I converted to Islam in the early ’80’s, and it’s complicated.
Voices of people like me are seldom heard–I mean, really “heard.” Sure, you see a few (usually white) celebrity converts being paraded in the media and at conferences put on by conservative Muslim groups in North America and the UK. But I hardly ever hear stories like mine, and of the other converts I know who had many of the same experiences that I did.
If I were to sum it all up in a sentence or two, I’d say that it is an odd mixture of some serious problems and community dysfunction, as well as a good amount of unintentional ridiculousness. We did take ourselves oh so seriously. Good grief.
A lot of what I do encounter about converts is frankly simplistic: They’re crazy. They’re better Muslims than born Muslims. They only became Muslim (especially if they’re female) because they don’t know how horrible Islam really is. They know more about Islam than born Muslims. They must have converted in order to marry a Muslim. They are a sign that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world today–yay team! They are a security threat. They show that Islam is adaptable to a wide variety of cultures. They are brainwashed. And so on.
There’s a tendency to blame or to praise, to paint with a broad brush, to highlight the bizarre or shocking–or to try to brush it under the carpet. Rarely do I see much written about converts that is nuanced, or does justice to convert experiences that I am most familiar with. And I hardly ever see anything on convert experiences that tries to put them in their historical and cultural contexts. Especially when these are white North American converts–somehow, unlike their African American counterparts, they are just random eccentrics who somehow magically appear. And it’s as if they have no relationship whatsoever to larger cultural shifts, which is a myth if ever there was one.
To put it bluntly, North American small town white women converting to Islam in the ’80’s is no weirder than those who got involved in various New Age or other New Religious Movements, or were drawn to right-wing Christian patriarchal groups. In fact, this is all part of the same picture. Which is an important reason why I often discuss issues related to North American right-wing religious patriarchy in general.