Posts Tagged race

So much for sisterhood: conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (II)

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?

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So much for sisterhood: Conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (I)

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?

The first time I saw this book cover, I assumed it was intended to communicate the weirdness of white female converts in the eyes of many born Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Now that I consider it more carefully, I wonder if it isn't intended as a commentary on the many conflicting pressures and expectations faced by white female converts...

The first time I saw this book cover, I assumed it was intended to communicate the weirdness of white female converts in the eyes of many born Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Now that I consider it more carefully, I wonder if it isn’t intended as a commentary on the many conflicting pressures and expectations faced by white female converts…

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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Guest post: Reflections on slavery, hijab, male authority, and convert neo-traditionalist apologetic bafflegab

(by Rosalinda—largely in response to this post)

I am under the impression that the whole women’s dress thing is something no woman can ever, ever do “right” in the eyes of these men. First, they claim that all women should wear hijab.

And when women where hijab, those scholars/brothers talk about how a woman wearing hijab shouldn’t wear pants, colourful clothes, jeans, jewellery, tight clothes etc. So a woman can never win. Talk about gaslighting…………

Here is a good take on the whole “correct hijab” thing by Orbala.

And yes, even Hamza Yusuf claims that a woman who doesn’t wear hijab “dishonors herself”.

OMG I can’t believe this! He uses the fact that enslaved women weren’t allowed to wear hijab by 3Umar al-Khattab and that they were bare-breasted as an argument for the “tolerance” of “traditional islam”.

This is of course NOT true: Hijab could, in that day and age, only be worn by free Muslim women to distinguish them from enslaved Muslim women, whose bodies were basically fair game – a slave owner had the right to have sex with an unlimited number of his female slaves, who, like Kecia Ali puts so eloquently, “weren’t in a position two hold or withdraw consent.”

But this argument of his is really mind-blowing…..

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So much for sisterhood: being the self-appointed face of “pure Islam”

(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.

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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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Converts, fantasies, race and gender

In the last post, I talked about how as white North American converts, we often found ourselves living out other people’s fantasies of an Islamic ideal. Usually, these were the fantasies of immigrant or immigrant-descended Muslims, but sometimes these were the fantasies of other (usually older) converts.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren't doing hijab right... but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy... you just can't make this stuff up.

Notice the gendered racial politics going on in this hijab meme: Real live brown and black Muslim women aren’t “doing hijab right”… but a white-faced MANNEQUIN demonstrates the pious standard that they should imitate. And, this is being circulated on the internet by Muslims, in order to instruct Muslim women how to dress. By all that is holy… you just can’t make this stuff up.

These fantasies could be aspects of the thought of modern Muslim political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami which had become popularized, such as the notion that “Islam solves” social problems such as racism by uniting all believers within one umma. Or, they could be quite apolitical and superficially profound ideas taught by various neo-traditionalists, such as the idealization of the medieval Sunni scholarly tradition.

Either way, these were things that either didn’t really exist anywhere today in reality, or did exist, but fell miserably short of their idealized billing.

How did we not realize that these were fantasies rather than reality—and that trying to live them out would lead to some serious problems? Partly because in those pre-internet days our knowledge of what was really going on in Muslim communities even here in North America (forget anywhere else) was very limited.

And partly because what I would call a “reality filter” had been quite quickly and coercively implanted in our minds, so that even when we did see, or read or hear about Muslims past or present acting in ways that seemed to challenge our fantasies, it wouldn’t lead us to ask some pretty obvious questions. That reality filter was constructed and reconstructed daily, through ubiquitous phrases such as:

“In Islam…”

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The ice is breaking

When I read Amina Wadud’s post today on the blog, Feminism and Religion, I thought: The ice is breaking.

Her post is about the Hajar story. It was wrenchingly honest.

She points out that when Hajar was left in the valley, she was left in a situation where she was a hair’s breadth away from death. She discusses several ways that this story is whitewashed in the usual ways that it is told, with Hajar’s slave status and Africanness all but bleached out.

She calls Abraham a dead-beat dad, and Sarah a selfish bitch.

Being the well-trained former neo-traditionalist that I am, I reflexively cringed at that… and then, it was as if the ice was breaking.

As if those figures from all those stories we were told and that we read and believed about the prophets and their wives and the Companions and the awliya and shaykhs and other pious believers… began to move from beneath the ice where we had entombed them—and where we had entombed ourselves. As if I myself felt the layer of ice that I hadn’t realized was encasing me begin to crack.

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Converts, wtf — Impossible predicaments

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.

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Converts, wtf?? — Introduction

The recent news items involving converts and extremism continue to really bother me. I mean, wtf??? What on earth is going on here?

Part of the problem is (for lack of a better word) the horror. Who on earth would have thought that it could be in any way appropriate to hack anyone to death? Some things are just beyond belief.  Young men barely out of high school going somewhere half-way across the world to blow sh*t up and kill people they don’t know much if anything about, inspired by apparently little more than… propaganda videos with men in fatigues with Arabic slogans on their headbands and carrying guns while nasheeds play in the background??

There’s that type of horror, and then there is the quieter, yet somehow even more chilling horror. The stories of converts who get sucked into the role of enabler for extremists. Whether knowingly or unknowingly… or somewhere in-between. Extremists not only in the narrow sense that tends to dominate media coverage—those who use violence—but extremists in terms of social and/or political attitudes.

Part of the problem (again for lack of a better word) is the shame factor. In the public eye, these are my people.

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Here comes everyone—yes, everyone

Nowadays, it seems that converts can’t stay out of the limelight.

The latest dust-up about Umar Lee’s video announcing that he has left Islam (and returned to Christianity) is unfolding along the usual lines: Some are questioning why, and mocking his stated reasons for leaving. Others are lamenting that Muslims drove him away “with our bad behavior” and urging that the problems he mentions be decisively addressed. Yet others complain that his criticisms are one-sided and that he doesn’t seem to have noticed all the positive changes that are happening in some Muslim communities in North America. Some claim that he can’t have been a real Muslim in the first place, or that he is being “paid” by “the enemies of Islam” to go through the theatrics of leaving Islam, or that he is really just doing it for money, or media attention. And of course, some are smugly pontificating that the problem is that Lee never really understood Islam “properly,” because he was a Salafi and not a neo-traditionalist (as though no neo-traditionalists have ever left Islam…  lol). And yet another claim: his “real problem” is that “he has issues.” That he is “unbalanced.”

In other words, it’s the same tired old lines that are trotted out every time something like this happens.

I didn’t read much of what he wrote, back when he was blogging. And most of what I read, I didn’t agree with. His misogyny and his attacks on people he didn’t agree with were certainly disturbing to me—not because he was too far outside of “the norm” of conservative, Salafi-ish discourse that I was used to, but because he seemed to reflect its most disturbing aspects far too well.

I didn’t know him. I didn’t have any dealings with him. So, I can’t speak to “what really happened.” And my focus here is not to try to diagnose Umar Lee, but to look at these tired claims that are made whenever anyone leaves Islam (or seems to be about to leave Islam, in the view of some Muslims). Especially, the claim that the person “has issues” or is “unbalanced.”

But if people “have issues” or are “unbalanced,” so what??

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