Posts Tagged idealism

So much for sisterhood: When white convert discourses sound an awful lot like white racist rhetoric

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.

Caution: Objects in the mirror may be uglier than they appear. Especially racism passing for advocating religious reform. "CRV side mirror" by SeppVei - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG#mediaviewer/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG

Caution: Objects in the mirror may be uglier than they appear. Especially racism passing for advocating religious reform.
“CRV side mirror” by SeppVei – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG#mediaviewer/File:CRV_side_mirror.JPG

 

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.”

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So much for sisterhood: But the fact is, they never asked for us

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?

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So much for sisterhood

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.

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Forewarned is forearmed… I wish I’d taken this test before converting

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:

  1. Male. I was identified as male at birth, and I identify as male today, with no doubts about that whatsoever.
  2. Female. I was identified as female at birth, I identify as female today, and I love everything about traditional femininity.
  3. Female. But there are a number of stereotypically “feminine” things that I’m not really into. I just like to be me.
  4. 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.]

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The way we were: all the stuff we didn’t read

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.

books

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.

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In this dead-end

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.

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Learning to leave it on the mountain

Recently, I went hiking up a mountain, in search of the remains of a ghost town.

What was left of the road was steep, and not in good repair. I got lost for a bit as well. But I finally found what I had been looking for—what was left of a ruined farmstead.

One of the few remaining buildings in Thistle, Utah. Photographed by Drew Zanki.

When you pour so many hopes and dreams (and so much effort) into something, it can be very hard to admit even to yourself that it was pretty much a lost cause from the beginning….
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thistle-Burried_House.jpg)

It was a bright sunny day. The sky was blue and the birds were singing.

Lichens grew on the large rocks that littered what had once been the pasture. A tree had grown in the middle of the remains of the small barn (which had long ago lost its roof). What was left of the foundations of the house was so overgrown with tall weeds that it was hard to gauge how large it had once been.

It was a lovely and yet despairing place.

The original settlers had been allotted that isolated swathe of rocky land up the mountain, with the promise that if they could build houses and produce crops on it that it would be theirs. They had come there expecting that they were getting land that could be farmed. They had had high hopes, thinking that the several families who were coming to farm there would establish a village, which would then become a town.

But what they found once they laboriously cleared the trees from the land was soil that was too thin and poor to grow wheat or corn or oats or much of anything. It wasn’t even very good for pasturing cattle.

The remains of their back-breaking labor were still evident in the stone fences and what was left of the buildings. They had moved those stones with oxen. They had cut, prepared and notched those logs by hand. But no matter how hard they worked, they had barely been able to scratch a living from that land. Within fifty years, the last of those settlers had come down from the mountain, abandoning their farms.

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