the difficulties that we were facing was that the leaders in our community were immigrants, who didn’t really “understand the true teachings of Islam” due to their “culture”—and that they couldn’t give workable religious advice because they hadn’t been raised in North America, so they didn’t understand what people like us were going through.
This was just ridiculously arrogant, now that I look back… white and often middle-class arrogance married to Muslim Brotherhood-ish apologetics that conveniently blamed “culture” for every problem in Muslim societies, and what good would be likely to come out of such a marriage…. But absurd as our thought-processes were, we did honestly believe that the “solution” was to have leaders who had been born and raised in North America, and who understood what life is like here, but were also deeply knowledgeable in Arabic and Islam.
The key to leadership, to being worthy of being listened to, was said to be knowledge of Arabic and formal study of Islam in an Islamic country with recognized teachers. Not coincidentally, a small number of male converts of various races made plans to go overseas in order to study Islam. Some were flagged by immigrant Muslims with connections as having leadership promise, and received scholarships to study in places like the University of Medina. Others made their way to places like Syria or west Africa or Pakistan and studied there in traditional schools or with teachers. Some succeeded in completing their studies, and returned ready to play leadership roles.
Another leadership track that was present in my community even then, though marginalized due to the strength of Salafi influence in most mosques at that time, were various Sufi tariqas that immigrant Muslims had brought with them. Those leading these tariqas derived their authority over their followers from having been initiated by the shaykh of the tariqa, typically “back home.” Like most of the Muslim community leaders of that time, these leaders of Sufi tariqas in our community didn’t usually have extensive knowledge of Islam either.
But times were a-changing. Male converts were seeking initiation (whether here, or in Muslim countries), and sometimes studying Islam abroad as well. They would return, and make bids for leadership grounded in two sources: their studies (of Arabic, fiqh, hadith, etc), and their alleged spiritual attainments. They claimed to have the unique abilities that would enable them to translate Islam into the North American context, maintaining its integrity and not capitulating to the evils of liberalism and hedonism supposedly typical of “the west,” yet also somehow not falling into the rigid literalism of the Salafis. Because the spiritual insights they had accessed through Sufism could provide the one and only balanced approach… or so they said.
As I think about this process… the first thing I notice is that in North America there was and is no real oversight. No neutral overseeing body that trains and accredits leaders, or that is equipped to filter out those who are psychologically unsuited to give religious advice or leadership. No background checks, not even for those who work with children or vulnerable people. And no process existed (or exists) to “defrock” a supposed scholar or Sufi leader either. There are no checks and balances, either in terms of which men get to study, or what they do once they have become leaders themselves.
It’s free market religion, basically. In the end, it’s all about individual initiative, and the ability to convince others to recognize you as a leader. If a man didn’t like what other groups were doing he could (and still can) start his own easily enough.
Once a leader builds up a core of followers, he can (if he plays his cards right) work his way up to wielding real influence. He can raise funds and establish bricks-and-mortar institutions (mosques, “Islamic schools”, Sufi centers, etc)… or increasingly, a virtual empire through websites and online “learning academies” (or preferably both). If he gains enough of a following, and is known as a “big name” who can be counted on to put bums in seats at any conference he speaks at, then he can not only command hefty speakers’ fees but wield real influence. Even if he’s a white convert, immigrant Muslims will listen to him. Because he has connections (sometimes in high places) and can generate revenue through donations and ticket-sales wherever he goes.
So, what happened to our high hopes, that once converts became leaders with real influence in the immigrant-dominated Muslim orgs and institutions, that things would change for the better? Because they really haven’t changed all that much, in many ways. In some ways, things are getting worse—for instance, the number of mosques in North America that require female worshippers to pray behind a barrier or curtain is increasing, not decreasing.
Part of the problem is with how leaders are made and maintained. Leaders gain their Islamic “authenticity” (which is the key to their authority) through being plugged into a starkly patriarchal and hierarchical network of authority, whether through study with (male) teachers abroad, or in (male-run and male-dominated) traditional schools abroad, or through initiation into a (male-led) Sufi order. And their studies teach them to see this way of doing things as normal and divinely ordained. It would be quite remarkable if after years in such an environment that they came back to North America and were even able to envision how to lead a community without reproducing at least some of the patterns that they learned while studying—and that are embedded in the very texts that they study.
But even if a leader does have a vision of doing things differently, how could that survive the dynamics of “leadership” here? Those white convert leaders who have made it big have power, all right—power that comes from having and retaining followers, being able to put bums in seats, and generate revenue/donations. In other words, a conservative power, that comes from telling “mainstream” conservative Muslims (aka the funding base, and the folks with the most influence in the orgs and mosques…) what they want to hear, most of the time.
Challenging audiences by raising troubling questions is too risky, so such a leader will be unlikely to do that. He is far more likely to equivocate—to make pronouncements that are more about how “the Islamic tradition” (as interpreted by him, of course) has the answers to absolutely every modern problem while avoiding actually being pinned down on a hot-button issue. If he does it well enough, listeners with different views on the question will go away equally convinced that what he said supports their views… and the issue remains unaddressed, but the leader’s authority is magnified, which is what really matters. 😦
But realistically speaking, even the most well-meaning leader’s ability to take unpopular stands or to publicly raise troubling questions about where the community is going is very limited, given these dynamics. A white male convert leader who sticks his neck out repeatedly, especially on issues that conservative Muslims get very emotional about (aka anything to do with women, the family, hijab, sexuality…) would very likely face harsh criticism by other leaders (whether convert or immigrant-descended). Those speaking invitations would dry up, and with them the leader’s influence.
There is another, apparently more humble path to leadership that some white male converts take. They present themselves as representing a very different approach from the “big names” who address huge crowds and preside over what amounts to religious empires. They’re the alternative voice, the “authentic” voice, because they have a small intense, dedicated group of followers that meets for halaqas and dhikr sessions in someone’s living room or somewhere like that. Just like when the Prophet was still in Mecca. Their “authenticity” is further underlined by their harsh criticisms of the “liberal compromises” allegedly made by the “big names” and the major Muslim organizations.
In this case, there are even more reasons why the leader will tend to be conservative on social issues. After all, he has grounded his authority in claims that he (unlike other conservatives he doesn’t agree with) isn’t a liberal who wants to water down the faith. And, since this is a small and often rather exclusive group with limited manpower and resources that wants to prevent its core members from defecting to other similar but larger groups, a tempting way to help build group cohesion is through adopting particularly stringent standards on controversial issues. Such as on women’s roles.
All in all, it is unfortunately not surprising why our hopes of better times ahead weren’t realized. (The question of female leaders is a whole other issue… and another post.)