How do white Muslims experience Islamophobia?

How do white Muslims experience Islamophobia?
Comment: White converts to Islam are considered by some as traitors to their race, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
30 Oct, 2018
Race plays a major role in shaping the experiences of Muslims in the West [Twitter]
"I'm white and English. I've never faced racism in my life. I became a Muslim, then people would hurl abuse as I was no longer white," writes one twitter user. "I never knew how bad it felt until I was on the other side… it is DISGUSTING."

The tweet illuminates not only how Islamophobia is a virulent form of racism, but also narrates an untold story of the Muslim experience in western societies today - the story of how white converts to Islam are now considered by some racists as traitors to their race.

"While people of all races convert to Islam, the experiences of white converts in particular help reveal some remarkable insights about race, racialisation, racism and whiteness" in contemporary western societies, observes Leon Moosavi.

What it reveals is the way in which converts to Islam not only lose their whiteness but also the privilege afforded to them by white dominant societies, thus demonstrating the fluidity of race and whiteness, and also how Islamophobia is, unquestionably, a form of racial prejudice.

"Numerous studies have shown how white people can access areas without objection whereas non-whites are not welcomed into the same spaces," notes Moosavi.

"For example, the 'English seaside' is racialised as a 'white space' that non-whites do not belong in. This is related to the white privilege of being inconspicuous as racialised individuals because of being regarded as 'normal', a privilege that has been referred to as 'the invisibility of whiteness.'"

In the post-9/11 era, race has proven to be as strong a factor as faith in shaping the experiences of Muslims in western societies, and with an ever increasing number of western governments falling prey to the xenophobic toxicity of far-right political movements - to be perceived as Arab, Asian, African, or Indian is to be vulnerable to anti-Muslim discrimination.

Converts to Islam lose their whiteness, and the privilege afforded to them by white dominant societies

It's worth remembering the first victim of an anti-Muslim hate crime in the days that followed the September 11 attacks was an Indian Sikh who had been mistaken for a Muslim, and it's also worth noting that violence is not the only form of discrimination against those who are perceived of being Muslim. Economic inequality, and difficulties accessing education, employment and housing are all part of the Muslim experience today; facets of life in which whites enjoy a distinct socioeconomic advantage.

The story of how Islamophobia affects non-whites is one that has been well told, despite the stubbornness of those who refuse to listen to it.

So what has been the experience of whites who convert to Islam in these deeply worrying Islamophobic times?

Firstly, and as Leon Moosavi observes, "White converts to Islam cause confusion to both non-Muslims and even lifelong Muslims because whiteness and Islam are seen as incompatible."

Lauren Booth, a British journalist and sister-in-law of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, articulated this sense of "confusion" to me. "The attitude of my friends when I told them I had found Islam was 'but you should know better than this, you're a grown up!'"

Booth also explained how colleagues in the media portrayed her as either a "villain, victim, or someone who just had a nervous breakdown." Her conversion making no sense to those in Britain who had long conflated Muslim with South East Asian culture and identity.

Other white converts to Islam explain how they're re-racialised by white society into other ethnic identities, or foreign others, often smeared as "Pakis" or "dirty Arabs," according to Moosavi.

"The first time I got shouted at was September 12th 2001," said a white convert named Elizabeth in a BBC documentary.

"They said: 'It was you that bombed America! Go back to your own country!', and I thought: If I had somewhere else to go, I might consider it. This is the only place I've got! Pre-September 11th people treated me like I was stupid. They'd slow down their speech, assume I don't speak English and that I'm pretty uneducated... Since then I've been called 'Paki' a number of times, I can't even count how many times, "white Paki", which is quite a funny version, 'Iraqi', 'Afghan.'

Recently, I spoke with Amina Deady, a white 27-year-old single mother and recent convert to Islam. Last month she stood up to a man who vilified her Islamic dress at a café in Riverside, California.

The video of the encounter went viral on social media, capturing the man's racist taunt in which he ridiculed her niqab as a Halloween costume before asserting, "I don't like it. I don't like that because I don't like your religion. It says to kill me and I don't want to be killed by you."

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When I spoke with cartoonist Katie Miranda, who grew up in an agnostic Jewish family, but who found Islam during years spent in the occupied Palestinian territories, she explained that while she had never personally been accused of being a "race traitor," at least in those words, she said,

"The term I heard that may be a better fit is committing apostasy against your own culture because converting to Islam isn't about race, what it's about for your friends, your family, your community (regardless of race) is 'are you still going to be like us?' And in some ways I am not and in some ways I still am."

Other white converts to Islam explain how they're re-racialised by white society into other ethnic identities

Miranda further explained how the biggest problem for her has been the manner in which negative stereotypes of Muslims are "stubborn" and "do not go away, despite the fact she, nor any of her Muslim friends do not exhibit any of those stereotypes," adding that her existence and positive interactions with people in her daily life do little to counter the messages the public gets from what she described as the "Islamophobia media," including those who profit from disseminating anti-Muslim discourse.

While the level and degree of discrimination white converts to Islam experience is less frequent, and less severe than that experienced by non-white Muslims in western societies, it is a form of racism that is underreported and should not be ignored.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.