The blogosphere and American speakers have tried to discuss the problems of being a convert, but it has by and large been a very superficial discussion. Alhamdulillah Sh Esa Alexander of the UK has written a more substantive nuanced discussion on the sensitive topic. Take a read of it if you can. I began writing a comment in response to Shaykh Esa but it became too long and I will blog it here and go into more detail inshaAllah.
I liked that you focused not on the convert/revert victim card, but on the phases of convert life – good and bad and how it progresses and regresses. It would be great if we broke this down further into something similar to the Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grieving model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression acceptance, etc) which is used for death, losing your job, divorce, substance abuse and other major life changes. Seeing exactly what happens to convert identity more closely might help counsel them through the trials and tribulations of new Muslim life.
Precipice of Identity
I find converts struggle with entering the masjid and born Muslim struggle with exiting the masjid; integration with uncles vs. integration with non-Muslim peers. Most of the identity problems materialize at the precipice of the houses of Allah.
When you enter and exit the masjid you inevitably wonder if xyz is righteous or if you are more righteous and use outward markers of piety (ie dress) to judge that. This is our state day in and day out whether we like it or not and it is where we confront Islamic identity. Itikaaf is distinguished from this because one of its blessings is you do not think about Islamic identity for 10 days. During those 10 days you see everybody in the masjid as religious because the prayer carpet is as normal as breakfast, pajamas and bedsheets. Paltry conversation is discouraged in itikaaf and isolation is encouraged, so you will not be bothered by others. The psychological shift during it is something I found personally very beneficial and so my suggestion is for converts to have an itikaaf or khalwa in the masjid a few months after converting to ‘take a break’ from their constant identity re-negotiation and to preserve and strengthen their relationship with Allah subhana wa ta’ala.
Cultural Buffer Zone
Part of the deconstruction of identity is swinging the pendulum from orientalizing yourself with thobes to becoming a vegan zen-loving hipster pseudo-sufi who looks down on the uncles and pretends to know to have a more enlightened understanding of Islam, which is probably just their bigotry re-organized to put it in rough term. In many places the converts imitate born Muslims, but increasingly the born Muslims imitate the converts. So their is give and take both ways and one convert’s schizo tendencies feed off a born Muslim’s schizo tendencies and they mirror each other’s confused identities. So its not as clear cut as you have spoken of.
The central issue is not about identity or culture but about community. If your only Muslim community is Arab, then you will become Arabicized to some degree. We all have some cosmopolitan cultural buffer zone in us. We like to dabble with other cultures and feel cosmopolitan and refined, but we don’t want to commit to other cultures totally and forever. But we may think, if we don’t commit a little, then maybe we lose community. Human beings like to change and evolve but they also go through tough times when returning to their cultural roots – be they British, Greek, Arab or Pakistani – is necessary for them. If they don’t return to that, then they may take out their frustration on the ethnicity of the dominant Muslim community they have tried to connect with.
Understanding that we all have this cultural buffer zone – an emotional limit or a time limit where we can only become encultured to a different identity so much before it begins to hurt us or we begin to hurt our fellow Muslims – and that we need to know when we hit that limit before we hurt others and hurt our deen. We should respect converts have this culture buffer zone that should not be exhausted, but utilized selectively.
Treating Converts like Babies?
I don’t agree with the last part of your article. Converts don’t need to be treated like babies – this is the West where people are independent and will not welcome that. But there should be a ‘partnership approach’ like the Ansar and Muhajirun. I think every masajid should institute a monthly meeting for converts with the imam, social worker and even a psychologist to talk about their problems in an open non-judgmental environment.
Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa Ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.