Posts Tagged conversion to Islam
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?
Back to Esra Ozyurek’s thought-provoking book on (mostly white) German converts to Islam in Turkey, and onwards to a subject which has been bothering me for a long time… appropriation, conversion, and where the dividing line is. Or, is there actually a dividing line?? And if there isn’t, then what on earth am I doing, continuing to identify as Muslim?
My thoughts on this issue continue to evolve. Back in the day when I first converted, I hadn’t even heard the word “appropriation” and had no idea that it was an issue. Nowadays, I see it as an important issue that poses complicated ethical problems that I have no idea how to navigate “ethically”. So, what I am about to say here is rather disjointed.
To begin with something concrete: the cover of Ozyurek’s book. This book has a picture of a white, apparently middle aged woman. She is wearing what looks like the upper half of a white prayer hijab outfit with black patterns around the edges, a brown galabiya with coral and gold embroidery. Her eyebrows have been plucked, she is wearing kohl and lipstick, and her hands are decorated with red nail polish, several rings with large decorative stones, and henna. In her right hand is a burning cigarette.
She stares directly at the camera, but her expression is not inviting. She looks rather pissed off. Why? Because the photographer is interrupting her smoke break? Because she knows she is obviously breaking several conservative Muslim “rules”, and is anticipating judgy reactions from onlookers? Because she doesn’t like being gawked at by curious outsiders?
Or, maybe this is intended to invert the more usual Orientalizing themes that often appear in pictures of veiled women—she doesn’t look like a stereotypical, submissive victim, she isn’t crying over her dead son or begging by the side of the road… but nor is she the stereotypical “terrorist” veiled woman, waving an AK47 or screaming “death to America.”
I am not sure what non-Muslim eyes see when they look at that picture. Do they wonder why anyone would bother covering their hair, presumably in the name of modesty… and then wear red lipstick and nail polish, which are often regarded as something a woman would wear in order to look attractive? Do they assume that no born Muslim women ever smoke, so the lit cigarette indicates that the woman in the picture is either “inauthentically Muslim” or ignorant of her chosen faith? Or, that she is a rebel? Or, maybe their eyes just stop dead at the juxtaposition of white skin and white head-covering… and their minds try to grasp how “a woman like us” who presumably has all freedoms and choices open to her would choose to “do that to herself”?
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(Cont.) Reading Esra Ozyurek’s book, Being German, Becoming Muslim was like a step back in time for a number of reasons… and one of them was her discussion of converts who had taken it upon themselves to represent “real Islam” in German society. For example, she writes about a mother, Iman, who feels that because so many (immigrant) Muslims are uneducated and marginalized that she has a “responsibility” to wear hijab and speak up about “Muslim needs” in situations such as neighborhood and school meetings:
If I do not, I can be certain that no Muslim voice will be heard, even though there are many immigrant Muslims in my neighborhood. I have to represent the Muslim position on issues such as not serving pork at the school cafeteria, about issues regarding co-ed swimming classes, etc. Sometimes nonobservant Muslims come to these meetings, and their position then represents the “Muslim” voice, which makes life much more difficult for us, practicing Muslims. (p. 40) [emphasis mine]
Yikes. Where to even begin?
On one hand, I remember the expectations that we as converts do this sort of thing—be publicly visible Muslims who not only adhered to a long list of rules and restrictions about clothing, food, social interactions and recreational activities, but made sure that our kids followed them too, no matter how much inconvenience this might cause ourselves or others, or how much of a social barrier this might create.
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?
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.