Posts Tagged Muslim cults

The Handmaid’s Tale: some reflections

Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am conscious that I am reading it with what I would call doubled vision. Meaning, as I read it I am constantly aware of how I would likely have received it if I had read it back in the day when I was a hyper-conservative Muslim, as well as how it comes across to me now. So, I am all too aware that aspects of it that I now regard as insightful wouldn’t have seemed that way to me then.

"I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit." (The Handmaid's Tale, p. 131)

“I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit.” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 131)

The primary target is evangelical Christian political activism aimed at limiting women’s rights to control their own bodies and lives, in the name of supposedly “biblical” values (with some biting critique also of certain strains of ’80’s feminism). The “biblical values” being promoted by groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority back when this book was written were usually spun as good old-fashioned wholesome warm-n-fuzzy all-American values that for some strange reason had only recently been questioned by a few misguided feminists and liberals. However, Atwood is having none of that eye-wash—the “biblical values” described in The Handmaid’s Tale are absolutely nightmarish—yet, they can arguably be justified from biblical passages that speak of women desperately desiring to bear children, men having sex with female slaves in order to sire offspring (whether said female slaves consented was irrelevant), arranged marriages of daughters, commands addressed to wives to obey their husbands, and so forth.

This makes the point that “biblical values” are ultimately less about whatever the Bible says (or doesn’t say), and more about  what parts of the Bible one wants to highlight, as well as about who has the power to define what “biblical values” are in a given context. “Biblical values” might sound as though they come with some sort of guarantee of fairness or compassion, at least as far as “good Christian women” are concerned… but they do not. Even those women like Serena Joy, who had devoted their lives to promoting such values, did not have the power to define what “biblical values” would mean. It was powerful men hell-bent on control and feeling entitled to it who had that power.

Back in the day, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any further, because this obviously raises questions about any religious movement claiming that its allegedly divinely given values should govern followers’ lives (much less religious movements with political ambitions). I would have seen this as unfair, as foreclosing the possibility of religious women seeking liberation within their religious tradition. I would have also taken offense at the Orientalism of comparing the handmaids’ boredom to a painting of harem women, and dismissed the entire book as therefore irrelevant to Muslim women.

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“As my shaykh taught me…”

On the last post, Bebe g commented:

“…We were even taught by our pakistani sheik that all white people where naturally evil and would never convert to Islam because they naturally have dark hearts. But he was quick to marry a white woman 1st chance he had. Good thing I never believed him.. To many people who are donned leaders of the community and are followed by the ignorant non reading locals….”

Hoo boy, did that part of her comment trigger memories! Things that people’s shaykhs taught them. Or, things that people claimed that their shaykhs had taught them, anyhow. Things that people we looked up to as “scholars” and “shaykhs” taught us, and that we felt that we had to believe. Things that people claimed to know because they were following the Sufi path….

My earliest memory of that sort of thing falls into the latter category. We were visiting the family of a friend of my ex. This friend (and his family) were from the same ethnic background, but that was about where the similarities ended, because the friend (unlike my ex) was a devoted Sufi who followed a shaykh from back home. (My ex told me later that this shaykh was a charlatan who was well known for his shady financial dealings and lavish person lifestyle… but anyway.) While we were at my ex’s friend’s house, we met another of that shaykh’s murids. When the murid realized that I am a convert, he immediately wanted to know what my ethnic background was.

I replied that my mother’s side of the family is originally from X, and my father’s side from Y.

The murid loudly objected, telling me: “No, you are only what your father is, not what your mother is! Your essence can only come from your father.”

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Thinking your way out of neo-traditionalism (V)

This series on neo-traditionalism would not be complete without discussing the role played by our leaders, and our bonds with them.

We were taught that "he who does not have a shaykh, has Satan for his shaykh." But the day came when I looked in the mirror and was horrified at the evil that I saw... at what I had become, by surrendering my conscience to "people of knowledge."

We were taught that “he who does not have a shaykh, has Satan for his shaykh.” But the day came when I looked in the mirror and was horrified at the evil that I saw… at what I had become, by surrendering my conscience to “people of knowledge.”

When I first began reading about Islam, I didn’t encounter much that led me to think that following a leader was important. In fact, the opposite impression was often created—that Islam is all about the individual’s relationship with God. The individual believer is responsible for his or her beliefs and practices before God, and there are no intermediaries comparable to, say, priests in the Catholic church.

It would be some time before I consciously realized that very few of the Muslims I encountered actually believed that. The way that such “individualist” rhetoric was used was pretty misleading, at least for a naive outsider—on one hand, yes, each individual is responsible before God, but that doesn’t mean that each individual can actually decide how the Qur’an or the life of the Prophet or the hadith or legal rulings relate to their life. Especially not if that individual is not only female, but a “western” convert.  Such weighty interpretive decisions can’t be made on one’s own. Though, there was no consensus over who exactly should make them.

Where I was living in North America back in the early ’80’s, actual scholars were rather scarce. There were a few imams who had studied abroad. There were a couple of Muslim university professors who were seen by some as knowledgeable. There were Arab and South Asian conservative, bearded engineering students who attended halaqas of like-minded men, and were basically self-taught. There were Tablighis. There were followers of Warith Deen Mohammed. And there were a few Sufi teachers.

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Conservative group or cult?

Ki sarita—I guess it’s a question of degree.

A commenter (Ki sarita) asks: Why do I call a highly conservative, insular, patriarchal Muslim group that I was involved in a cult? And, how is the group that I was in different from other conservative, neo-traditionalist Muslim groups out there?

Well, first of all, it took me a long time to be able to call the group that I used to be in a cult. Naming that is part of my recovery process.

And second, I guess it’s a question of degree as to whether a group is just hyper-conservative and inward-looking or a full-blown cult. The group I was in didn’t start out as a full-blown cult, and a lot of its teachings weren’t all that different from other very conservative groups or leaders that I had encountered before.

The group I was in was a cult, for several reasons:

  • The leaders interpreted Islam for the members.
  • You couldn’t question the leaders or you would be publicly humiliated or pushed out of the group.
  • No one could question the amount of knowledge that the leaders had, or suggest that there were others in the wider Muslim community who might be more qualified in some ways.
  • There was a lot of pressure to conform, and those who didn’t were made examples of.
  • Being part of the group meant adopting its worldview, and seeing everything through that filter, all the time.
  • The group demanded a large time-committment from the members.
  • There wasn’t much privacy in the group. A lot of decisions that would ordinarily be up to individuals or families were seen as the business of the group (and especially, of its leaders).
  • We weren’t supposed to attend other Muslim groups’ events or even have friends outside the group unless our intention was to recruit them to join our group.
  • We lived inside our group’s bubble as far as possible, and kept our children inside it too. They did not really have friends from outside it. We weren’t supposed to send them to public schools, or even to other Muslim schools.
  • We believed that only us (and a few highly conservative, hierarchical groups similar to ours) were rightly guided, and every other Muslim or Muslim group was varying degrees of lost.
  • We believed that our leaders had unique spiritual powers.
  • There were teachings that wouldn’t be made known to outsiders, or even to members of the group who hadn’t been in it long enough or who weren’t seen as sufficiently committed.
  • The group would fund-raise from the wider Muslim community for projects and programs that were intended to primarily benefit our group’s members, but would-be donors would be led to believe that this was for the benefit of the wider Muslim community.
  • State or local laws were ignored and treated as irrelevant as much as possible. We weren’t supposed to vote, or have any stake in the social or political system of “the kuffar.”

There are other things as well, but this will do….


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Becoming super-Muslimah-mommy

In the last post, I discussed a number of reasons why I (and many of my convert friends) found conservative Muslim arguments in favor of women being stay-at-home wives and mothers convincing, and highlighted some of the ways that deciding to stay home limited our ability (and even, our inclination) to make independent, adult decisions on a whole range of things.

In staying home, we became financially dependent. And, we didn’t chart our own courses as wives and mothers either—there were not only our husbands to answer to, but also various conservative, insular and often quite intrusive Muslim communities. For those of us who became involved in Muslim cults, that goes double.

I became financially dependent, despite the fact that my ex wanted to have both the comfort and convenience of a stay-at-home wife (and mother), AND the benefits of a wife who also brings in some money—though, one who would work in a way that wouldn’t ever inconvenience him. I tried to do that by babysitting from home. That was supposed to be the ideal balance between the need to generate income, and the “need” to be at home with my kids full-time, without in any way falling short of my wifely responsibilities to cook, clean, etc, or my moral responsibilities to wear hijab and avoid working alongside or closely interacting with men. I also hoped that it would protect me from job discrimination and the type of dismissive treatment that often is experienced by people in low-status jobs. After all, I was working at home….

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Why I got involved in homeschooling

As I became involved in The Cult, I gradually learned more about how the leaders saw child-raising, and especially, what they thought about the public education system. The Cult was not the sort of group that kept all its goods in the shop-window; you had to be with them for a while before you’d get anything like a full picture of what they taught.

As I discussed in the previous post, The Cult taught that teenagers are a creation of the modern world, and that parents who raise their children “properly” can avoid having them go through teenagehood. The Cult also taught that the public school system was fundamentally ungodly, and that it would pollute any child who went through it. Therefore, parents who are at all serious about having their kids grow up Muslims would not send their kids to public school.

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The men who speak with God’s voice

Whenever I think about God nowadays, usually, two things happen. First, I draw a blank. Then, I notice the voices.

The voices that I internalized, as a result of years spent in several conservative Muslim communities.

What does it mean when your god loves everything that you love, and can’t stand all the stuff that you can’t stand? Doesn’t that mean that you have created a god in your own image?
(Photo: Remi Mathis

The voices have a lot to say. About everything. About how the world “should” be.

The voices are not disembodied. They issue forth from human beings.

“That’s odd,” I think. “After all, as Muslims we don’t believe that God has a form or a body. God is beyond human characteristics like gender and race and class. So, why is it that I can’t think about God without these embodied voices intruding?”

The voices are male. They speak very confidently. They are very sure that they know exactly who God is, and what God thinks about everything. They know what God wants them to do, and even more, what God wants other people to do. Especially women. Especially me.

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Malcolm X moment

It’s not as though convert voices, or convert stories are never heard in conservative North American Muslim communities. “Why I embraced Islam” talks have been a fixture of MSA-sponsored events since the ’80’s at least. A growing number of converts are becoming prominent community leaders and scholars. A very small number of these converts are even female.

But here’s the thing: The stories told by converts that get heard are usually what the immigrant Muslim establishment sees as “feel-good” stories. Stories about women (especially white, middle-class women) who convert, put on hijab, and say that for the first time in their lives they feel truly liberated were popular in many of the conservative Muslim circles I frequented. But what about the stories of female converts who didn’t find marriage to a Muslim the “sheltering peace” that they had been led to expect? What about those who sought knowledge, and then were horrified by what they found? What about those who were manipulated and spiritually abused by shaykhs they trusted? What about those who are still dealing with the after-effects of their involvement in Muslim cults, dysfunctional Muslim communities, abusive marriages… or all of the above?

Convert stories are often really complicated. And they should be heard in all their complexity. Even when they don’t tell born Muslims things that they want to hear.

We seldom heard their stories. And, when their stories did come to light, they were quickly swept under the rug, or dismissed in various ways: It is an exaggeration. It can’t be true. She never really believed in the first place. God was testing her, and she should have shown more patience.

When sisters were struggling, they tended to avoid contact with other conservative Muslims. Once they had left, or been forced out, they typically disappeared. We lost contact with them.

Recently, Aminah left the following comment about the abuse that some converts have had to deal with:

“We have tried to talk about this before. Its not just that the community, including progressive or liberal Muslims, distanced themselves. Remember the last spate of ex Muslimah blogs, which started to crack the silence about abuse in marriages, community, tariqas and institutions? And what followed was abuse, slander, death threats, harassment. Muslim women unconnected w the blogs were suspected of being anti-abuse bloggers and subjected to phone calls and emails and community ostracization. Several of those women were hung out to dry. For a lot of us who blogged or guest posted or just read for the sense of a community – finally, not alone! – it was triggering and disheartening, particularly because this little handful of bloggers quit. Or moved on, taking their blogs with them. Just when we started to understand we weren’t alone – and started breaking the taboo of “revealing your husband’s secrets,” getting over the fear of that “sin,” it was all over.

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“Islam” and my experiences

I am in the process of trying to disentangle “Islam” (the world religion with some 1400-odd years of history) and my particular experiences as a North American convert in the early ’80’s.

This is challenging to do for several reasons. First of all, because “Islam” was often used as the justification for everything and anything–by community leaders, and by individuals. It was the ultimate legitimating tool for almost any action.

Second, because I was involved in or associated with different Muslim circles at different times, and they understood or defined Islam differently. Yet, those differences were often rhetorically blurred for a number of reasons. All the differences were particularly confusing to converts in particular, and we often missed the nuances of debates about beliefs and practices–or failed to understand that there was a debate going on at all. We had little or no sense of the history behind different positions, and tended to take what people said at face value.

Third, because North American discourses on “Islam” were ever-evolving. “Islam” was and is a moving target–though few community leaders typically admit that.

Frankly, most internet discourses on “Islam” get inane pretty fast. Remarkably wide generalizations abound–made both by believers, as well as those who are not Muslim and have no connection to Islam whatsoever. People generalize all the time about “Muslim women”, “the status of women in Islam,” “converts to Islam”, and so forth, in ways that they probably wouldn’t do if they were talking about almost any other group.

It has taken me some time to realize that a fair amount of what I have experienced is actually not a reflection of most North American Muslim women’s lives. Although I (and often, my convert friends) were often told or otherwise given to understand that “X is Islamic” and that no “good Muslim woman” would even dare to question Y, looking back, I can see that in some cases we were frankly being manipulated. Things were seldom as simple as we were told that they were.

At present, I (and a number of other converts I know) are dealing with the following issues:

the aftermath of bad marriages, ranging from dysfunctional to frankly abusive
psychological trauma (the effects of which range from depression to PTSD)
disturbed and traumatized children
strained relationships with our birth families (with some relationships damaged beyond repair)
serious financial losses/problems
long-term damage to our earning power; obstacles to career advancement
worries about how we will survive once our health does not allow us to work
the aftereffects of social isolation and alienation from the wider society
a deep sense of betrayal and loss

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