Conversion is not a ticket to white supremacy

(Photo by Godong/Getty)

Ohitite Christian nationalism has recently come into sharper focus due to the January 6 uprising and controversial Supreme Court rulings regarding reproductive rights and the separation of religion and state. Yet the influence of whiteness on religion extends beyond Christianity, which is often equated with “religion” itself. Despite the growing number of whites converting to racialized as “non-white” religions, such as Islam, these converts attract less interest. However, a closer look at white converts entering more racially diverse religious communities offers a unique opportunity to understand different manifestations of white supremacy that are not tied exclusively to MAGA followers.

When I was working on a collaborative study between 2018 and 2021 which focused on Polish women converts to Islam, I was oblivious to how white supremacy might manifest. My colleagues and I interviewed 40 women in Poland and the UK, home to the largest Polish diaspora in Europe. When I’ve spoken with women who have voluntarily joined the ranks of Islam, Poland’s most reviled religious tradition, I’ve approached them with sympathy because they face a lot of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Overall, the findings align with existing research on white conversion to Islam: white people may lose some degree of racial privilege, especially if they adopt visible signs of Islam such as a scarf or beard. They may be symbolically excluded from their own ethnic communities; they can be complimented on their mastery of their mother tongue by well-meaning people; we can ask them “where are you from?” Having become unintelligible in their own communities, these white converts to Islam often seek authenticity and want to be accepted within Muslim communities. As Muslims racialized by both non-Muslims and Muslims, they are sometimes not accepted or welcomed with open arms into either community.

What opened my eyes to the racial dynamics of conversion was the realization that many white people, even those who are undermined, still attempt to preserve and obscure their privilege using a variety of strategies. . Initially, my colleagues and I did not ask a single question about racial identity in the convert study. Yet when I read the data through a critical lens that was racially sensitive, I saw that whiteness manifested itself in the responses of Polish converts under the guise of “blue eyes and blond hair”, “Europeanness “, “Polishness”, or “to be civilized”.

The American researcher Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes in Racism without racists that color blindness has its own style of communication that strategically departs from old-fashioned racist epithets. Similarly, in the Polish context, racial evasion expressed itself in a general refusal to talk explicitly about race. What was more surprising, however, was how the women we interviewed constructed racial hierarchies using Islamic vocabulary and frameworks.

When I re-analyzed the data from the study with my colleague Joanna Krotofil from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, different white supremacist movements became evident. White Polish Women Converted to Islam, or PWFC for short, spoke a lot about the need to separate religion from “culture” or “cultural baggage.” On the surface, their claim was not so different from that of many young second- and third-generation Muslims living in the West who rejected certain traditional practices of their communities, such as early marriage for girls who might prefer to continue their education. However, the PWFC argument did not stop there. Some said that by practicing “pure” Islam without cultural additions, they were better and more authentic Muslims than their fellow Muslims of South Asian or North African descent. While the call for a culture-free Islam seems to be common and inspired by Islamic revivalist movements, it can have different consequences depending on who articulates it. When white Muslims call for this cultureless devotion, it stigmatizes the beliefs and practices of Muslims of color.

In our observations, white Polish women converts to Islam also exploited the egalitarian teachings of Islam to argue that as Muslims they could not be racist. The egalitarian message of Islam is generally linked to the message of the Prophet Muhammad. last sermonrelayed in many hadiths, also known as prophetic traditions, in which he warned the faithful: “All mankind is descended from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab or a a non-Arab has no superiority over an Arab, likewise a white has no superiority over a black and a black has no superiority over a white except in piety and good deed.

While Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon is often considered one of the first declarations of human rights, his ambitious statement on race, however, falls short of the lived reality of many Muslims of color. Today, many black Muslims speak openly about the discrimination that they live in the Muslim community as well as in society at large. This reality undermines the PWFC’s assertion that Muslims, including white converts to Islam, cannot be racist.

These results got me wondering how such defenses of white privilege might manifest in other religions to which white people are converting. It turns out that there are significant overlaps. Scholars of race and Buddhism describe the phenomenon of white people trying to gain prominence in this religion. The black feminist scholar and practitioner of Zen Buddhism, bell hooks, commented on white American Buddhist converts:

Surely it is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their “control” and “ownership” of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States… Seldom have I heard or read a truly eminent white person committed to Buddhism discussing the fear of being arrogant when talking about the subject, struggling with issues of ownership or authenticity.

Joseph Cheah, a Burmese American scholar of race and Buddhism, adapted sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s concept of “racial rearticulation” to explain “the acquisition of beliefs and practices from another’s religious tradition and infusing them with new meanings derived from one’s own culture so as to preserve the dominant system of racial hegemony. Cheah has argued that the white Buddhists’ centering of meditation as a main component of Buddhism and the incorporation of Western psychology is racist. Many white Buddhists reject the rituals, meritorious activities, and devotional practices found in ethnic Buddhism as “cultural baggage”; in doing so, they claim to practice “true Buddhism”.

Similarly, white Sikh criticism of Punjabi culture as an addition to Sikhism was evident in a study of white and Indian Sikh identities by Simranjit Khalsa, a white Sikh scholar. Indeed, some converts have even suggested that the rise of non-Punjabi white converts to Sikhism has helped reveal the “true essence of Sikhism”, as if white converts do not bring their own cultural inflections to this religion. Some white Sikhs in Khalsa research confessed to intentionally avoiding Indian Sikh communities and places of worship for fear of being accused of practicing Sikhism incorrectly and denied their claim to a Sikh identity.

As long as these white claims of special authority and authenticity remain unchallenged, white supremacy continues to operate beneath the surface. This fact is evident in the criticism of white converts of the so-called “culturally polluted”, “insufficient” or “incorrect” practices of non-white believers; in the denigration of their “backwardness”; in racial segregation based on unfounded fear of criticism or denial of identity; or, finally, defensively answers at reviews of the complicity of white converts in white supremacy and colonialism. Yet white converts use their proximity to nonwhite believers and egalitarian religious doctrines to claim nonracist identities.

It is true that white converts may experience Islamophobia or other types of racialized religious prejudice and discrimination. However, whiteness can mask how they remain complicit in maintaining white privilege across other social strata, including gender, sexuality, class, occupational status, nationality, and immigration status. None of these identifications can isolate whites from the reinforcement of racism; sometimes they just manage to obscure it better.

Converting to religions practiced primarily by people of color is not enough. By itself, that cannot be a ticket to white supremacy. White converts should always engage in anti-racist work, as all white people should.

Anna Piela is a visiting scholar in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She is currently co-editing a special issue of the journal that takes a closer look at the politics of white conversion to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and African religions. Last year, his book, Wearing the niqab: Muslim women in the UK and US, was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Follow her work at home website and on Twitter @annapiela999.

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