Tuesday, 17 August 2010

So: do you think you are accepted?

Last night, I found myself participating in a Radio Ramadhan Glasgow discussion, regarding whether or not Muslim Reverts/Converts are accepted within the indigenous Muslim Community. Its an interesting subject, and one that all seem to have something to say on, whether they know a Revert or not!
The discussion got me thinking about my own experiences over the past 14 years I’ve been Muslim, and though I’ve written, spoken and pondered this subject many times, last night made me delve much deeper in to whether or not change has really happened.

People come to Islam in many different ways and via many diverse paths, according to Allah (SWT)’s Grand Design. For me, I actually came through Radio Ramadhan its self: I loved Hindi Music, and when I saw adds for the station, I figured they’d be playing some of my favourite tunes! What I heard of course, was something very different! I later did some work shadowing at the station, and the people I met demonstrated that Muslims really were a world away from the look-warm Christians I knew at home. It would take me a further year however to finally take the plunge as it were, and say my shahada. Because the radio had largely been my support, almost all of the Muslims in my local community either knew me or heard of me! The love, dinner invitations and prayers were overwhelming, yet beautiful! I was always receiving gifts, and could never walk in Muslim areas without being stopped and congratulated! I was flying on air, and it didn’t matter to me that my family were rejecting me, and planning to throw me out of the house, I had a new family, a community, and an ummah I could depend on, and needed nothing else! But, as any revert reading this will tell you, the euphemistically named “honeymoon period”, new Muslims experience rarely last, and ¾ months in, I was on my own! I had prayers to learn, hijab to think about, qur’an to study, all kinds of Islamic laws and rules to take on, lifestyle changes to make, and a family who hated each and every one of these and did every thing to block my path. I had no one to talk to, no one who had walked my path, no one to teach me or to let me sound off. Things only got worse when I got married: every one who had previously desired a piece of me, got angry that I’d accepted this proposal without consulting them (heck! You had left me to it, I was using my initiative!). My family weren’t happy either, and so I was left, with this unknown, strange husband who didn’t speak my language, and who had been thrown together with me, for better for worse, till death do us part (or so I thought!).
As the years slipped by, I realised that it was up to me to build my community, to carve a place for myself. My husband’s lack of English meant I picked up Urdu remarkably quickly! I also enrolled in a counselling course with a local Muslim NGO, and started working there on a voluntary basis, counselling a range of women, many who were in a similar position to me! The training gave me confidence and self belief, and taught me that whether I had community or not, I could survive on my own, I could make it, with or without them! I got a good job, built a journalistic career as per my desires and even got myself through my divorce when that came, ., but, …, where was Islam in this you may ask? Good question! And I’m ashamed to say, no where! I prayed through my marriage (never did get around to wearing the hijab), I attended the occasional masjid event, always said Insha Allah and fasted in Ramadhan, but that’s as far as it went! I believed in God alright, I identified as a Muslim, but in reality there was nothing to distinguish me from any non-Muslim on the street. I had iman, (an infinitesimally small amount), and nothing was happening to intensify that at all. The interesting thing was, whenever I did meet other reverts like myself, they always seemed to pool me down even further! When I was married, the reverts I met were middle aged, divorced women, who were angry, bitter and twisted, isolated and naturally cynical about the so-called Muslim Community. Their negativity made me angry, yet a few years later I’d find myself in the exact same position, with the self-same feelings! When the marriage ends, the revert partner is ignored, cut out from the community and most are of the view that she will leave Islam any way! (as though one’s faith is inextricably linked to marriage, whether you converted in advance or not!).
Fast-forward 14 years: I’ve got my Islam back, I’ve finally taken on the hijab! I’ve found the school of thought where I belong, I’ve remarried (to the right person this time!), and above all, have a much stronger, balanced knowledge of my faith than I ever had before! I’m not perfect, but I’ve a desire to grow, evolve and change, and I never stop studying!
Contrary to what some might be thinking, I don’t look at this journey with a conceited sense of “didn’t I do well!”, there is nothing remarkable about my journey: I did what I did because there was no other way to do it! I muddled through as best I could, and had a great many knocks, the like of which many born Muslims will never have to experience, simply because they have support and family around to cushion the many blows.
Most of us have our own anecdotal evidence to prove whether or not reverts are fitting in, but a significant piece of research was undertaken by the Markfield Dawa Centre 3 years ago, regarding the acceptance and retention of New Muslims. Shockingly, around half of those surveyed had left the faith within the first 2 years, sighting a lack of acceptance, isolation, racism and prejudice as being the main factors that pushed them out. On the ground, I see a wealth of New Muslim support projects, a heightened awareness of the faith and more resources on the net than we ever had before, but despite this, the majority of guests participating last night said they still don’t feel like they are part of the community! From my own experience, the bulk of this apparent discrimination stems from the fact that most born Muslims grow up unable to distinguish Islam from Culture, as parents battle to instil both in to the core fabric of raising their children. If the culture is rejected, then Islam is too, and if any thing remains, it is mere remnants of the mix: salwar kameez, eid prayers and khatam dinners for their dead! Converts find themselves stuck between the Islam they thought they knew, from the books, from the scholars, and the Islam they find on the ground, while at the same time, trying to persuade their families and friends that they know what they are doing (even though they really don’t!). You either accept the culture as a vehicle to fitting in (as I did), or you reject it and go it alone, but either way you’ll still be the odd one out! After all, how many reverts do you see marrying in to the families of born Muslims? How many parents choose culture, cast, wealth etc over whether or not a prospective partner for their son or daughter is a person of faith and good character. Even if they do, the partners are usually isolated from the main family, included as a token gesture, but never really feeling part of things. Their children grow up in this half-way house, and the confusion drives many away from the faith and the community. 14 years on, if I’m honest, I don’t see the real and lasting changes I’d hoped to, rather I just see history repeating its self! And as my journey was tough, I do want the reverts of the future to have better than I did.
You might say, that things can’t be all bad, after all, didn’t I just speak about new Muslim groups and online support?
And you are right!, These things didn’t appear out of mid-air! The younger generations are indeed making and shaping the changes! They study with new Muslims at Universities, involve them in their student societies, and sometimes even marry them! These shifts are, however, still few and far between, and you still hear the shock and the lowered voices when an elder talks with shame about their gora Muslim relation! While I do believe in the younger generation, and their ability to make changes, I worry about how consistent it will be: after all, when the parents are filling their heads with hatred, discrimination and prejudice, how many of them will shed such ideas when they reach adulthood? How many of them will be strong enough to break the mould, when such risks can lead to their own isolation and abandonment from their families?
When I first entered the Ahlulbayt (A.S) school of Islam, I was so desperate to prove that we were different, that we didn’t discriminate, that these things didn’t go on etc, but the problem was equally widespread, and, whether fortunately or unfortunately, seems to span all ethnic communities of Muslims on equal levels of discrimination. Many reverts have in fact come to the conclusion that Muslims are simply racist, (we even had an Asian participant trying to justify this racism by saying that it is fair enough, as “some white people aren’t very nice!”).
While this is indeed true, the issue is not about one’s niceness (or lack of it), I rather feel the discrimination comes from fear of the unknown! In reality, most Muslims have never met a revert, and if they have, their interaction doesn’t ever grow much beyond their awe of the other person. There is also a fear in some sections of the community that a revert will do just that, i.e., revert back to their old ways, and isn’t generally sincere about their religion, especially if they take some time in adjusting to all of the required lifestyle changes.

Real change will only come when born Muslims realise that they too were reverts once upon a time: after all, most of the sub-continental Muslims out there descended from traditional Hindu families, who made the switch once upon a time. All of the companions, the great Islamic figures from history made a choice to accept Islam when it was revealed to them, yet we hold them in high regard and don’t look down upon them because of the pasts they once had. Some people last night discussed mentoring programmes, and more tailored support for reverts, and that would make a difference, but in truth, we can establish as many support programmes as we want, its only when Muslims learn to see people as people that we’ll get any where. We all do discriminate, no one can eradicate this tendency completely, its how aware we are of it, and how much we desire to train it so that it doesn’t cloud our judgements of others and the level at which we support and interact with them. If some one is not your brother in faith, he is your brother in humanity, and perhaps that would be a good place to start!
If you’d like to check out the discussion, log on to www.radioramadhan.co and select the listen again option, then choose late night live, for Monday 16th August. Oh and if you do listen, be sure to leave me your comments!

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