I have some people that I keep at bay on Facebook and other social media outlets. Most people who know me, know that I don’t take lightly to removing people from social media pages because I see it as a loss for potential education on critical issues. I have seen incredible growth and understanding about social justice issues in general and Islam in particular from people I know, and I am regularly thanked for offering this information freely and unceasingly. However, during the last Canadian federal election in 2015, there was such hateful rhetoric being spewed out of the timelines of people I have known my entire life that I had to take what I consider to be drastic action and put them under a privacy setting so that they don’t appear in my newsfeed. I’m torn about this because the flipside is that I no longer appear in theirs; however, I’m not too sad about it because they have continued to engage with certain posts of mine which means that they are, indeed, going out of their way to check up on me without me having to be subjected to the vile poison they put into the world daily.

These people are my dirty little secret because I know exactly how they think and how they will act. I know this because I study the Holocaust for a living. I know exactly what kind of illogical thought processes go through the minds of those who hate, even if they are totally unconscious of their hatred. I have a strange ritual I go through whenever a terrorist attack happens or a shooting or some other equally hideous event: after properly mourning, I go look at the pages of these people to see if my assumptions about their thought processes are correct, to see if they will continue to err on the side of reckless, prejudiced thinking and behaviour. And I’m always right. They have no idea how predictable they are and how much they lack a genuine original thought. Harsh, yeah, but I hardly think pandering to xenophobes and how they feel about anything makes much sense.

It doesn’t matter what has happened in the world, whether an attack against Muslims in a Muslim country somewhere, whether a coup in an increasingly authoritarian country (which they may be hard-pressed to actually find on a map) or whether it is another black person of countless black people gunned down in the streets of America…whatever it is, you will find them blaming all Muslims, saying that not all religions are the same, that some are worse than others, saying that all lives matter, saying that blue lives matter, saying that any life matters unless they are black and brown and Muslim lives. They even go so far as to regurgitate blatantly misogynistic bullshit while often being women themselves, not realizing the violence they are doing to themselves or not realizing the privilege they have if such misogyny doesn’t touch them. They remain silent when the victims are from the LGBTQ community or pretend that, because the shooter in Orlando had Muslim lineage, Christians would never do this to gay people because Christianity is “different”. For the love of God, open a history book. Just once.

Regardless of how they frame it: what I continually see is a lack of knowledge and empathy. Half the time, these things aren’t even spelled correctly which only adds to me feeling disheartened. These are the same people calling educated people like me “Libtards” (which is a profoundly offensive term, especially to those who care for and love individuals living with disabilities). These are the same people claiming that I’m not more educated than them because I spend thousands of hours of my life studying in University (sorry, but that’s exactly what it means – I have no more value than you intrinsically, but I’m still more educated than you). These are the same people who pride themselves on calling other people out, not for the sake of justice, but to win an argument, to be “right” even though any half-educated person knows these days that the idea of “right” is nebulous and socially constructed. There is no greater arrogance than this because it causes the harm of others for the sake of satiating an insatiable ego.

So, they never stop.

In the current political climate, all red lines have been obliterated.

Just the other day, I had to remove Holocaust deniers from my pages. Shortly thereafter, I nearly spit my coffee all over my phone when I saw one of these individuals claiming that black people and the Black Lives Matter movement “has become a group of brats who say everything and anything is racist if it involves someone of colour.”

Excuse me for a moment………………. are you f*cking kidding me?

These types of people support Donald Trump. Like, actually support him. Like think he would be a good president kind of support.* In a world full of critics and just regular goddamn people who can’t even believe he has made it this far (because: what an insane, horrible, nightmare-ish joke that just won’t end, am I right?)… there are people out there WHO I KNOW who watched the Republican National Convention and shouted “All Lives Matter” along with these lunatic fascists. Lifelong Republicans who believe in the party of Lincoln no longer recognize this mutated far-right, gun-toting, skin-bleaching zombie that is the GOP. They are committing party suicide left and right, trying to distance themselves from the hateful rhetoric that shitheads like David Goddamn Duke delightfully retweet.

(*Note: my loathing of Donald Trump is in NO WAY indicative of any support for Hillary Clinton.)

Yes, that’s right. I have people I have known my entire life, still in my life, who consciously defend white supremacy and white supremacists. There is no other way to frame it. Their entire identity is enshrouded in their whiteness and they spend their time defending any ill-perceived attack on it from those “darkies” that keep shouting for their own freedom. I’m included in that lot because I’m an educated, veiled “Libtard” with a husband and kid from Africa.

Like many activists, and especially like many historians, and ESPECIALLY like many historians of the Third Reich and Holocaust, I have no clue what to do any longer and am horrified to watch elements of history repeating itself as people get their lesser-educated minds washed and manipulated by dangerous fools with a microphone.

I’m tired.

There is a tidal wave of bitter insanity brewing in these people who barely stop short of shouting “white genocide” from their gentrified neighbourhood rooftops.

I’m so very tired.

How do we continue slogging? How do we, who have taken NEVER AGAIN into the depths of our being, stop a train wreck while it is happening, while the cars collide and screech towards what can only be a supremely violent end? How do we stop a tsunami with what seems to be only a few sandbags?

I don’t know how to put any of this very eloquently despite the fact that writing is my vocation, so I’m just going to list some things we can all do to hopefully avoid political catastrophe in the coming while. I have to believe that we avoided this kind of disaster in Canada by saying “No, absolutely not” to the divisive, xenophobic rhetoric of the Conservatives (regardless about how you feel about ANY other political party in this country) and I have to believe that if it is possible here, it is possible anywhere, anytime and about any issue.

Apologies to those who like things framed positively, but some of these things are direct references to harmful behaviour that people DO so the advice needs to be framed as a DON’T.

  1. Take care of yourself. There are a lot of articles out there about activist burnout and the fact that no one can serve from an empty vessel. These articles and ideas are true. While some people equate occasionally disconnecting for the purposes of self-care with privilege, this is not always the case. In fact, for those of us who have to be traumatized every time we see our brothers and sisters bombed or shot to oblivion in our newsfeeds, this is an important first step in grounding yourself. You can know that there is immeasurable pain in the world, take care of yourself and still be active in mitigating injustice in the best ways you know how. These things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, that knowledge and desire to be active necessitates that you take care of yourself lest you be dragged down into the deep hole of depression. Trust me, I’ve been there. I go there a lot. But people need me and my voice more than that hole can serve me, so I have to care of myself guilt-free. We need you around too. We need your bleeding heart. So turn off, tune out, feel the sunshine on your skin, enjoy coffee with a friend, pamper yourself at the spa – do whatever it is that you need to do to take care of yourself before you get back in the trenches. The rest of us will understand and be waiting.
  2. Have painful conversations, if you can, with everyone you know. Maintain contact. The more these people are isolated, the more warped their worldviews become. This one is tough but necessary if you are able to do it. There is absolutely nothing that works better for immediate social change than inviting people to have a conversation… or many of them. Even if those conversations get heated or uncomfortable. Even if they don’t have the results you hope for – they are helpful. A conversation does not have to be an invitation to tea. It can be as simple as asking someone to clarify what they mean when they make racist jokes. It can be as uneventful as calling someone out for an Islamophobic post and asking them what exactly they meant by that. You will find that after all the brainwashed rhetoric has been spewed and the dust settles, they likely didn’t know what they meant by it (“Why did you shoot me?” “I don’t know”) and at the heart of everything is fear and a genuine lack of knowledge. Even for the craziest, consciously racist white supremacists. Their hatred is born in ignorance and the antidote to ignorance is awareness, then education.
  3. Don’t stop sounding the alarm. The fight against the darkness of ignorance and hatred is unrelenting. People devote their lives and careers to trying to protect themselves and others from harmful rhetoric and violence. You don’t necessarily have to do this on your social media accounts, but you can definitely do it in everyday, real life. Every time someone makes a Judeophobic comment about Jewish world conspiracies or claims that all Muslims are terrorists or make queerphobic comments about transpeople in washrooms, you should say something. Even when other people won’t have your back. This isn’t really something we can do once, for one group even, and then call it a day. I’ve been accused of jumping on every social justice bandwagon out there, of capitalizing on the oppression of others by making myself look good. People who hate you will pull any argument out of the hat to besmirch your image. Continue sounding the alarm anyway because your concern is born out of love, not hatred. For me, if I’m known for standing up for society’s most vulnerable individuals and for sounding the alarm on their oppression again and again, no matter which demographic they belong to, I’m going to wear that with pride.
  4. Don’t shit on activists who are doing more than you. This is a tough one. There are a lot of well meaning, non-racist people out there who take it upon themselves to write stupid posts about how “talking about politics and religion on Facebook lacks taste”. Like, what do you even gain from this? What are you contributing to the conversation? When I hear this stuff, I hear people saying “I don’t see colour” – using their privilege to erase other people raising their voices about things that matter to them. Elsewhere, I have written that the internet has become a vehicle for connecting liminal, minority groups and what we are seeing is a dramatic increase in critical awareness for a variety of minority issues. The result is an influx of posts, videos and pages devoted to the causes of those marginalized in regular society. Almost immediately, people in positions of privilege have criticized these movements as minorities being overly-sensitive, rolling their eyes at the proliferation of trigger warnings, or jumping to defend those who have been brought to justice by bringing their injustices to light online. What these individuals don’t realize is three-fold:
  • These oppressed people have always been around you. They just have a larger collectivity now because of the internet and their voice is much louder because of the heavy use and reliance on this technology today.
  • Oppressed people who cannot find justice in their everyday lives will use every means at their disposal – outside of the collectively prescribed methods – to achieve their justice.
  • If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Challenging the arbitrarily-legitimate and hegemonic-heteronormative social order is what the internet does best. If you don’t like the sound of rallying cries from all directions of oppressed society – you’re probably part of the problem.
  1. Read more. And not just articles you find on the internet. We have to keep educating ourselves in history, philosophy and the social sciences. Other pools of knowledge are also critical: anything and everything that engages our critical thinking and analytical skills to keep us on our toes. Reading stuff that confirms your well-intentioned biases does little to stimulate your mind or increase your knowledge base. The more you know is the more you know and that, in itself, is priceless. Since hatred is rooted in ignorance, I have said time and time again, the primary antidote is education. Facts aren’t enough but they are a good start. Seeking out wisdom through critique is the next step too.
  2. Do more stuff. Yeah, it can seem like a full-time job and I know that it is for me too. But you have to actually do things that make a difference in your community. These things do not need to be complicated. It can be a letter to the editor. It can be forming a small reading group to read the TRC or black history. It can be signing a petition. It can be making a donation or helping an agency committed to fighting discrimination. We have to put our beliefs and ideas into practice. You will be shocked how fast change accumulates when we all put a little extra effort in.
  3. Don’t hate on yourself for only making local change. You don’t have to save the world and, more importantly, you can’t. You can, however, change spaces that you move through and communities that you subscribe to. In fact, this is more important than anything else you are likely to do. Change starts locally and builds momentum outwards and it starts with people being committed to get together and strategize ways to make that change from all possible angles. What you are doing is critically important – don’t worry about living on in the pages of history.
  4. Don’t give up. Bailing out a sinking ship is exhausting if you are doing it alone. Banding together with others, learning to swim or building a better ship in the first place might be better strategies. Either way, we can’t give up, no matter how shell-shocked we feel. People can change; people do change. You have changed and learned and grown – so why can’t others? Part of never giving up is recognizing that this isn’t a one-person show to save the world. You do what you do with your strengths and join hands with others who have their own strengths to stand together. Even if, for every step you take forward, you end up taking two steps back, we have to continue stepping forward. Period.
  5. Take solace in the fact that there is no essential human character. Human beings are neither essentially good, nor essentially evil. We are socially constructed and even though this means that goodness and evil are also socially constructed, it also means we can build the society we need to, together, through dutiful and purposeful education and inculcation. I’m prone to saying BAH at the darkness of humanity and writing all of us off, but I exist and you exist – therefore, it is possible for other compassionate, caring and self-reflective activists to also exist and bring change.

I invite other ideas for staying active and sane. We are, after all, in this together.

In solidarity,

Nakita

 

Recently there have been a string of terrorist attacks across the globe in places like Lebanon, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia. The latter country saw three attacks in one day at the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar (Ramadan), the most recent of which was a suicide bombing right outside the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) mosque in Medinah. While many have used the occasion to point out how un-Islamic ISIS must be for such an attack, the reality is that Muslims already knew this long ago. And it’s not only ISIS which has it out for us. Only the day before, a bunch of Islamophobic incidences and violence acts against Muslims occurred in the USA and Canada, and the combination has left Muslims around the globe reeling.

As a Muslim, each successive attack has left me at a greater loss for words and full of a deeper, more infinite sorrow. Elsewhere, I have written:

This Ramadan, my heart bled for Orlando, Lebanon and Istanbul. It continued bleeding for Dhaka. And now for Baghdad.

All along, there has been a constant consciousness of the chaos and destruction in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, in Palestine. Of injustice and violence in Burma, China and many other places around the Muslim world.

Hate crimes against Muslims in the West are on the rise.

The prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that there will come a time when holding onto the religion of Islam will be like holding a hot coal.

I cannot say if that time is now but I will remain holding it, my hands burning, heart bleeding until there is nothing left of me.

They are killing us. What more can we do? There must be more we can do.

This was before the attack in Medina happened. When the news broke, I could barely process it. I still fail to. One scholar has simply stated, “There are no red lines anymore.” Although the loss of life in all cases has been deeply troubling and tragic (particularly in Iraq where it has been so massive and where the international community has utterly failed), there is something I haven’t been able to properly put my finger on about a group attacking the mosque of our beloved Prophet Muhammad. It feels much more personal than ever before.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that victims elsewhere are not necessarily Muslim or that they could be from minority Christian or Jewish groups, just as perpetrators may identify with any and all of us too. We have been the oppressors too, after all. Rigid labels are rarely (if ever) productive or illuminating, however, at this particularly point in history, it is hard not to notice that far-right militant, hate-fuelled Buddhists, white supremacists, atheists, secularists, Christians and Jews all share a common scapegoat in us. I have a hard time identifying myself with an “us” and them with a “them”. I’m uncomfortable with how these attacks have made my own categories more rigid.

Where other attacks might be analyzed as arising from political or social issues that only tangentially refer to religion or use religion conveniently, an attack on one of the most sacred places in Islam truly feels to me like an attack on every single believing Muslim. What was deeply wrong and evil before has reached a level that defies description for those of us that subscribe to a Muslim identity.

And it doesn’t matter where this is all coming from. As I said, similar attacks are happening from many sides via all kinds of perpetrators in numerous areas of the world. As a junior historian, I am deeply uncomfortable with comparing these incidences but I simultaneously cannot look away from them. That our Deen contains prophecies that echo our current moment makes it all the more unnerving.

How can Muslims today feel calm? How can they feel safe?

There are many suggestions from more learned scholars of our Deen for how to do this, so I won’t go into those here, but instead I would like to talk about the other side of things: what others can do to make Muslims feel safe.

When I saw the news that a Muslim man was shot and stabbed on his way to the Houston mosque for sunrise prayers, I immediately thought of a distant acquaintance of mine who also lived there. I thought to send him a message to see if he was alright and warn him to “be careful.” It turns out that it was that very friend who had fallen victim.

It is difficult to describe the sickened feeling that enters your stomach when you realize that someone you know was shot as a possible hate crime. Though police now say it was an attempted robbery, that sickened feeling lingers all the same, rearing its ugly head every time a hijabi appears on the news for being spit on or being called a sand n****r on the train, every time someone spins gravel at you while you cross the street, every time someone tells you how uncomfortable you make them (or just mutters it under their breath).

In the current divided political climate, how helpful is it to tell our friends to “be careful”?
After reflecting, I have to say, not very.

In fact, it might be counterproductive to what they need. Instead of telling them to “be careful” (thereby putting the onus on them to remain safe), you can simply make them feel safe as a non-Muslim ally by checking in with them, letting them know that you love them, and even though you can’t necessarily imagine it, you have an idea of how hard it must be right now and how down-trodden they might be feeling about international events.

An archaeologist friend of mine fills this role flawlessly. Every single time there is a terrorist attack and the news breaks, there is a message from her in my inbox within seconds. Sometimes she expresses dismay without even needing to contextualize it (“I can’t believe it.”) Sometimes it’s just the name of a place. Other times she simply asks if I am alright.

There is always a discussion and space held for me to just feel what I need to feel. After Orlando, when it felt inappropriate for Muslims to express how unsafe they were feeling from the Islamophobic backlash, she listened while I worked through my anger and frustrations with the self-declared daesh shooter, my own community (and its relationship to the LGBTQ community) and the rest of the world. She listened while I went on a hellfire-laden rant (even without her necessarily believing in hellfire) about the Baghdad and Medina perpetrators, praying for God’s curse on their heads.

I don’t know what these exchanges mean.

I just know that if there is a her and there is a me, and both of us can reject hatred and embrace love, and both of us can deeply mourn the loss of life, sobbing at our desks at work or over the dishes in the sink, then there is something comforting in that. Something comforting in the fact that in a world that has gone mad, there are still people who reject madness and who will openly stand with you while they do it.

I am told this is the majority of people and, to keep going emotionally some days, I have to believe that. But I definitely wonder.

If you haven’t heard the news by now, you’ve been sleeping under a rock: Britain has voted to leave the European Union, provoking the shock, astonishment and ridicule of netizens and media pundits the world over. In 24 hours, Britain has left the European Union, has had their Prime Minister resign and has dropped the value of the Pound to its lowest level since 1985.

And yet, like all historic events, the internet is divided on what to say about this. You have the brilliant satirical reactions, such as those from The Beaverton, which point out that a nation that conquered the world (and helped enslave millions of people) was suddenly sick of being controlled by external power.

Or Twitter activists who expressed India’s astonishment that one need only to vote in order to get Britain to leave.

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Other individuals tried to poke fun at something everyone is having a difficult time processing by lamenting the sudden loss of “culture” experienced by the UK as it leaves Europe (and its better food) behind.

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Others – mainly in the social justice and humanitarian circles – rightfully mourned the means by which this decision was made, pointing out that not only had the elder generations made a major decision that would affect youth far longer than themselves, but also that it had been accomplished as a by-product of fear-mongering campaigns, that Britain has to “protect its borders” and keep out those nasty immigrants (who now form, you know, about 12 % of the UK population).

There is, however, two somewhat unexpected segments of the internet that seem to be celebrating this rupture for two very different reasons. There are those in the social justice circles with major socialist leanings that have said that while the means by which Britain has exited are unfortunate, the exit is still, as one amazing activist friend put it: “a black eye on the face of neo-liberalism”.

Enrico Tortolano feverishly argues the following:

“Voting to leave the EU is a no-brainer for the Left. The European Union is remote, racist, imperialist, anti-worker and anti-democratic: It is run by, of, and for the super-rich and their corporations. A future outside austerity and other economic blunders rests on winning the struggle to exit the EU, removing us from its neoliberal politics and institutions. Corporate bureaucrats in Brussels working as agents of the big banks and transnationals’ now exert control over every aspect of our lives. Neoliberal policies and practices dominate the European Commission, European Parliament, European Central Bank, European Court of Justice and a compliant media legitimises the whole conquest. This has left the EU constitution as the only one in the world that enshrines neoliberal economics into its text. Therefore the EU is not—and never can be—either socialist or a democracy.”

Tell us how you really feel Enrico.

While it might seem to be a happy outcome to an ugly battle, the reality is that the means cannot justify the ends. The EU might be “racist and imperialist” to socialists, but quite frankly, it was largely racism, imperialism and misinformation that got the exit vote to begin with. Just because hyper-nationalism and attempts to “Make Britain Great Again” result in something that *might* (see: are unlikely to) benefit the socialist cause, does not mean it will – especially if we got there by xenophobia and intolerance.

Interestingly, this puts these guys in the same camp with unlikely bedfellows: far-right anti-government, anti-bureaucracy, anti-New-World-Order “truthers”. A cursory glance at some of the most virulent (and xenophobic) “freedom” websites shows the vote to be breaking, celebratory news because the Brits have thrown off the shackles of their oppressors! And, like I said, from a socialist perspective that’s great (that’s my inherent bias) but this was not a socialist revolution and the rhetoric which initiated a deluge of misinformed exit votes is more in line with the racist views of these people than anyone else. And let’s be clear, these are the same people who view the EU as the Rothschild-ian arm of a complex Jewish world conspiracy, or view Islam and “Shania” law as the greatest threat to Western civilization (who’s cave have your boots been under?), or won’t ever let the US congress take away their guns, or are in the habit of forming militias to keep the gov’t out of their “bizness”, no matter where they come from.

In the end, it’s alright to mourn the UK’s exit from the European Union without necessarily endorsing the EU because you might be mourning the fact that the exit happened on racist and intolerant grounds. It is not alright to celebrate #brexit without recognizing those deeply problematic premises which will, unfortunately, likely serve as the foundation of a newly independent Britain.

bretix arrogance belligerent voting eu

This past summer, a lot of music festivals chose to ban the wearing of Native American and First Nations headdresses because of their use by people who were neither qualified to wear them, nor were they aware of the cultural meaning of that particular article of clothing. Most recently, Miley Cyrus’ wearing of dreadlocks at the VMAs, sparked outrage online at her poor practice of taking from cultures without giving credit where it is due– something Cyrus is not unfamiliar with. According to one source, “cultural appropriation is when white media [or people] trivialize and adopt aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.” As one of the latest buzzwords in the current deluge of social media advocacy, netizens everywhere are calling out cultural appropriation as they see it. However, there are a few points about cultural appropriation that are worth talking about and make this well-meaning category more problematic then it would first seem.

hijab artFirstly, cultural appropriation is disproportionately applied to white women. While cultural micro-aggressions by way of adopted cultural practices without reference to their source are never appropriate, regardless of the gender propagating them, it seems that these days, accusations of cultural appropriation not-so-subtlely act as a front for patriarchal tendencies. It seems like almost every cultural appropriation story from headdresses to cornrows and twerking is focused on the women that appropriate these practices inappropriately. However, with only the occasional mention of a horribly stereotypical tribal tattoo, men rarely make the cut as those criticized by cultural appropriation watchdogs. If you’re going to call people out for these acts, you better make your call-out gender-neutral and fluid.

Secondly, how can people display the correct level of cultural recognition and respect to certain practices while still enjoying their aesthetic and practical appeal? This is an honest question. Is Miley supposed to have a billboard on her head that says “Dreadlocks have long been associated with rasta culture and while I recognize that, I also recognize that for many people –white or otherwise – dreads have become a legitimate hairstyle and I just like the way it looks right now so I hope that is alright with everyone”? I should probably stay away from the Cyrus issue but this point is important for something I want to discuss below: is abstinence from cultural appreciation the best option, lest you be accused of appropriation? How can one be respectful without pissing anyone off?

street art hijab

Thirdly, the notion of cultural appropriation marginalizes people who embody liminal positions between cultures. This is directly related to point number two. For people who straddle cultures socially (and especially those who do not appear to physically), the wearing of cultural garments or doing cultural practices to which one does not appear to belong can lead to harsh, external criticism that leads to social isolation and self-esteem issues.

One such group that I want to discuss with regards to this point are white converts to Islam who choose to adopt the hijab. In these cases, I am not distinguishing among typical –cis genders of male and female, as both men and women have specific parameters for maintaining modesty in Islam. These things can include the wearing of a head veil, the wearing of loose clothing, the wearing of a beard and other such stipulations. Historically, the various manifestations of hijab have evolved to mean different things in different cultures across the world. Even within the same society, one version of hijab (such as a longer veil) carries social currency that varies from other versions of it. In the case of a longer hijab in most Arab countries, the implication is that the wearer of that veil is more pious and engages in the practice of the rituals of Islam more rigorously. Further, the showing of hair and provocative clothing sends a message that is the opposite (an excuse to perpetuate rape culture, in my opinion). Ultimately, however, these definitions are part of intracultural communication – the nuances of which can be lost on outsiders. If we are to continue with the example of the head veil, there is really only one binding stipulation scripturally speaking, which is that the hair, neck and bosom must be covered. However that is achieved is usually acceptable, and given the widespread nature of Islam, cultural variations were/are bound to arise.

So what happens when you convert to Islam, accepting the tenets of a religious faith, but having little to no knowledge of the various cultural morphologies and historical evolutions of the practice of those tenets?* You tend to be accused of cultural appropriation from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

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Non-Muslims often question your adoption of visible religious practices like the head scarf or even prayer rituals as mere “interest in Arab culture” or “likely because you married a born-Muslim”. These microaggressions tell the convert two things: you couldn’t possibly believe in Islam (demonstrating a pervasive xenophobia evident in much of Western society) and you only make aesthetic decisions based on the whims of your spouse (demonstrating a lack of faith in your intelligence and level of feminism). This is not even to mention the poor conflation of Islamic practices with Arabness – which, to be honest, might be understandable if the non-Muslim lacks adequate knowledge of the Islamic world and its history.

Perhaps more surprising are accusations of cultural appropriation that emerge from within the Muslim community and are directed towards converts. One area this happens is with language. Whether converts translate common Islamic terms from Arabic into their mother tongue, or they opt to use the Arabic instead, there is always an aunty or an uncle waiting to criticize you for using or not using the appropriate terminology. Perhaps more often converts are the subject of seemingly endless scrutiny from their Muslim brothers and sisters mainly with regard to dress. If a new sister chooses to wear abaya one day, and jeans with ballerina slippers and a boyfriend sweater the next, her modesty is called into question and she is accused of giving “mixed signals”. If I had to count amount of times I have been told that if I wear abaya or a long hijab, I have to wear it for forever, I’d be counting for awhile. Same goes for the length and tightness of skirts, the colour of headscarves and the age-old question of whether or not to wear make-up. Even further, the same goes for brothers who adopt the Sunnah beard and waffle between various styles and lengths, not realizing the various cultural signals they are giving off in the meantime. I am not even going to get into the amount of times that so-called Muslim progressive-reformist “feminists” have accused me of being culturally backward without realizing I’m not Arab, or culturally appropriative (see: lack of faith in my intelligence above). Finally, if we do create inventive hijab styles, we are accused of cultural contamination, or worse, biddah (innovation), even though it is likely that at some point, most hijab fashions were inventive in the first place – riffing off each other like battling saxophones at a jazz improv session. The point is this: are converts culturally appropriating because they lack the understanding of what their interpretation of Islamic practices mean to other cultures in which they might be found? Or are they forging their own traditions based on a shared religious past? Where is the line between appropriation and adoption or adaptation?

I don’t have exact answers to those questions but I will say this. The consequences of appearing to appropriate Islamic culture in the eyes of non-Muslims and born-Muslims alike are highly disturbing. Converts are the most likely to feel alienated and isolated in every community they inhabit – whether amongst their pre-conversion friends and family, or heavily-criticized by the Muslim groups they find themselves in now. Unsure of where they fit in, if at all, converts tend to have a heightened sense of “feeling strange” which (positively) can contribute to awareness of the temporary nature of this life but, (negatively) can lead to poor lifestyle choices in order to fit in (including comprising their interpretations of Islamic texts, seeking solace in forbidden activities and, at the very worst, leaving Islam completely).

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This article raises more questions than it answers but what remains to be said is this: cultural appropriation, while a noble cause, threatens to contrast the nuances of society too heavily, and in doing so, leaves the grey areas silenced for fear of harsh criticism and isolation. Far more appropriate would be to communicate with a person who appears to be appropriating cultural practices “not their own” to discover their reasons for doing so, rather than making rash, misogynistic and even xenophobic assumptions.

 

*Please note that I am not referring to religious tenets as anything more than cultural manifestations in the end anyway; however, for lay purposes only, I have made a distinction here between superficial, “anthropologically-visible” culture and religion.