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.)