Posts Tagged racism
(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.
The US government has recently come out with a report about the CIA’s torture of detainees from 2001-2009. And Christian responses have been revealing.
Predictably, there have been a small number of liberal Christian bloggers who have tried to argue that “true Christianity” is not compatible with supporting the use of torture. Such bloggers ignore 2000 years of Christian history (which has included crusades, witch burnings, pogroms, and the Inquisition, among other horrifically violent events), as well as large parts of their scriptures in favor of a few cherry-picked pacifist-sounding verses about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.
But Christians who are less inclined to whitewash the history of their faith and more honest about the contents of their scriptures quickly set the record straight. Take the response of the American Family Association‘s Bryan Fisher, who reminds Christians that
“Christianity is not a pacifist religion. The God that we serve is described in Exodus 15 as a ‘man of war.’ Now we often think of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but let’s not forget, according to Romans 19:13, when he comes back … he will be riding a white horse and wearing his own robe, dipped in blood. That is a robe that is worn by a warrior who is inflicting casualties on the foe. So this is gentle Jesus, meek and mild; when we comes back, his robe is going to be dipped in blood because he too is a warrior.”
The story of Abraham is central to Muslim belief. Abraham the unbending monotheist. Abraham who broke the idols. Abraham who left his family and everything he had ever known for the sake of God. Abraham who was even willing to sacrifice his own son when he thought that God wanted it.
The Qur’an speaks about Abraham and other prophets in very positive terms, and holds them up as examples of faith. But the Qur’an does not say that they (much less their wives or other family members) as sinless, perfect, or beyond all criticism.
Centuries ago, Muslim scholars debated the question of whether prophets can doubt God’s promises, whether they can make small mistakes and errors of judgment or even major ones, whether they can commit minor or even major sins, whether their pronouncements are only error-free when it comes to the divine revelations that they proclaim or if everything on every subject that they said is unquestionably true.
But listening to most Muslims today (especially those who are neo-traditionalists, but certainly not only them), you’d never know it.
Islam as I was taught it, whether by Salafi-influenced Muslims or neo-traditionalists, had absolutely no room for questioning prophets, much less criticizing anything they did. You were supposed to hold them in reverence, take them as examples, and never, ever express any doubts about the wisdom or justice of any of their actions whatsoever. No critical questions could be asked. You didn’t question them any more than you questioned God.
I read a number of blogs written by women (and sometimes men) recovering from Quiverful and other similar very conservative Protestant movements or churches. As the links on this blog indicate. I can relate to a lot of the things that they write about—patriarchal family dynamics, ridiculously high levels of intrusion into people’s lives, cults of personality around self-styled leaders, destructive scripturally-based “counseling” and rotten “marital advice” dished out by such leaders, victim-blaming rhetoric, the after-effects of isolation from “the world” in favor of living in a religious bubble… and the list goes on.
Sometimes, the things they write about help me to think through things that happened to me. Sometimes, they make insightful suggestions about how to deal with particular issues. Sometimes, it’s just nice to know that you are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of such things.
But unfortunately sometimes, reading these blogs is more like realizing the answer to a question that been haunting me ever since I saw a memorial display with the statistics (broken down state by state) for lynchings of African-Americans in the twentieth century: Where does such visceral, violent hatred go? What happens to it, when it is finally driven more or less underground? Does it die for lack of oxygen? Or does it lie there in wait, perhaps mutating into something more socially acceptable so that it can rise again?
Posters and commenters in particular in some of these blogs (and others like them) sometimes use a sort of short-hand that expresses that certain ideas, practices and institutions are oppressive:
- a fundamentalist, controlling Christian community is a “fundystan”
- any oppressive, hyper-controlling church or group is a “taliban”
- conservative Christian teachings (especially on women’s roles) are a “mental burka”
- to question and reject said teachings is to “throw off the mental burka”
- Hepzihah House is “Hezbollah House”
- and so on
Basically, any media word/part of a word that is associated in one way or another with Muslims is equated with oppression, violence, cruelty, or danger, regardless of what the word means in the language(s) or community(ies) that it originally comes from.
I have been thinking off and on about posting about my attempts to work through the ways that my whiteness, gender identity and convert status intersected, and what the results were like.
But I have been putting it off. Yes, race was certainly a major issue in the conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved in. But I am not sure that I am the person to talk about it—in fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m not. And it’s very, very complicated, especially when race intersects with gender identity, class, immigration status, sexual orientation… and so forth.
Part of me really does not want to talk about it. For one thing, whites—even white women—are a tiny minority of converts in North America. The problems folks like me have faced are often ugly, but they are only a very small share of the total amount of racism in the communities that I was involved in. There’s a much larger elephant in the room—the racism often faced by black North American converts within Muslim communities—that isn’t receiving anything like the attention it deserves. Other North American converts-of-color also often have to deal with racism from other Muslims, and that receives even less notice.
But this blog is about my recovery process primarily, not about telling Muslim communities what they need to pay attention to. I don’t imagine for a minute that anything I say here will change a thing, either in the communities that I used to be involved in, or in any other Muslim community. The racism that I was so often immersed in—sometimes as a target, more often as a passive beneficiary, and sometimes as a perpetrator—existed in those communities for a number of complicated reasons, and its continuing existence is enabled by a larger web of oppressive factors that reach far beyond their borders.
There are so many aspects of racism that impacted us as white converts:
- we were fetishized and exoticized, and in the process often dehumanized
- when we were welcomed, it was often at the expense of converts-of-color (who weren’t given nearly such a warm welcome), or of born Muslims of color who weren’t toeing the conservative line
After exiting my abusive marriage, and in the process, leaving behind my insular, conservative Muslim community, I rejoined “mainstream” white North American society, sort of. I rejoined it in the sense that I got a job, moved to a place with relatively few Muslims, and avoided interacting with the few that there were as much as possible. I was worried about being judged by conservative Muslims. The past was still very fresh in my mind, and I had not even begun the recovery process, so I wanted to have as few reminders of it in my daily life as possible.
In order to have as good a chance as possible to get a decent job that would support myself and my kids, I dehijabed. As a result, I now blended in. I was just another middle-aged, white working single mother with kids. Walking down the street, shopping, sitting on park benches, waiting in line at government offices… were now practically trouble-free. No one stared, no one commented or shouted insults, no one asked nosy questions, and I wasn’t ever made to feel that I had to justify my right to be there. It was so different from what I had been used to, when I wore hijab.
So, a great way to illustrate my transformation would be one of those generic pictures of an anonymous Afghan woman lifting up her burqa to show her face, right?
No. Just no.
Why not? After all, some female survivors of patriarchal religion do describe their experiences of coming to realize that they were being manipulated and abused as escaping “the mental burqa.” Some even refer to conservative cultish Christian churches or groups as “Taliban.” And they didn’t invent this way of talking either—various American media personalities have been referring to homegrown (white, often right-wing Christian) religious and political ideas or groups that they regard as too extreme as “jihadi” or “talibanesque.”
So what’s the matter with that (one might ask)? Aren’t the Taliban notorious for their violence, misogyny, and draconian approaches to almost any and every social or political question? Aren’t they just about the worst example of a cruelly literalistic religious/political movement in recent memory? And isn’t the Afghan “shuttlecock” blue burqa now a commonly recognized shorthand for the Taliban’s brutal subjugation of women in the name of religion and tradition? So why wouldn’t I use the word “burqa” as a synonym for “mental prison” or “oppression,” and “Taliban” for “misogynist” or “religious extremist”? Or throw in a few burqa/lifting the burqa pictures to brighten up my blog? Especially since I’m recovering from my experiences with very conservative Muslim communities??