Islam’s Convertophobia Problem
By: Shaykh Daniel al-Jafari originally posted on Medium
Defining the problem
Convertophobia: The fear of Muslim converts by non-convert Muslims.
Behaviors, attitudes, and assumptions common to convertophobia include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
- A convert might be, or probably is, a spy on the payroll of a government agency
- A non-convert who takes pictures at community events just wants some keepsakes, a convert doing the same thing is engaged in espionage
- A convert married to a non-convert must have converted for marriage
- Converts don’t know their own religion, its history, and its laws
- If you see someone who looks like they might be a convert, you should start explaining the religion to them from square one, being sure to do it like you’re talking to a six-year-old
- Converts (or many converts) are really still disbelievers at heart
- Converts are full of the “bad habits” of non-Muslims
- You can never completely trust a convert with anything
- Convert women, naturally, must have been sexually promiscuous prior to their conversion
- Judging converts or forming assumptions about them based on their pre-conversion lives
- Converts have nothing to teach non-converts
- Converts don’t mind being left out when you invite everyone to your home for iftar except them
- Converts who fail to adapt to the dominant foreign culture in a western Islamic center are simply not trying to integrate into the religion itself
- Defensiveness: any convert criticisms of the community for anti-convert attitudes and behaviors are treated as unrepresentative, isolated, and invalid
The central premise of convertophobia is that when it comes to Islam, converts and non-converts are not the same.
Spies like us
As a child, I was raised as a Catholic, although much of Christianity never really resonated with me. By the time I was in middle school, I had resolved that I was an atheist. Nevertheless, I continued to attend Catholic doctrine classes on weekends at the behest of my father, and eventually enrolled in our local Catholic high school. I was a non-believer, and I was not afraid to show it. It wasn’t until I was in grad school, living in Manhattan, and had become increasingly “evangelical” in my atheism, that I revisited the subject of faith and spirituality, when I encountered Islam.
Probably about two years after I converted —to Shi`ism, specifically — I had my first experience with “convertophobia”; my first moment when the presence and power of the Muslim community’s fear of converts began to crystallize for me. It was during the holy month of Ramadan, at a center in New York City; at the time one that was, ironically, dominated by converts from all walks of life. One of the shaykhs at the center knew that I was a hobby photographer, and asked me to shoot photos for a few of the most important nights of the month, in order to document and advertise for the community. So, with my bulky 5D in tow, I proceeded to do just that. It didn’t take long, however, for another convert with a known anger problem to begin harassing me and, in front of all present, accuse me of being a spy. The guy had a modest clique of sycophants built up at the time, but for the most part people recognized the notion as laughable. Sure, I’d only been attending that congregation for about a year at the time, but if my goal was covert surveillance, a Canon 5D is not exactly how anyone would go about doing it. Eventually, one of the shaykhs interceded, but even his explanation wasn’t quite good enough for this guy.
It wasn’t my last run-in with him, either. In one of his larger blow-ups, I had brought a Christian friend along with me who was curious to check out the center and learn a little more about Islam first-hand. When it was time for the dusk prayer, the call to prayer came and the congregation hastily began to form into ranks. I asked my friend to just relax in a chair in the back of the hall, saying I’d be back once this was all over. But just before the prayer started, I heard a commotion coming from behind. For a moment, everything stopped. I turned, and saw the same guy now badgering my friend, insisting that he needed to be able to open and search his backpack, because there could be a bomb in it. I have experienced a lot of humiliating moments in life, but until then, nothing like that.
The offender in question was someone who had converted a long time ago — possibly while he was in prison, although for what I suspect are obvious reasons, I never bothered to ask — and gone the usual Sunni-to-Shi`a route. In fact, he had gone the Wahhabi-to-Shi`a route, which is not all that uncommon once people burn out on all the crazy. Well, he had brought the crazy with him, with more than enough to share with everyone. Still, I figured it was probably an anomaly, and more related to his pretty open problem with white guys, particularly those of the bookish, academic sort. A practicing clinical therapist at the time, I just chalked it up to some pretty clear mental health problems and did my best to move on with life. Within another year at the most, he had more or less alienated himself from all but two people in the center, and eventually just stopped showing up.
I was lucky at that center because I was insulated. Looking back as a convert, I now know how precious that insulation was. If not for that, I’m not sure I would have lasted. More than anything, the shaykhs made the big difference. We had three, which is a ridiculously high number for any center, let alone one of that size. From early on, they helped guide me through an increasingly complex learning process, eventually tutoring me in seminary-level texts. Over time, though, I could feel myself hitting a wall. Even a couple hours a day or more of guided, independent studies was not cutting it for me. I needed something more.
[Then, after his howza experience...]
The teeth of a comb
Only later would we realize that there appeared to be no convert “community” for us to return to and serve. Instead, it became rapidly clear that Islamic centers weren’t interested in “indigenous” shaykhs. If you didn’t have the right Iraqi/Persian/Pakistani/Khoja genes, then your services were no good (to be fair, however, my experience is that Indo-Pak communities tend, by far, to be the most welcoming to converts). It would have saved me a lot of time if centers would just hang up “converts need not apply” signs by the front door. Indeed, the only way for a convert to fit in is to pick a prominent foreign culture within the Shi`i community and adopt it. Sure, you’ll never be fully accepted, but you can always aim to be an honorary member, a mascot, and yes, another performing animal. As a convert, these are often the choices: pick an ethno-cultural clique and start sucking up, or resign yourself to living forever on the outside.
It doesn’t end there: God forbid you marry a non-convert, because the assumption by others in the community will be that you only converted for marriage. And should it be known that you converted years prior to even meeting your potential spouse, you’ll have a very rough time trying to find a family who will accept you, since they’ll always be wondering if your conversion is really permanent. That, and they know how the wider community will react when you marry off your daughter to someone outside your national gene pool. It is in this way, among several others, that Shi`ism has been allowed by too many of its adherents to turn into a sort of Iraqi/Persian nationalist cult.
There is no major aspect of life that “convertophobia” leaves untouched. For many converts, they have given up a great deal by embracing Islam. Often, it means losing even the support and love of their own families. Imagine, then, the shock that comes to discover you’re not so welcome in your newer, global “family”?
I’m a few years wiser and more attuned now, so I know that my experiences with “convertophobia” did not, and will not, end with Iraq. I know very well that the same rumors of being a spy circulate about me at my family’s local Islamic center in California. And just this week, in fact, I found an article covering a speech by a major Iranian scholar who, I understand, spends much of his time in London, but used to be on the Iranian government’s “Assembly of Experts.” In the article, which covered one of his speeches, he related a story about a new convert to Shi`ism from Christianity. His final words? “He might be an MI6 spy.”
Irked, I sent a text message to Ali, who you’ll recall is from the UK. “What’s this guy’s deal?” I didn’t mention the article. The text I received back read, “He was the first [Shi`i] shaykh I ever met. I was a Sunni looking into Shi`ism. He told the Arab brothers [present] I must be a spy.”
It’s an attitude that I once mistook for a hallmark of a backward upbringing and lack of access to education about the world at large. However, it’s now an attitude that I understand comes straight down from the top of the Shi`i clerical world: every convert is suspect. In fact, when I mentioned this problem elsewhere in social media today, one response was this:
Well.. there have been cases of “converts” being spies lol. There was one who worked for the FBI but the mosque reported him for suspicious behaviors. MI6 is definetly (sic) doing this stuff too.
It apparently did not strike this person for even a moment that this is exactly, precisely, specifically the same logic that every Islam-basher uses to defend their prejudice: “Well, there have been cases of Muslims being terrorists.” The difference is that for this commenter, they are now on the inside looking out. But when it comes to both Muslims and Muslim-haters, converts are on the outside looking in. In the end, much of the west is stuck with its Islamophobia problem, but much of Islam seems particularly and sadly attached to its own convertophobia.
After reading this, one might rightly wonder, “What kind of religion is full of people who suspect converts rather than celebrating them?” It is with great sorrow that I am able to provide the answer to that question: mine. But I’d also like to turn it around: what does it say about the value someone attaches to their own faith when anyone who wants to convert is immediately viewed with suspicion and skepticism? A great deal, I’d wager. A very great deal.
The reality of life as a Muslim in many countries is that spies are present. It’s just a given. I readily acknowledge this fact. But so what? First of all, there is nothing we can do about that, and second of all, we have nothing to hide. What is the worst thing that is going to happen, particular at a Shi`i center, if a spy for the FBI is present? They might learn something about Islam, find out that Pakistani food is too spicy for their palette, and that’s about it. The Shi`i world does not have a “radicalized” counterpart, akin to al-Qa`ida, ISIS, the Taliban, etc. We are, 99% of the time, the group on the receiving end of terrorism by these kinds of groups. So what, in reality, are we concerned about?
Moreover, are we really content with the alternative, which is closing our doors to outsiders, and turning on those within? Adopting a siege mentality will be the end of our religion, especially when that mentality is turned against converts. And, in that regard, I only hope that it is not too late.
The Messenger of God (peace be upon him and his progeny) is related to have said, “Whoever has prejudice (tribalism) in his heart even the size of a mustard seed, God will raise him on Judgment Day with the Arabs from the Age of Ignorance,” and that,
Humanity, from the age of Ādam until today, are [equal] like the teeth of a comb. Neither is the Arab superior to the non-Arab, nor the red to the black. [An individual is superior to another] only by [their] piety.
For now, it seems, this is one of the many great lessons his nation has discarded at its peril.
Whenever I have raised these issues to people within communities, I am usually told that my experiences are saddening but unrepresentative of those of other converts. Whenever I have raised these issues publicly, I am told that I am being overly negative and even hostile towards the Shi`i community. It is true that not every non-convert Shi`a is a bad person who hates converts.
That is not the point of my writing this. I love the Shi`i community, which is why I want to see it live up to its values and potential. Our Imam deserves a better community, where converts to his cause our welcomed in droves. However, it is the global Shi`i community as a whole that must take responsibility for its failings, and this is nowhere more true than when it comes to converts. Obviously I can see why it would be nice for people within that community to hear about how well they are treating converts, how welcomed we feel. But that has no connection with the reality of the situation, which is that many if not most converts encounter problem after problem with the non-convert community.
Conservatively, I would guess that fully one quarter of those converts ultimately leave the religion, in large part due to precisely these kinds of attitudes. And for every convert who walked away from Islam because a community could not accept them, there will be a day of reckoning for it in its entirety. Personally, I cannot find it in my heart to blame any convert whose immediate reaction is to turn and run. When all their cries fall on deaf ears, what options are left to them?
The Muslim community in general, and the Shi`i community in particular — as this is my only point of experience — has failed its converts. It is continuing to fail its converts. At the moment, my only hope is in the youth: that they will be strong enough to challenge the anti-convert attitudes and biases of the old-world mentality of so many of their parents. However, at this time it seems that big changes are still a long way off.
If you are a non-convert reading this, and your first reaction is to be dismissive or get your hackles up, then I urge you to examine your heart. If I thought these things were representative of only my own experiences, I would not be writing this. Again and again I have heard painful and even tragic stories from converts who are struggling to keep their heads above the water. The “convertophobia” of communities is one of their biggest challenges.
To put this in perspective, consider other faith groups. How often do you hear about a convert to Christianity who is viewed with suspicion, skepticism, or even derision? Exactly. Other faith groups who focus on winning over non-members welcome their converts. They provide them with care and support. They treat them gently. But you don’t have to look far to find out that this simply isn’t the case in the world of Islam. It should be, but it isn’t.
Already in the western Sunni community there have been a number of projects launched over the last few years aimed at providing converts with the support and kindness they so desperately need. As for the Shi`a community, this remains a non-priority. As long as this is so, converts will be left on the outside looking in, many trying desperately to just to stay afloat.
For me, the choice to stay is one rooted in my love of my faith. Nobody can take that away from me. But that doesn’t mean all’s well — far from it. The struggle to be accepted as an equal is something I realize I’ll probably have to fight for the rest of my life. What am I — what is any convert — to make of that?
For the convert who might be reading this, it’s time for us to organize and make a change. A problem of this nature and magnitude is not going to right itself. We have to decide on the kind of future we want to see for our religion, and push forward together.