The Poor White Women: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on White Female Converts

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is Muslim. In her articles she often likes to tell you this in the first sentence to give herself an air of authenticity. Therefore, when her articles are mere fodder for the further stereotyping and othering of Muslims, it is not because she is lazily feeding the expectations of her non-Muslim readers, but because her words are the truth? After all, she is Muslim, so how can she be wrong?

Since the media pathologizes Muslims on a daily basis, who is Alibhai-Brown to go against that trend? Her articles are often about what is wrong with Muslims today–the answer to which is usually not being enough like Alibhai-Brown.

In her piece for the London Evening Standard, the reader does not even escape the second paragraph without being told of “Muslim minds and lives worldwide being closed down by fanatics.” Already the tone is set: Muslim are bad and dangerous, except for our intrepid writer, who presumably, is not a fanatic.

Yet, the first paragraph is a hopeful one, as Alibhai-Brown is keen to met Allegra Mostyn-Owen, who runs art classes at East London mosque. Will Mostyn-Owen be a cause for optimism, or will she fail to be enough like Alibhai-Brown?
Well, the reader does not get to find out any more about Mostyn-Owen’s art skills, as Alibhai-Brown is far too interested in the men in Mostyn-Owen’s life to ask. You see, Mostyn-Owen has “married a man much younger than herself” and would be happy for her husband to marry another, younger wife if he wishes to have children. Alibhai-Brown claims to wish her well, but spends the rest of the article claiming that such actions betray Muslim women.

The reader is not sure what Mostyn-Owen’s response to this would be, as the only time she is directly quoted in the article is when giving a brief description of her husband. This does not stop Alibhai-Brown from indulging in some very patronizing speculation about exactly why Mostyn-Owen has chosen this marriage:

First she has married a much younger, fit man and maybe feels excessively grateful. Then she is going for complete surrender, an uncritical acceptance of the most regressive practices of some of my co-religionists.

Coupled with meeting three unnamed converts who felt “cleansed” and less objectified after conversion, Alibhai-Brown decides that it is “submissive” white convert women who are “dragging the faith back to the dark ages” by choosing to enter polygamous marriages. Alibhai-Brown claims that their actions are not even sincere, just a reaction against the West. Why white converts (Alibhai-Brown only mentions white converts, presumably she hasn’t met any of the large numbers of converts of color) are so dangerous is not justified by Alibhai-Brown. She provides no actual evidence beyond meager anecdotes.

From a statistical point of view, there are 1,591,000 Muslims in the U.K. Only approximately 14,000 of these are converts, that’s less then 0.9% percent of the Muslim population, a truly tiny figure to be causing so much damage to the Ummah.

The closest Alibhai-Brown comes to quoting anything factual, is Dr. Haifa Jawad, who states the most women who convert do so out of conviction, but that doesn’t stop Alibhai-Brown attacking flaky white Muslimahs and dismissing them as seekers of the exotic, rather than sisters in faith.

The article could easily be titled, “The Trouble with White Converts Today.” Despite Alibhai-Brown’s assertion that these women are middle-class and well-educated, she is quick to label them as “uncritical” and “carelessly surrendering (their) rights.”

Many converts (if you actually spoke to them and listened to what they had to say), would tell you that they often feel a great deal of pressure from the Muslim community, particularly in terms of marriage. Does it not occur to Alibhai-Brown that for convert sisters to find themselves in marriages that their born Muslim sisters would reject, something other than white girl whimsy is occurring?

When Alibhai-Brown crows that many of these marriages will lead to “tears before bedtime,” she is being unkind, but not incorrect. Post-conversion is a vulnerable time, when one is trying to build a new life, often isolated from loved ones and at the mercy of people with various agendas.

Such lack of support can indeed lead to some disastrous choices and none more so then in the field of marriage. I admit I do not have statistics on hand, but it is widely acknowledged that the convert community is plagued by marital difficulties. The progressive response to the emotional trauma this creates is surely sympathy, instead of spite.

Yet, Alibhai-Brown seems completely unaware of these issues. In case the case of Mostyn-Owen, her family’s reaction is described as “subtly xenophobic,” and Alibhai-Brown blithely considers that this “must hurt.” I have to disagree. Stubbing your toe hurts. Being rejected by your family can be utterly devastating. Alibhai-Brown’s article is full of praise for the Muslim women she grew up with, her mother and numerous other friends. Converts do not always have this ready-made support. Their relationship to the Muslim community is one that takes time to establish.

Alibhai-Brown comments again that she feels convert women are choosing the most conservative forms of Islam. Again, this shows her lack of knowledge of the U.K. Muslim community: it is often the more conservative groups that are the most pro-active at reaching out to new converts. Also, if, as Alibhai-Brown states, white converts are whimsies that Progressive Muslims have no time for, how can converts be blamed for seeking communities that will accept them?

It is easy to mock Alibhai-Brown for persistently telling the subtly-Islamophobic liberal what they want to hear (see linked articles for examples of this). Yet this article frustrates not for its obvious bias, but for its complete obliviousness to the actual problems occurring. As with all this condemnation, minus any compassion or taking women’s feelings seriously, Albihai-Brown sounds awfully reminiscent of the religious conservatives she so despises.

  • Leyla

    You can blame her for pandering to the liberals however there is some truth to her conclusions from my observations. Female converts are open to the notion of polygamy and niqab compared to born muslims. Converts will put this down to having no cultural ties and thus ” submit” to all the requirements of the deen, but there is more to it.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Leyla: Safiyah’s problem is with the fact that YAB uses only observations to make such bold and offensive statements. Your observations are also just that–observations. If you’re going to make insulting accusations against an entire group of people (hint: don’t), then at least back it up with something more than anecdotal evidence.

  • Tim

    Alibhai-Brown once railed against blogging, but in fact she herself is the perfect argument for the supremacy of blogging over column writing. A blogger writes when he/she has something to say. A columnist must produce thousands of words every week to a deadline to earn their pay. In Alibhai-Browns’ case, this results in constant this drivel. Her articles are constantly tiresome, be they her rants about Muslims or chastisement of the white working class. She needs a holiday.

  • Melinda

    From a statistical point of view, there are 1,591,000 Muslims in the U.K. Only approximately 14,000 of these are converts, that’s less then 0.9% percent of the Muslim population, a truly tiny figure to be causing so much damage to the Ummah.

    Some assumptions left unchallenged here. Not all converts are white. Not all converts practice or support polygamous marriage.

  • http://www.wluml.org Rochelle

    Maybe she’s so loud about her Muslim-ness because of certain blogs (*ahem*) that are quick to judge anything written about Muslims by a non-Muslim.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Leyla – It’s not just YAB’s fondness for anecdotes instead of facts, it’s her complete lack of compassion and insight. She’s using the lives of Muslimahs to score polemical points and it leaves a nasty taste.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Melinda – I do actually mention how strange it is that she only mentions white converts, a large proportion of converts in the U.K are not white, nor are they middle class.

    Also, nowhere have I stated that all converts support polygamous marriage. The statistics are just there to illustrate how asinine it is to blame converts for all the ills of the Ummah.

    Rochelle – Not sure if you mean this blog, but I certainly do not negatively critique on a whim. I would love see better writing about Muslim women, whether by Muslims or Non-Muslims.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I did write a response earlier but it seems to have been eaten.

    Melinda – I did actually mention in the piece that not all converts are white. I did not make any statements claiming that all converts support p marriage, because that’s a whole other issue. What I did challenge was her assumption that converts are damaging Islam and that those who enter p marriages are flaky white girls.

  • LOL Muslima

    Lordy, the white sisters can’t win. In addition to the shitty treatment they suffer at the hands of ‘real Muslims,’ they’re accused of everything from being *the* standard bearers of white supremacy within the ummah and made to feel bad for their pale skin and now, they’re responsible for the salafization of Muslim communities in the west? Because it’s the white girls who brought the niqab and polygamy to the Muslims!

    Or wait, the racism angle — can’t be pointed out if it’s about white sisters, right?

  • Leyla

    @ Fatemah

    Relax. I have not made insulting accusation, just expressing an opinion through my observation.

  • http://rumoured.wordpress.com Sumera

    Yasmin Ali-Bhai Brown scribbles are just that….mindless drivel. She does emphasise the point that as a Muslim she somehow is privy to certain things general society would never otherwise know had it not been for Yasmin enlightening them all!

  • http://twitter.com/asiahkelley Asiah

    ^ like LOL Muslima’s statement. Haha the white sisters can’t win hehe.

    Well it’s not the white Muslimahs or the converts who are bringing polygamy back. Everyone looks at converts and says “oh, you’re such better muslims than us born muslims.” (not true) But the idea is that Western converts are of a different culture than born Muslims. Born Muslims are usually (not always because some are now the children of converts in the West) coming from other cultures to the Western culture while converts are coming from the Western culture and going to the Islamic culture. Sometimes they slip up and end up confusing culture with religion.

    Anyway this is too long for a comment nehow, but the point is that those who will accept polygamy has probably something to do with conversion, but more to do with position in life, and economic status.

    Good coverage MMW.

  • http://durkadurkistan.wordpress.com/ Durkadurkistan

    “Alibhai-Brown comments again that she feels convert women are choosing the most conservative forms of Islam. Again, this shows her lack of knowledge of the U.K. Muslim community: it is often the more conservative groups that are the most pro-active at reaching out to new converts. Also, if, as Alibhai-Brown states, white converts are whimsies that Progressive Muslims have no time for, how can converts be blamed for seeking communities that will accept them?”

    Bingo.

    The transition into a new community is always going to be a time of high anxiety.. but yeah the (over)zealous brothers/sisters are always the most aggressive in dawah and often make a big impression on new converts who are eager to learn and also very vulnerable to pressure from within a community they’re still trying to gain acceptance into. It’s not their own fault.

    I have a feeling there is pretty large percentage of converts that end up burning out and leaving Islam after a year or two. Jeffrey Lang has made it a point to talk about this a lot.

    What Muslims like Alibhai-Brown and non-Muslims need to understand, though, is that the stigmatizing treatment of Muslims in the media does 2 things: it puts the community into a more defensive – and always conservative – stance, and it causes many progressive Muslims to spend their time dealing with outside prejudice, leaving them exhausted when faced with the problems inside the community.

  • Sister Q.

    @ LOL Muslima : EXACTLY what I was thinking. EXACTLY.

  • http://www.bayyinat.org.uk/terror.htm Yakoub

    There was a small scale study based on semi-structured interviews published by Leeds Uni quite a few years ago, which explored the views of female Muslim converts in Britain, primarily – if I recall – in the Yorkshire region. They all spoke of the loving sisterhood they had discovered in Islam and the sense of security they found in a moral community that often contrasted with the immoral one they had experienced in childhood and early adulthood.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Can I just say I’m doing a lot of head nodding to these comments, and lol-ing at Lol Muslima’s.

    Yakoub – Pfft. That can’t be true, that sounds far too heartfelt for a bunch of silly white girls playing dress up. /sarcasm.

  • Rebecca

    Salaam alaykum sisters, really good to see some critique coming from Muslim sisters. Keep it up!

  • http://abusinan-sayf.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    ASA,

    Good post. As a white convert myself, I can testify to how hard it can be and the pressures put on us from all directions.

    This lady moans a lot and seems to want to place blame everywhere and accept none of it herself. What has SHE done to help the plight of converts to Islam? If she can so readily point out what she thinks the issues are, why isnt she doing anything about it?

    Many converts to “burn out” and drop the religion after a few years. This is for many reasons, but some of them are things the Muslim community itself could, and should address.

  • Ayeshter

    oh MMW commentators….such sagely wisdom. If only more people could here you.

    It seems as a white convert, you can’t really do right. If your not very conservitive, your sabatoging the religion with your horrible debauched western ways. If your conservitive, your holding the entier Ummah back with your attension seeking mimicing. I’m so bloody tired of people making the following cousal connection for better or worse:

    White convert=rejecting all that is western and therfore “haraam”(wheather negitive or positive depends on the speaker)–Muslim Ideal/Muslim Threat–Sign of Islam’s ascendency or regression.

    What boggeles my mind is this….there are how many billion Muslims in this world? In how many countries? From how many cultures? Islam was spread becouse of radid conversition (with various motivations). God knows I have been to many many conferaces where the speaker had anouced that (prepare for cliche) “Islam is the worlds fastest growing religion”. As one can imagine, conversion contributes to this. So if this is such an aknologed and highly toted fact and conversion plays such a big role in Islamic history, why is this still sensationalised so much? Can’t this just be seen as a normitive religious growth? Why do we have to make it so polemic?

    What do white converts want? The be seen as MUSLIMS before CONVERTS. To not have their deep and higly personal religious convictions made into a political tug of war.

    DISCLAIMER: This only applies to white converts. If you are a convert of color, be perpared to be overlooked. By everyone.

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  • Umm Abdullah

    Firstly, this women is not putting her point across, she is attacking converts (reverts)..mainly white and of a certain age. After reading this article it made me frown, why?…Because here you have a muslim attacking another muslim which is so shocking. If yasmin does not agree with the way they live their life and their beliefs, what is it to her. I put it down to feelings of guilt, when a muslim feels they need to judge another muslim its because they feel guilt and need to justify why they aren’t doing a certain thing. Yasmin and Dr Taj Hargey are two muslims that always seize to amaze me they have alot to say but yet they only voice it on muslims and how they should conform to a liberal and moderate way of life (this usually referring to do as you want, take the parts you desire). Clearly this is not what the deen is about, if it is was then prophets & messengers would not have been sent. but clearly they were, for guidance and it is for us to follow and observe strictly and completly (as many people hate or fear to say).


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