Of converts and fantasies

Now and again, I get these questions submitted as comments: Are you still Muslim? If you are still Muslim, then why?

I don’t usually answer. Partly, because these questions are often at least implicitly judgmental. Answering them risks touching off a string of cut-and-paste rants about how if I am Muslim, then I need to know that I’m doing X wrong and that it’s a sin to say/do Y.

But aside from that, it’s triggering. The conservative communities I was involved in were very concerned about defining exactly who is and isn’t a Muslim, what words, deeds, or even thoughts put a person outside of Islam, etc. That sort of environment fosters constant self-doubt and self-censorship. Until today, I have issues with automatic self-censorship, that happens so quickly and unobtrusively that I only know that I’ve done it again when I realize that I know something is missing or unsaid or not quite honest in what I’ve said or written… but yet I can’t put what it is into words.

But even when these kinds of questions aren’t motivated by judgmentalness, there’s something about them that deeply disturbs me. But I didn’t know exactly what. Until I received this comment:

Yes actually, the question [why are you still Muslim—ed.] came from a place of sincerity. I didn’t mean to offend. I only asked because I thought however you came to still stay Muslim would help me do the same despite those concerns.

Hoooo boy. A really triggering comment—though unintentionally so, I realize. But it is triggering because it sums up so many of my experiences with convert–immigrant born Muslim interactions in a nutshell: The idea that, as white, North American female converts, we have worth because we can potentially provide reassurance and affirmation (along with a generous side serving of halaal entertainment) to certain types of immigrant or immigrant-descended born Muslims.


In other words, you exist in order to serve our purposes. As long as you seem to be doing that, we’ll put you on a pedestal.

To be sure, this is definitely a better deal than, say, African American converts usually get. They have to deal with straight-up racism, sometimes complete with Arabsplaining meant to justify it. Unlike African American female converts, we white female converts tend to be sought after for marriage by immigrant Muslims, and mosques and Muslim orgs are often happy to have one of us play some sort of figurehead role, if only for outreach purposes.

But ultimately, it was and is deeply dehumanizing. Up on the pedestal, you don’t get to be fully human, you’re more like a mascot, a glass figurine.

And once you fall, you’re broken and useless.

It’s dehumanizing for those who are put up on pedestals, but also for those who elevate them to that position. The whole racial dynamic of community relations that produces this pedestalization of (certain) white converts is deeply disturbing to say the least. It’s based on a toxic mixture of racism, colorism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, Muslim triumphalism… and illusions. Wishful thinking. Fantasies.

However purely spiritual our motives for conversion might originally have been, once we convert, we often find ourselves implicated in the fantasies of others. Pressured and maneouvered into enacting them, even… though, without realizing that this is what is happening, because there was a supposedly religious justification or excuse given for almost everything that went on in the conservative Muslim communities I ended up being involved in.

Take the mere act of conversion, for instance. Many Muslims—and certainly not only diehard doctrinaire conservatives of various stripes—are fond of repeating the claim that “Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.” It is clear that many (though not all) of these Muslims regard converts in general positively because they serve as concrete proof of this claim. Right before their very eyes, as it were. Much more emotionally compelling than statistics or words on a page.

But when Muslims fantasize about Islam as a fastest growing religion, and (mostly wrongly) assume that this is because large numbers of people are converting and remaining within the faith, they prefer to focus on very particular types of converts. Converts find themselves ranked, according to the degree that they are seen as having the potential to help immigrant/immigrant-descended born Muslims feel good about themselves.

Factors that rank highest include: whiteness, maleness, upper class status, university education, ablebodiedness, cisgendered straightness… and a conversion story that in a nutshell goes something like this: “I never really believed in the trinity, because it never quite made sense to me, but the first time I read a translation of the Qur’an, it immediately made perfect sense. I started reading a lot about Islam in my university library, and I realized that it had to have a divine origin.” (Note that there is nothing here about Muslim girlfriends, converting in order to marry someone, travel, or even Muslim acquaintances—it’s all very cerebral, and doesn’t raise any messy questions about motivations.)

Why these factors specifically? Because they all correlate positively with economic, social and political power. So, they have the potential to offer born Muslims the greatest degree of personal and communal validation.  We have the truth (the logic runs) because conversion-wise, we are the winning team.

Various Muslim movements, sub-sects, orgs and so forth were not slow to realize the potential of converts as propaganda tools.

The Salafis, who were vigorously advocating an austere, hyperpatriarchal, literalistic Islam supposedly free of “superstition” and cultural contamination, needed living examples of people who could convincingly testify that Islam is logical and more rationally convincing than any other faith (or any other interpretation of Islam). They found that in (usually male) white converts, who were paraded around to give talks on topics such as “Islam and embryology” and “Islam the misunderstood religion.” The Salafis needed desperately to believe that it is possible to separate “religion” (as interpreted by Arab or Pakistani engineering and medical students, mostly) and “culture” (everything they didn’t like about their home cultures, whether it was Sufism or saris or women who asked for more than a token amount for their mahr). Converts could be manipulated into filling the bill, because they had often learned about Islam through preaching, halaqas and reading a limited number of didactic books and pamphlets. They could enact this “culture-free” Islam without interfering Muslim in-laws or cultural weaknesses for practices that weren’t sunna-compliant.

It’s hard to think of an immigrant Muslim group in North America (except for those that are insular, ethnically bound and don’t want outsiders) that hasn’t made use of white converts in similar ways—or, as in the case of the neo-traditionalists, been led by white converts who utilize this highly disturbing dynamic in order to establish themselves and extend their influence. Even Twelver Shia groups, who often tend to be pretty ethnically bound, have done this sometimes, perhaps because they did not want to be outdone by Sunni groups such as ISNA in that department.

Those back in the ’80’s who taught that “hijab is the dress of every Muslim woman”—which was definitely NOT the social reality then, especially not among the urban and educated—were more than happy to tell converts that they had no choice about wearing it if they were really sincere believers… and then to turn around and tell born Muslim women that they should follow the wonderful example being set by those hijab-wearing converts. (These sorts of manipulative games were bound to turn women against each other… more on that next time.)

Anyway. It is unbelievably devastating to realize that issues we truly believed were religious matters that we HAD to take seriously and arrive at the (one and only) RIGHT answer about and then follow it or we and our kids were going to go to hell… were actually games. Identity negotiating games. Fantasies. And that we made serious life-altering decisions, put our birth families and our kids through hell… for someone else’s fantasies, that we had naively become caught up in.

And yes, we also became inadvertently entangled in the betrayal of some other people’s fantasies, particularly the (pre-9/11) fantasy of immigrants coming to North America and happily integrating (aka becoming as indistinguishable as possible from white middle class suburbanites).

So no, I’m not interesting in telling other people whether they ought to stay Muslim or not. That is, and should be, a personal decision that each person makes for themselves. What it presumably comes down to is this: Is being a Muslim making you a better person, or not? Is it inwardly destroying you? Is it causing you endless inner turmoil? If you are trying to recover from trauma, is Islam helping or hindering that process?

(My omission of any reference to identity, marriage, children, family or community is deliberate. As is any reference to belief. As far as the latter is concerned, if it’s simply tawhid plus religious community that anyone wants, then presumably that is available with a lot less grief by attending a Unitarian church or a Quaker meeting. If it’s tawhid alone, then one can simply pray alone and not worry about where they belong religiously.)

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  1. #1 by threekidsandi on April 5, 2014 - 8:43 pm

    Good points. Too often, this is ignored, denied. It’s a messy subject, you tackled it logically.

    • #2 by xcwn on April 5, 2014 - 10:45 pm

      Thank you. Yes, it is a messy subject, indeed. 😦

  2. #3 by aliya on April 5, 2014 - 11:25 pm

    Very thought provoking. What I got out of this is, be true to thine own self, and leave the rest behind. I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself. Thank you for your words, they ring true for me, and I’m certain for a lot of us.

  3. #4 by ayasmom on April 6, 2014 - 3:31 am

    I’m fairly certain I asked that question, whether or not you are still Muslim, or if I didn’t, I wanted to. Your post (though thought provoking and insightful) doesn’t get to the heart of why I did (or would have) asked that question. I want to clarify why I’d ask such a loaded triggering question. I’m not, nor was I ever interested in anyone telling me whether or not to stay Muslim, but only how it might be done. The psychological processes involved in conversion, for me, led me to a similar point as you in that I didn’t feel traditional (for you Salafi) Sunni Islam was something that I wholeheartedly believed in, could practice, nor did I ever feel like a bonafide member of that community. For me Facebook was a godsend, because it was where I found Muslims who are progressive, liberal, and welcoming of people no matter what their race, class, disability, sexual orientation, sex, or gender identity might be. Until I found liberals and progressives online, I felt perhaps all Muslims were like those I met at the masjid, and if that was true then surely I was not, nor could I be Muslim. I’m interested in white female converts’ journey and identity negotiation, how they do Islam, how they practice, or don’t practice, how they reconcile relationships with non Muslim family members…the list goes on. So when I asked (or wanted to ask) “…however you came to still stay Muslim would help me do the same despite those concerns.” I was looking for validation. I was looking to understand what parts of Islam you chose to keep and which you chose to downplay and the how and they why of it all.

    • #5 by xcwn on April 6, 2014 - 2:55 pm

      The commenter who I am responding to is (as far as I can see) a born Muslim of immigrant descent. So, I was discussing that particular dynamic.
      The dynamic among converts—how some converts are put on pedestals for other converts to look up to and emulate, how some converts backbite, pressure or even shun other converts who don’t live up to their lofty “standards” of Islamic practice… deserves a whole other post.

      I don’t know if it will be possible for me to resolve these identity questions, ultimately. I still haven’t managed to get out of “shatter” mode. Many of my decisions about practice are short-term decisions made primarily for reasons of survival, physical, mental, and emotional. I need to keep my job, deal with my kids and provide them with stability. Any practice or belief that threatens those things isn’t sustainable for me at this time, and I don’t know if it will ever be.

  4. #6 by rosalindawijks on April 6, 2014 - 7:12 am

    ” As far as the latter is concerned, if it’s simply tawhid plus religious community that anyone wants, then presumably that is available with a lot less grief by attending a Unitarian church or a Quaker meeting. ”

    Are you actually saying that converting to Islam means grief and that becoming a Christian automatically leads to less grief? Racism, sexism, sectarism, patriarchy and fundamentalism are found in every religion, converts have a harder time in almost every community, etc.

    And I know what I’m talking about: I’m a Dutch Convert of Afro-Carribean descent, raised a christian and black. As black as chocolate or earth itself.

    I was, for a long time, totally immersed in Arab communities (mostly Moroccan and Egyptian) and faced a tremendous amount of racism and sexism. When I just converted, I, very naively (I was just 17 then) believed that all Muslims truly were brothers and sisters, that culture or race or ethnicity didn’t matter, etc.

    And Lord, did reality bite. Somehow, I was never fully accepted; I never quite “fit in”, no matter how hard I tried. Of course, my refusal -and simply not being ale to- of wearing hijab, change my name and totally adopt Arab culture, didn’t help.

    What I found and find disturbing, is that many Muslims seem so keen of excluding other people from being Muslim.

    Something I also noticed, was that white, Western converts were applauded and accepted and respected, but I, as a black woman converting “was nothing special”. On the one hand, I was much more considered “one of us” then the white converts and at the other hand, being black was always a problem to them.

    After being a Muslim for ten years, suffering from mental illness (including a psychosis as an aftermath of an excorcist ritual, forced upon me by an Egyptian mand wanting to marry me, ptsd with a religious component and depression) trying to find a group I felt at home with, I returned to my own culture, where I can just be me and people, generally, automatically accept me. I found a Javanese-Surinamese (I’m from Dutch Guyana/Surinam) mosque and took my official shahada.

    There is so much to say about this, but in the end, anyone who believes in one God and believes that Muhammad was/is his messenger, is a Muslim, whatever other people say or think. And yes, staying true to one’s self and being honest is the best solution/medicine for almost everything.

    As I have already said, I respect your honesty and your courage to ask existential questions and engage very “sensitive” subjects as the subjugation of women, slavery, patriarchy and so on. But I think that the main difference between you and me is that I consider the glass half-full and you consider the glass half-empty.

    May God show us the right way and bless us in our struggles.

    • #7 by xcwn on April 6, 2014 - 10:26 pm

      My reference to Unitarians and Quakers was partly flippant, but partly serious. Some North American converts say that they have found their gatherings to be relatively accepting, without the theological stuff that goes with attending most other churches (beliefs about the divinity of Jesus, the trinity, etc) and also without the in-your-face sexism typical of many mosques over here—no gender segregation or dress codes, for instance. I doubt that that means that they didn’t find any sexism or dogmatism whatsoever there. I suspect that what they mean is that the atmosphere they found was measurably less aggravating than the mosques they had attended—and let’s face it, that wouldn’t be hard.
      The bar is so ridiculously low.

      As for racism, I suspect that again, the issue is that the converts who found such Christian groups welcoming probably thought that there was less overt prejudice than they had experienced/witnessed in mosques or Muslim groups. Again, the bar can be pretty low.

      All’s to say that there are options out there, that seem to be working for some at least. I wouldn’t think it’s anywhere near perfect, but since many mosques seem determined to continue equating “sacred space” with “exclusionary space”, then what do converts do? Some would say, stay and work for change from within. But I think that when white converts do this that the ethical problems involved can become extremely complex, to say the least (more on that next post). I also suspect that a sizeable movement of converts (or for that matter, born Muslims) to attend non-Muslim places of worship in search of more accepting spaces might promote reform in some mosques/Muslim orgs. Who knows?

  5. #8 by rosalindawijks on April 6, 2014 - 7:52 am

    By the way, I think I understand why the question wether you still are Muslim or not, can be disturbing.

    Because it can be a tactic to shift the attention from your real, lived, troublesome experiences to the question of faith. Let’s say one asks you that question, and you say yes. (I remember reading that you say you still identify as Muslim). Then many people will be relieved, the problem is solved and they don’t have to talk about the subjects and problems stated by you.

    The same thing with the “it’s not Islam, it’s culture”-rhetoric (in which I was a firm believer back in the day, when I was just converted. No I realize that life and these matters are much more complicated then apologetic slogans) Let’s, for the sake of argument, say it’s true that not Islam but “culture” (as though these are mutual exclusive categories) is the problem. Does this conclusions change the real problems of Muslim women? No, it doesn’t. It only clears the “name” of “Islam” and then the problem is solved and we don’t have to talk about it anymore.

    Unbelievable that, I, too, fell for these tricks.

    • #9 by xcwn on April 6, 2014 - 9:38 pm

      Yes, absolutely. The point of the “it’s not the religion, it’s culture that’s the problem” rhetoric is to save the name of “Islam” AND to dismiss the whole problem. Because if it’s “only” about “culture” then presumably there is no answer, except to “become better Muslims”—aka to follow texts or scholars. There is no need for any deep reflection, much less critique or reform. Very convenient, that.

  6. #10 by rosalindawijks on April 6, 2014 - 8:09 am

    Sorry for my grammar and spelling mistakes; English is not my mother tongue and I wrote these posts early, before breakfast. 🙂

  7. #11 by nmr on April 6, 2014 - 2:16 pm

    Really lovely.
    I have a new bumper sticker for you, or rock band if you prefer: “Smashing Pedestals”.

    • #12 by xcwn on April 6, 2014 - 6:52 pm

      LOL! That would be awesome, as a bumper sticker, rock band… or a t-shirt (or preferably, all three). 🙂

  8. #13 by kisarita on April 13, 2014 - 1:50 pm

    While I didn’t see the entire context of the letter, I read this questioner’s statement very differently than you- I don’t see any racial implications, just a personal self disclosure- and a brave one too.

    • #14 by xcwn on April 13, 2014 - 4:03 pm

      I don’t think the racial implications were in any way conscious on the part of the questioner. She was just reflecting common attitudes in many immigrant-dominated Muslim communities in North America, without realizing that that was what she was doing. So yes, I agree that it was a brave self-disclosure. But as a convert, I don’t want to be drawn into what ends up inevitably being a racially charged exchange. I find it triggering, first of all. And second, it’s just so very sad.

      A take-away from this I suppose would be this: The racial problems in North American Muslim communities of immigrant origin are often very deep-rooted, and interwoven in community dynamics in complex ways. They go way beyond the most obvious and visible issues (such as the racism often faced by African American Muslims, from other Muslims). And there is little serious effort to address the roots of it (as opposed to certain ugly surface manifestations of it, which are to some extent being increasingly discussed). What implications does this have for those who choose to remain Muslim rather than leave? How can one stay, and stay ethically?

  9. #15 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 4:53 pm

    “They go way beyond the most obvious and visible issues (such as the racism often faced by African American Muslims, from other Muslims). ”

    Well, sadly enough, this is NOT obvious and visible to many people. Most people from within the various Muslim communities blatantly deny it, or try to counter this with apologetic chatter about sayyidina Bilal (ra), Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali. Well, theory, and practice, people.

  10. #16 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 4:55 pm

    And white non-Muslims are rarely awhere of these dynamics within immigrant Muslim communities, or any immigrant communities, for that matter.

    • #17 by xcwn on April 13, 2014 - 5:20 pm

      True. Partly because discussing these things openly is rare, and taboo.

  11. #18 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 5:35 pm

    Yes, because we shoudln’t “make Islam look bad”. This pretext is used to silence victims of racism, and basically tells us that we should side with those discriminating us, while THEY are the ones who make Islam look bad to begin with. Yuk.

  1. Of converts and fantasies | A Bit of a Rant

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