Dr Leon Moosavi on “white privilege” and converts

Picture of a white woman wearing a green hijabI just attended a talk by Dr Leon Moosavi, who some readers may know from Facebook, on the experience of converts from different backgrounds after they enter Islam. He mentioned the concept of “white privilege”, in which being white exposes someone to certain advantages that they may not notice (e.g. being less likely to be stopped by security guards or the police when in a public place) and that, as they enter Islam, they may retain some of these privileges but may also experience specific disadvantage or, as he put it, “white dis-privilege”. I have written on this subject on a number of occasions previously, so I will link them here — [1], [2], [3]. Two of these posts were in response to a “blog carnival” that Brooke Benoit held in 2009; the full lists of posts for that event can be found at her blog.

Dr Leon mentioned that “white privilege” manifests itself in the form of Muslims from immigrant backgrounds (in our case, South Asian) putting convert Muslims on a pedestal, giving them opportunities to speak to groups of Muslims, to speak for groups of Muslims or the local community, to speak on Islam when they may not have the necessary knowledge, and offering them their daughters in marriage, while Black converts are often held in disgust, never offered any of the above opportunities and certainly not offered marriage — in one case he mentioned, a Black convert who had married a South Asian woman found that her family would no longer speak to her and never spoke to him. My personal experience is that white converts also find it very difficult to find partners, and may find that their approaches are rejected explicitly on the grounds of race (not merely being white, but not being the right type of Asian, let alone anything else). Black converts may experience more of this kind of treatment, but that does not mean white converts usually find marriage easy. In addition, established Muslim families often require that a suitor already have a job and a house or flat, i.e. be financially secure, before they will even consider him. This is very far from the western custom in which both men and women begin looking for a partner well before any of this is in place.

Dr Moosavi noted that this tendency is consistent with Frantz Fanon’s theory that non-white people are “colonised” and seek to impress whites because they see them as the “master”. However, “white privilege” was already well-established in South Asia well before European colonists arrived; the Hindu caste system privileged whiter-skinned people (the word for caste, varna, means colour) along with other “western” populations such as Syrian Christians in Kerala. So, Fanon’s theory may be more applicable to mixed-race people (i.e. lighter-skinned Blacks) in parts of Africa and among the African diaspora, than it is to South Asian people.

Although he mentioned experiences of conversion from both men and women, he did not touch on how gender makes the convert experience very different. It is worth noting that, although the first “privilege checklist” was about white privilege, the concept of male privilege had been around a lot longer. Women who are strongly practising are almost always required to make a substantial change to their manner of dress, even if they had dressed modestly by western standards before. With the exception of men who gravitate to certain hardline tendencies (such as “Salafism” and Deobandism, and some Sufi groups within Deobandism in particular). The majority of male converts simply grow their beard a bit and wear long trousers and shirts, or suits, depending on the situation. This clearly makes them much less publicly Muslim than a woman who starts to wear hijaab, let alone a long coat or face veil (niqaab). Also, while it may be easier for her to find a husband than it is for a male convert to find a wife, she may well find that the cultural expectations of her much more onerous than a man would. Most female converts would not have been expected to obey their husbands in whatever religion they had been following before, for example.

He also mentioned that some white converts had faced various types of hostility from the established Muslim community, including negative assumptions such as that their women were sluts under their niqaabs, that they were spies, and that they were not “authentic Muslims” and could leave Islam at any time. The second of these is something many converts have indeed experienced (including myself), and Leon noted that the behaviour of the security forces since 9/11 had contributed to this, with fake converts entrapping some Muslims in fake terrorist plots for the British police and the American FBI. (This has also happened in Nigeria, with the fake converts there not being white.) Conversion to Islam may lead to the first experience a white person has of any kind of attention from the police or security forces, and the novel experience of being a minority may lead others to say “well, you can always remove the beard/hijaab and go back to just being white, which the non-white Muslim cannot”; however, not all non-whites are as dis-privileged as others (minority ethnic men, particularly Black men, may be seen as more of a threat than women, for example, and may face more hostile police attention or discrimination in the workplace).

In short, I believe we should not pretend that there is a uniform or typical convert experience, white or Black. Some converts remain very privileged, particularly if they do not take on an obviously Muslim appearance and particularly before they marry, and some reject the established Muslim community altogether and cling to a group of converts with a somewhat arrogant mentality. However, I also know white Muslim converts who have successfully built bridges with the established community, have secured marriages, have mixed-race children and are well-respected. Dr Moosavi also admitted that a huge gap in his research was coverage of converts from Hindu, Sikh and Chinese backgrounds; a member of the audience told him that they face far more difficulties and were often afraid to speak out. South Asian converts are also ‘invisible’ as converts because they do not look different from born Muslims from South Asian backgrounds. He accepted the need for more research into this subject, but said their reluctance to speak to researchers made the job more difficult.

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