Posts Tagged newbie converts
(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.
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.
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?
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.]
But why is it that some converts accept Islam, adopt some of the practices and rituals, make some Muslim friends, maybe get a bit self-righteous for a short while……but soon come back down to earth and manage to live a relatively balanced and “normal” life involving good relations with their non-Muslim family and neighbors, a happy marriage, fairly well-adjusted kids and making positive contributions to the well-being of society?
While some other converts end up cut off from their non-Muslim families, former friends and neighbors, or suffering psychological harm, or getting into bad or abusive marriages, perhaps only managing to get out years later if at all, with traumatized kids?
I don’t know. It does seem to depend on a number of factors: When and where people convert, their social location (gender identity, race/ethnicity, social class, religious background, educational level, age, occupation, sexual orientation, etc), what sort of Muslim community they get involved with, where they are in their lives at the time, how their family and friends react… and a whole slew of other factors. Some converts seem to be more resilient than others. Some are more able to access the support they need, whether inside or outside their Muslim communities.
Ayasmom commented recently:
I read your blog regularly and identify with it in many ways although my experience has not been quite so horrible as yours. After reading this post I am left considering what is it about us that we actively participate in this type of personal transformation? What is it about our mental and emotional selves that allows us to search so diligently for an answer to all of life’s most difficult questions, find it in Islam, be so strong to adopt this very other cultural and religious identity, and then take it too far, so far that we inflict more self harm than we possibly faced before conversion? It’s like we leave the religion of our pasts because of the dogma we find unsuitable, but then inadvertently swap it for another. Sure we can all commiserate about the horrible patriarchal system that is perpetuated by traditional Islam, but being converts, we were ever really traditional to begin with? I think the patriarchy of religion is universal, not novel to Islam. I’m thankful for spaces like this where we can hash out all these experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Thank you for sharing.
Good questions. Why did we put ourselves through this? Why (1) convert to an “alien” religion, and (2) take our conversions so very seriously that what we had been taught (or read) is “Islam” started dictating every single tiny detail of our lives? And as if that wasn’t enough, then some of us get involved in Muslim cults or cult-like groups?
What is it the drives the desire to convert, first of all? What was with all the interest in religious matters??