City of Brass

City of Brass

the myth of the white muslim’s burden

This is a guest post by G. Willow Wilson, in response to this discussion thread at Talk Islam.

The reason I don’t like discussions about the situation of white Muslims as a community, or the power relationships between white converts and their birth culture (ie, the loss or retention of white privilege), is because I do not believe there is any such thing as a white Muslim community. There is only a white Muslim here, a white Muslim there. The very fact that we have chosen to be part of this religion means that our experiences are radically divergent from the majority of other white westerners. What those experiences were differs quite a bit from convert to convert. Some people were unhappy with the status quo and saw Islam as a purer, more moral way of living. Some married in. Some had spiritual epiphanies. Some started out in other Abrahamic faiths but felt there was something missing. The differences don’t stop there: we’re from different classes, different parts of the West, different cultural backgrounds. In other words, despite the fact that we try and try to build a single narrative for ourselves, we have very little in common.

We are not a community. We are statistical outliers. A tiny minority in a religion that is overwhelmingly non-white and overwhelmingly non-western. So why do we keep trying to build a narrative about white Muslims? Why so much attention to what we do or do not represent?

Simply put, because the one thing we do have in common is that we were raised at the center of our civilization. Whether we were rich or poor, educated or not, as whites we were the main characters in the story of our culture. Letting go of that expectation-that we will be protagonists in the unfolding saga of our community-is next to impossible, no matter how humble and pure of heart one is. I’m talking about something that runs much deeper than racism here. To me, the impulse to narrative-build, whether self-congratulatory (I have lost white privilege, hurrah!) or self-flaggelating (I can never lose white privilege, oh how I suck) is a symptom of this inability to let go.

We are guests-protectorates, wards, bit players-in the Islamic narrative. If this was a Shakespearean drama, we’d be Second Spear-Holder From The Left. What we contribute to that narrative will, in all probability, never be of direct benefit to us as individuals. We will always be outliers, both in our birth communities and in our religious communities. Our significance, and more importantly, our relevance, is massively exaggerated. By adoring Muslim communities who hold us up as coddled symbols of the power of Islam? Mais non. By ourselves. If we become coddled symbols, it is because we let it happen. And, in all probability, encouraged it. Consciously or unconsciously. Because that is what we were raised to expect: centrality. Whether the story is tragic or comic, it is always about us. If it isn’t, we hardly know what to do with ourselves.

We don’t really represent any experience but our own. There is some freedom in that-approached in the right spirit, it has its advantages. Being an outlier is not the same as being an outcast. But we should resist the urge to create a communal narrative where none exists. There are almost no general statements one can make honestly about white Muslims. Some retain more privilege than others, but the reasons why are not always as clear-cut as habits of dress and social interaction. I wore traditional hijab to a recent comics convention in Seattle. I was the only covered woman in a crowd of many thousands of comics enthusiasts, a population with an anecdotally higher ratio of atheism and heterodox religious ideas than the mainstream. I was curious to see what this would do to my book sales. I sold out before the end of the first day. So I’m not sure I buy the idea that hijab automatically deducts points from one’s social status, or from one’s ‘whiteness’.

I’m not saying we have to gag ourselves or keep silent, though for a long time that is exactly what I thought. But we do have to realize that there is less ‘we’ than we’d like to think.

Willow is the author of the graphic novel Cairo
and the award-winning series Air: Letters from Lost Countries
. She graciously gave me permission to reprint
her comment from Talk Islam above. Also see her earlier comments about the difference between American and Egyptian Islam.

  • Willow

    Okay, would definitely *not* have chosen that title. ‘White man’s burden’ is more or less the opposite of the point I tried to make here.

  • Aziz

    it was intended to be ironic :) I added “myth of” to make it clear…
    I originally was gonna title it “the unbearable whiteness of being (muslim)” instead :)

  • yohan nordson

    People become Muslim because they don’t believe in race based divisions. labelling ourselves as a race within our community defeats the purpose of becoming Muslim.

  • Joseph Shipman

    Aren’t Arabs white? Aren’t Turks white? Aren’t Afghans white? Aren’t Iranians white?
    This whole post seems to be based on the false premise that “whites” are overwhelmingly outnumbered among Muslims. But if a typical inhabitant of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan, etc., came to the United States to live, their neighbors would regard them as “white people”.

  • Ben

    So you don’t believe in race based divisions, just religion based? I’m not trying to start a fight, just want to understand.

  • Michael J. Totten

    Joseph Shipman: Aren’t Arabs white? Aren’t Turks white? Aren’t Afghans white? Aren’t Iranians white?
    Not exactly, though some are. But Albanian and Bosniaks as groups are. Bosniaks are Slavs, for heaven’s sake.
    The US government counts Arabs as “white” in the census, but our bureaucratic racial categories are bizarre to the point of being near arbitrary.

  • Lewin Wickes

    Westerners generally, and Americans in particular, change denominations and religions at the drop of a hat. Modern Western spirituality is a mile wide and an inch deep. When an American converts to Islam, or to just about any other religion, it is more often than not a kind of fashion statement, a chance to trot out their bona fides as a genuine PC multicultis. “Look at me. I’m a Muslim.” I suspect that if most converts were somehow forbidden to tell anyone about their conversions, and forbidden to signal their conversions by any kind of change in their outward appearance, they would never bother to convert in the first place. Most converts will drop their new religions in a couple of years once they realize nobody gives a damn.

  • submandave

    I tend to look askance at anyone who focuses on how any group “shapes the narrative of civilization” or any such similar sort of speech. In reality, very few individuals have a large shaping hand in the direction of civilization. To the extent this is shaped by a group, the commonality that mostly binds a collective shaping is moral, values-based and linguistic, not racial. I recognize that historically those who do share a sense of moral and linguistic community have been heterogeneous racially, but I see this as more of a by product of larger, more important factors than deterministic.
    Personally, I have gotten over my adolescent fantasy of becoming a great shaper of human civilization and contented myself to being a shaper of my family’s future and humanity. This seems, to me, the more responsible and realistic role for an adult.

  • Kunga Wan Mo

    Mr. A’Barge, are you kidding me? That’s like saying “if you’re Christian, you support the Crusades” and “if you’re Jewish, you killed Christ”.
    If we were to follow your line of thinking: Weren’t the Crusades a “murder of innocents”? Wasn’t the Catholic support of the Nazi’s in WWII the “murder of innocents”?

  • Athena

    No, Paul, we wouldn’t, and white yuppies who convert to Islam are obviously adored by the lefties in the country. Blech!

  • Alec

    There are only three races: caucasian, mongolian and negroid. All Arabs and Jews and everyone from the Indian sub-continent are all caucasian, or “white.”

  • Hedgehog

    You know, I am thoroughly tired of the self-congratulatory maunderings of the newly-converted worshipper of Islam. Don’t you know that you flirt with idolatry? I don’t understand this rush to adore all things Islamic. Humans are created to worship God, not to worship their own way of worshipping. “White Muslims” love their outlier status! Of course – it’s even more idolatrous to love oneself – and when you’ve taken the first step – venerating Islam; venerating yourself comes naturally.

  • AST

    I’m LDS, a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not acknowledged as Christian by Catholics or most Protestants.
    After 9/11 I read a number of books about Islam and what struck me most about it was that it, like Christianity and Judaism, began with revelations to one or more prophets, and those prophets ceased to appear, after which their revelations fell into the hands of the “learned” who were great students but had no prophetic gifts or callings. As a result they went through hundreds of years of being passed on through word of mouth or manuscripts. I don’t know about Islam, but Christianity and Judaism both have a substantial body of apocrypha, or unauthenticated “scripture.” They all branched out into multiple streams or sects, which engaged in struggles, sometimes violent, for dominance.
    The main thing that impressed me is that out of all of these, only the LDS and Catholics recognize the concept of a line of general authorities who are appointed by God and whose authority is passed from leader to leader and serves to lead and watch over the church to maintain standards of doctrine and faith. This authority is demonstrated and passed on through the performance of ordinances, such as baptism, confirmation, ordinations, etc. which must be performed by those who hold specific authority traced back to God to so act.
    Without continuing revelations to successive holders of authority, there is no real mechanism for maintaining correct doctrines, interpretations of scripture and knowledge from God not clearly provided by existing scripture.
    I don’t believe that anybody who has not been chosen by God as was Aaron and endowed with authority in the manner described in the Bible has the right to lead the true religion. They are the blind leading the blind. No wonder they unravel and spawn disputes over doctrine and proper practices.
    I do believe that every person is entitled to belong to whatever religion he or she wishes or no religion whatsoever, and should be protected by society in that right, and that conversions by force, persecutions, attacks and contentions between churches or religions are not appropriate to a free society and should be prohibited. I don’t believe that a true religion would use any means to gain adherents other than testifying, teaching and inviting.
    Islam worries me because it has no formal hierarchy based in scripture. Ever Muslim is equal with every other and if one is gifted at rhetoric and persuasion he can gain followers and preach doctrine without any other Muslim having the power to correct him. Not only that, but under one line of argument, any Muslim may declare any other to be in error and thererfore an apostate who is then subject to excommunication and execution. This reasoning is referred to as heresy and takfir by most mainstream Muslims, but within the Salifists and Wahhabis it has been invoked to create civil war and foment jihad against anyone its adherent decide to target.
    Until Islam can present authoritative spokespersons to represent it to the rest of the world and can control groups like the the hydra-headed Jihads which constantly arise to foment violence, I don’t think it’s possible for other societies to accept Islam as a faith, since each Muslim may have his own interpretation of the religion which may be peaceful or suddenly burst into violence in the name of Jihad. The rest of the world has taken far too long to recognize that violence in the name of religion makes no sense, and has therefore adopted a policy of separation fo the powers of state from those of any church or religion. America’s constitution dictates tolerance.
    Until God returns and shows himself to all in his glory, there is no one who has the right to force anyone to believe or follow any specific religion.
    Since Muslims have been so reluctant to stand and separate themselves from terrorists and their heresies, the rest of us can only feel cautious in dealing with them. Another version of this problem consists in constantly looking for and taking offenses and accusing others of violating laws meant to protect freedoms, but which are being used to bring suits, and make accusation of hate speech toward others who merely point out the incivility and chronic complaining and accusations that are made by sects who demand that their own laws be allowed to supersede those of the state and society in which the parties live. If they wish to have a community within the U.S. respected by others, they need to demonstrate that Islam truly has one meaning to all Muslims.

  • Your Name

    There are some assumptions here which I concede are common, and I am the exception, and yet I think still need to be raised:
    1. There are “Muslim Communities.” Ask and Persian about an Arab or an Arab about anyone else and you will quickly watch the “umma” evaporate into nada. Bemoaning the outlier status of white muslims is like a 3rd generation Italian-American wishing he could be a real Italian. WTF!?!?!
    What is the common Muslim experience? The collective American experience? It may exist, but it is so amorphous as to be more challenging to nail down than a good definition of “consciousness.” How did culture and religion become so enmeshed? Lack of faith is lack of good faith.
    Whenever I go to a Muslim oriented pot-luck dinner ( a few times a year ), I see lots of caucasians trying their best to lay down bowls of baba ganouj, kebab, lamb rice dishes, etc. It is an unspoken sign of respect for the various cultures that sustained Islamic traditions over the centuries. No problem. But I always looks for the dude who said, “Eff-it, I’m bringing enchiladas.” What exactly are we trying to prove here by cooking up another culture? Add the beards and the thobes…What a show.
    2. Muslim “Coverts.” This is a concept which, again, has a hint of truth, but at root is useless. Many religious people find the break with the old and the adoption of the new to be a difficult time. They call this transition “conversion.” “I was a Christian, but now, being Muslim, I believe Jesus was the Son of Mary, not the Son of God. And I don’t drink booze or eat pork.” Congratulations! You’ve converted.
    I think it is very wrong and essentially political to look at a Sufi, a Vedantist, a Zen Buddhist and a Quietist Monk as following different paths. They are all headed towards God. Some don’t call It God or Allah. Does it matter? No conversion necessary. Whatever works for the individual.
    Being in outlier status, I believe, is a recognition that, from a religious standpoint, and by religion, I mean spiritual, everyone is an individual and will have their own very unique experience. So much so as to call the Holy Qur’an Prophet Muhammad’s Book. Not mine. As a Muslim, I am obliged to call the Qur’an Majid my hold book. As a Mua’min, I think I have the obligation NOT to call that Book mine. That is only imitation. The Qur’an I have to read and follow is written in my heart.

  • Melungian

    When I saw the title of this thread, I assumed it would be about real “white Muslims” – you know, Turks, Kurds, Chechens, Bosnians, Albanians, Lebanese, Persians, Riffian Berbers etc. Who cares about a few western converts and their imaginary identity issues. Get over yourself.

  • Your Name

    I am an African Americam Muslim,I love AllAH and islam. I wear dreads, and I dress modestly. One of the most important aspect is to be the best Muslim you can be. Quran, “Stive and race to all that is good.” No one is perfect, but perfection can come in your striving. If you are white black, indian or what ever race, be yourself. I am African American and I donot like lamb, or rice, but I like collard greens (cooked in smoked turkey), sweet potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. I have friends who are Muslim and of diverse backgrounds, I just love them and we learn from each other. Be Muslim and quit worrying about how white you are.African Americans have been struggling with socital racism for years, but if you believe in AllAH and let it go you will be just fine. To all Muslims, always remember the Prophet`s Farewell address, if not please reread it.

  • Your Name

    If you’ve ever read the site-Stuff White People Like, this entire idea fits in quite nicely there. The big exception is that the site is written in sarcasm or wit.
    I adore shameless self-depreciating white folks. I especially love them in ex-pat communities in Middle Eastern countries. In North Africa where people don’t go in the sun at all because they don’t want to be considered brown-white women are adored more so than in the United States-believe or not. They’re usually hated by Middle Eastern women who see through their fake high society bull shit. They also see through their all in all fakeness-especially through the shunning of other “low class” white folks.
    I also adore a woman who is white. Who is treated special because she spends lots of her time in Egypt-in a “foreign culture” and writes little diddies that most any of us could by her own culture and by a foreign culture. If she was a black/brown woman-she wouldn’t have been invited by the NYT to write about anything nor would Egypt even discuss her. Her whiteness is her ticket that she uses faster than an AmEx on Rodeo Drive.
    There is very much a white community of sell outs. There is an entire community of folks who arabize themselves-not muslimize themselves. It’s irritating because Islam frees us from such ridiculousness. Yet they worship the _____ culture that they think is Islam.

  • riley

    WHITE MUSLIMS NEED TO ORGANISE and screw what the white or non white muslims think. If i had it my way we would pick a city and all move there and create a white muslim culture. I converted to islam becasue it made more sense than christianity not becasue i was a self hating white man. the fact that most muslims hate our race and most of our race hate islam means we belong to neither group and should organise in a nationalist way.

  • ilahi dinle

    When I saw the title of this thread, I assumed it would be about real “white Muslims” – you know, Turks, Kurds, Chechens, Bosnians, Albanians, Lebanese, Persians, Riffian Berbers etc. Who cares about a few western converts and their imaginary identity issues. Get over yourself.

  • Nina

    Damn, I am not even Muslim but I really appreciated the honesty and ethic of this response and how vehement all the comments are. getting over themselves is exactly what this response in a chat room encouraged. “Whiteness” is more complicated than people think. I love being a white woman from a poor upbringing and being treated like shit by people who love to hate westerners and think I must have grew up all cosmopolitan and wealthy. I know way more Muslims who have more than i do in every way. How about you all get over yourselves and turn your anger toward the issues in your own religion that need addressed.

  • Charles

    ” A tiny minority in a religion that is overwhelmingly non-white”
    There are countless White Muslims (Turks, Kurds, Azeris, Circassians, Albanians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Syrians) and for centuries Europeans associated Islam with the White Ottoman Empire (Muslims in general were labeled as “Turks”) for example a play about the European Muslim pirate John Ward was titled “A Christian Turn’d Turk.”

  • potrica

    Islam is the fastest growing religon in the west 15000, converts a year in the uk alone not to mention other europeans embracing islam. Currently the majority is found to be in Germany. shocking statistics the fight has begain by NATO to kill afgans, iraq, Yeman and somalia to stop the revelotion of islamic rule. The fight began to win the hearts and minds and call people to nationlisim and democracy. People dont understand islam declines nationalism and calls to brotherhood-sisterhood this is clear from the quran “no white is over black or black is over white only in piety” Islam does not permit inocent killing or blowing people up. there is no critical thing with the avreage joe”By means of shreaded lies. unremittingly reapeated, it is possible to make believe that heaven is hell– and hell is heaven.the greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed.” (Adolf Hitler) back to the topic: understanding the reason why people all around the world embrace islam whites,blacks the quran it will give a good understanding.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Scotty

    This idea that ONLY people from Northwestern Europe are “white” is the problem. Caucasions, “white people” are from Iraq and Iran originally, and can be found ALL OVER the Middle East. Do they all look like Dolph Lundgren and Nichole Kidman? Of course not, but they are definitely “white”.

    As a so-called “White Revert”, Please, PLEASE do not bring race into any discussions about Islam. Leave that to the ONLY group I have seen do that consistently, our black brothers and sisters in the US (who to a point of embarrassment within the larger Muslim culture do so).

    Allah (swt) created no one above another, on account of race.

  • ilahiler

    When I saw the title of this thread, I assumed it would be about real “white Muslims” – you know, Turks, Kurds, Chechens, Bosnians, Albanians, Lebanese, Persians, Riffian Berbers etc. Who cares about a few western converts and their imaginary identity issues. Get over yourself.

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