Not Your Inspiration Porn – Why I Don’t Owe You My Conversion Story

Not Your Inspiration Porn – Why I Don’t Owe You My Conversion Story May 5, 2015
The shahada in English.
The shahada in English.

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Rites of Passage. Read other perspectives here.

By Anonymous

How did you come to Islam?

When did you convert?

Will you tell me your story?

Mashallah, you are such an inspiration to us!

There’s a term used to describe stories of people who have overcome great odds. Those who have experienced cancer, disability or private tragedy, and then learned to push past and move forward, providing motivation for others around them. It’s known as inspiration porn. The word “porn” in the phrase is not a sexual term, but represents garishness and outright rudeness. People believing they have a right to overstep boundaries because another individual has gone through provocative experiences they didn’t, and they want to hear about them firsthand.

It’s pornography because it’s exposing and voyeuristic, and this type of porn (no matter how uplifting people insist it is), is even more relentless after converts take their shahada, or conversion, into Islam. The ones most guilty of indulging in it are born Muslims.

So you speak Arabic, yes?

What does your husband do?

Oh, you’re not married? American women usually convert because of marriage.

How did it feel while it was happening?

The night I converted to Islam was a muggy, overcast Thursday in late May. My hair was tied back in an oily ponytail from the stifling heat, legs in desperate need of a shave. I pulled on skinny jeans, black flip flops, a blue long sleeved top, and a gray scarf I had gotten from a friend. The sky was turning black as I walked the few blocks to the mosque, and I texted the imam: “Hey be there in 5 min.”

No one had known I was even thinking of converting except for a few family members, one or two friends and the imam himself, with whom I was on a first name basis. That night he wore a suit and put on scuffed Birkenstocks when he couldn’t find his dress shoes. I joked with him to have some pride. I didn’t cover my hair because I don’t cover my hair now.

I remember balling my fists and blurting out “Wait, before you start I have shit I want to say!” He knew me enough to let me speak, then keep his words simple. As he began, I stood in my flip flops on his Oriental rug.

Are your parents Muslim?

What does your mother and father say about it?

So you’re really Muslim?

Do you pray five times a day?

How many years ago did you convert?

The issue I have with people asking about my shahada is not that it’s shameful or should remain secret, but that details of my journey — just like a wedding day, giving birth or losing your virginity — aren’t owed to anyone. I choose to parcel them out piecemeal depending on the individual, with a few close friends knowing the emotional details; but for the most part I lock the important facts up tight inside me, wrapping them in razor wire. It’s not my job to say something so exposing about myself to help you affirm your own faith.

I’m not your blue-eyed mascot.

If whatever or whomever converts were “before” has been washed away, why do some Muslims born into Islam ask for sordid details of our lives? If a shahada is meant to be personal and private, why are there individuals who persist in testing us on our Quranic and Arabic knowledge? Why must I jump through your personal hoop so you can feel satisfied that I’m one of you?

When we were finished, the sky opened up and a thunderstorm started. I stood under the mosque archway and watched the rain pour down.

There is more you don’t know, nor should you. My story is not also your story.

The writer is a licensed ESL instructor and holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. She is currently pursuing her Masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and her most recent work can be seen in AltMuslimah, Muslimah Montage, Huffington Post, and various news interviews regarding convert issues. She is the only Muslim in her family.

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