Muslims in the West are in a difficult place where we’re trying to understand how exactly we’re supposed to “be Muslim” in the context of who we actually are and where we’re from. This dilemma has faced many, many cultures since the beginning of time. The complexity of retaining an “American identity”, or perhaps an already hyphenated culture (for me, it’s Polish-American), while attempting to live life according to Islamic statutes can prove to be a difficult task.
Many converts are pressured to adopt cultural traits of a “Muslim culture” soon after they convert. There are stories left and right, or even visual examples, of converts being thrown into abayas or shalwar khamees on a daily basis because these are the only “Islamic” clothes appropriate for Muslims. This is easy to press onto new Muslims because we have been jolted out of our normal spiritual identity, and often Western people don’t have a strong, singular cultural identity. This coupled with the “don’t mix culture with Islam” crusade among modern Muslims, creates a confusing predicament for Muslims in the West who are searching for a cultural identity.
We are taught Islam through the perspective of the prominent culture of those teaching us Islam. We are told that “this is pure Islam, without culture, without identity”, while it is a mixture of cultural practice with Islam. If we do not conform, then we get nasty looks when we walk into the local masjid. There have been multiple times in my own life that I have felt out of place, judged, or even been outrightly reprimanded because I was not in an abaya and I couldn’t speak Arabic.
An example: I have, on multiple occasions, ridden my bicycle to the masjid. At the prominently American-born masjid, the sisters laughed and suggested that we make a bicycle club. At the prominently Arab masjid, I was told that riding a bicycle was haraam and I should be ashamed of flaunting indecency at the masjid.
Let me be clear, I do ride my bicycle in a skirt. I also roller blade in a skirt. I’ll kick a ball around in a skirt, I have no problem with that. The idea that a cultural norm (a woman riding a bicycle) which is not prohibited by the Qur’an and Hadiths can alienate a new convert from her new community is representative of a larger problem that converts face. We are expected by the Muslim community at large to change our way of dress, speech, actions, friend groups, food choices, even down to our names – or not be accepted.
Converts often are faced with three options: 1) leave Islam because of pressure from Muslims, 2) avoid Muslims altogether, or 3) communicate solely with other Muslims over social media.
None of these three options is good for the heart, mind, or soul. We must remember it is our duty as fellow Muslims to encourage, embrace, and develop alongside new Muslims in order that we can mature as an Ummah. Many of these converts have given up their family, or at least severely damaged ties, and have nowhere to go when we reject them too.
Alienation of Muslims in the West occurs on multiple levels. Be sure to check out Part 1, which addressed feelings of alienation from the esteemed scholars of Islam, and Part 3, which addresses alienation by family.