Hello Convert: An Open Letter

When you have matured in your faith you will see things in new lights. You will have lived, tangible experience of your faith, your surroundings, and what your relationship should be with them. Being a convert is lonely. Understand this, and be prepared for it.

When you have matured in your faith you will see things in new lights. You will have lived, tangible experience of your faith, your surroundings, and what your relationship should be with them. Being a convert is lonely. Understand this, and be prepared for it.

Assalamu alaykum and greetings, dear convert.

So you have chosen to become Muslim. You have a long journey ahead of you. The best would be if you could jumpstart and quickly reach the ideal positions, but this is a privilege only made available to the few.

More likely you will find that the way ahead of you twists and turns and face a lot of challenges. If you go about it the right way, you should come out safe. But if not, you will harm and hurt yourself and others around you. 

You have entered a stigmatized and frowned upon identity with your choice. First, examine yourself. What made you embrace the faith? Conviction in its theology and philosophy? Rebellion? Sympathy for a certain cause? Your trajectory will namely depend on this. 

You will be perceived as mad by many members of your society, and maybe you are. Unfortunately, too many converts go on to become overzealous nutcases or more or less ditch their heritage to assimilate into foreign ways, which have also formed the stereotype. But back to real analysis.

You will be perceived as having abandoned everything good about your society and thrown the achievements of the Enlightenment and Modernity in the bin in order to embrace its very antithesis, a foreign and medieval faith system. This is how converts are commonly seen in contemporary Western societies, who derive one aspect of their pride from having fought the Church and won and how you will be seen, even by many otherwise well-wishers. This is not true of course, unless you make it so. 

Do not act the stereotype by walking around and preaching or generally display your faith in an overt manner. Yes, you are proud. Yes, you found spiritual bliss and want the world to know it. But if you live in a secular Western country, these things are typically experienced as uncomfortable and even disturbing.

Leave people be unless they approach you and ask you specifically about your faith. Remember, actions speak louder than words. You being a considerate, tolerant and decent human speaks louder than overzealous preaching.

So where are you now on your journey? You have embraced Islam as your faith, and now you want to get active and engage yourself on behalf of it. Trying to educate yourself about it, finding new friends and causes. At the same time you might find yourself alienated from peers, old friends, and society and have your first experiences of Islamophobia. What is next?

I can tell you one likely trajectory. Unless you find your niche fairly quickly and a healthy social-religious environment to develop in, there is a fair possibility you will be attracted to Islamist movements and groups. How so, you might ask, and a seeming majority of Western security and CVE/PVE analysts still ask this question along with you, with reports, scientific papers, and PhDs being written on why you would choose this.

The answer/s tend to be fairly straightforward. Soon after you have had some lived experience with Western Muslim communities, you will have seen their frequently disheartening state of affairs on a macro level. Spiritual, political, social, or economic crises (affecting both the community and surrounding society), sectarianism, indifference to religious practice, the socio-psychological results of ghettoization, and how generally culture prevails over religion in many communities – mosques mere ‘culture clubs’ and imams the guardians of this.

They will generally not care much about you, or care too much, as we will return to. This is also the first stage of also learning to tell religion apart from community. You are likely to become thoroughly disappointed. And you, as a convert who will want to learn and practice the faith seriously, will likely be drawn to movements and groups who present themselves as devoted to the faith.

Simultaneously you might grow to see the world in more or less black and white with an increasingly burning fervor to try to change it. Those people with calls such as ”Islam is the solution” or ”tawhid and sunnah” (monotheism and Prophetic tradition) may seem really attractive. But wait. If you find yourself being drawn to such groups for their seeming zeal and piety, then we are at the next phase in your perilous journey.

Fundamentalists and the orthodox come in different colours. There are the ones who are on a quest to establish Muslim polities (globally or in their homelands) and will see you, especially if you are white, as a useful tool in that quest. These are the politicos, often called Islamists in daily lingo. There are the ones who want you to choose a life of theological study and worship.

These are many of the Sufis and Salafis. These ones have a great deal of variation, from the pacifist pious and intellectual to the more problematic and also dangerous. And there are the ones who want to use you as cannon fodder. These are the Jihadis and Takfiris. These movements differ a lot, but often have some common features at various levels.

First you will notice among politicos that they tend to be most loyal to their group, and that the group is usually made up primarily of one or two ethnicities who set the agenda, both on what Islam is, or should be, and on group culture and practices. These groups are typically shaped by experiences of persecution in their homelands and their specific sociopolitical understanding of Islam and these aspects have become main features of the group identity.

You are likely to be welcomed either as a trophy, a token, a new useful recruit, or received with ever-looming skepticism given that you might in fact be a spy (if you are a white man). If you are a woman, no one will think that you are a spy (even if you are) but be prepared to face immediate pressures to marry. Once things get going, you are likely to be told that you need to change, and how your own cultural heritage is inferior. You will be required, first politely, then with some more forceful insistence, to assimilate, to discard your former identity since this is the ”more Islamic” thing to do, and ”now you are a Muslim”.

Of course, it’s not really the more Islamic thing, which would be to remain true to the positives of your cultural heritage, but the sad mix of colonialism, geopolitics, and ideological parochialism made these groups resentful of anything even remotely Western – good or bad.

You will hear (frequently silly and preposterous) stories, anecdotes and jokes meant to prove the inferiority of your culture and the West more broadly. There might be a celebration of confrontationalist attitudes and approaches towards the host society. There are beliefs in conspiracy theories about how the world is actively out to get them. Or most common, along with most ordinary Muslims as well, many live with a siege mentality in the face of (real and perceived) increasingly hostile surrounding societies that can take on strange, and sometimes disturbing expressions.

The mental health of many are negatively affected by the contemporary sociopolitical circumstances, both in these type of groups and more in general. As for both the politicos and the other categories: With many of them, their external analysis of the world is often inherently flawed and out of touch with reality, especially among their rank-and-file that you are most likely to come across. They do not really understand the societies they inhabit, even if they pretend to, and the responses are accordingly.

Keynote in regards to politicos: unlike what you might have envisioned, they are not typically there to serve you in your spiritual journey or faith growth, you are typically there to ultimately serve them in their agenda. Stay away.

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Keynote in regards to Jihadis: stay away. Do not fall for the religious shaming, the emotional blackmail about how it is your responsibility to fight or how some random clandestine group are the Prophet’s true followers of our times or their potentially declaring you an apostate for not supporting. When you see these tendencies, remove yourself without hesitation.

Be very wary of all the requests and petitions for help that you might become at the receiving end of. You may help out friends and those truly in need, but out there be monsters. You are likely to be approached and asked for help with everything from money, obtaining citizenship, so-called ‘favours’ or in the worst case unknowingly ending up assisting with logistics for a terror plot (might sound like a joke but the cumulative experiences of Western converts to Islam says otherwise).

There is a lot of dodginess out in the margins, and if you go along with the “please brother/sister help me for the sake of God” and similar invocations of sacred norms from all the random people who might approach you, they may just completely pull you down the rabbit hole.

There are some very strange and obscure worlds in the shadows of a community that is already suffering from dysfunction. Remember that always being available to assist is not your responsibility, that there are many who would like to take advantage of you and if you want to help, go through established and secure channels.   

Be generally wary of religious leaders. They are not all saintly devotees to the sacred principles of the faith. Some are in it for the power, they like to see other people doing their bidding. Others for the money, the influence, the self-confirmation, the sex, you name it. Or they are genuinely sincere, but lack understanding of the society and context they (and you) are living in and may instead be sources of hardship.

Remember they are human. They might issue seemingly religious rulings in order to obtain some benefits for themselves, their family, friends, or the random political agenda they back. 

Keyword: they are human, with human weaknesses. Find scholars or imams whom you trust, and have proven themselves trustworthy and know both theology and the workings of the world, and how to embody a spirit of tolerance and understanding of reality. 

After your initial zeal wears off, and you have managed to stay clear from extremist movements or becoming radicalised, you now face the next phase on your journey.

Do not compromise yourself or imitate others to feel accepted, to adopt their ways, customs, or dress. Also, do not let others put you off when they judge you according to their understandings of the world. Find your own character. Embrace yourself and your own unique characteristics and talents.

Yes, you are likely to be told certain things are haram (prohibited), and maybe even shamed for them, or told that a true Muslim doesn’t engage in such or such. Response: investigate. Often these arguments come from a cultural perspective of what piousness or Muslimness should be, and do not get intimidated.

If you do your research and find out that maybe you shouldn’t actually do this or that and it makes you uncomfortable, it is up to you. Leave it or pursue it. But be very very careful with letting others decide your choices while referring to faith arguments. There are many opinions out there, and Islamic jurisprudence is dynamic and rulings change according to time, place, and culture. What they tell you is forbidden and un-Islamic might in fact be the opposite. 

Try generally to avoid becoming involved in geopolitical conflicts or internal politics of a certain Muslim nation. This is for your own safety. Because you will (unless you are very fortunate) be asked, maybe requested to, even demanded to pick a camp. Some people will try to talk politics with you, and most dangerously, likely ask you your opinion, as a convert and Westerner, on the leaders, governments, or internal struggles of Muslim nation X or Y. This is typically in order to be able to identify you. Friend or foe?

Others will want to know who they are dealing with. Sometimes it is relatively innocent, other times not. Feel free to condemn terror groups and atrocities but when it turns to politics and governance, better to disengage. Remember: this is not Western politics, where you can go have a cappuccino and a laugh with your otherwise political nemesis.

In these circumstances, and in these regions of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, they do not really differentiate between the individual and his or her beliefs. In these regions, politics are written in tears, combat, and blood, and have been, and will probably be, for generations. If you decide, after all, to choose a side directly or indirectly, be prepared to face the consequences of that. Whatever position you choose, if you do so, you will inevitably alienate people away from you, create opponents, have to justify your positioning, and maybe even put yourself in danger. 

These are some of the major issues. So now what?

Some key lessons. Being Muslim is not merely a faith identity in our time. You might think so, but it’s not. Unlike what you might have been told, there is no longer a united ’ummah’, a united global Muslim community, that is supposed to help each other and be a source of goodness to themselves and outsiders. This can still be true on the micro levels, and you will experience tremendous hospitality, warmth, and long-lasting friendships with people.

On the macro level, however, you will see, like you probably did before, a global Muslim community fractioned among political, ethnic, ideological, and cultural lines all at each others’ throats. And following this, it is also a highly political identity, and you might find that a lot of things with which you have absolutely nothing to do will be ascribed to your person and find yourself interrogated regarding them, be it on your thoughts on the Iranian regime, the Taliban, ISIS, the policies of Gulf monarchies, or ‘why do Muslims’ do such or such. 

When you have matured in your faith you will see things in new lights. You will have lived, tangible experience of your faith, your surroundings, and what your relationship should be with them. Being a convert is lonely. Understand this, and be prepared for it.

But if you avoid these major issues and obstacles, there is a good possibility that everything will turn out for the better. Be nice but conscious of dangers, be generous and tolerant but keep your personal integrity. Be understanding why people of all faiths and none disagree with you and perceive you the way they do. See yourself from the perspective of others. Be polite with everyone even if they are not towards you.

The world is a hard place, and do not make it harder for yourself and those around you. Do your best and go on with your life. Peace be with you.