Archive for category You owe us an apology

Grim memories: Sunnis calling Shias kafir in the ’80’s

Sister F. and I were chatting one day. I think that it was at some Islamic event-or-other, and her husband was the main speaker. Sister F. had converted at about the same time as I did. Her husband, also a convert, was in the process of making something of a name for himself as a da’i.

Sister F. was usually fairly quiet, and as far as I knew, got along with everybody. She was the peace-making, let’s-all-just-get-along type of woman. So, it really shocked me when I mentioned something-or-other about something that had happened recently in Iran, and she responded that “the Shias are kafir.”

I was too taken aback to respond for a minute. And then I said that this isn’t true.

“Well, it is true if what we’ve been told is true,” she answered.

I didn’t have to ask what she meant. I knew. I knew about those conservative, immigrant, often Salafi men who hung around the Friday Prayers that I attended, pulling young men aside and engaging them in intense discussions after the prayer. Some of these men carried brief-cases full of anti-Shia booklets with titles like “Do You Know the True Islam?” Those booklets made claims about “what the Shias believe” that were intended to horrify Sunnis, and lead Sunnis to see Shias as a fifth column, an internal enemy bent on subverting Islam and Muslim communities from within.

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Of bus ads, “dirty laundry,” and moving beyond extremes

A couple of days ago, several emails alerted me to the dust-up about bus ads in San Francisco that quote homophobic statements made by six notorious Muslim leaders. The ads apparently are intended to (wrongly) imply that all or most Muslims are violently hateful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and other queer folks.

Why not just put this ad on every bus in North America?(http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/current_releases/7756.asp)

I like this bus-ad just fine. I’d like to see it as I ride the bus on my way to work (and on the bus-shelters I wait in)….
(http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/current_releases/7756.asp)

Which also implies that the categories of “Muslim” and “LGBTQ” are entirely separate. Mutually exclusive.  Which is obviously ridiculous.

And which also seems to imply that those in North America who most loudly oppose all manifestations of Islam today (aka strongly right-wing conservatives, a number of whom subscribe to particular socially conservative interpretations of Christianity) are also strong supporters of equal rights for LGBTQ people… unlike those awful Muslims.  Except that such right-wingers often aren’t.

Yes, the bus ads are hypocritical and misleading. They seem designed to promote hate. They erase the existence and activism of queer Muslims and their Muslim allies.

But for every cloud, there is a silver lining… or so I’ve often been told. As I read the article I linked to above, I knew that I should feel grateful. For it indicates that there is apparently a slow sea-change taking place among some Sunni Muslims in North America. A small number of fairly prominent figures who are looked up to by conservative “mainstream” Sunnis are coming out (pun intended) and saying that gays are welcome to pray at their mosques and criticizing Muslims for taking hateful or exclusionary attitudes to LGBTQ people. Which is such an improvement over what I am used to.

Yes, I know I should be feeling grateful, happy, even hopeful. So, why am I having flashbacks instead?

Flashbacks to talk after talk after sermon after pamphlet after book after study-circle… an endless loop of just really awful ideas on a range of issues, from sexuality to family to educational policy to world politics. Ideas publicly expressed, in the name of Islam, at Muslim conferences or from the minbar or in Muslim student groups or a events organized for families (or for “the youth”), or even at da’wa events (!?). Often in the hearing of supposedly intelligent and responsible Muslims who did… absolutely nothing.

In my memory alone, I realized, I have enough shocking quotes to fit on hundreds of buses. If not thousands.

If I asked my convert friends for their memories of horrendous quotes, I wonder how many we’d come up with.

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Apology #1: from a Muslim pamphleteer

The following is a part apology, part letter to the community, that I hope that I will hear or read some day, from a brother who wrote dawah pamphlets, and delivered numerous talks on “____ in Islam” in different parts of North America. Yeah, it’s completely fictitious. But a sister can dream, right? Anyway, it’s an apology that I need to hear.

I know that his ideas about “what Islam is” and how Muslims should live definitely weren’t his alone. And, that he probably sincerely believes to this day that such interpretations are the most correct, and that Islam (as he understands it) is the One True Way that alone will save people from hell.

I also know why these ideas seemed to “make sense” to conservative immigrant Muslims like him, who were preoccupied with preserving their “Islamic identity” in North America, as they struggled to build a decent life for themselves and their families. They faced an unbelievable amount of prejudice and ignorance, and especially in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, they felt under a lot of pressure to “explain” Islam and Muslims to non-Muslims—and what better way to make yourself feel better than to go beyond merely trying to rationally justify your beliefs and practices to producing pamphlets and giving talks aimed at non-Muslim audiences, arguing that Islam is the truth?

But still. It cannot have been unknown to this Muslim pamphleteer (and many others, mostly male but sometimes female) that Muslim students groups and mosques were distributing these pamphlets to some pretty vulnerable people, as well as to some Muslims who would use them for their own selfish purposes. Any sensible person could anticipate that there would be some pretty bad results from doing that.

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Dear Sisters and Brothers in Islam, and in humanity,

Assalam alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu. I greet you all with the greetings of peace, and wish for you the mercy and blessings of God.

Years ago, I wrote a number of booklets on aspects of Islam, and gave talks that further expanded on those ideas. I have come to realize that a number of the ideas and practices that I promoted have caused harm to others, and for that, I am deeply sorry.

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When your theological status is a game

When your existence, your theological status is a game. A counter in someone else’s hand, that can be used for scoring points against an opponent in a debate. A joke, even. What can you do?

So little is really given to us to know. But an important part of my recovery from life in a very conservative religious community is countering the messages I internalized that in effect made my life a triviality. One thing I do know is how damaging that can be.

As a female convert, I soon encountered two things: One, an apologetic discourse that claimed that “according to Islam” women had certain rights, that could not be taken away because God had given these rights to them. Two, communities and individuals with leading or influential positions in these communities who were never short of arguments explaining that although in theory a girl or woman might have the right to do or have X, in reality, taking that right away was perfectly justifiable in that circumstance.

The result was that almost any right that girls or women supposedly have was always up for debate. You could never count on being able to continuously enjoy rights you had, either, because it could at any time be decided that the circumstances that had previously made this justifiable had changed.

You could educate yourself in the ins and outs of the apologetic discourse all you liked. For many years, I and my convert friends were convinced that this was THE answer. Out-quote those who want to severely limit your education/keep you out of the mosque/tell you you can’t laugh in the hearing of unrelated men/prevent you from working outside the home/keep you from talking to your best friend because she’s getting some unorthodox ideas/refuse to pay you your mahr/etc. Quote the Qur’an, the hadith, the views of scholars past and present, historical examples… and get your “legitimate” rights.

It took us a while to realize that the whole thing was rigged against us. Because in the end, it is about power.

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Conversion, privilege, leadership… and taking responsibility

Did you know that:

Slavery actually wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, it gave slaves the priceless opportunity to be rescued from paganism and an awfully low standard of living.

Women should never have been given the right to vote. Because women just can’t handle power. Society would be so much better off if women would focus their energies on their homes and families, like God commands, and leave politics to men.

Executing rebellious children is not such a terrible idea, either. Because if kids only knew that their parents had the legal right to end their lives, then they would behave far, far better. So, the law should be changed in order to allow rebellious kids to be stoned to death—after due legal process, of course.

These particular nutty notions have all recently been brought to us by extreme right-wing American Christian opinion-makers (for those who didn’t follow the links).

Reading about such pronouncements from ultra-rightwing Christian fundamentalist men (and occasionally, women) is depressing, but also enlightening for someone like me, who is trying to work through a lot of the truly crazy stuff that went down in (some) North American convert circles in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Because in trying to make sense of so much stuff that was said, sometimes advocated, and sometimes even acted upon, I have long been wondering where exactly this all came from. I mean, how is it that there were converts who were actually defending, justifying, rationalizing… or sometimes, even advocating practices that had (I thought) been rejected decades ago as cruel, inhuman, oppressive and beyond any kind of rational justification??

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Telling sad stories

Why do I tell sad stories about my past life, on my blog and sometimes IRL?

For sure, they aren’t easy to listen to or read. For that matter, they aren’t easy to tell. I do not like to relive them. I also worry about being rejected by friends when I tell them. After all, there is presumably a certain point when enough’s enough. Most people like to be around friends who make them feel happy, not friends who seem to be consumed with sad things that happened in the past. So I try not to tell them too often IRL.

Sometimes, I tell them because it’s like a poison that is taking me over. A poison that I am trying to expel. Maybe if I write it or speak it, it will leave me for once and for all. Maybe it will be like vomiting—you feel awful before you do it, you feel awful while doing it, you feel awful afterwards… but then ultimately, whatever-it-was that disagreed with you is gone, and you feel better. Maybe I can finally shed these awful memories, and somehow become like everyone else. Like, not haunted. Normal.

Well, that’s the hope. But so far, it hasn’t worked.

Sometimes, I tell them because they still bother me. It’s like the thorn in your foot that left a bit of itself behind even when you pulled it out. A bit that’s too small to see, but it still hurts. Yes, the story is in the past, but it still haunts me, because there is something about it that I can’t figure out. Usually, why things happened the way they did. Sometimes, I can’t figure out if a particular person who acted a particular way was in the wrong or not. Or what the incident should or should not have told me about his or her personality or priorities. So, I tell the story hoping that someone will know the answer. Someone whose judgment is better, who knows more about human beings and what is or isn’t acceptable behavior than I do.

No, I don’t want pity. I want insight.

I am not the only person who tells these stories. My kids do too. But they do not usually tell them as sad stories. To them, these are odd, sometimes funny, yet strangely disturbing stories.

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“Purity” as a myth

In the last two posts, I have been trying to disentangle why I (and some of my convert friends) bought into the notion that a girl’s or woman’s worth is essentially dependent on her “purity”—her virginity at marriage, and her chaste and modest behavior forever after. Supposedly, all this concern about what girls and women were or weren’t doing sexually was all about morality. Supposedly, it was (sexual) morality that made Islam and Muslims morally superior to “the West”, as well as to all other religions and cultures in the world. Or so we were given to understand.

But the reality as I experienced it was something quite different, now that I look back on it.

I remember various evangelical Christian sex scandals making the news, and the responses of the immigrant or convert Muslims that I knew: We aren’t like this. Because Islam has given us a superior way of life, that protects us from such things. Unlike Christianity, with its guilt about sex and its so-called monogamy, we have a realistic way of life that is in accordance with human nature (fitra), which doesn’t leave anyone any excuse to fornicate or to commit adultery….

To be sure, we didn’t really have sex scandals in the communities I was involved in or had ties with. At least, we didn’t think of them in that way. Because what this “realistic way of life” gave us was the illusion that everyone (or nearly everyone) was being sexually moral—and the means to make most infractions disappear. Men’s infractions, anyway. While girls and women bore the brunt.

An important consequence of this was that we didn’t question the teachings on sexuality that we were given:

  • A total ban on dating, or even on male-female platonic friendships
  • A ban on anything thought to facilitate or tempt people to commit fornication or adultery
  • Gender segregation in most situations, wherever possible
  • The requirement that women wear hijab, and dress modestly even in their own homes or in female-only spaces
  • The belief that fornication and adultery are very serious sins, that are to be punished by flogging and stoning in an “Islamic” state
  • The belief that even same-sex sexual thoughts or feelings are extremely sinful, and probably mean that the person having them is going to hell

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