Archive for category Convert histories
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?
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.
In the last post, I discussed some of the reasons why I and some female converts I know used to wonder where the sisterhood was. The sisterhood that we thought was part and parcel of belonging to the umma, but that somehow we were being shut out of.
Now, looking back, I can’t help but wonder why on earth I didn’t notice who it was who was usually giving the talks and writing the articles about Muslim unity and how we are all one umma and the duties of brotherhood and so forth. It wasn’t usually women. And when it was women, it was usually… converts.
And come to think of it, who was it who was usually giving those sermons about how it’s haraam for Muslims to live in the land of the kufaar, unless they are here for dawa? Or who usually organized those dawa events or wrote those dawa pamphlets? Or who gave advice to Muslim male students on student visas, who were having pangs of conscience about being involved with western girlfriends and thinking that maybe they’d like to marry them but what would their families back home say about them marrying a non-Muslim woman and what about the kids… ? Typically, men again… and the odd female convert.
But what did those immigrant Muslim men, who urged other Muslim men to do dawa, produced the dawa materials, helped organize the dawa events, encouraged men in relationships with non-Muslim women to convert them… have to say to their own daughters, sisters, and wives about how they should relate to the wider non-Muslim society?
Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,
“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”
Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in. For a complicated bunch of reasons.
When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.
As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.
I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way, or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.
Today, I discovered a poem (and a poet) for the first time.
Only some thirty years too late.
And wouldn’t you know it, he’s dead now. He died over a decade ago.
Better late than never, I suppose.
I don’t read poetry much. Don’t have time, for one thing. Am not really very attuned to it, for another. But I tripped across Ahmad Shamlou’s poem, “In this dead-end” by accident. And it hit me so hard. Because unfortunately, I know too much about what he is talking about:
In this dead-end
They smell your breath
You had better not have said, ‘I love you.’
They smell your heart.
These are strange times, darling…
And they flog love at the checkpoint
We must hide love in the closet.
In this crooked dead end and twisting chill
they feed the fire with the kindling of song and poetry
Do not risk a thought
These are strange times, darling
He who knocks on the door at midnight
has come to kill the light
We must hide light in the closet.
There are the butchers stationed at the crossroads
with bloody clubs and cleavers
These are strange times, darling
They cut smiles from lips and songs from mouths
We must hide joy in the closet.
Canaries barbequed on a fire of lilies and jasmine
These are strange times, darling
Satan is drunk with victory, sitting at our funeral feast
We must hide God in the closet.
Some days ago, someone sent me a link to a video of British Muslims being, well, happy. Lip-syncing, dancing, smiling, and acting goofy, mostly. Women, as well as men and children. Not all the women were wearing hijab. One hijabi was biking, and a number were dancing. I watched it, and had two automatic and rather contradictory reactions—“awww, that’s kind of cute” and “the following things in this video are haraam, makruh or at least Islamically questionable and therefore the makers probably should have avoided them, because X quranic verse and Y Z A hadiths and the sayings of such-and-such scholars.”
And the thing was, these were my automatic responses, that I didn’t even have to think about or try to formulate. Not just the “awww…” response, but the second one, the hyper-critical, These Are All The Things That Are Wrong Here And These Are The Proof-texts Why response.
Thinking about the second response, I am taken aback… and not in a good way.
Where does this hyper-critical response come from, complete with its associated proof-texts?
Sure, this stuff was all pounded into my head years ago, when I converted. But I’ve been away from conservative Muslim communities for a while now, and seldom interact with conservative Muslims (aside from a few family members). I don’t usually listen to conservative khutbas or attend mosques or read books written by conservatives or (god forbid) go to those fatwa sites. So, it’s not as though those attitudes and proof-texts could be expected to be uppermost in my mind, because they aren’t exactly receiving reinforcement.
And, these are mostly ideas that I don’t rationally believe in either (more on that in a minute).
So, where does this come from??
Well, wherever it comes from, it soon became evident that I was not the only person who has the same inbuilt Islamic Carping Criticism-o-meter (ICC), because it did not take long for a “halal” version of the video to be posted. Meaning, a version in which most of the women have been edited out, and those remaining are hijabis. Only the upper one-third of their bodies are shown, and they are mostly standing still. Not only are the dancing women now gone, but even the hijabi riding her bike.
Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.
Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.
I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.
In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??
My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.
I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.