In continuing to think about why as white female converts we often didn’t experience much in the way of “sisterhood” with born Muslim women, I found a book that I chanced upon recently fairly helpful. Esra Ozyurek’s Becoming German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe (Princeton University Press, 2015) talks about converts in Germany and how they position themselves as both German and Muslim, in a country where “Islam” and “Muslim” are often automatically associated with adjectives such as: immigrant, Turkish or Arab, lower class, chauvinistic.
While I picked up the book expecting to read about how and why people convert (and how they negotiate their convert identities afterwards), I encountered some unanticipated food for thought—about the personal issues that some white converts bring with them, and also about the similarities between some types of white convert discourse and white European racist rhetoric. I will discuss the first issue (personal issues faced by some white converts) in this post, the the second (convert and racist rhetoric) in the next post.
A number of the converts discussed in the book had faced very negative reactions not only from wider German society, but also from their families. While a number of the female hijab-wearing converts’ anecdotes about the ways that they were treated in government offices, or by the teachers at their children’s schools sounded pretty familiar to me (many converts, including myself, have experienced similar things), the book presents many of these anecdotes together. so, reading them (for me, at least) was rather like thinking that you are about to drink lemonade, taking a mouthful, and finding that it is basically undiluted lemon juice with no added sugar. In other words, wow. It packs quite a punch.
As converts, especially those of us who wore hijab and married immigrant Muslim men and were visibly and conservatively practicing, you deal with these sorts of things, but in my experience there wasn’t really much if any space to acknowledge how much it bothered us, and how it eroded our sense of self. When such negative experiences occurred—being treated like an idiot in government offices, being shouted at to “go back to your country!” by random men on the street, having your own family indicate in front of guests that they are ashamed of you because you wear a headscarf, even having your own family ostracize you… there were certain ways we were expected to respond which did not come close to really addressing how this was affecting us.
From “mainstream” conservative Muslim perspectives, we were supposed to pity those government workers, random harassers and family members for their ignorance of Islam and do dawah to them if possible (and from hyper-conservative Salafi perspectives, we should dismiss whatever they said or did and not take it to heart because they were just ignorant kafirs who were probably bound for hell anyway). But it wasn’t supposed to bother us. If it did, this was an indication that we had weak faith, that we cared more about what people thought than about what God thought of us, that we still were more concerned with the opinions of mere unbelievers than anyone who was serious about growing in Islam ought to be, and anyway “Islam is your family now.”
And at the same time, here we were in largely immigrant communities, where family were foremost, both as an ideal and often also as a lived reality, and where ethnic solidarity really mattered. Those born Muslims who casually assumed that being treated as an outsider by one’s society and by one’s family was just a minor annoyance that shouldn’t really bother anyone who had strong faith… usually had families and an ethnic community of their own to look to.
What does it do to a person’s self-concept when relatives ostracise them? Down through the years, I have been told stories of family ostracism by other converts. Typically, these stories end with the families or relatives coming around sooner or later… often once the female convert gives birth, and her parents find themselves grandparents.
But these stories of ostracism which didn’t end so happily were not usually told. Why? Partly because they were not seen as “good dawah”—they didn’t reflect the image of Islam and its place in North American “mainstream” society that “mainstream” conservative Muslims often wanted to project, and they wouldn’t encourage the faith of converts either, so what would be the benefit of telling them? And also partly due to embarrassment. After all, who wanted to admit that they had failed to win over their relatives by modeling for them the “superior morals” of Islam? And in this family-first community atmosphere, admitting that you were not on good terms with your family would likely get you a well-meaning but condescending lecture about how you must be doing it wrong.
After they had heard that I had converted, put on hijab, and married an immigrant Muslim, some of my relatives on both sides of my family indicated to my parents that they did not want to have anything to do with me.
That was almost thirty years ago, and I have not heard anything from those relatives. And it is not as though they do not know where to find me.
Back when I was a conservative Muslim, and even after I dehijabed and left my marriage and hyper-conservative Muslim community, I tried not to think about those relatives. Tried to not even acknowledge to myself how much their rejection hurt me and made me ashamed. I hadn’t wanted to hurt them. And I hadn’t anticipated that they would react negatively to my conversion and marriage; after all, they had always presented themselves as liberal, tolerant and open-minded! I was really naive, back then.
Now, reading this book, I am starting to understand their very negative reactions in a wider context. Some of these relatives live in Europe, in a country where strikingly anti-Muslim rhetoric is pretty mainstream. Another of these relatives is married to a person from another European country where a similar situation exists. In these countries, the population is a lot more homogeneous, and true belonging to the nation is often thought of as based on a shared ethnicity, so even white immigrants who do not share this ethnicity will always be outsiders to a degree.
And then, there is the issue of class. In these countries, the majority of Muslims are poor and socially and politically marginalized. Like the relatives of the converts in the book, my relatives likely reflexively associate being Muslim as incompatible with being a “successful” and “productive” member of society.
But anyway. No matter how much I “understand” where they are coming from… it hurts beyond words that they would do that… and that to the best of my knowledge, nobody else in my family ever called them on it either. (I also can’t help wondering if they would have reacted in the same way if instead of converting to Islam I had, say, gotten addicted to drugs, joined a gang, or ended up in prison. Who knows?)
What stories of ostracism didn’t get told? I didn’t tell my own, back when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim. I occasionally learned of some other people’s stories of ostracism—which didn’t end happily—by accident, or by a hint or a clue dropped here and there. But it wasn’t openly talked about.
So yeah, we certainly had our issues, which we didn’t acknowledge even among ourselves. And the stage was set for angst over our own personal identities, which could find expression in fairly disturbing kinds of rhetoric. (to be continued)