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.”
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.
I’ve been way too triggered by recent events to formulate a post about them.
Intrusive memories, tapes in my mind that won’t stop playing. And the stomach-clenching fear.
Which makes me wonder how many “moderates” (whoever they are)* are in the same boat. Now, and whenever any other awful thing happens.
* The issue of what exactly a “moderate” Muslim is and who gets to determine that is undefined… which makes the word pretty much useless.
The US government has recently come out with a report about the CIA’s torture of detainees from 2001-2009. And Christian responses have been revealing.
Predictably, there have been a small number of liberal Christian bloggers who have tried to argue that “true Christianity” is not compatible with supporting the use of torture. Such bloggers ignore 2000 years of Christian history (which has included crusades, witch burnings, pogroms, and the Inquisition, among other horrifically violent events), as well as large parts of their scriptures in favor of a few cherry-picked pacifist-sounding verses about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.
But Christians who are less inclined to whitewash the history of their faith and more honest about the contents of their scriptures quickly set the record straight. Take the response of the American Family Association‘s Bryan Fisher, who reminds Christians that
“Christianity is not a pacifist religion. The God that we serve is described in Exodus 15 as a ‘man of war.’ Now we often think of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but let’s not forget, according to Romans 19:13, when he comes back … he will be riding a white horse and wearing his own robe, dipped in blood. That is a robe that is worn by a warrior who is inflicting casualties on the foe. So this is gentle Jesus, meek and mild; when we comes back, his robe is going to be dipped in blood because he too is a warrior.”
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?
A while back, another convert left a comment for one of my posts (can’t remember which one, unfortunately). She agreed enthusiastically with an observation that I had made about how I had never really felt welcomed by most immigrant (or second generation immigrant) Muslim sisters in any community I was involved in or had dealings with. She commented that after converting, she had married an immigrant Muslim man, hoping that this would help her to feel more part of the community, and that the immigrant sisters would be more accepting of her. But the reverse happened. “So much for sisterhood,” she concluded.
At the time I received that comment, I wasn’t sure what exactly to say in response. That sister had evidently had a disillusioning experience to say the least. Like me, and like some other converts I know, she had apparently been exposed to the “we are all brothers and sisters belonging to one umma” rhetoric, and had taken it more or less at face value. She had expected that since all Muslim women are supposed to be sisters in faith, that therefore the other women at the mosque would welcome and accept her as a fellow Muslima, especially since she had demonstrated the sincerity of her conversion by marrying into the community. She wondered where the “sisterhood” was, and why it wasn’t being extended to her.
In some ways, I could definitely relate. On one hand, I did take that rhetoric seriously.
Speaking with a convert friend recently, we got into talking about ways that we used to feel marginalized and disempowered in the conservative North American Muslim communities that we used to be involved in. And how we still often feel marginalized, even in supposedly “progressive” circles. It was a long conversation, and it was emotionally wearing.
And I know some other converts who’ve had and have similar experiences. But not all do. Some converts not only survive, but seem to positively thrive… and not just in the immediate aftermath of conversion, either. Decades later, they still seem to be quite happy as conservative Muslims living in conservative communities and married to conservative husbands.
Which got me thinking about why conversion works out better for some than others. Part of it—much of it, I’d say—depends on chance: Which community(ies) the convert encounters, what imams/scholars/shaykhs/nutty dawa pamphleteers they learn their Islam from, who they marry (and whether the marriage turns abusive). But some of it seems to depend on the convert’s personality.
As a teenager, I used to like these quizzes that you used to find in magazines, that promised to reveal aspects of your personality to you. What if there’d been one aimed at would-be converts to Islam… rather like this one?
So, you’re considering converting to Islam? Answer the following questions, being as honest with yourself as possible.
(Hint: if you aren’t sure of the answer to some of them, or you’re afraid to be honest, then you need to grow some more before deciding to make such a life-changing decision.)
A. I identify as:
- Male. I was identified as male at birth, and I identify as male today, with no doubts about that whatsoever.
- Female. I was identified as female at birth, I identify as female today, and I love everything about traditional femininity.
- Female. But there are a number of stereotypically “feminine” things that I’m not really into. I just like to be me.
- Why does this even matter? I’m a human being. Aren’t all human beings equal in the eyes of God?
[If you answered (1), then you will have a far different experience as a convert then if you answered 2, 3, or 4. Good luck… and fyi, some of the rest of the questions won’t apply to you.]