Towards telling our stories

(continued from the October 5th post on the “White Widow”)

In her article on Samantha Lewthwaite, Khadija Magardie  begins by stating that it isn’t regarded as polite in the Muslim community to refer to converts as “converts”—instead, they are called “reverts,” because it is believed that everyone is born a Muslim, but many people regard themselves as belonging to other religions because their parents made them into something else. And, that Muslims see this notion that everyone is actually born Muslim as a positive thing, as proof that the community is open to everyone and anyone who wants to join it. And also, that a number of prominent people in the twentieth century converted to Islam, and in some cases, helped directly or indirectly to promote the myth of an open, embracing world-wide Muslim community that welcomes everyone, regardless of race, class or gender.

But. All too often, converts soon discover that this pretty picture bears, well…. little if any relationship to reality.

And what do converts do when they begin to realize that in fact, they will never really “fit in” to the Muslim communities that they are trying to join?


Magardie states that a convert who marries a born Muslim and doesn’t want anything more than a “bread and butter existence” as a Muslim—aka raising kids and performing a few basic rituals—may manage to feel as though they “fit in” reasonably well. However, converts who really want to understand their new faith, or who are idealistic and expect to see the attractive-sounding rhetoric about brotherhood/sisterhood and social justice being put into practice in their communities may well never achieve a sense that anyone accepts them as a “real” Muslim. Alienated and looking for meaning in their journeys as Muslims, such converts-who-do-not-fit may leave Islam, or they may look for answers in deep study of the Quran, or in Sufism… or in jihadi propaganda.

And, some extremist groups see such “misfits” as potential recruits.

To my mind, the main strengths of this article are its honesty, as well as its avoidance of apologetics and/or pat answers. I do not often see converts (or ex-converts) writing about such issues with this level of honesty. Magardie is refreshingly honest about the gap between the dawah materials that are used to reel converts in and lived realities, as well as the fact that some—many? maybe even most?—converts never do actually manage to feel accepted as Muslims.

(This is of course an important thing for people thinking about converting to know BEFORE they convert… and unfortunately also something that such people are hardly if ever warned about beforehand in my experience. But back to the article.)

Margardie points out that even a convert as politically and intellectually committed as Muhammad Asad was dismissed by some Muslims as “a mere Jew.” That at the end of his life, Asad summed up his experience as one in which he was treated as “a foreign body in contemporary Islam, a transplant rejected time and again by his hosts.” And she doesn’t make any attempt to soften the desolate harshness of this picture with apologetic bafflegab, either. The reader is left with the realization that converts who experience such rejection are in a very difficult position, psychologically… and with little or no place to turn for help.

I agree that alienation may have been a factor in some converts’ radicalizations, to a point. Though, I am not sure than even those converts who just want a “bread and butter existence” as a Muslim really end up feeling as though they fit in all that often. I suspect that it is more likely that belonging is more important to some converts than others—and that it really helps to have a pragmatic sort of personality that doesn’t take conversion or identity or religion or social justice or anything else very seriously.

But there are layers upon layers of alienation, and for some converts, the issue might not be so much that born Muslims won’t accept them, as that nobody else does either. Where do such converts turn when they begin to realize that while they don’t really fit into the society they were born into any more, neither do they fit into any Muslim community?

Magardie describes a group of British converts that she interviewed in a London mosque, who “were keen to share their views on everything from bikinis to stoning for adultery.” One twice-divorced woman who she calls Aimee apparently declared in front of the camera that if her own daughter ever committed adultery, she herself would participate in stoning her. I must say, this was painful reading—because at one time, I was in that kind of head-space.

Like me, Aimee had probably heard the famous hadith, in which the Prophet is said to have declared that if his own daughter Fatima ever stole, he would punish her in the same way as any other thief—he would cut off her hand.

Like me, Aimee had likely never been given any tools to enable her to critically read hadiths (or anything else, for that matter). The only questions we were allowed to ask about any hadith is whether scholars regarded it as authentic, and how they had interpreted it. In the case of that particular hadith, which is in Bukhari, we would not have felt that we could possibly question either its authenticity or its general applicability to all times and situations, including our own.  And we would have thought that even voicing our misgivings about it would be giving into the devil and/or our nafs… or that this would simply display our modern, western depravity for all to see. Because this is what we were taught.

Like me, Aimee had probably heard quite a few sermons stressing that a sign of true belief is the willingness to place faith and following God’s commands above human relationships and emotions (insert story of Abu Bakr fighting his own son on the battlefield, or Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son, or Umm Habiba marrying the Prophet while her father was still fighting against him here).

But in holding such beliefs, to the extent of being willing to voice them on camera, Aimee had embraced what she had been taught was “true faith” at the price of cutting herself off from her birth society… and truth be told, from most Muslims as well.

Which is the impossible predicament that converts (especially western female converts) are forever being put into. It’s not as if it would have been acceptable in the eyes of many of the conservative “mainstream” Sunni Muslim leaders or their stalwart followers in the UK to openly reject stoning back when Magardie was making that film. Doing so would have been seen as a weakness of faith and a lack of knowledge at best (and prideful, sinful arrogance verging on kufr at worst). Many rank-and-file born Muslims deal with dissonance between their belief that Islam is about justice and compassion, and the realities of the tradition and its hardline interpreters in ways that aren’t really open to converts—or that would open a convert to accusations of weak faith or even hypocrisy.

This predicament sometimes has the effect of trapping converts in an echo chamber—they find themselves socially isolated, and interacting mainly with other Muslims who share such hardline views, who echo and affirm them. And if it so happens that the ideas in circulation in such an echo chamber include bona fide extremism….

But it’s not just that extremists look upon such alienated converts as potential recruits—and that in ethnically bound Muslim communities, it has unfortunately tended to be some highly politicized groups, some of which were or are rather extreme, that have been most welcoming to Muslims regardless of ethnicity, including converts.  All-or-nothing approaches also appeal to some converts’ idealism. I well remember being taught that “a true Islamic society” would be much better than the western democracies we lived in, in almost every way—socially, morally, ethically, spiritually…. even artistically. For converts already alienated from their societies of birth, and whose conversions had often made them more aware of various kinds of social and legal injustices and double standards that decades of human rights legislation and awareness campaigns hadn’t been able to resolve, the prospect of working for, even sacrificing oneself for, a supposedly better world seemed like a most noble endeavor. Something that could redeem what were otherwise humdrum and marginal lives caught between unreachable ideals and uncooperative realities.

Anyway… I hope that Khadija Magardie writes more about this topic, and about her experiences as a convert. It’s great to read other converts’ critical reflections.




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  1. #1 by Ambaa on December 19, 2013 - 3:18 pm

    And here I thought Muslim converts had it easier! I thought because the concept of conversion is accepted in Islam, that would mean an easier experience than for someone like me being in Hinduism, which doesn’t really have any concept of conversion!

    • #2 by xcwn on December 20, 2013 - 2:31 am

      It seems that whenever a religion is tied to a group’s ethnic identity, then converts from other backgrounds present a problem.

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