I have been trying to reflect on reasons why as converts who had been given to understand that “we are all one umma” and that race and ethnicity don’t matter “in Islam” because the only thing that is relevant is your taqwa, we often faced a significantly different reality. Our ethnic origins and race definitely did matter, and they typically mattered in ways that made us feel like outsiders.
And how did we respond to the complex racial politics that we found ourselves immersed in—both in terms of how our own families and the wider society treated us, and the internal politics of the Muslim communities we become involved in? Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe gave me a lot of food for thought about the latter issue.
Ozyurek writes about repeatedly hearing German converts (often white and middle class) saying how fortunate it is that they discovered Islam before meeting Muslims, because if they’d met the Muslims first they probably wouldn’t have converted. (Although in reality, most of the converts had in fact gotten interested in Islam in the first place through a romantic relationship or other encounter with a Muslim.) Or converts repeating and endorsing negative stereotypes about immigrant Muslims (especially Turks) being dirty, disorganized, uneducated, and prone to dishonesty. Or converts faulting immigrant Muslims for “failing to understand Islam properly” or for being so uninformed that they mistake “culture” for “Islam.”
And presuming that as converts, they have the great advantage over immigrant Muslims, because they can approach the Qur’an and the sunna without “culture” getting in the way.
Reading Ozyurek’s descriptions of incidents when white converts and white non-Muslim Germans essentially ganged up on her, repeating negative stereotypes about Turks in her presence, was disturbing. Ozyurek had apparently been expecting that the converts would step in and object to the stereotypes voiced by the non-Muslim Germans… essentially, that the converts’ exposure to Islam would have given them some empathy and ability to see Turks as complex individual human beings. But she was repeatedly disappointed. Many of the converts she studied did not seem to have developed much empathy for immigrants (or even what I’d consider basic good manners…), and as she points out, some of the ideas they expressed were similar to the attitudes of right-wing Islamophobic non-Muslim Germans.
While some of the pronouncements of converts that Ozyurek quotes strike me as really prejudiced (and very rude to boot), I have to admit that I’ve heard converts say things like this… and have said things like this myself.
My initial response to the “how fortunate it is that I learned about Islam before meeting Muslims” line was defensive. Maybe it’s a bit rude, and a put-down of immigrants, but how could saying such a thing mean that these converts were like right-wing Islamophobes? After all, the first person I ever heard say that was a conservative Arab Ikhwani immigrant, who was approving quoting a European male convert!!
And how was saying that so much different from saying that “Islam is perfect, but Muslims are not” or “we need to separate culture from religion in order to solve the problems of Muslims today”?? Things that we as converts repeatedly heard from the minbar and the Islamic conference podium, and read in conservative books and pamphlets authored by immigrant Muslims (usually male, and either Arab or Pakistani, and affiliated with or influenced by either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami)?
But that was the thing, wasn’t it? These were things that conservative Islamists (and in North America, things that some Arab and Pakistani Muslim religious feminists, few as they were in those days) were saying. These weren’t “religious truths,” these were polemical claims, made in internal and often very acrimonious community debates… and often made by some people with pretty controversial (and sometimes quite disturbing) ideas. Some of those Islamists who enthusiastically advocated their vision of a pure and pristine “Islam” and lost no opportunity to diss the cultures they came from as impure due to drumming at weddings or Indian movies or women not covering “properly” or music or holidays other than the two Eids… were dour kill-joys at best, and in some cases, apologists for some really awful attempts at social engineering in places where Islamists they sympathized with came to power.
Why did we as converts so easily say such things? And did these things mean anything different when we as converts said them?
As women, we were given pamphlets and books assuring us that while the newspaper headlines might lead us to believe that Muslim women were horribly oppressed, the truth is that while certain Muslim cultures have oppressive customs, these cannot be blamed on “Islam.” “Islam” (we were repeatedly given to understand) is just, fair, and does not promote the oppression of women.
I was given stuff like that to read before I converted, by immigrant Muslims, who wanted to be sure that I got the “right idea” about Islam. This sort of thing was quite mainstream. It was sold at Muslim conference book tables, and at mosques.
It didn’t take long for me and other female converts to begin to notice that the line between “Islam” (non-oppressive, promoting human dignity) and “culture” (often oppressive, promoting degrading anti-woman customs) was only theoretical. That in practice, even die-hard advocates of separating “Islam” from “culture” routinely based their ideas of what the Qur’an means, or what is “reasonable” or “modest” or “appropriate” (especially where women’s behavior is concerned) on their cultures of origin, and often couldn’t demonstrate that what they were claiming is “Islamic” is actually found in the Qur’an or the sunna.
And also, that they didn’t appreciate having that pointed out to them by a convert.
So, what did we do? We dug our heels in harder. After all, we thought that our faith depended on it. (And at times we were also trying to avoid certain abusive power plays from the immigrant men we married as well as their ethnic communities.) The problem was that even those who loudly advocated separating “Islam” from “culture” must be blinded by their own cultures. As converts, we needed to learn Islam from the pure sources. Read the Qur’an and sunna in translation, and learn Arabic and travel to a Muslim country and study Islam so that we would be in the position to tell the difference between “Islam” and “culture.” And in the meantime—after all, most of the hadith books hadn’t been translated into English back in those days, and learning Arabic grammar was its own special kind of torture—we needed to be skeptical of what immigrant Muslims said that Islam was.
In other words, we were well on our way to becaming more Salafi than the Salafis. Mixed in with a shitload of white middle class arrogance, and robed in more-Muslim-than-thou pretensions.
I didn’t stay in that Salafish place for long—for a number of reasons, too complicated to get into here, but briefly, I came to the realization that this approach to Islam was ridiculous as well as astoundingly arrogant… and intellectually barren. I ended up as a neo-traditionalist. Lots of converts did. And I was one for years.
But while neo-traditionalism meant reverence for the past, meaning past generations of saintly and pious Muslims, it did not necessarily mean having much more respect for Muslim cultures of today than the Salafis had had. Neo-traditionalists too could be very arrogant, seeing themselves as elevated far above the run of Muslims who have been contaminated by “western” influence, sadly ignorant of the teachings of “the great scholars of the past” and lamentably more interested in watching movies than learning tajwid. Converts involved in neo-traditionalism could also be quite racist, loving the likes of al-Ghazali and raving about visiting the mosque where he stayed back when he was in Damascus, while having no use for most of the flesh and blood Syrians they encountered when they were there.
And converts, whether Salafish or neo-traditionalist or something else, could position themselves as correctors of the Muslim community, or as spokespersons for Islam and Muslims. That was a complicated position to put oneself in… more on this next time.
Anyway… Ozyurek’s book holds up a mirror to European converts, as well as other converts to European heritage. It is in many ways a very disturbing reflection, which goes a fair way to answering the question of why we often didn’t experience the “sisterhood” that we had anticipated. There’s nothing quite like unreflective racism, classism and unexamined social privilege (and simply bad manners and judgmental arrogance) to get in the way of sisterhood. No wonder “sisterhood” so often seemed to be in short supply.