Posts Tagged neo-traditionalism
A lot of the posts on this blog deal with the impact of certain hyper-conservative interpretations of Islam on my life, as well as on the lives of other female converts that I have known. I have repeatedly blogged about the difficulties of trying to recover from living in certain very restrictive and stifling situations, and trying to (re)build a life for oneself and one’s (often confused and sometimes troubled) kids.
But one angle of these situations that I haven’t really dealt with is the impact on (some) men. On my ex, for instance. On some of my friends’ exes. On conservative, often immigrant, Muslim men, who became “born again Muslims” after living for a time in “the West” as young male refugees or students. And for that matter, on some of our now-grown sons, who were raised in very conservative, insular and controlling Muslim communities.
One reason I don’t deal with this subject much is for much the same reason that I don’t write about the 1 percent. I mean what—the problems that are consuming you at the moment are that your butler quit, and junior has started spouting some kind of lefty nonsense about how rich people should pay more taxes? Do you even have a clue how many people in the world would love to have your “problems”?? It’s not just the male privilege that these conservative Muslim men have that tends to leave me thinking that I don’t have much to say about their situations, it’s that unlike many women exiting rotten or abusive marriages or trying to distance themselves from toxic community dynamics, these men usually have considerably more power.
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.”
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.
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.
Some days ago, someone sent me a link to a video of British Muslims being, well, happy. Lip-syncing, dancing, smiling, and acting goofy, mostly. Women, as well as men and children. Not all the women were wearing hijab. One hijabi was biking, and a number were dancing. I watched it, and had two automatic and rather contradictory reactions—“awww, that’s kind of cute” and “the following things in this video are haraam, makruh or at least Islamically questionable and therefore the makers probably should have avoided them, because X quranic verse and Y Z A hadiths and the sayings of such-and-such scholars.”
And the thing was, these were my automatic responses, that I didn’t even have to think about or try to formulate. Not just the “awww…” response, but the second one, the hyper-critical, These Are All The Things That Are Wrong Here And These Are The Proof-texts Why response.
Thinking about the second response, I am taken aback… and not in a good way.
Where does this hyper-critical response come from, complete with its associated proof-texts?
Sure, this stuff was all pounded into my head years ago, when I converted. But I’ve been away from conservative Muslim communities for a while now, and seldom interact with conservative Muslims (aside from a few family members). I don’t usually listen to conservative khutbas or attend mosques or read books written by conservatives or (god forbid) go to those fatwa sites. So, it’s not as though those attitudes and proof-texts could be expected to be uppermost in my mind, because they aren’t exactly receiving reinforcement.
And, these are mostly ideas that I don’t rationally believe in either (more on that in a minute).
So, where does this come from??
Well, wherever it comes from, it soon became evident that I was not the only person who has the same inbuilt Islamic Carping Criticism-o-meter (ICC), because it did not take long for a “halal” version of the video to be posted. Meaning, a version in which most of the women have been edited out, and those remaining are hijabis. Only the upper one-third of their bodies are shown, and they are mostly standing still. Not only are the dancing women now gone, but even the hijabi riding her bike.
My inbox is still kinda conservo-Muslim-ish. I still get emails from a number of Muslim orgs and businesses. Including Shukr.
Clearly, Shukr is rather proud of their line of “modest” sportswear for women. I clicked on the link… and sighed.
“Move with modesty.” Trademarked, no less. Wow.
Hoodies to the knees, sweatsuit material “fitwalking” and even “powerwalking” long skirts… oh, did that bring back memories.
Because I and a good friend of mine used to do a lot of fairly “active” things while wearing conservative hijab. I well remember hiking, skating and boating in long, heavy skirts or jilbabs—even swimming in lakes in jilbabs or long dresses and headscarves. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy or comfortable (and in some cases, it wasn’t very safe either). Though, at that time we were less worried about ease or comfort or safety than about our kids, as well as community gossip.
We wanted our kids—especially our daughters—to know that hijab does not need to limit women. We were concerned that if they picked up the idea that hijab comes with a long list of “can’t do this/go there/be involved in that” then they wouldn’t want to wear it. So, we felt that it was on us to set an active example. For sure, no one else in our conservative community was likely to. We exercised in those conservative clothes, and tried to ignore the disapproving glances and the sideways comments about how we evidently hadn’t really understood the “spirit of hijab.”
It’s hard to begin to get a handle on white converts. Even if I limit myself to North America—though I’m not sure that doing that would be entirely accurate. Even back in the stone age (aka pre-internet days), when communications were so painfully expensive/slow, our experiences as white converts were affected by whatever contacts we had with the experiences or ideas of white converts elsewhere (particularly in western Europe). It seems that ours is a transnational experience.
There really is no “white convert community” in the sense of a fixed entity. It’s more like a flowing river… or less poetically, a revolving door, with people entering and exiting all the time (and some still whirling around and around). The convert population is forever in flux. There don’t seem to be many statistics available, presumably in part because it must be hard to study such a small population that is geographically dispersed. One study in Illinois by a Muslim researcher in the late ’90’s found that about 75% of American converts (race not mentioned) leave Islam, but how applicable these numbers might to elsewhere in North America or to the situation now even in Illinois is unclear. But speaking from experience, the converts I knew were often highly mobile in more ways than one: Some left Islam. Some left conservative Islam for much more liberal interpretations (which for us at that time meant pretty much that they had left Islam… and we lost contact with them). Some moved across the continent… or to the other side of the world. Some moved repeatedly.