Sunday, November 04, 2007

New Muslims

At a wedding on Thursday, a few friends & I were introduced to a Canadian couple who have recently converted to Islam. I'd met them a few times before. We have a lot of mutual acquaintances. But Thursday was the first time I got into the whole how did you find Islam conversation with them. Normally, I avoid that sort of question because faith is so personal and I was raised to believe it's not really polite to spring questions like that on people you barely know.

However, someone else volunteered to ask them & they seemed happy to tell. So we listened to the story, asked a few questions and then the conversation moved on to other things. Since most of us were Arabs educated in the West, a couple of us in Canada & in the same area as the newly Muslim couple, the conversation naturally turned to our memories of living abroad as students. Most of us had nothing negative to say. College is fun, isn't it? And college abroad is especially exciting because you combine the college experience with the experience of 'seeing the world' etc...

You'd have expected things to be petty laid back, right? They were Westerners. And we were a pretty pro-Western lot in many ways. So they should have felt right at home. Right? Right?!!!Wrong! They couldn't seem to want to hear anything positive about the West or any criticism whatsover of the so-called Islamic World which they seemed to see as some kind of Utopia. I mean, huh? I thought I was in a nightmare! I mean, two Canadian Caucasians defending the Saudi regime!

In the end, they more or less started attacking us in a very polite, indirect way by suggesting that we wouldn't feel the way we did if were good Muslims.

At which point, I simply gave up, excused myself & got back to dancing to Fadl Shaker & Nancy Ajram with the bride & groom & bridesmaids. Just seemed a better investment of my time.

Thing is, it's not the first time I come across this sort of phenomenon among new Muslims here. There's quite a few of them from all over the world. This country provides opportunity for vast numbers of expats to interact with Islam at close quarters. So those who have the inclination are bound to convert here.

Which is cool but why do some new Muslims feel the need to denigrate their former religion & culture & sometimes their own family & upbringing? Why do they change their names to Arabic names? Don't they realize that the majority of Muslims in the world are not Arab and do not carry Arabic names? Who says names have to have religious significance, anyway? A name is something you have no hand in, something you're born with - like the color of your eyes. But it IS a legacy of your parents & their love for you. And of your heritage. I mean, my name has no religious connotations and I wouldn't give it up for anything because to change it would be to hurt & betray the people who brought me into the world.

Who has been telling these people that being Muslim is synonymous with being a wannabe Arab & spewing forth all sorts of anti-Western, anti-Hindu, anti-Jewish, anti-whatever they used to be diatribes that any thinking person knows are nothing more than prejudiced, xenophobic well, tripe?

Is it just new Muslims? Or is it all new converts or born-again types? Maybe it's just the excitement of discovering a new religion/culture that causes you to think what you found is the greatest & so everything else looks bad in comparison? Do converts eventually 'settle down' & become more tolerant of their own past? Or is it an attempt to prove their 'authenticity' to their new community that prompts them to be 'more royalist than the King' sometimes?

I don't know. But this phenomenon disturbs me. You see, Arabs are prejudiced enough without new converts from other cultures feeding our cultural ego. There was a time when I saw a role for new Muslims in opening up our community & mentality. Perhaps, I thought, having brothers & sisters join the Umma from other cultures would lead to more dialogue & harmony & less of the siege mentality. I wanted new Muslims to help give the Muslims masses a voice of reason they can easily identify with.

So it really bugs me when a new Western Muslim essentially sits around telling Arab Muslims Western society really is as decadent & amoral & devoid of all good as our own media likes to tell us it is and talking about the 'hypocracy' of Western democracy. For the purpose of this discussion, I don't care about the flaws of Western democracy. Of course it's not perfect. But it IS light years ahead of us in terms of democracy & civil rights & Western democracies are thus the best available role models around. To tell us otherwise is to insult our intelligence and frankly, to patronize us. It's like saying "Oh you know Whitehall isn't all it's cracked up to be. You guys just stick with the likes of Saddam & Mubarak & Gadafi."

Faith should be everyone's personal path to God, not everyone's means of rebellion against their own society for one reason or the other and feeding everyone's pre-existing prejudices in the process.

Please new Muslims try to avoid making our troubles worse. If you can't be part of the solution, at least try not to contribute to the problem!

That's my two-cents.

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Blogger La Gitana said...

It's pretty common, and if you notice, converts who spend a lot of time around say Pakistani Muslims will adopt the shalwar kamees form of dress instead of say the thobe form of dress. It's all quite disturbing and dogmatic really. The "born" Muslims who are all "born again" so to speak, don't idealize Arab culture so much, they actually think it is corrupt and unislamic, and so they pretty much hate everyone. I know it sounds like I'm generalizing, but this is what I've seen and I've seen... a LOT.

11/04/2007 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger Safiya said...

"Do converts eventually 'settle down' & become more tolerant of their own past?"

Yes. It's a big step to take and someone has to balance a lot of things and go through a lot of stages before they find balance within themselves.

Often converts marry born Muslims too, and so they have to balance both cultures within their family, although you will frequently be criticised either for not respecting Arab/Pakistani/etc culture or "trying to be Arab/Pakistani/etc".

That's the problem with being a convert, you are immediately under scrutiny and people feel thay have carte blanche to question your every motive and action.

Take wearing abaya for example. People will speculate a million reasons, including cultural mimicry, for wearing it, but most women who wear it do so because it is an easily obtainable, modest and comfortable form of dress. Ditto shalwar kalmeez.

In the end you just have to find what works for you and brings you closer to Allah swt and ignore everyone else.

But it's hard and I do get sick of many of the assumptions made both about converts and those who marry foreigners.

11/05/2007 02:56:00 AM  
Blogger khdood said...

I was pretty disappointed with this post, Lou. You made some vast generalizations and seem to be lacking in your general empathy right now.

New Muslims are going through a huge transition period. Essentially, they have found that as a religion, Islam has touched them on some level. But on many other levels, they may need to grow into it. But these new Muslims face a serious dilemma: they don't have many decent role models to turn to for guidance. Seriously, the two sides of the spectrum are loud and clear -- and naturally they will find more affinity with those who openly speak about their new faith than cultural Muslims who might not care to discuss issues of faith in public.

Look at the American Muslim community, for example. It has gone through a huge transition in the last 25 years-- and I will use my mother as an example, following her trajectory post conversion. Essentially, in the beginning, new Muslims are striving to "do things right", and often asking questions of "why" but sometimes used to hearing "just because" sort of answers. It takes some time, often years, for them to be discerning of the responses. For them to understand the nuances in the community in which they have now become a new member.

In time, they become comfortable enough with the faith that they can make their own interpretations and judgment calls with confidence. That's one of the beauties of Islam, right? That so much is delegated to individual and community interpretation. But it takes time to get there.

You ask why they tend to be so critical of the societies from which they came-- many of them clearly had issues with that culture for them to branch out and look elsewhere. And simply by virtue of the minimal exposure they've had to other cultures (ie the Saudi regime) do they promote it. But I also ask you: do you really think that you can speak with more expertise on a Western culture from merely being exposed to it in a college environment? Give them a little credit! While you were busy living the life of a student, they were going through the A to Z of civil life. Neither of you really have a properly unbiased vantage.

New Muslims sometimes are a threat because they spot hypocricy in ways that those who are habituated to it cannot. They see that Islam calls for certain moral guidelines (sometimes in a very clear manner) and they are thrown off when they see Muslims flagrantly ignoring them. They're hit with a sense of disillusionment, even, a sense of sorrow, to see that people who have been blessed with lifelong faith can be so ungrateful for it.

I only say this from personal experience and exposure to hundreds of converts over the years. Indeed, most of my religious inspiration has come from converts, and I am grateful to the likes of Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir, Ingrid Mattson, etc for looking at the ummah with the discerning eye of an outsider.

11/05/2007 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger LouLou said...


"You ask why they tend to be so critical of the societies from which they came-- many of them clearly had issues with that culture for them to branch out and look elsewhere."

Well, if so then that's a cause for concern in itself. If you change religions because you're looking for a Utopian society then you're in for a big disappointment because I don't think you'll find Utopia on earth. That's not the role of faith really.

"But I also ask you: do you really think that you can speak with more expertise on a Western culture from merely being exposed to it in a college environment?"

You missed the point entirely. I wasn't speaking with expertise. I was making personal reminiscences. I found it extremely irritating & presumptuous for someone to be putting words in my mouth, pushing me to say negative things that aren't true about MY OWN experiences - on which I AM the expert since they happened to me. I was not going to say everyone I met in 5 years was a gangster, alcoholic or a teenage mother just because it fits into someone's caricature of Western society.

I am also not going to play into existing cliches among Arabs that argue that any progress on civil rights, women's rights or individual freedom will lead to all of us becoming gangsters, alcoholics & teenage mothers.

Also, I don't really need to be an expert on Western culture to see that they have institutions, civil rights, checks & balances, independent media, independent judiciaries, transparent economic systems, peaceful transfer of power, elections and that all of that is an improvement on Saudi Arabia & the Taliban. Not only that but the entire philosophy & theoretical basis behind democoracy & modern systems of government has its roots in Roman & Greek philosophy and is a more or less exclusively a Western achievement. So basically we can't do it without the West & it's dishonest not to give the West credit for that. It's not their fault we have managed to contribute so little to those fields of human knowledge ourselves.

To argue otherwise is to encourage people who are too complacent already to believe that to continue to live in a pre-medieval social, cultural & political rut is in their best interests. And THAT for sure is not a positive role for new converts to play.

11/06/2007 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Um Naief said...

it's not just new muslims. seems like when ppl convert or become "born again"... something happens to their brains. all of a sudden they are those type of ppl you can't stand. they talk about religion all the time... drown you in their beliefs and seem to make a person feel like they're not religious enough...

personally, i can't stand being around ppl that have become born again. they get on my nerves in a big way.

being raised in the catholic church, i saw a lot of this... and see a lot of it here in bahrain, but i'm not really sure if they're born again, persay. i think many of the ppl here are just consumed w/ their faith, which tends to make me feel like i'm a bad person....

altho i'm not. :)

11/07/2007 02:28:00 PM  

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