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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  • Who hosted the talk and how did the audience respond?

  • It was at the University of East London (in the Cass school of education). Not sure who organised it, although the host was a lady from the university called Nasima. The audience was small (a mix of both sexes, and different colours and religions) and listened quietly, but there were lots of questions so people obviously engaged with what he said. No very hostile questions.

  • I’ve experienced the pedestal thing (one Muslim I know always calls me ‘sir’) - mostly from taxi drivers; and the suspicion thing. Not sure about being asked to act as a spokesperson - perhaps I’m too geeky! I find it all an irritation, and I feel helpless to do anything about other it, but equally don’t make a big deal out of it. Two points. First, whether such behaviours represent prevailing or widespread attitudes is a moot point. Plenty of South Asian Muslims treat me like anyone else. Second, how much of this is a class thing? Middle class Muslims of Gujarati origin invariably see me as being just another middle class person.

  • Muhammed

    Oh here we go again, cloaked racism used for bashing asians wholesale.

    Yes there are incidence of racism and rejection of marriage by families but it is no means the major cases.

    There are thousands of examples of converts being welcomed into Islam by the Asian community, Yet there are also numerous cases of converts tricking and defrauding them, which is never mentioned by anyone.

    And as to the false assertion that blacks are not given a chance to speak is crap!

    Siraj Wahaj, Zaid Shakir, Shermain Jackson, Abdullah Hakim Quick, Abu Ameenah Philips Khalid Yasin did they all escape your attention??

    Their events are usually organised by South Asians and attended by South Asians.

    Most converts black or white are usually married to south asians!

    As I said from the outset this blog post is a cloaked racist attack on Asians.

    No one talks about the racism that white or black converts may retain and bring to the community.

    No one asks about the Arab or Somalian or other African muslims or Turkish communities treat converts, its always BASH ASIANS!

    You people need to reflect on your own deep seated racism.

    Reflect on the good people do and stop ignoring it, it might help you deal with your imbalanced view.

  • Ali H

    It is not racist to acknowledge racism in a community. An accusation of harbouring racists is not something that can only be hurled at the white community. Maybe some people who say there is racism amongst white people are just anti-white, but that doesn’t negate similar claims made by others who have no racial grudge and just want fairness, justice, and an end to oppression. The gulf between the two is vast. Their intentions are polar opposites. The latter should never be silenced because of the former.

    Similarly with anti-Semites criticising Israel. We hear this all the time. Accuse Israel of misbehaving towards non-Jews and you are branded anti-Semitic instantaneously by some very unpleasant people of foul intention. If you say that pointing out that a particular group has racists within it makes you a racist, you are not in good company.

    Of course there are some who will hide behind this fake concern - for the real or imagined victims of those they hate. We are exposed to this on a daily basis. This is the horrible messed up way racism and its various bedfellows operate.

    Huge numbers of Asians are not racist - but some are. As Asians Muslims are in the majority here this seriously requires addressing. An Asian woman married to an Irishman recently told me her parents refuse to hold her children and always brush them away. Her brother, however, adores them. When my daughter turned 16, every single Asian girl friend she had was forbidden from dealing with her by their parents. Apart from the Sikh girl next door whose sheer proximity made her family see the nonsense that circulates for what it is.

    The nonsense is endless. As are the anecdotes I could continue with, some of them seriously shocking. And some of them regarding Arabs as well.

    However it is swings and roundabouts. As a white Muslim I can move between the communities relatively easily in a way that Asians often cannot - because of the bigotry rampant between the various sub-groups from South Asia. These communities should not be so separate. TBH I just see religion twisted into tribalism for the benefit of a petty ‘clergy’ class and their power cultivating sponsors. They are scared of losing their positions.

    It grieves me that I cannot go into a halal shop or even a Mosque for the first time and say ‘assalaamu alaikum’ without an inquisition. I have actually given up as I don’t want to be constantly annoyed. I don’t have this problem at all when I am in Morocco. I am aware of where they get it from. In their ‘wisdom’ they think that I am (a) Jewish (b) seriously hostile and (c) actually saying “asa’aamu alaikum’. And (d) Somehow I get some bizzare benefit for this pointless charade. This for me really does illustrate the pointlessness of teaching by rote - and the endless extension of rules and dogma - when mere regurgitation of a verse or an historic occurrence somehow eclipses all that is self evidently true.

    I don’t have this problem if I tell a white-non Muslim that I am a Muslim. They might think I’m a terrorist or something, but at least they believe me. Because of where they are getting their nonsense from, it is less offensive,

  • Kamilah

    I agree, I also think more white women who are married to south asians and arabs need to be interviewed. Because many of the ones I know have problems in their marriage due to their in laws. They are still not accepted after marriage.

  • Israfel

    The assumptions here are astounding, I’ve experienced nothing but racism from Arab and Pakistani communities when it came to marriage no matter how much their daughters wanted it.

    Masjids enjoy showing off token converts because it’s good for business but the “privilege” is non existent Soon you will be forgotten excluded and if you do speak on controversial issues you will instantly be discredited because you are a revert, especially if you are a white one (with our “western lenses”)..

    Yes black converts are at the bottom of the racist attitude barrel for ethnic muslims but we are next in line, because people from muslim cultures are superior, then the latter continues from darkest Indian to the lightest Arabs.

    Even before the novelty of a white revert wears off we are NOT granted as many opportunities as we are given problems.

    We don’t “cling” to groups of converts, you just give us no other choice because we don’t feel like jumping through hoops of fire for ethnocentric cultural fascists.

  • Umm Sheyma

    I’m a white revert and I’ve experienced a lot of racism and prejudice from both Arab and Asian Muslims, particularly when it came to marriage. At first when I reverted the community was very welcoming but after a couple of months the novelty wore off and I was ignored and became very isolated. I was living with non Muslim family at the time and would travel many miles to events etc only to be ignored completely when I arrived. The few sisters who did talk to me would ask direct hostile questions such as if I was really leading a double life and ‘still’ attended church (I was never Christian).

    A few years later I got married thinking it would lead to me being accepted more easily, I was still a teenager at that time and very naive and easily manipulated. The community paired me off with a ‘problem’ revert brother whom they painted in a completely false light, as far as they were concerned it was like killing two birds with one stone-get rid of him and stop him from possibly marrying one of ‘their’ girls and stopping me from marrying one of ‘their’ boys.

    Needless to say it was a disaster and when we went to a community leader for advice he said the problem was me refusing to have children something which he had no indication of but just assumed as I was white. When the marriage inevitably ended in divorce by which point my ex was no longer sure if he wanted to be Muslim or married, I was again blamed for ‘refusing to have kids’ and clearly not being a good wife.

    Once the divorce was finalised I was again pressured to marry but the brothers the community tried to fix me up with were considerably older, not really practicing, only wanting to marry me because I was a trophy white revert, after a visa, or they had clear mental health issues. When I repeatedly turned down these brothers I was told I was being ungrateful and a divorced revert like me wouldn’t get any other chance to marry.

    I ended up deliberately seeking out a brother in a completely different city where I knew the Muslim community weren’t stuck in the dark ages, when I married him, and he is a black brother of mixed heritage we were verbally abused in public by some of those brothers they had tried to pair me off with. I also got emails from senior brothers in the community wishing my marriage to failure because my husband is slightly younger and not of a background they would consider to be compatible with myself (in other words not white or light skinned). I moved to my husband’s city and never looked back. We have experienced dirty looks and whispers from Asians down here but nowhere near to the same extent. My ex later left Islam completely while this was for a variety of complex reasons his treatment by the Muslim community probably didn’t help at all. ‘White privilege’ indeed…

  • Blue Flower

    I have found the same with Khojas, who also see me as ‘just another middle class person.’