First of all, Eid Mubarak everyone! I hope you had a wonderful time with your family and friends over the past week 🙂
The post below is the third part of part of the process I have been through as a convert to Islam, reflecting on realisations along that road: from being someone who was becoming a socially conservative bigot controlled by the agendas of others, to where I (thankfully) am today.
Two years after my conversion to Islam I was pretty much only hanging out with Muslims. I had let a lot of my former friendships drift because I didn’t like the way my friends were “judging me” and my growing conservatisation.
I reality, my friends were amazingly open minded. It was me who was doing the judging. I had been so influenced by others in the Islamsicisation of my life, I didn’t realise it had happened.
As mentioned in the previous post, I became the local convert home tutor for several Tablighi Jamaat, Wahabi and Salafi families in my city. It was a perfect arrangement for them. I was a woman, and a muslim. I was keen to learn about the islamic faith too, and many of the fathers of the children I was teaching were “Islamic Scholars”. I was an idealistic young woman just wanting to live a good life. The perfect candidate for brainwashing.
My dress changed. I never wore hijab but I started to cover my whole body. My arms and legs were never seen. I look back on photos of myself and realise who weird I look, and how very conflicted I felt. My smile in those photos is not joyous, in none of them.
Whilst theTablighi Jamaat, Wahabi and Salafi community were lovely to work for (as long as I conformed to and never questioned the basic tenets of their lifestyles), their Islam was definitely not my cup of tea and thankfully I kept contact with my “normal or mainstream” Muslim friends.
But, as I became more and more conservative in my ways, my “mainstream” Muslim friends further revealed their true conservative selves. I realised that conservatism isn’t only reserved for the so-called fundamentalists.
It takes a while for it all to come out, but once “the community” knows you are “one of them” and that it is safe to share their socially conservative views, that’s when the indoctrination occurs. They no longer self censor for fear of losing another convert. They begin drilling you with practises you should be undertaking in order to be a “true Muslim”.
By this stage, the only people from my old circle of (non-Muslim) friends who I was still hanging out with with those who were religious or spiritual. Basically those who could confirm, not challenge my world views. And I was always giving them dawah, secretly hoping they might finally come around to being Muslim too. I still don’t understand why.
As mentioned in the previous post, I started attending thaleem, a special Muslim woman’s circle where you talk about the religion and recite Arabic verses until you reach somewhat of a trancelike state.
I was fasting two days a week, because I felt it was making me spiritually stronger.
But as I was “growing in faith”, I was becoming more distant from my family and close friends and was also being drawn away from my old hobbies and passions.
By the time I had graduated from University, I had already been offered a job in the civil service. I saw this as a blessing from Allah.
Even though I was to be “working with the kufar government (as some of my acquaintances in the conservative communities actually said), I could still “help spread Islam by showing how a good Muslim girl can still go to work”.. And so on, and so fourth.
Typical bloody dawah propaganda-drive mentality, right? Everything in these peeoples’ lives is so calculated, every act is a potential for dawah. It really is. It makes me shudder to think I was also self censoring to non-muslims in such ways so that I could help “spread the Islamic faith” through example.
But I digress.
I wasn’t wearing the hijab, so no-one really realised I was Muslim around the office (except if I asked to pray or was fasting). But I never made a big song and dance about my faith int he office, just quietly did it. People respected that.
I started to make friends at work outside the overbearing Muslim community. And I started to realise how refreshing it was to have normal conversations again.
Travelling in the “Muslim World”
Then I traveled to a Muslim majority country for the second time in my life.
This Muslim majority country was different to the first country I had traveled too though, which was rather conservative and had a lot of issues with civil conflict and terrorism.
Travelling to this Muslim majority was part of my work and I had a scheduled program to attend throughout the duration of my stay. It is a very progressive, South East Asian nation actually and not marked by religious identity as much as the rest of the “Muslim world” is.
Here I saw Muslim women, practising, non practising, covered, wearing normal “modern” forms of dress. Other who were more religously conservative but displayed progressive and realistic views about the relationship (or non viable relationsip) between Islam and democracy and so on, advocating for the absolute separation between religion and state in their Muslim majority country, and so on.
I met some Islamic organisations as part of the program I was participating in in my then role in the government, and saw Muslims who embraced secularism and modernity whilst maintaining their faith.
I also met people who explained that they are “Muslims” but they were not really practising that much. Much like many Catholics in the West. unthinkable to many Muslims in the community where I was from!
It was eye opening for me and made me realise how incredibly naive and narrow minded I had become.
Feeling kinda embarrassed at myself
I felt quite embarrassed for myself, and then for my family. And then I thought over all the judgemental things I had said to my friends over the course of my conservatisation.
It was kind similar to the feeling of shame that sweeps over you after a night out on the town after you vuaguely remember it all as it washes back to you as you wake again to sobriety then next day.
I ordered a gin and tonic in my hotel room. It was the first alcoholic drink i had had since i took the Shahada.
This realisation that being Muslim didn’t mean I had to be a bigot, a fundamentalist, was strange. I realised that if I was living in a muslim majority country like the one I was currently visiting, I would probably be considered a bit of a fanatic who took the religion (and myself) waaaaay too seriously.
What had I been doing these past two years?
I looked out over at the sprawling city scape, ordering one gin and tonic after another. And what struck me was that the hotel floor didn’t cave in, and my world didn’t crumble.
The Muslims whose lives I was a part of in the West were dangerously fundamentalist. There are social and political reasons for the phenomonon of conservatism amongst these communities, which multitudes of social scientists have examined.
I won’t examine them though. These blogs though are personal realisations for me, and reflection on processes or milestones which have been significant for me throughout my “journey”. They are not all of the story, as that wold be too long to tell.
These reflections are not about leaving a religion, or embracing a new one, not are they about the dichotomy between “progressive” and “conservative Islam” – those debates are constructions and often associated with political movements from within and without the faith community.
These reflections are just a process of naval gazing, I guess.. A way to look back at where my life was heading in contrast with where it is now.
Sometimes I participate in the cultural aspects of Islamic tradition (like I do every Eid, for instance), but I do so whilst not really really believing in it. Just a kind of cultural process of ‘going through the motions’.
Where I am now is definitely a much happier place.
If you call me a “kafir”, if anyone ever does, I just laugh and think to myself “if you only knew my friend, if only you knew”.
Experience and hindsight really changes a lot and, as Jack Keruoac said in On The Road, “a little weariness changes everything”.
I hate to sound cynical, but I say this from a position of experience. f you are a socially conservative practising convert and truly reaaaallly happy, come back to me in five years and tell me how that’s going for you.
To be continued later in part IV