Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is without the consent of the originating culture, and when the appropriating group has historically oppressed members of the originating culture.” It goes on to explain that appropriation is not the same as acculturation or assimilation, and that it is made possible by very unequal relations of power.
Basically, it occurs because people from the dominant culture assume that they have the right to take whatever it is that they please from wherever. They unconsciously see the entire world and everything and everybody in it as if it were their own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, so they are therefore entitled to help themselves as they wish. This is possible because the group they belong to has disproportionate access to resources, political and economic power, as well as social status, especially when compared to the group that they are appropriating from. And because of this differential in power and status, the appropriating group gets to enjoy and manipulate these “exotic” and “cool” cultural elements as it pleases without paying the price that the originating group would, and without regard for its cultural or religious meanings.
How do white converts relate to such relations of power?
On one hand, my convert friends and I became Muslim in various ways. Some of us were basically recruited. By immigrant Muslim men, who were eager to “do dawah” (and get the religious merits of converting someone to Islam and therefore saving their soul… and in the process, getting themselves a a young, idealistic wife). A wife who, unlike the women of their own ethnic communities, had the advantage of being accessible, without the disadvantages of a meddling Muslim family or (usually) the foresight to stipulate a high mahr.
This was the early ’80’s, when in the region I was living at the time, young immigrant Muslim men on student visas definitely outnumbered young Muslim women of marriageable age, and many of the former would not have been considered as possible husband material anyway, due to their poverty and tenuous immigration status. For those of us who initially became interested in Islam after reading on our own, we often sooner or later encountered such men, who then took us under their wing, plied us with pamphlets and books and translations of the Quran aimed at converting us, and basically made it practically possible for us to make the move from “interested and sympathetic non-Muslim” to actual conversion.
So yes, we were invited to become Muslim. Strongly encouraged, often.
But by whom? Mostly by young immigrant Muslim men, who had their own (mixed) reasons for encouraging us to convert. Some of them definitely felt guilty about the various “sins” which they had committed as students, and were in the process of repenting of their partying ways, or were trying to balance off the “sins” they continued to commit against the “hasanaat” they were trying to earn… and playing a role in our conversions seemed likely to tip the balance of “good deeds” in their favor, or so they hoped.
Who did they represent? The entire community? No. And certainly not their female counterparts, who would likely have had a very different view of this whole “pious” calculus. But then, it never occurred to us to wonder too much about this at the time.
Was it there that invitation met appropriation?
Maybe, maybe not. But surely it is not a coincidence that we had been raised on a society which took appropriation for granted. Sports teams had names such as “braves” or “redskins”, and I don’t remember any debate about that when I was growing up. We did “Indian” (as in Native “Indian”) crafts at school and summer camp, as well as “Indian” war and rain dances and such. Halloween costumes included dressing up as various ethnic stereotypes (“Indian” warrior/princess, “Gypsy”, etc). Youth group programming involved crafts, songs, dances and games from various parts of the world, the more “exotic” the better.
I don’t recall anyone suggesting that there might be a problem with any of this when I was growing up. The whole world past and present was apparently a smorgasbord of entertainment and enrichment options. As well as a source of spiritual riches. At the virtually all-white summer camps I attended, our Sunday worship included songs and prayers from various Elsewheres, as well as the odd stereotypical “Indian” prayer addressed to the “Great Spirit.”
To be sure, white people who did things such as travel to India, stay at an ashram, come back to North America and burn incense or teach meditation (say) might be looked at sideways, in the circles I grew up in. Some people would regard it as “cool”, but others would have been more likely to think that it was weird and somehow wrong. As in, why is this white person pretending to be what they are not? They aren’t Hindu, so why would they be taking part in Hindu religious practices or teaching them to others??
Once we converted, we found ourselves negotiating the space between “cool” and “weird/wrong”. We wanted to be seen by our families and the wider society as Muslims, full stop, and to be taken seriously as such. They, on the other hand, seemed to feel the need to slot us into a space somewhere along the “cool”—“weird/wrong” spectrum. We realized that we weren’t going to be able to escape this spectrum, so we wanted to be perceived as “cool” (rather than as “weird/wrong”). Why, we wondered, were white people who were interested in Zen Buddhism or Bahaism much more likely to be seen as “cool”, while we seemed to usually end up being seen as “weird/wrong”?
Part of that of course was the practices we took on—largely because we belonged to communities in which there was very strong pressure to do noticeable things (sure to set us dramatically apart from most people, including many immigrant Muslims, in those days…) such as wear headscarves and long, loose, plain and unrevealing clothing, refuse to shake hands with men, pray five times a day wherever we might be, avoid all situations where alcohol would be consumed, and so forth. This was not a private, personal “relationship with God/peace with the universe” type of religion that would allow us to live and let live. This was a religion that drew very decided boundaries around who was “in” and who was “out,” what was acceptable and what was not.
How to try to appear to be more on the “cool” and nonthreatening end, then? And, how to raise our kids so that they would enjoy and take pride in their Muslim identity? At the same time, how to deal with living in a community in which “Western” was a very negative label? Everything from “Western dress” (especially for women), to “Western attitudes to X” and “Western social habits” were at best extremely suspect. Appropriation (though of course we didn’t call it that) seemed to hold the answers, especially helped along by Islamist rhetoric about all Muslims being “one ummah”. If being “Western” (and especially, being “Western women”) meant being tainted by kufr, morally inferior, and bad, then we needed to cease to be “Western” and to find a way to become authentically Muslim.
Things got even more complicated in this regard once I and some of my convert friends become involved in The Cult, which had even more demanding standards of proper Muslim behavior and practice, condemned most things “Western” (especially if they were any later than the medieval times) even more strongly, and romanticized everything dubbed “traditionally Muslim.” We believed that being white and western meant that we were morally inferior, especially since we were female on top of that. In The Cult as well, “Western women” symbolized most of what was regarded as morally wrong with “the West”, and being female meant that you were lesser anyway.
“He who imitates a people is one of them,” we were taught (it’s a hadith). Islam, as a wholistic “tradition,” is supposed to shape every sphere of life of the true believer, we were told. This meant that everything from what we wore (inside the house as well as outside), what even our babies wore, what and how we ate, how we furnished our homes, how we spent our leisure time, how we spoke and thought—our entire lives, in other words—was supposed to be as “traditionally Islamic” as possible. This would supposedly guard against our becoming like the non-Muslims and mislead Muslims who surrounded us, and put up a barrier against our kids becoming assimilated and losing their faith.
But what was “traditionally Islamic”? Our leaders determined that, of course. Sometimes, it meant practices referred to in the hadith, such as eating with your hands from a common tray, while seated on the floor, and forbidding your kids to play outside at sunset and later. Sometimes it could be plausibly seen as an outgrowth of teachings found in the hadith, such as forbidding people to have pictures or photos or statuettes in their houses (due to the hadiths forbidding making pictures and statues…), but encouraging people to decorate their homes with calligraphy, pictures of the Ka’ba, and “Islamic art” instead. Sometimes it meant following random practices from a mishmash of various Muslim cultures worldwide. There would be certain fashions, even fads, which would sweep the group from time to time, whether it was all the brothers (regardless of ethnic origin or born/convert status) wearing the exact same kind of “traditional Muslim” clothing to events put on by the group, or people burning a particular type of incense in their homes (again, regardless of ethnic origin or born/convert status or whether this was a practice which was part of their culture). Of course, whatever “traditional Muslims” who lived on the other side of the world supposedly did had to be vastly superior to anything we had grown up with. Our leaders said so.
Appropriation was the core of our lives. Partly, due to community expectations and pressures. But also sometimes, as a way to resist these. We wanted to be good Muslims, we were worried about how to keep our kids Muslim, and we were starved for beauty and creativity, and resisted being seen as “weird/wrong” by the wider society… so taking on apparently “cool” practices from various Muslim cultures seemed to offer some answers.
How to wear conservative and perfectly “correct” hijab without looking frightening or “weird”, for instance? (This was way before hijab fashion, btw, and it wouldn’t have been tolerated in either The Cult or the wider Muslim community anyway back then.) We experimented with shalwar kameez, djellabas, baju kurung, as well as with modified abayas, with embroidery, among other things. Most kinds of music were forbidden or heavily frowned upon, with the exception of nashids and certain types of “traditional” Muslim classical or folk music. Listening to the latter (when we could get it) was practically the only musical outlet we had. Figurative art was regarded as “against the sunna”, but patterns from Moroccan or Turkish tiles were all right, and might even be sources of baraka, so we made use of them in home furnishings and craft projects.
Our bootleg “traditional Islamic lifestyle” (TM) included all sorts of things—incense and West African bowls with geometric designs and Pakistani-style kitschy photos of the Prophet’s grave with red roses around the frame (though probably Made in China) and Arab men’s galabiyas (which might sometimes be appropriated by women from their husbands, and used as house dresses… much to Arab men’s dismay) and Indian-style cushions with embroidery and mirrors and photos of mosques from the National Geographic in cheap Dollar Store frames and faux Oriental rugs (fake of course; we couldn’t have possibly afforded to buy the real thing) and our Muslim Recipes from Around the World cookbook put out by a mosque women’s committee to raise money for some worthy project-or-other and a carved wooden Quran stand holding the family’s Qurans wrapped in Pakistani-style sewn cloth covers and wooden tasbihs somebody’s friend’s cousin had kindly brought back from Hajj….
We spoke a coded conservo-Muslim language that (now that I look back on it) must have seemed very strange to outsiders. Everything was inshallah, al-hamdu lillah, maa shallah subhanallah. (After all, swearing was sinful, so we had to put emphasis in somehow.) All sorts of Arabic words—and sometimes words from other Muslim languages as well—were part of our daily speech, even when there was a perfectly suitable English word that would have done.
Our overall frame of reference was here in North America, yet somehow not-here. North American social, legal and economic realities made our “traditional Islamic lifestyle” (TM) possible, as it would not have been possible anywhere else. But our daily lives seemed to express our refusal to accept that this was the case.
(to be continued)