Of converts, headlines, and albino (poisonous) spiders

I’d have to have been living under a rock not to have noticed that yet another female convert is in the headlines again. Yes, Samantha Lewthwaite, aka the “white widow,” as the tabloids have dubbed her.

Samantha Lewthwaite, courtesy of Interpol. I'm still trying to understand where this is all coming from....

Samantha Lewthwaite, courtesy of Interpol.
I’m still trying to understand where this is all coming from….

It’s all a bit surreal, in a way. Back when I and my friends converted, hardly anyone had even heard of white North American or Western European women converting to Islam. Even in Muslim communities, it was a novelty, and we’d often meet born Muslims who were astounded at the very idea that we had converted. As for the wider society—we had no visibility to speak of. On the very rare occasions that a female convert would receive any media attention at all, we’d call one another and tell them to turn on the tv or make sure to take a look at page whatever of the paper. (Yes, that was long before the internet.)

We’d get all excited, that here was one of us. For once, we could see someone like ourselves reflected in the media. We’d make sure our kids (especially our daughters) saw it too, because they needed to know that there were other women out there like their mothers.

So, to think that now, there are actually female converts who are so well known—or notorious would be a better word—to make headlines around the world, and to even have wikipedia pages put up about them… the mind boggles. This is just so weird.

And so very, very sad.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, unfortunately. About converts getting drawn into Islamist politics and becoming radicalized. About the way that some converts end up making conservative “Islamic” decisions about their lives that send them on a downward spiral, which ultimately puts them in situations where they are vulnerable to getting involved in extremism. And the community dynamics that can foster such tragedies.


Part of the reason I write about this is because until now, I have hardly ever seen anyone discussing such converts from anything like an insightful perspective. Apologetics and sensationalism—yes, plenty of that, but little that could really be called insightful. And I assume that there must be others like me out there. Others like me, who remember all that stuff going down, and who are now dealing with the aftermath… and who are still trying to sort through it all, alone.

Looking at Lewthwaite’s wikipedia page, I am struck by the ways that her post-conversion life seems to have gotten onto that all-too-familiar downward trajectory:

  • teenage conversion
  • politicization
  • dropping out of university
  • getting married in an unregistered “Islamic” ceremony that was not attended by anyone from her family
  • child-bearing soon after marriage…

In other words, a trajectory that tends to lead to very strained relationships with one’s birth family, social isolation, economic vulnerability and dependence on a man you don’t know very well. Leading to a situation in which you may well feel trapped. As though you don’t have very many choices. As though there’s no point in really trying to better your life in this dunya. And the sermons you hear about how believers are meant to suffer in this dunya and sacrifice fi sabil Allah and that the akhira is the believer’s true home begin to make so much sense….

Tragic as this situation is, I found it rather cheering when I tripped across an article about convert radicalization—and by a convert, no less—that was actually even-handed and somewhat insightful. Khadijah Magardie’s article examines this topic with an honesty and frankness that I am not accustomed to seeing. She points out that a lot of the media coverage of Lewthwaite takes a sexist and sensationalizing approach to the idea that a woman could engage in terrorist activity, but doesn’t stop there—she goes on to describe the factors that in her experience help foster radicalization in some converts. I don’t find all of what she has to say equally convincing (more on that next time). But, it was something to see: us beginning to tell our own stories. Not men telling them, or women who have never been convert Muslims telling them. And even better, us beginning to tell our stories from a critical perspective. Not the same old same old “how I became a Muslim” (subtext: and why you should too) stories, or the apologetic blather that we’ve been hearing too much of for far too long, but a move towards asking some difficult questions. (continued)

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  1. #1 by ki sarita on October 7, 2013 - 7:55 pm

    but was she trapped in an unwanted life or did she do whatever she did because she wanted to?

    • #2 by xcwn on October 8, 2013 - 10:11 pm

      Probably both, in a way—her choices were likely conditioned by the circumstances she was in. But only she knows, really.

      I am not interested in excusing anything that she may have done. Whatever choices she made are hers to live with, obviously, and she has to answer for them. What does interest me is the typical responses to converts like her—“how could we ever have seen this coming!”—as well as the lack of discussion in Muslim convert circles (as far as I know) about how it is that some people get sucked into extremism. Hopefully, things have gotten better recently in that department, but who knows.

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