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Centre Blog

Thomas Sealy – Religion, Race, Culture: Islamophobia and British Converts to Islam

6 March 2023

My interview with Gayle, a white British Muslim convert of 18 years, had ended. It was a pleasant but chilly late winter’s day. About fifty yards up the street was a group of women wearing shalwar kameez, loose shawls and sandals. Gayle remarked how ‘Pakistani dress’ was impractical in Britain, an example of the ‘culturally ignorant interpretations’ of Islam by born Muslims, and added a story of a Pakistani sheikh advising Muslims in Canada to wear sandals even in the snow.

This example of a division drawn between religion and culture, that certain practices, behaviours, forms of dress, even attitudes are held to be cultural rather than religious, and at times culturally ‘other’ to Britain, is a common feature of convert narratives, albeit where the lines are drawn varies.

For some scholars, this is seen as a racist construction of a version of Islam by white converts that excludes born Muslims, or even as a form of ‘intellectual appropriation of the “other”’. Others have asserted that conversion “cannot be a ticket out of white supremacy”, as if that were the reason for it. However, by looking at when and why this division between religion and culture occurs in converts’ narratives, we can begin to see a more complex pattern of dynamics and a multi-dimensional process, not simply one simply of black and white.

We can return to Gayle’s narrative. She recounts a trip to London to visit her son shortly after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2015, when, upon arriving, and under pressure from her son, she removed her headscarf in order to pass through the streets unharassed:

“Feeling very miserable [about having removed her scarf ] I went with my son in the tube. About four or five stops along some poor Muslim guy got in with his dinner… you could smell it… and everybody in the carriage was glaring at him. And it just was too much for me. I started to cry. And my son said, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said ‘He’s up there being who he is. I should be sat next to him getting those evil looks and I’m hiding who I am.’ (…) And I find that seeing somebody else getting the venom that I know would come my way makes me feel so ashamed of myself.”

Following this, she put her headscarf back on.

In this instance Gayle had the option of not wearing her headscarf, and it might be understandable out of self-protection to do so. She would have ‘passed’ unnoticed as a Muslim by those on the street and would have left ‘visible’ Muslims to bear the brunt of racialisation. But she put her headscarf back on both out of solidarity with other Muslims and, crucially, so as not to betray herself.

So how to make sense of this? There are two aspects it is important to appreciate. The first, suggested by the passage above, is that converts do not simply exclude born Muslims. They do not necessarily try to remove themselves from a broad sociological category of ‘Muslim’ in the face of Islamophobia. The second can be appreciated from another of Gayle’s passages:

“[Y]ou get two schools of thought: you’re either Madonna and everybody wants to be as close to you and your skin because you are a revert […] Or you’re a leper; you can’t be a Muslim, you’re just pretending to be a Muslim because you weren’t born a Muslim so you don’t have the understanding […] and it’s gonna be all right in a minute and you’ll go back to your normal.”

What comes through in passages like this is that not only do converts face suspicion and exclusion from society more widely, often along with from family and friends, but they also commonly face, often painful, exclusion by born Muslims on the basis of their ethno-cultural background.

The narrative religion-culture distinction seeks to reconcile three dynamics: their own sense of themselves as Muslims; discrimination from friends, family, and wider society; and as a reaction against exclusion and discrimination from born Muslims and, in the context of this experience, trying to stake a claim for belonging in Islam. Notably, the religion-culture divide in their narratives is something drawn by converts of all backgrounds, and, we might add, born Muslims themselves. Moreover, these lines of critique that converts can express towards born Muslims can in fact also be directed at converts when they are seen to be more focussed on the cultural rather than religious.

This is what simply racial lenses miss. This more strongly necessitates the need to treat more seriously, that is, not reductively, their religious identity and claims to religious belonging.

Dr Thomas Sealy is Lecturer in Ethnicity and Race at the University of Bristol. This blog post accompanies his talk on 8 March 2023 as part of our annual Public Seminar Series.