Identity: Challenge and Solutions

Bismillahi Al-Rahman Al-Rahim Allahumma salli ala Muhammadin wa aali Muhammad. Thank you very much for the invitation to talk about the challenges of coming to the path of Ahlul Bayt, Alayhum assalam, and in relation to our identity, issues of identity. I've long hesitated to really speak about these matters because you can end up sounding a bit stereotypical. But few things have happened that are now really making me think that it's time to speak, namely realizing how little after all of these years of being Muslim for 16 years, people who I've known all my life still haven't understood anything about why I converted and are still saying that I've got no business being Muslim because I'm western. And so these are just a few points, Insha'Allah, that I will highlight and perhaps think about, especially for people who have come into Islam, some ways of coping with those challenges.

Looking at the overall context of the situation that we're living in, we think about people coming into Islam, we think about where we are in history, we're living in time when, your know, we are living in a post-colonial age, in a sense. We're living in an age where there's been a kind of global consensus that the way that humanity has to move, is in the direction of westernisation and secularization. And there's been a lot of pressure over the last hundred or so years from Europe and then the States, especially with technological advances that the rest of the world has to catch up, in a sense. So there has come to be this global consensus that the norm, according to which we all should live, is a Western secular, so-called norm. That's the norm and that Europeans [I say Europeans, I know there are also Americans listening, but let's just say Europeans, because we're in Europe] who have led the industrial revolution, they've led these technological advances, they've led secularism, they've led to certain empirical sciences. They are at the forefront of this progress that humanity should be making.

So it's perfectly acceptable on a global level for, let's say, Easterners to become Westernized, and I know that Islam is not about the East or the West, but I'm just talking about how this looks from the perception of Westerners - they don't see Islam as universal. They see it as something Eastern. So the global consensus is that we all have to become westernized and secularized. That's the norm. And that's fine. And people from other cultures who have done really well to become westernized and secularized and taking part in the society in certain roles that they might have taken - as MPs or economists, or could be working in the media - then they are kind of given a tacit approval, 'Oh, this person has done quite well to join our ranks; this is someone that we can accept as a kind of exotic, westernized Easterner; that we feel safe to accept within our ranks'.

And so when you come into Islam, you're going against this whole global stream, this whole machine that's been in operation for over 100 years and that's been spreading out its propaganda and its culture and its way of thinking for the last hundred years. And there's little you, going completely against that. You're a Westerner or you're someone from the West, and you're becoming 'Easternized' from their perspective and that is seen as, which I can't quite get my head around it, that is seen as an outrage. It is seen as an outrage to become Easternized. And I really want to say, Where's the law that says that we can't become Easternized? Tell me where the law is. And we know all the rhetoric about freedom and democracy and freedom of speech and everything. But when you come into Islam, you find that, 'Oh, I see we can be free, but we have to be free in the way that you dictate for us to be free'. So there's all this going on, and it's very difficult to express to your society and to express to your family, your friends what you're doing exactly. So we've got this context where we've had Muslims from Asia, Africa, Middle East coming West and spending the last number of decades grappling with these dilemmas of identity: how westernized should I be? How much of my culture and religion can I keep? How much do I have to give up? There have been a lot of novels written about this where the hero is suffering from this angst because, it's like, 'Well, how much of myself do I have to assimilate to the society without losing who I am?'

So all of this talk about what's your identity or a Muslim who's come West, what's your identity now? But then we find Westerners becoming Muslims and likewise, you know, finding ourselves in this intermediate zone again, where we like to think that we are converting to a pure Islam that's free of all cultural accretions. That's not really the case - when you come into Islam, you do end up adopting certain elements of certain cultures of Muslims that you mix with. You can't really operate in a vacuum. It's just natural - I call it acculturization - this is going to happen. So then the convert has to go through this similar thing of how westernized should I be?

What is it to be Muslim trying to sift out these cultural aspects of the Muslims that you're mixing with from your Islamic practice? And anyhow, that arises, this whole issue of who are you and what are you? And of course, I still honestly can't get my head around it - why is it seen by my culture, as such a betrayal? It's seen as such a betrayal to simply not live according to the consensus. I'm still trying to get my head around it. Where is this fear and horror coming from towards the hijab? Fear and horror to the point that, I'm sure all of us will will have had experiences of this, that, people keep away from you.

You come into Islam and it's all about love, brotherhood, respect, akhlaq, self development. But the people around you just see as you becoming Arab, probably got some terrorist tendencies, must automatically support all of the political leaders in the Middle East and what they're doing. Goes without saying we don't even need to talk about that. You, by coming into this zone, automatically kind of evoke this hatred and fear among those around you who eventually just abandon you. I've seen some quite sad 'statuses' from other converts - 'Oh, today, my grandfather declared that he doesn't want to see me anymore'. That was a brother in the States. 'My grandfather doesn't want to see me anymore. He's ill and he can't deal with me being Muslim'. Another convert who I saw - 'my mother doesn't want to see me'. And I know converts whose families have just cut off from them, not spoken to them for years.

And people do say, well, you know, communication is the key and you should explain to them and... But there's such resistance there. There're so many stereotypes in these people's minds that its very difficult to communicate. Well I have been told and you get told, 'Well, tell them that Muslims love Jesus, alayhis salam, and Mary, alayhis salam, just like the Christians do'. And it's like, 'Yeah, but half of my family is Atheist. They don't want anything to do with religion. They haven't picked up a religious text ever. Probably not since primary school - its not relevant to tell them', 'Oh, by the way, we also love Jesus and Mary, alayhum salam.'

So we have to kind of work out our own strategies and I think seeing some of the challenges that a lot of converts are going through with regard to being shunned and rejected and misunderstood by those around them, it's kind of like a wake up call of how much work we still need to do. And again, I've never really wanted to write about my conversion or talk about it much because it can end up being a sort of me, me, me story, and I don't want it to be an emotional sort of, 'And then I had this epiphany and, then you know [hand gesture]', I don't really want it to be like that. But it's been 16 years - I formally converted in '99 after two years of practice and coming up against my own challenges again. You know, you think that people have come to understand what you're about and you realize actually they still don't understand. It's now time to put something in writing, but it's not going to be an emotional conversion story. It's more going to be a detailed, systematic, critical analysis of the problems of modernity, the problems of living in an industrialized society, the problems of living in a capitalist society, the problems of living in a society that's devoid of any Hikma - wisdom, any purpose. And the problems of living in a society that packages a certain fake reality and then selling that fake reality to you, you have to buy that reality and accept it. If you take a stand against that reality, its seen as crazy.

I call that gaslighting to something else that goes on when you convert. You convert because you already had issues with this package, this reality package, that you were being sold. This is real and you have to buy it. It's not real. I'm not going to buy it. Oh but there's a problem with you - its gaslighting, as they call it. You know, when you have a problem and someone says, no, no, no, it's in your head. This is not a problem with us, it's a problem with you. You're the one that needs psychiatric treatment. As I was told, somebody a few years ago, as I heard on the grapevine, someone who's trained as a psychotherapist said about me, "Well, at least she's happy." Now they were outraged that I've converted to Islam, I just heard this after 14, 15 years, suddenly there was an outburst. She's got no right to be Muslim. She's Western. And then the other person said, 'But at least she's happy, it's better than her being in a psychiatric unit'. And then the other person said, who's trained Psychotherapist, 'It would be better if she was in a psychiatric unit than being Muslim'. Nice. So, if you do have issues with this packaged reality that we're meant to accept, you're seen as crazy.

And I think what is important coming into Islam is to learn to articulate why you have come into Islam. I think that we need to have more written and published on what that is all about and why we have come to this path and not emotional conversion stories, but really well-thought-out analysis of what is wrong with today's society and why we have managed to find a way out of that matrix and what we are doing when we are coming into Islam. And I have a few other points we could say of advice, I suppose, for people coming in to Islam.

I was told this piece of advice years ago when I was converting by an Irish woman, and she said, 'when you come into Islam, go into it slowly and acclimatize yourself'. She said that often if people rush into Islam, then you can end up with an identity crisis. You suddenly become someone else who you don't recognize at some point, and then you can suddenly do a U-turn in a panic and then leave Islam. This is a good piece of advice that I got from her, because any time I felt I was putting myself under too much mental pressure, that I'll just take a step back, take a breath and just kind of take it easy. And I think Alhamdulillah, I acclimatized to it gradually. And that's why I feel Alhamdulillah, you know, comfortable in Islam.

I would also say that, especially for people who are new converts, it might be tempting to get in with a particular group or clique. And we often find with these groups or cliques that they spend a lot of time attacking other groups and cliques and so the convert kind of starts to find that, OK, well, you just come into this amazing path that is so vast and it's teaching you about humanity, and suddenly your whole conversion has become narrowed down to standing by a group that is ideologically at odds with another group. And all of your energy is just going into dealing with these issues. And I would say that that's a waste of time and energy.

There's a beautiful narration from Imam Al-Baqir, alayhi assalam, Allahumma salli ala Muhammadin wa aali Muhammad. And he asks, I think this is to Jabir bin Abdullah Ansari. He says, 'Does it suffice for one who claims to be our follower to just express his friendship with the members of the Holy Household? I swear by God that no one is our true follower until he fears God and obeys Him. Our followers are known for their humbleness and frequent remembrance of God, fasting, praying, helping the orphans, the needy and the ones in debt and needy neighbors, reading the Quran and talking properly with the people.' That last point should be highlighted. 'They have always been trustworthy in their tribes as well.' Among your families, you've always been trustworthy. That's a characteristic of the Shia.

And then Jabir says to him, 'Oh, grandson of the Prophet, I do not know anyone with these traits'. Imam Al-Baqir, alayhi assalam, says, 'O Jabir, do not let the various sects affect you.' Because if you look into early Shi'i history, you think we've got different groups today, they were rife during the time of the Imams as well. Different sects, different groups, different claims, different theories being circulated. It was known as a time of confusion. So it's like, well, how do you know where the truth is? Well, you know where the truth is by how people behave, not by their claims or by their ideology. You know the truth, by how they behave as a human being. So he says, 'Oh, Jabir, do not let the various sects affect you. Do you think that it suffices for one to say that he likes Imam Ali, Alayhi assalam, and is his follower but does not do anything to support his claim?'

And so, again, when we're coming into this path, it's about going back to the essence and the principles of that path, which is to advance humanity, to advance our humanity, to become more human, to be just, compassionate, balanced. Another piece of advice I would also say, is to avoid cults, it's very important. We have even among the Shia, certain subgroups that behave like cults or they are cults, and it might be, again, kind of tempting to get in with a group that appears to be elite, but these can be also quite dangerous and psychologically damaging.

And some of the characteristics of a cult are that you get a charismatic leader who claims to have some higher knowledge - he's going to give you the fast track to the Haqiqah, he's going to give you the fast track to Ma'rifa. He's got some special, hidden, esoteric knowledge. He's from some kind of secret tradition and he's been initiated into certain mysteries. And he's the one who's got the key and everybody else is wrong.

And this is very tempting because perhaps when you come into Islam, you look around, it's like, well, it's not really going as deep as I would like. I'm looking for some proper, deep knowledge. And so here's this person claiming to have this deep knowledge. They've got the key, but there are certain conditions that you have to fulfill if you're going to get that knowledge. Number one, according to this charismatic figure, you have to give unconditional allegiance to them. You have to give unconditional submission to them. That's a characteristic of a cult leader that they demand your unquestioning obedience. And it will come to a point where they make you feel that if you leave their group or you leave their cult its the equivalent of leaving Islam.

They go as far as making those kinds of claims. And another characteristic of cult leaders or a cult is that they will encourage you to leave your family. I mean, again, as we know in Islam, we're meant to keep up 'silatur rahm' the blood ties on certain conditions, which I won't mention here. But you're meant to do your best to keep up blood ties and what you find with these cult leaders, they will do the opposite - they'll try to isolate you from your family and they will even encourage you to divorce your husband or wife. Usually it's a male leader who has some male followers and he will encourage his male followers to divorce their families and leave their families. This is completely un-Islamic.

So if someone is encouraging you to leave your family, 'oh, wow, he's got these secrets. But in order to get them, I have to travel to the other side of the world and just leave my family.' That's against Islam and that's dangerous. So avoid cults. Be very wary of charismatic leaders. If you come across a charismatic leader who's claiming to have some secret knowledge, then just examine how he treats his own family, examine whether he's playing mental games to get your submission and trust your own inner Imam. Your own inner Imam is your Aql, your intellect. Something doesn't seem right. Again, it's not your problem. It's because you've actually seen something that isn't right.

So there's that point and another thing that I think we know, as I've been talking about identity and coming into Islam, that sometimes a convert may feel under pressure. It's a kind of almost like a subliminal pressure without them consciously realizing. It's a pressure to become Arab-ized Iranian-ised or Asian-ised, and it's kind of natural. You will mix Inshallah with Muslims from different cultures and Muslims will always tell you that what you're doing is wrong. No, no, no. You need to do it this way. And you can go to these different masajid and everyone's doing it differently. And whenever you go to another masjid, 'no, no, no, no, no, you're doing it right. You have to do it this way', which is different from how the other people were telling you to do it.

But everyone's got their own kind of cultural manifestation of Islam. And they and often they have a mix with other Muslims as well so they don't realize it's a cultural manifestation and they will correct you on that. And sometimes also, your conversion can be mixed with this enthusiasm for other cultures as well. You know, I love this culture. This is beautiful. I want to be a part of this.

But somewhere down the line, if you start to fool yourself into thinking, yeah, I'm Iraqi, I'm Iranian, somewhere down the line, 10, 15 years later, you might suddenly wake up and realize that you're not Iraqi and you're not Iranian. And I've seen this happen with a particular brother who went through a huge identity crisis and I think left Islam, was very, very distressed and started to say, "We've got to set up European Hussainiyas, that's catering to our needs because we've got the Iraqi Hussainiya, the Iranian Hussainiya, the Pakistani Hussainiyah. And we need to set up our alternative hussainiya that is going to cater to our identity". And and I said to him, 'Yeah, but how do you define a European Hussainiya? Because you're from Eastern Europe, I'm from this part of Europe. Your ethnic heritage is different from my ethnic heritage, and I don't think how you think. So how are you going to have a European Hussainiya where everyone is thinking the same?'

Anyhow, that was just the kind of, we could say, a fallout from him having kind of thought, yeah, I'm kind of half Iraqi, I'm kind of half Iranian - you don't have to do that, you don't have to do that. Let's interact. Let's come to know each other's cultures, but be comfortable in yourself. Just be comfortable in yourself about where you're coming from and whatever culture you're coming from, that is going to enrich Islam.

If we think about how Islam spread out across the world, every culture that came into Islam, enriched Islamic culture, it enriched Islam, and it contributed something towards Islam. So us being from different cultures is a contribution - everyone can put something into this path. So be comfortable in yourself and don't feel under pressure to start to adapt to another culture.

That said, I don't think that we can't sample other cultures. We get this other way of thinking - I had someone calling in once and saying, 'Yes, it's kind of strange: converts, they always end up wearing Arab or Asian clothes'. And my answer to that was, 'Well, that's because they do the function of hijab'. If I go out to the Western clothes shops, it's very difficult to find clothes that are going to fulfill hijab. Plus I like them. I like these clothes, you know, so I don't see anything wrong. And this is, again, with this whole issue of westernisation and easternisation - personally, I don't think that just because we are from a Western culture that you still have to dress in your suit.

We've got the other extreme where you're Western, 'OK, why are you wearing what you're wearing? You should be still wearing a suit.' I don't think we have to do that. I think it should just be live and let live. We're in a very interesting time, I think, where new identities are literally being forged in the crucible now. We are at a time when there haven't been so many converts and I think even within the Shi'i path, there haven't been so many converts as now, and I think Insha'Allah its going to increase.

And we don't have many historical references for how to be a Shi'i convert - we can't look back and say, 'Oh, that's how they did it, so I'm going to do that'. We are literally forging a new identity as we speak. We're taking a step forward and we're finding out what's going to happen tomorrow. We don't know who we are going to be tomorrow and we don't know who our children are going to be.

And I think, again, this is something we've got in common with the youth who are growing up here, the Muslim youth who are growing up here, who, again, are going through a similar thing of forging a new identity within this society without a reference, looking back and saying, 'Well, that's how my parents did it so now I know how to do it'. They don't have that reference. So, we're all in it together of exploring and working out what kind of parameters we're going to be living in.

Another thing that I was going to say is that when people come into Islam, you know, and they've left their families - well it is like leaving your family, you don't want to leave your family, but your family kind of sees it as you leaving them. And so sometimes you do become distant from your family. And it won't be always after conversion - again, I would say that people convert because they had issues before they converted. That's what led you to convert. So the conversion is not the issue. It's what was going on before that conversion that led you to convert - that is the issue. So probably you already had issues with the functioning of your culture, expectations of your culture, ways of being in your culture that you just can't be.

So you've left your family in a sense, and you come into your local Muslim community and you've got all these beautiful ideals about Islam: universal brotherhood, love, compassion, sharing. And actually what you find is that you're mixing with people who are not that interested in you: who don't invite you to their homes; who superficially might say salaam, but then they go home; and you're kind of like, 'Oh, where do I go?' We get these stories a lot. I hear it from converts, where they've been heartbroken because they had these expectations of coming into this beautiful brotherhood. And they find that actually they're left out in the cold.

I would say personally that I was always too busy to go into a community and have my needs met by the community. I was just too busy with my work and I never expected it really. And I would say that: I would just say don't expect to go into a Muslim community and mix with a Muslim community and find this beautiful, warm, welcoming brotherhood or sisterhood, because, again, looking at the reality of the situation that we're in, Muslims who have come West, have often come West because of being in economic difficulties at home. And their heads are full of 'I've got to sort out my family, I've got to get my kids established, and I've got to hold my culture together because otherwise I'm going to lose my identity'. So they've come West because of that. Or they've come West because they're fleeing from war. They're coming from a war zone. And again, family is split up, uncle is in prison and they've had to get out quickly without any preparation or they've had to get out quickly without wanting to get out. There wasn't any plan to move West, 'Oh, I'm going to move West. I'm going to become Westernised. And this is all great.' It's just 'I just had to get out'.

And so they've come west traumatised and again, the stress of 'I've got to raise my kids. And I'm not familiar with this culture.' So basically, our Muslim communities over here are already occupied with their own issues and also they're often traumatized. So you can't go into a Muslim community that's traumatized and expect a kind of warm welcome. Another thing that converts feel, its like, 'Well, it's a universal brotherhood and they're really racist against me and they don't understand me'.

When we look at where a lot of the Muslims are coming from, traditionally they wouldn't even marry their daughters to someone from the next town, they wouldn't marry their daughters to someone from the other city, let alone someone from a totally different culture. So if you're feeling rejected because you're not being welcomed into the family, that you're frozen out, you're getting a frosty reception, you're actually only being treated in the same way that you would be treated if you were from the next town of that person's country.

So, everyone's got their issues. Everyone is fallible. And we've got a lot of hard work ahead of us to try to help the Muslim communities that are in exile to manage in a Western society in a way, they need support. You go into Islam and you're looking for support. But these communities that you go to, they need support. So, again, perhaps there could be mutual support going on there. Another thing is that we all convert for different reasons and our identities as people, as converts, are not homogenous. So, of course, we may have issues in common, I suppose the main issue we have in common is being rejected by the family and the community.

But I would equally say that I have known born Muslims from quite secularized families who have also been rejected by their families. I know a Pakistani sister where she's worn hijab, her family don't wear hijab, she's worn hijab, and she's treated like a pariah because she wears hijab, even though she's from a Muslim family. So our personalities are different. We've all got different issues, different ideas about identity. So we can't work with converts as a label or as a group or even expect all of ourselves as converts to agree on a convert identity.

So I think, again, we need to allow each other a bit of space, live and let live and not try to kind of shoehorn everybody into a fixed identity, a fixed idea or even kind of get into debates and discussions about how we should be, because I think we can get very bogged down. What we should be focusing on is the talents of that community. We desperately need to build up a strong Shi'ite community. We desperately need people to apply their talents in that community. We need financial organization. We need social organization.

We need people working in the arts because I think we can convey the message of Islam through art and culture to the outside world a lot more than just through words and lectures. Media professionals [for example]. This is what we should be focusing on: how can we all utilize our skills and our talents for advancing the community rather than getting bogged down in, well, who should we be and who are we?

I think who we are, is just going to emerge naturally. We don't know where we are yet. We don't know who we are yet. It is emerging as we speak. So we just have to be patient and see how it unfolds over the years. I've covered most points I was going to say. Somebody actually said something quite interesting to me, which was that Muslim communities, again, in the West are undergoing a lot of shifts and changes. So this is another thing that when you come into Islam, you might be looking for that stability. But actually, the community you're coming into is undergoing a lot of changes and that often converts, may be more stable in a sense than the communities they're coming into.

So I think just to conclude, perhaps we need to, number one, accept each other's fallibility, try to understand where each other are coming from, not have high expectations, focus on the talents that we can implement, focus on just giving emotional and spiritual support and seeing this whole project of Muslims in the West as a new and ongoing project. We're on a journey, we haven't reached our destination yet, things are unfolding step by step. So, as we say, go with the flow and see what happens. Inshallah. Thank you, Allahumma salli ala Muhammadin wa aali Muhammad.