I have been reluctant to write about converts as a community of their own, particularly because the political climate in Canada has led to some of the most problematic discussions on conversion to Islam that I have seen in a while. In the past few years, I have seen the exotification of converts of particular cultural/ethnic/linguistic groups (i.e. Latinx/Hispanic), their demonization based on cases of terrorism involving converts and their policing within broader Muslim communities (i.e. convert registries). Thus, navigating a critique of said convert communities is not easy.
In addition, convert communities in Canada are diverse, perhaps not as much as I wish they were, but they are not bound by one particular mindset. They vary according to denomination and by their affiliation to different Muslim communities (i.e. Arab, South Asian, West African, etc.).
I have been a convert for almost eight years now. I converted in a mosque that was very Sunni, very orthodox and very Arab-dominated. Thus, I carry with me a number of biases, some of which I can pin point, and others which remain giant blind spots. However, over the years I have been troubled by interactions among and between converts in relation to the “isms” and the “phobias,” whether it is sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. I have also grown annoyed at the amount of policing that convert women experience in convert spaces, particularly in mosque environments.
This post was triggered by a recent event in a mosque in Ottawa where a convert with an outstanding reputation provided a lecture using “disability porn” as illustrations of faith, and telling a group of converts that “faith means not questioning.” In addition, examples of anxiety and depression were attributed to lack of faith rather to actual existing mental illnesses. Upon being called out by a friend of mine, the lecturer dismissed us and later brushed away our concerns by saying “oh! You are feminists… that’s a whole other layer of problematic!”
Nonetheless, the lecture was, more generally speaking, a reminder of the very things I have experienced as a convert in convert-dominated spaces.
I have sat through numerous lectures given by convert women, mostly in women’s spaces because most mosques in Canada are segregated. In these lectures, policing, silencing and shaming are routinely practiced and go unchallenged… Events, where sexist comments are made, racist attitudes are encouraged, ableist examples are used to “call people to the faith,” and where we are told over and over again that “In Islam, we do not question.”
I have sat through all this scratching my head and wondering, where do these converts come from?
No one is in a place to question belief in Islam and Allah. But we must recognize that not because we convert to Islam and all of the sudden adopt the Muslim practices of the communities that surround us, we get rid of the very heavy political baggage that precedes our conversion. In my case, for instance, I often catch myself having the instinct to give atheist answers to issues of faith, having politically liberal views (and no, that’s not always cool) or participating in the policing of other Muslims. There are tons of examples, including those of things that I cannot identify unless I am called out on them.
In Canada, many convert communities are predominantly white, heterosexual, middle-class and body-able. Hence, very few times can converts themselves identify their own biases right away. It is a work in progress that requires intentionality. Nonetheless, in homogenous convert groups, this work is rarely encouraged.
What is more, power dynamics within convert communities build quickly. Almost all convert groups I have engaged with are built around a “piety hierarchy.” When it comes to women converts this hierarchy is expressed through hijab (the more you cover, the more pious), marriage (converts married to Arabs tend to win this one, particularly Saudis), economic status, whiteness, mastery of the Arabic language, use of Islamic lexicon (i.e. Inshaallah, mashaallah, etc.) and the cliques you belong to.
As a new convert, I learned quickly that the more I covered, the more respect I got, for instance. And in my case, the fact that my partner was Saudi, made up for the lack of whiteness and economic status because in my community Saudis were seen as an extension of the faith itself.
In many events the convert women we see lecturing are white-heterosexual-body-able converts, married to Arabs or born-Muslims, with some knowledge of Arabic (although not always), who are mothers and are seen as archetypes of Muslim womanhood. Convert communities, often times, are just happy to see “one of their own” in a position of power, since some mosques tend to be pretty bad in tending to the needs of converts in general or including them in any way, shape or form.
Nonetheless, the fact that many of us have incredibly unexplored privilege is not only tricky, but extremely problematic in mosque environments that are already sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, etc. What it comes down to, is that attitudes that as converts we already bring along, get often reinforced in these orthodox settings. For instance, white privilege and anti-blackness are huge among Muslim communities in Canada. Ableism remains a problem, with many mosques not even being wheelchair-accessible. And homophobia has pushed many Muslims to create their own safe-spaces. Hence, you end up with groups of converts who already hold sexist, homophobic, ableist and/or racist views policing others at the mosque.
But we also end up with a bunch of paradoxes. For example, at the event we recently attended in Ottawa, the woman lecturing started off by describing her struggle with Christianity because, within her community, she could not get satisfactory answers to her questions regarding faith. Yet, once in a position of power in a Muslim community, this very woman spent a lot of time telling us that “as Muslims we do not question.”
I was puzzled, but not surprised. Authoritarian attitudes stick with us. And we use them to police each other, and because some of us are given a microphone to speak and a podium to lean on, we feel the “responsibility” to police other converts and shame those who disagree with us by questioning their faith and their understanding of Islam.
Personally, I feel extremely disempowered in convert settings. I know that the very essence of my existence is being observed and challenged. I am also quickly placed within the “piety hierarchy,” and demonized for a number of my opinions, including my very strong belief that Islam equals questioning and critical analysis. Difference of opinion in these settings does not usually go anywhere. Instead, we are categorized as “weaker believers” within broader Muslim communities that already have their own biases against converts, particularly non-white convert women.
Therefore, I think it is important for converts to take the time to analyze their privilege and to explore life outside of mosque-related convert groups. Asking and questioning is a responsibility. Having negative feelings and ambivalent views regarding practices in convert groups is okay. Having different opinions is encouraged. And calling out the things that are not right is a must. Whereas being a convert can be very isolating, remaining within convert circles unwilling to examine privilege and break down the power scheme, is a much lonelier place with little room for growth and spirituality.