Islamophobia has been defined as “Dislike of or prejudices against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.” With this said, how then do we understand the experience of a convert; a person born upon the culture of a people, once a friend and loved, but now an object of discrimination.
I hope to outline from my personal experiences, my understanding of Islamophobia as felt by the convert community, in doing so I will provide additional examples external to my own experiences to describe what I believe to be a pattern, the underlining cause of religious discrimination towards Muslim converts.
In the 2001 film titled Ali, we see the depiction of Ali’s 1967 U.S. military induction; in which he repeatedly refused to step forward when his name Cassius Clay was called as opposed to Muhammed Ali. My reason for mentioning this point is crucial to my argument. This story is somewhat nostalgic with most converts: the search for a ‘Muslim Identity’.
In November 2009, during a cold Thursday afternoon, I sat in the living room of a Somali man, accompanied by my friend, his mother, and his aunt. It was on this Thursday I pronounced my declaration of faith, followed by relief from anxiety, as though thousands were watching me; now I was embraced by the comfort of safety, as though I had just bargained entry into security. I was now a Muslim. What lead to this moment, is somewhat complex; 13 and curious, from a mixed race and mixed ideology home, I asked: is there a God? Moreover, if there is, what does He want from me?
My belief in God was the cornerstone of my knowledge of our existence. All my efforts were turned towards finding the true religion. I decided that there is a real religion, and there is only one. For God to create us, he would want us to have a uniform and simple means of communication, between Him and us. However, the existence of several true religions would only result in conflicts, disputes and hatred, which would not be a clear goal for God. There can only be one true religion and thus began my journey to find it.
Since there are multiple religions since the creation of man, this would suggest three possibilities; (i) Man created his religion for his desires; (ii) Shayṭān created them in the hearts of man to lead them astray; (iii) God sent forth messengers with new and/or continued views from the previous messenger.
My father is from a Sikh family, and eventually, this installed a lot of prejudice against Islām and Muslims into me. I remember now mocking Islām with my family and the way we justified—”they are sitting out there now mocking our religion.” As a result of this prejudice, I tried not to study Islām. However, throughout my journey of religions, various individuals said to me, “Why don’t you read the Qurʾān? Why don’t you look into Islām?” Nevertheless, I protested to do so out of pride, arrogance. In hindsight, it was fear. Fear that Islām would enter my heart.
After much deliberation, I read the Qurʾān. I intended to understand the religion I had constantly detested. What is intriguing, is that my inspiration to read the Qurʾān was developed from comments made by relatives; “don’t read that book”, “it has a lot of disgusting things in it”. Eventually ‘curiosity killed the cat’. However, this should not come as much of a surprise. Since the 9/11 attacks, conversion to Islam in America has dramatically increased.
I began reading the Qurʾān from Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, my initial thoughts were that this book is like any other religious book, praising God and stating our subordinate nature. This hurt my pride and was typically a feature that deterred me from religion—the same arrogance that cursed Shayṭān to hell and an essential element of disbelief. As I continued to read the Qurʾān, I was moved by the short stories; its eloquence and simplicity. I could see that Islām was not a secular religion like most others, it was a complete lifestyle. It was this beauty and justice that appealed to me. No other religion was so concise yet straightforward and as absolute as Islām.
The day was slow, and I was excited, it was also the first time I ever wore a thobe. My friend asked, “What about your parents?” However at that moment, what they would say, my concern for whether or not I’d be kicked out and rejected, were the least of my worries. At that time my only concern was the fire burning me for all eternity. My Shahāda was a weird moment for me, never had I felt a sense of honour, shyness, tension and happiness. It’s not in my nature to feel shy or awkward, but at that moment I felt humility. After four years of thinking and research, I had concluded, Islām was the religion I believed to be true.
The Secret Muslim
What followed from here was almost two years of secrecy, I had hidden my conversion from my parents for a multitude of reasons, but more specifically my father’s potential reaction. I feared physical violence, being kicked out of my home, or worse. I knew his response inevitably would be adverse. I had grown up listening to racial comments about Pakistanis from my father’s side of the family. Not only this, evidently from this ignorance, Islām was deemed a “Pakistani religion” in fact such ignorance is widespread, a somewhat comical example is a video clip of a man posing as a Muslim, and when questioned states, “the prophet Moḥammed is from Pakistan”.
After some time of incognito wearing of Islamic attire, I returned home from college to find a coat of mine left on my bed. My father approached, mosque hat in hand, “Reece, who does this belong to?” A moment of honesty, followed by three years of emotional blackmail, verbal abuse, debates, and eventually violence. However, all this anticipated there were two things I did not see coming. My mother, initially hesitant but once reassured the quality of my life was not ruined, prevented my father from kicking me out of the house. This prevention caused two unforeseen events; as opposed to kicking me out, I was subjected to blackmail, and secondly the underlying reason for it all, words that resonate with me till today, “you stabbed me in the back.”
The Pagan Example
Roughly 1450 years ago in Makkah, a similar situation arose. The leaders of the pre-Islamic tribe, Quraysh, approached the paternal uncle and guardian of the prophet Moḥammed (peace and blessings be upon him). “Oh, Abū Ṭālib, thine is a high and honourable position amongst us, and we have asked thee to hold in check thy brother’s son, but thou hast not done so. By God, we will not suffer our fathers to be insulted, our ways scoffed at, and our gods reviled. Either make him desist, or we will fight you both.”
What is apparent from both my father and the Quraysh was the rejection of one’s culture. Indeed, though I’d never said such a thing, my father felt I had rejected him. As for Quraysh, they too were hurt by the Prophet Moḥammed’s call to Islām (peace and blessings be upon him). Between these two cases, two central themes arise. Firstly, the dogmatic nature of Islamic monotheism, and secondly the reshaping of cultural norms and values. I want to discuss these two points briefly, but not to grant a full explanation, instead to give a better understanding.
The dogmatic nature of Islamic monotheism can often be misunderstood, and salvific exclusivity can be misinterpreted to mean, ‘us and them’ or ‘inner circle and outer circle’. I noticed with some of my father’s comments that this issue occasionally occurred; assuming that I would want to distance myself from him and my mother. Additionally, the current state of affairs has further misled understanding Islamic beliefs, in short, how different is Islām to other religions, in stating its followers will be those that enter paradise?
Reshaping of cultural norms and values, the change of lifestyle and the rejection of what was intellectually inherited from one’s family is what I believe to be the fundamental cause of Islamophobia towards converts. It is here that my father’s words emerge. By becoming Muslim, I had betrayed what he had passed on to me. An āyah of the Qur’ān comes to mind,
“And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allāh has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?”
The early Qur’ān commentator al-Ṭabarī, mentions this āyah as an address to the whole of humanity. My allusion here, the main reason for rejecting Islām is down to culture, and likewise, an indifference towards Muslims is due to a repulsive sense of “the rejection of my culture”. I wish to bring a third point tied to the second. Previously I mentioned Ali’s Name, my choice of clothes and the Muslim identity. To what extent could my need for “Islamic clothing” have worsened my father’s view I am abandoning him?
In summary, I mentioned my view on the causes of convert islamophobia is down to three points: (i) the dogmatic nature of Islamic monotheism; (ii) the reshaping of cultural norms and values; and (iii) the compensation “Muslim identity”. Even throughout my journey to Islām, I exhibited myself the first and second . The concept of servitude to God was initially deterring and frightful. Within such a libertarian society, notions of self-control or negative liberty are often seen as being controlled. Furthermore, in my initial fear of reading the Qurʾān I feared what it would entail for me. Through an assessment of these points, we could potentially resolve many of the Islamophobic issues many converts face.
Though not a definitive guide, these are some steps which can be derived from our above story. I believe that Muslims in their efforts to remove Islamophobia must focus on these issues.
Education. Muslims need to tackle and address misconceptions about Islām. However, these misconceptions cannot and will not be resolved through apologetics. Instead, we must endeavour to address these issues in the vernacular of the west and challenge the assumptions made, when formulating judgements about Islām. However, often this effort is performed in a conceited fashion, we are best to remember the prophets won the hearts of the people, as well as their minds. The process of education then seems secondary to the effort of befriending non-Muslims.
Perhaps the most controversial of all suggestions, to some, is a venture to remove foreign elements from Islām, i.e. we must eliminate the cultural factors which have crept into the faith. Islām in the UK should to some extent have an inherent ‘British-ness’. What I mean by this is that we find the application of the practice of religion varies in different countries, insofar as its trivial aspects—for example, the particular method of wrapping one’s Ḥijāb or the wearing of particular clothes. We need then to weaken the reliance on those aspects or preconceptions that we hold as Muslims, that are not from within Islām itself. In doing so, we remove the foreign nature of Islām, and what remains, is what is essential: tawḥīd. This will also serve to unite all of us on the more important common, core elements.
Muslims must take an active role in mentoring coverts to Islām. Converts have chosen to enter a state of hostility from a state of truce; this choice was done for their convictions in Islām. As a result, converts are often subjected to emotional and physical abuse, and left homeless without emotional or financial support. What comes to mind is the ḥadīth:
“The similitude of believers with mutual love, affection, and fellow-feeling is that of one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.”
We at the very least must support those organisations such as SOLACE and Revert2Reality, which seek to provide aid. Furthermore, we must facilitate the integration of converts into our respective communities, whether it be by forming friendships or even dare I say not turning down marriage proposals because of culture. After all Muslim are of multiple colours but have one creed and Lord.
Converts, in their efforts, must also take action. Firstly, the craving of Muslim identity is not found in name or clothes. Rather identity is that which distinguishes one object from others similar to it. Take, for example, identical twins. Each of them is identical, but we distinguish them by their identity. Their identity is formed based on the dissimilar predications. In this similitude, for all peoples the predication that distinguishes Muslims from all other faiths and atheists is tawḥīd. So then converts must seek out the true Muslim identity and not cultural or secondary identities. Secondly and perhaps most importantly, people are won over by their hearts, not their minds. Converts at all costs should avoid heated disputes with family and friends while staying firm in faith. What ended the conflict, or at least resulted in peace was not a debate or a refutation. Instead, it was a heart to heart.
Bewley, Aisha. 2003. Tafsir Al-Qurtubi. London: Dar al Taqwa.
Bowen, Patrick D. 2009. “Conversion To Islam In The United States: A Case Study In Denver, Colorado”. Intermountain West Journal Of Religious Studies 1 (1). http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/ imwjournal/vol1/iss1/4.
“Islamophobia | Definition Of Islamophobia In English By Oxford Dictionaries”. 2017. Oxford Dictionaries | English. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/islamophobia.
Lings, Martin. 2006. Muhammad. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Mann, Michael. 2001. Ali. Film. USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Forward Pass, Initial Entertainment Group, Moonlighting Films, Overbrook Entertainment, Peters Entertainment, Picture Entertainment.
Russell, Jesse, and Ronald Cohn. 2012. Sahih Muslim. Edinburgh, Scotland: LENNEX Corp.
YouTube. 2015. Romania Guy Pretend To Be Muslim London. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7_KJnoNESw.
 Oxford Dictionaries English, 2017
 Ali, 2001
 Bowen 2009
 Lings, 2006
 Al-Qur’ān 2:170
 Bewley, 2003
 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Book 45, Ḥadīth 84