“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

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Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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Orientalism is alive and thriving!

When it comes to the “Arab world” many so-called “Western culture” outlets portray a world of contradictions and racist stereotypes. Through TV, film, theatre and literature, we’ve seen the insults, lies and “mystery”. Think of :

  • Aladdin
  • Ali Baba
  • Scheherazade
  • A Hundred and One Nights

These portray the “exotic mysterious East” within Orientalist racist discourse further evoking images of the “backward” “uncivilised” Arab world of lies, thieves and male sexual dominance.

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“Moros” (Moors) – which refers to the Muslim Arab/Amazigh inhabitants of North Africa who invaded Spain and ruled Al-Andalus (Abdalucia) – is nowadays a racist term used to refer to present day (Muslim) Arab/Amazigh migrants/residents from the Maghreb region (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia)

I’ve just come to the UK after living in Andalucia in Southern Spain for quite some time. This region was once Al-Andalus – a region representing the Golden Era of Islam and The Moors (the Amazigh and Arab Muslim leaders of North Africa). It was an area of rich diversity, multiculturalism and an era of mathematical, scientific and artistic discovery which is part of Spain’s history, culture and heritage (whether Spaniards like it or not). I’ve talked in previous posts about Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs/North African/non-Europeans in Spain before (see here and here), but I’ve not mentioned the interest in Moroccan and Arab culture in a strange money making contradiction.

Whilst many Spaniards have no racist affinity whatsoever and love Moroccan decor, food etc., there is an undercurrent of racism and the government is definitely NOT working towards building social cohesion. What they are doing though is cashing in millions of Euros a year. The Al Hambra palace in Granada (just one example) is a UNESCO site and its architecture and gardens lends it to be called a new wonder of the world.

Added to that, there’s also the further hypocritical contradictory double standards which are often present/similar to those portrayed in Western media:

  • Moroccans are sometimes referred to as “Moors” which is a racist practise as it refers back to the Moor invaders from hundreds of years ago – a sore point for certain Spaniards still living in the past (think an “us” vs. “them” mentality).  On the other hand, people express a love for couscous and North African jewellery/symbols (e.g. the hand of Fatima)
  • Likewise, nuns in Spain represent “good, chaste modest Christian women”. Yet veiling in the case of Muslim women is seen as a practice of controlling Muslim women, looked at with shock, suspicion and deemed “unnecessary”. It’s a long running double standard of the modest Christian sister vs. the oppressed Muslim woman shrouded in her veil of Arab patriarchy.

In line with this, there’s the trend for “exotic” “Arab” shops. There’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation recently. I (just like many others) like to buy Moroccan pieces of interior: mirrors, pottery etc.. My husband is from the Maghreb, I love Moroccan culture and decor and I most certainly do not aspire to orientalist and racist discourse and behaviour. In Málaga – despite the racism against North Africans (and other ethnicities, cultures etc.) and the reality of Islamophobia and stark lack of multicultural cohesion – Spain still boasts an array of Arab style shops and merchandise in the southern towns frequented by both tourists and non-tourists alike. There’s a raw memory of the Moors (“us” vs. “them” – the word “Moor” is a raw, sore term), yet when it comes to making money, people have a bit of a penchant for “Eastern” cultures.

Take a look at these two shop fronts – one shop is owned and run by Moroccans, the other is a chain run by Spaniardswhich one is which (look carefully!)?

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These two pictures highlight exactly what is wrong with people’s perception of culture and the level of cohesion in Spanish society. It’s Orientalism at its pèak. The first photo is of a shop chain which hosts an odd concoction of Hindu, Indian, Moroccan, Buddhist pieces under the name of “Arabesque” in Arab style Latin letters. I wasn’t aware that Buddha was Arab…? Statues are forbidden in Islam as they are seen as idolatry.

The second photo is of an actual Moroccan run shop with other branches elsewhere outside of Málaga. The shop boasts Moroccan/Arab merchandise and nothing else. With the name “Sherazade” you may think Orientalist but this is an original authentic shop. This is a stark contrast to local shops in which everything “non-Western” has been essentialised, bunged into one category: EASTERN. Never mind the fact that “the East” (if we can even call it that) is an area comprising of various regions, continents, countries, languages, cultures, nationalities, religions and traditions. It’s beyond patronising and quite startling. Yet to make things worse, at the end of my time in Málaga I found a shop which appeared to be run my Moroccans yet boasted a mix of both Moroccan and Indian stock in one large “bazar”. It seems “Easternising” is rather popular and a  big money maker.

The problem is a lack of understanding, respect and social cohesion. Travelling and exposure to other cultures is a great way to develop understanding, break down barriers and build bridges but it must be done in a respectful, sincere way. If you respect Moroccan culture: go ahead and open your own shop. Yet in a society where Moroccans face so many difficulties and so much racism – a society which is far from being multicultural in terms of social cohesion, yet hosts a variety of different nationalities – this all strikes me as wreaking of Orientalism, hypocrisy, double standards and dishonesty.

In a smaller town, when I was browsing a market one day, I asked the seller where the (Moroccan/North African style) bowls were from. He said: “Africa”. Well yes Morocco is in Africa (and Africa is a fantastic place!) but firstly, Africa is a vast continent with a huge variety of different cultures and traditions and secondly – and this is the source of the problem – when he says Africa he means: not Europe, but a far off continent, a place that is far from us, our lifestyle, economy and culture, what we klnow and live: a distant foreign place. It’s Morocco. It’s a (Muslim, Arab/Amazigh) Mediterranean country with which you share hundreds of years of history and heritage – which your country markets to tourists. You share similar art, decor, names and many of your words come from Arabic – you probably share blood! All of these social problems stem from people’s perceptions; the “us” vs. “them” mentality and the way people perceive others. It’s all in the mind!

Build bridges, not walls

Remember and learn from the past – but don’t live in it.

Salam!

Feature image: Media Bistro