Converts and “Cultural Baggage”

Reading this article, “Violence Prevention: Place Blame where it belongs” on AltMuslimah reminded me of a topic that is near and dear to me, the idea of “mixing culture and religion.” I have heard a lot of Muslims (especially converts) express frustrations: “I just want pure Islam. I want the Islam of the Prophet.” So many act as if culture and religion are clearly separate entities, but when asked to define the borders it appears that very few people can articulate them at all. (Not to mention that as far as I know in Islamic law, or fiqh, culture and custom, urf, are a part of determining the local application of law in certain contexts!)

What people don’t always say explicitly, but what I have gathered that this really means is that “I don’t want to deviate from the true spirit of Islam based on or for the sake of someone’s cultural norms,” which can also mean “I don’t want to feel culturally irrelevant.” Whether because certain groups have the money to fund their “type” of Islam or if their majority presence in the mosque is what determines the “norm,” cultural imperialism is an international issue of great scale, one that the American Muslim community is not immune from, and one that is discussed ad naseaum among the groups and individuals I have as facebook friends.

American-Muslim Self-Loathing: I don’t claim to be an expert of minority issues in any context in any possible way, but since joining the Muslim community I’ve jumped into one particular experience and I can tell self-loathing is a huge issue. The ways it is articulated in a religious context is incredibly scary (yet not that far away from certain rhetoric by the majority on Original Sin, mind you).

One particular article that went viral among people I know was Islamic Monthly’s “Deconstructing the Hijabi Bride”. In short, it placed blame on the American Muslim community for its looking down on other Muslims and “Muslim cultures” worldwide.

“For better or for worse, American Islam is so American. Reflecting on my attitude towards my mothers’ hijab choices, I saw in my own Islam the arrogance and assumed superiority Americans (and Westerners more generally) have had historically towards all things non-Western.”

I responded in the comments, and was thankful enough to get a response from her (although she didn’t clarify). She later added a footnote to the article once others had begun to point out the flaws in her argument, mostly that she was making a much larger generalization that did not acknowledge various sub-communities within the larger American community, especially African-American Muslims. Here was my response:

I think you make a lot of valid points in this article, especially that culturally predatory “back-to-basics” movements do not leave room for cultural expression in Islam and are often self-righteous. At this point, I became confused: “I saw in my own Islam the arrogance and assumed superiority Americans (and Westerners more generally) have had historically towards all things non-Western.”

However, I do not see the link between “American hegemony” and “American Muslim hegemony.” Within the context of Islamic practice, how does “American hegemony” manifest itself within the practice of Islam? (Since the vast majority of Americans, and therefore American hegemony, are not related to Islam.) Do you feel that Muslims in America have somehow imbibed some sort of American arrogance and believe that everything “made in America” is superior to Islam from abroad? I find this hard to prove as a uniquely American problem that instead reflects a universal problem of arrogance.

Are you specifically talking about “American” converts (from a variety of backgrounds) who did not grow up with a cultural background from a Muslim-majority country/culture? Do these converts still possess a prejudice against everything “non-Western”? If this is the case, I can see your train of thought, but I do not feel it is fair to stereotype all converts having this type of cultural hegemonic attitude (especially non-white converts), many of whom feel significant cultural confusion and instead often adopt a “Muslim culture” to try to fit in.

Are you speaking of American hegemony in the sense that second generation American Muslims growing up in the United States have felt the need to assimilate into “American culture” and in doing so are absorbing “American hegemonic” behavior? If this is the case, is it the fault of second generation American Muslims for (re)connecting with their religion in a new cultural environment and not practicing Islam the same way their parents did? I feel this also is hardly fair to judge second generation American Muslims for not imitating their parents exactly in a totally different time and space (which also reflects a complex generational, cultural, immigrant struggle).

I am not attempting to point fingers, per se, but I think that what you may be describing is the age-old problem of Arab hegemony in which back-to-basics movements privilege the earliest “Muslim cultures” who happened to speak Arabic, in your examples such as the switch from Ramzan-> Ramadan. In my limited experience, I have found this to be a bigger problem with “Desi” and non-Arabic-speaking Muslims, rather than among Arab Muslims. I am curious to hear what Arab Muslims think about your argument and my comment.

I see the American Muslim community struggling to find a unique identity that is a combination of so many cultures and I think that hegemonic behavior is something that must be avoided, so I am thankful that you raised the issue, especially with something as debated as hijab…
I do not quite understand how you are defining “American” or “American hegemony.” I find that there is a great variety of American Muslims who do not think the same way, so I’m sorry to confess I cannot understand the overarching label you are using, which is why I tried to break it down into categories (immigrant, convert, second generation, etc).

With regard to “American hegemony,” I’m not sure in what sense you mean. Do you see the arrogance of American Muslims as a reflection of the economic and military power of the United States? Is it related to American “white privilege” and you feel that American Muslims are buying into that (while still being alienated from it)? I still hear many khutbahs about the corrupting influence of American culture and materialism, the “us-them” mentality, how American Muslims oppose American foreign policy and how American Muslims stand opposed to such “American hegemony.” I find it hard to believe that American Muslims are truly behind the state and the culture so as to promote “American hegemony.”

Also I cannot see how the “arrogance toward other Muslim cultures” stems specifically from an American prejudice against such cultures. Are you talking about “orientalism,” the desire to define and subjugate people? Is there equal bias against Arab, African, Central Asian, European, South Asian and East Asian visions of Islam? I think not. Do you find this to be only in the United States? I think not, I have seen scholars from all over the world who are participating in the very same trend.

I rather see a preference for “early Muslim cultures” that speak Arabic, as well as the preference for Islamic modernist movements (generally Salafi) which privilege “back-to-basics” ideology stressing the Arabic linguistic origins as well as the cultural norms of the Sunnah, Sahabah and the Tabe’in. By insisting on the purity of the roots of Islam, the “Quran-and-Sunnah” ideology privileges the early generations of mostly Arab Muslims against later developments in Persia, Spain, India, etc and reject them as cultural deviations. I see the fight against “impurities” from other cultures stemming NOT from American arrogance or Western “orientalism,” but an ideology DEEPLY rooted in a long historical view of Islam.

What you describe, in my opinion is less of a reflection of American hegemony and more of an international Arabization of Islam. The formation of the American Muslim community is not in support of “American hegemony” in the political, cultural or economic context, it is merely another Islamic “culture” asserting itself.

Vice Magazine and Orientalism: Yet another article went viral among my Muslim friends called “The Problem with White Converts” by Michael Muhammad Knight of Vice. In my Islam and Pop Culture class last year, we watched Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a movie by MMK about Muslims in the punk music scene. It dealt with a lot of issues of identity, exclusion, authenticity, and expression. It was clear to me that MMK has a lot of personal issues (this is not meant as a criticism to him, we all have our issues) which he is working out through his writing (why not? I am!). Growing up with an extremely bigoted father, according to the movie, and then falling in with the Nation of Islam and then Salafism, it is not surprising to me that MMK would espouse particularly extreme or harsh views of the world. However, it did surprise me that his article above would be read as such a voice of “truth” and “critical thinking.” In my opinion, anger is not righteous in itself. Critical thinking does not come from pure criticism, and this is an important distinction to be made (one that I am surely still working on).

“You’d think that two white American guys embracing Buddhism and Islam in the age of colonialism could have become awesome champions of antiracism and solidarity with oppressed peoples. But no. Unfortunately, they treated their new religious affiliations like other white men of their time treated entire nations: they marched in and immediately claimed to own them.”

He talks about two particular cases from the 1800s, men who believed that they had the duty to “save” their non-white fellow believers and promote their own purified vision of their religions.

“Over a hundred years later, it’s still a problem. When people assume that “religion” and “culture” exist as two separate categories, culture is then seen as an obstacle to knowing religion. In this view, what born-and-raised members of a religious tradition possess cannot be the religion in its pure, text-based essence, but only a mixture of that essence with local customs and innovated traditions. The convert (especially the white convert, who claims universality, supreme objectivity, and isolation from history, unlike the black convert, whose conversion is read as a response to history), imagined as coming from a place outside culture, becomes privileged as the owner of truth and authenticity. People forget that these white guys aren’t simply extracting “true” meaning from the text, but bringing their own cultural baggage and injecting it into the words. When a white guy wears the hats of brown guys and talks about “reviving the Islamic spirit,” it might be time to run fast.”

While I actually agree fully with him about issues of cultural predatory rhetoric and the fact that converts absolutely DO have cultural baggage, I’m not sure who he is claiming to be doing this. All white converts? Hamza Yusuf as he is pictured at the top of the article? Is this unique to converts? Is this unique to white people? Once again, other culturally predatory groups and movements are forgotten (namely the Arab supremacy-type groups I mentioned earlier).

This also points to racism within the Muslim community that idealizes the experiences of white converts over non-white converts (I’ll find some links to add here, it’s a HUGE problem). There are born-Muslims (much like in the hijabi bride article above) who are embarrassed by their various cultural backgrounds because they want to distinguish between culture and religion in ways that are frankly impossible to do.

When people say that converts don’t have any cultural baggage (and many people say that), I say that my cultural baggage is “Islamophobia.” I was 11 years old on 9/11 and from then on my world was flooded with imagery of “Muslim terrorists” and “oppressed women.” As a white person, I didn’t even understand the concept of white privilege until recently, and I found Black Girl Dangerous’ video “Why Reverse Racism is not a Thing” incredibly helpful. Becoming Muslim has been an education in a lot more than theology, and one that I am extremely grateful for alhamdulillah.

The deep and vast problems of the history and current realities of white supremacy, colonialism and American political and economic dominance do not make this an easy conversation for anyone. Especially when “facts” can be disputed and emotions are so high, especially among converts who often feel victimized in their new context and do not fully understand the difficulties others have faced.

NOW FOR SOME GOOD NEWS: Read this fantastic article by (SHOCK HORROR) a white male convert, Umar Farooq AbdAllah “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” for an antidote to all this anger. (Though one might ask, where are the women?)

[Side Note: It’s important to understand where this article was published, although it is probably best to not get me started on the problems of Vice, an internet publication and studio which produces high-intensity articles and high-value documentaries. I give them a lot of credit to them for investigating hard topics, ones that are rarely addressed by “mainstream” media, and for going into incredibly dangerous places. I’ve watched many of their documentaries including their series on North Korea, Libya during and after the fall of Qaddafi, bridge kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, the heavy metal rock scene in Baghdad, and of temple sex “slaves” in India. Critical journalism that addresses topics that are not well known is attractive, and for people who like to think they think critically, this is the place to start: a gold-mine of topics. However, the documentary on India (in which the host knew NO Hindi and made fun of her translator’s imperfect English, as well as making pejorative statements about Hinduism which she clearly did not take the time to research) as well as this article on “burqa for a day” (as if wearing someone’s clothes for a day gives you insight into an entire civilization?) really made me begin to question their motives. In the end it merely reinforces their own values of Western supremacy, which is so explicitly orientalist I cannot don’t even know where to start.]

~Please forgive me for any mistakes~

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