Beyond Arabs

anisaBeyond Arabs is a bi-monthly column by Anisa Abeytia, a Muslim convert of Mexican American heritage and a prominent social activist. Her personal narratives are inspiring and chock-full of wisdom. To learn more about Anisa’s background, tune into podcast episode #13.

Anisa Abeytia is a Mexican American social activist, writer, and holistic nutritionist. She began her career working for the producer, Fred Roos, and her first screenplay went on to receive critical acclaim from Disney. Anisa is a published poet and author whose work has been translated into over 14 languages. 

She recently returned from Serbia, Norway and Germany where she was filming the feature length documentary, Anywhere But Home, which follows the journey of Syrian refugees to Western Europe in search of a better life. Anisa worked on the short film, Children of the Rising Phoenix, in conjunction with the USC School of Cinematography. Anisa is also the producer of I Am My Homeland, a film that depicts the Syrian-American experience.

Anisa holds an M.A. in Postcolonial and Feminist Thought from Stanford University, as well as an M.S. in Holistic Nutrition. She earned her B.A. from the University of Southern California in Creative Writing. 

The Semantics of Becoming Muslim: Converts, Reverts and Beyond

There are few other life changes that rival accepting a new religion. Change, even when desired, is difficult. Anxiety, stress and uncertainty often conspire against New Muslims, and when you are new to Islam, support is what you need to ease the transition.

Part of that transition includes changing your name. It’s not necessary unless your name is profane in some way. Many, if not most, New Muslims do change their names, though not legally. I chose not to change mine. I didn’t want to sever yet another connection to my past. My birth name derives from Arabic anyway. I understand that, to a New Muslim, this change is part of embracing a new identity.

There is another identity label that changes. It is the label you choose to adopt for your conversion.  This stems from a “philosophy,” so your mosque’s congregation influences the term you select, and the rationale is rarely explained.  

Filled with the desire to fit in, New Muslims enthusiastically follow the advice of those who were raised Muslim. Cultural interpretations of Islam supersede the Sunnah; habits are hard to break. It takes real strength to say, “Wait, I want to think about this. I want to research this first.” Attempts often lead to bullying or being ostracized at a crucial time. This new community no longer views the ability to think independently and critically, the impetus behind your conversion, as an asset.These early moments of becoming Muslim set the foundation for a lifetime to come.

U.C. Berkeley linguist, George Lakoff, argues that the words you use to frame yourself have a deep psychological impact. In his seminal work, The Power of Myth, Lakoff discusses the importance of the stories you tell yourself and the significance of words in shaping who you are.  The linguistic world you construct shapes the way you view reality and yourself. Perhaps if we as a Muslim ummah paid greater attention to the psychological effects of “naming,” we would not lose our converts in large numbers.

Picture1There are several terms to describe those who choose to become Muslim. The most popular are “revert,” “convert,” and “embracing Islam.” I include “New Muslim” despite its lack of popularity. Careful semantics can give meaning to the process of coming to Islam.

Revert

“Reversion” is a well-intentioned euphemism. It belies the monumental struggles and challenges faced by New Muslims. It also, to an extent, absolves the ummah of the obligation to systematically teach New Muslims about Islam, rather than its many cultural interpretations. Worst of all, reversion hints at shaming and self-blame.

The term “reversion” comes from the notion that we are all born Muslim and that our environment alters us from this “pure” state. However, if this were the case, we would not require revelation. Each and every one of us must learn to become Muslim.

According to anecdotes, most New Muslims leave Islam due to lack of support. If, as various news reports suggest, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the West, then where are the programs to assist this wave of New Muslims? Most New Muslims are encouraged to learn independently. After all, what help is required if you’re returning to your natural state?  

My intent is not to place blame. Rather, I want to highlight the significance of semantics. “Reversion” sounds easy, so when you make mistakes, the negative psychological impact can be extremely damaging. When there is no community to help you get back on your feet, you leave.

Convert

In Arabic, “conversion” is about currency. When I lived in the Middle East and used this term in a religious context, I was met with bewildered looks. I quickly learned that the term is used by English speakers to refer to those who change their religion.

A convert requires a network, organizations working together based on an agreed-upon system, in order to grow. Conversion requires a system designed to yield results. This term conjures images of alchemy, transforming metal to gold. Indeed, the New Muslim aims to advance to a higher self, just as the alchemist seeks to produce gold. Converting is a passive process during which outside forces cause the change. You, the New Muslim, are indoctrinated into a cultural interpretation of Islam.  If you don’t yield, you’ll find yourself alone. The idea of converting reduces New Muslims to receptacles, passive elements in the process.

Embracing Islam

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Source: Daily Herald

Another popular term is “embracing Islam.”  Understated, it ignores the desperate, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sensation infused in the implied hug. A hug is filled with emotion. It stems from a connection between two people; it sustains and supports. In reality, this ‘embrace’ of Islam is akin to what the Mob offers a before sending a traitor to “sleep with the fish.” Though not the experience of every New Muslim, this happens to far too many.

New Muslim

“New Muslim” seems to be the least loaded term. Though novel, it sports a rookie’s reputation. Let’s remember, though, that a rookie represents the potential of all that is possible. “New Muslim” encapsulates the wonder and passion of the experience. It labels a process akin to natural growth, a multi-stage metamorphosis rife with potential.  

As a New Muslim, you’re not a child given the luxury of time, but rather an adult saddled with the continued fear of inadequacy. You need a community to ensure your proper development. Unfortunately, today we are an ummah devoid of mercy, critical of the smallest mistakes. We cannot offer much to New Muslims when we offer little to ourselves.

Again, careful semantics can give meaning to the process of coming to Islam. How do we help New Muslims? Start small. Include them in holidays. Ask questions. Give answers. And choose a label that inspires and supports. These tiny kindnesses require little effort, but can change everything.    

 

A Test and a Prayer

1I’m not an Arab, and I wasn’t raised Muslim. My Mexican American family includes a large number of supporters of the Palestinian cause, and my great-uncle was one of the first U.S. supporters of Yasser Arafat. I lived in the Middle East for five years and, as a convert, have been a member of the Muslim American community for fourteen.

After nineteen years of living among Arabs and Muslims, it’s near natural that I have picked up some interesting habits.

Last summer my children’s school received funding for summer tutors. Though my children weren’t thrilled, I certainly was.

I soon receive a phone call from Esther, my children’s prospective tutor, and we begin discussing their academic needs. She tells me her brother’s name is Yousuf, just like my son. I try pinpointing her accent, but can’t, and I don’t want to ask her where she is from. I assume she’s from a Muslim country and think nothing more of it.

On the day of their first tutoring session, my children gaze out the window as Esther parks her car. A thin woman walks down the street toward our house, wearing a scarf on her head like that of a Russian peasant.

I try placing her ethnicity. Bosnian?

My children welcome her in, and she and I sit to chat casually for a few minutes. Joyfully, she reminds me that her brother’s name is Yousuf.

“Where are you from?” I finally ask.

“I was born in Israel,” she replies.

My heart sinks as my eyes dart to her scarf, paying closer attention to the way it is wrapped around her head.

She’s an orthodox Jew, I realize.

I sense the corners of my lips drooping downward into a frown as the color drains from my face. Esther’s demeanor doesn’t change. I try forcing a smile, but fear it will contort my face into an even more bizarre expression.

My son enters the room before I can recover. His new tutor embraces him. My eyes widen. Images of bleeding Palestinian children and angry Israeli settlers flash before me. My eyes shift back and forth, anxiously looking for any Palestinian flags my mother may have had on display.

Would she hurt him? I ask myself. I don’t want to leave Esther alone with my son, but I slowly make my way toward the staircase.

Why am I thinking this way? I don’t even know her. I plant my right foot on the first step.

Women in black are Israeli. Left foot, step.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Right foot, step.

My thoughts continue until I reach the top of the stairs. The next two hours are spent debating between me, myself and I.

Am I supporting the occupation? Am I doing a bad thing? Should I ask her to leave? How do I justify that?

I had to dig deeper for an answer as to how I should proceed. I look out the window and take a deep breath before closing my eyes. I slowly exhale and think, What does Islam say? Am I Muslim? Do I follow my religion only when it’s convenient?

I lift my eyelids. The answer is simple: do not judge. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. She is a guest in my house and my child’s teacher.

I reach a sense of calm in time for the end of the tutoring session. As I make my way down the stairs, my mother walks into the room and introduces herself to Esther. The latter says she loves the art on our walls and asks who the collector is. My mother begins to tell her about the artist, a Syrian named Akram Abu Al Foz.

“Anisa, show her his work,” my mother glances over at me. “It’s absolutely stunning.”

I reach for my cell phone and start to explain. One detail leads to another, and before I know it, I’m telling Esther about my advocacy work for the Syrian cause and my trips to Turkey, during which I met with refugees to assess their needs. I tell her about my work with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, about an incredible Syrian-American Jewish scholar I know and the talks he gives about the Jewish community in Aleppo. At this point, I’m rambling with excitement, brimming with passion for the work I have been doing for over a decade. I had given up a 14-year-old private practice as a clinical nutritionist for this.

Once I realize I’m out of breath, I pause to inhale deeply.

A Syrian Jewish woman opened doors for me that I didn’t know existed.

“My ultimate goal,” I tell her, “is to help others fall in love with the Syrian people, like I did.” Esther begins asking many questions, and I politely answer.

A few days later, she calls me. “I was so inspired,” she begins, “by the work you are doing, and I would like to help.” She asks if I would mind meeting her daughter who works at a local radio station.

Needless to say, I’m taken aback. She wants to help me? I think to myself. I can barely get Arabs and Muslims to help me, and a Jewish Israeli woman is interested in supporting my work?

“My parents are Syrian,” she says. “We are Syrian Jews.”

I’m speechless, which, for a woman of many words like me, is strange. In disbelief, I pause to take in the moment. Finally, I break my own silence and begin confessing my relief to Esther.

“I had decided to stop,” I say, “because I wasn’t getting any support. I cried a lot about it. It was such a painful, soul-ripping choice.” She listens in quietly. I tell her how frustrated I’d been feeling due to my community’s lack of support for the Syrian cause. “It’s been weighing so heavily on me, because I am so dedicated. I’ve been feeling like a complete failure, because nothing I tried seemed to work.”

I feel a sense of comfort to continue telling her about my struggle to find hope to continue my work. “A week ago, I prayed: ‘Oh Allah, if this is the path you want me to continue on, you’ll need to send the help to my door, because I will not make one more effort.’”

Just as I was throwing in the towel on the important work of helping Syrian refugees, my istiharah prayer was answered—with a test. There it was. Esther came knocking on my door.

If I had given into the common Arab mentality that all Israelis are inherently evil, I would have lost this opportunity. I would have walked away from Syria and never looked back. I needed a cheerleader. Esther was just that.

She wasn’t an orthodox Jew, as I had assumed. Esther was recovering from cancer and had lost her hair during chemotherapy.

A Syrian Jewish woman opened doors for me that I didn’t know existed. The greatest rewards were my renewed sense of hope and the realization that I was not alone. I asked for help, remained opened to it, and there it was standing at my front door. But, I had to be willing to accept it.