The Invisible Muslim

In late February 2020 – just in time to provide reading material for people entering coronavirus quarantine – my newest book, The Invisible Muslim, hit the bookstands. This travelogue-memoir deals principally with the complicated dance that takes place between religious and ethnic identities, particularly for white Muslims.

The idea for the book was first put to me by Samia Rahman, deputy editor of Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal to which I occasionally contribute. Samia suggested I pitch a book about my experiences as a white Muslim to CM’s publisher, Hurst, as they have a particularly international focus and are especially interested in stories from the periphery of the Islamic world.

My initial reaction was to cringe. How would a book like that be: ‘Me & My Whiteness: A Memoir by Cultural Appropriation Barbie’? Or ‘The Tragic Tale of the Little White Muslim Girl Who Didn’t Belong?’ The very idea of adding and centring yet another white person’s narrative to the vast amounts that already exist repelled me…but the idea didn’t go away.

Over a period of about five years, I found I’d think of the project nearly daily. I was realising I had a lot to say on the subject, as it’s one that has brought up many awkward questions throughout my life. How did whiteness shape my experience of being a Muslim? Did other Muslims give me special treatment, or invalidate my Islam as I was too European – or were those both possible reactions, albeit extremes of a very broad range? How to shape an Anglo-American Muslim identity when there were very few who had gone before me? And how did Islam work as a bridge between me and Muslims of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?

All these might seem like personally specific trivialities, and in many ways they are. But seen in the context of global history, and the struggle against Islamophobia for those of us who live as minorities in majority secular or Christian states, they touch on much broader and more pressing concerns: can Islam overcome the stigma of Otherness and be accepted on these relatively new terrains?

It’s often been stated that Islam is like water: as it enters cultural containers it takes on their shapes and colours. This is why we have different manifestations of Islamic culture from Malaysia to Bangladesh, Iran to Bosnia, Somalia to Morocco, France to the US, and beyond. And yet there’s something that connects us.

We’re living in times of unprecedented globalisation, and diaspora cultures are almost ubiquitous; as children grow up in third cultures, a kind of religious Creole develops: a language that fuses two tongues and enables us to translate ideas across barriers that might formerly have seemed solid.

In the end, I realised that it was only my white fragility – my defensiveness at accusations of racism and resistance to relinquishing privilege – that was preventing me from talking frankly and critically about how whiteness impacts upon my own Muslim identity and experience. So I bit the bullet, partly as a kind of personal catharsis to put some of these questions to rest, and partly because I thought it might help others to talk about these uncomfortable questions themselves.

But I also believe that a piece of writing needs to be an artefact, something that weaves together history and poetry, texture and feeling and thought provocation, so that it becomes a kind of holograph of the writer’s being that you can stand up and walk around in. Thus The Invisible Muslim was born, a multifaceted meditation on longing and belonging, authenticity and spirituality, story and history, and the Veils that can block out the Other, or provide protection and a welcome invisibility.

You can get your copy at Hurst’s website or Blackwell’s (which seem to have free shipping abroad). Tag me (@medinatenour) if you bookstagram about it (I am, after all, an Instagran.)

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Reviews:

‘An important contribution to the conversation about diversity that deserves to be widely read. A rare perspective—peaceful, balanced, lucid and attractive. It might well be a glimpse into the future of a British Islam, confident in its identity, at ease with its setting.’ — Leila Aboulela, author of Bird SummonsMinaret and The Translator

‘A bold and beautifully written memoir of searing honesty and warmth. Whiteman gracefully grapples with the complex layers of identity, whiteness and culture as she maps out the landscape of her life, all the while drawing in history and belief in her uniquely eloquent style.’ — Remona Aly, journalist and broadcaster

‘Medina Tenour Whiteman has approached a unique, complicated branch of Muslim identity with sensitivity and nuance. This book shows that faith is more than adherence to ritual—it is also a means to find oneself.’ — Hussein Kesvani, author of Follow Me, Akhi

The Culture of My Category

It seems the Happy debate is still there, rankling like a pint of milk going mouldy at the back of the fridge. While the fiqh (jurisprudence) debate will probably go on and on forever, as there’s no definitive scriptural prohibition on music, it seems there is a kind of aesthetic irritation present whenever Muslims are seen doing something ‘western’.

Critics of the Happy British Muslims video often cite the fact that Muslims are ‘having to prove that they are human’ by the criteria of a largely white, western mediated hegemony. Apart from the fact that Pharrell Williams in not white, which undermines of whole argument (particularly as there are millions of black American Muslims, and millions more African Muslms), what we have here is a very sticky case of cultural appropiation.

When is it OK for a white person to sing dancehall music in Jamaican patois? Can Japanese women learn to dance flamenco? Are Americans crossing a line when they got o Russia to drink vodka? I’ve met plenty who do it very well. MY alma mater, SOAS, was famous for its ‘trustafarians’, white kids from wealthy backgrounds who liked to hang out with Baye Fall Sufis, wear ethnic clothing and bang on about imperialism with a reefer in their hand.

If you are a Western Muslim, a revert for instance, the situation gets slightly more complicated. It’s not just OK to adopt elements of a different culture, you’re actually kind of expected to. Your clothing isn;t complete without a hijab, kufi, item of jewellery with an Arabic inscription or garment with a ‘foreign’ look to it. Your English-sounding name will very likely be looked at with skepticism, prompting you to take on an Arabic one. Your choice of spouse will very likely reflect your outward-looking gaze, and then there’ll be endless obligatory visits to the other half’s homeland, not to mention intense efforts on the part of your new in-laws to instruct you in the ways of their country.

It is faintly amusing, actually, this nonsensical neurosis surrounding cultural appropriation, when you’re Anglo-American, white as a box of Daz, and have always been Muslim. I’ll listen to Hamza El Din, Celia Cruz or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan just as easily as I would the Isley Brothers, Yuna or Estrella Morente…but hold on a minute…none of them are white, Anglo-American, or Muslim! Am I allowed to like them? Or is it OK to listen to their music but not to sing their songs myself??

If I’m restricted to the culture of my category, then I’m going to end up listening only to my own music, as there really aren’t any others out there whose group I belong to. Not even Adele, who is about the only white British singer I can stand, and even so, I don’t own any of her music. Am I a self-hating Brit? Not really. Brits have always wanted to left this very tiny island and seek their fortunes around the world. That doesn’t take the Brit out of you, though. As much as I want to be true to my roots, this nationalistic pride drummed up by UKIP lunatics makes me reach for the sickbag. Surely there must be some other way of finding an authentic identity?

To me, part of the beauty of Islam is that is encourages us to transcend our boundaries, accept one another as members of a vast, international family that is made richer for its variations, but which is not stingy with them. Everywhere I’ve travelled in the Muslim world, people have expressed not only delight at my own pathetic efforts to absorb elements of their culture, but eager to learn about my own.

There is a kind of mutual admiration across the planet that finds its expression in cultural appropriation, but which has tap roots way down in love for humanity. Muslims who have received a western education, particularly one that emphasises anti-imperialist trends, have a slew of arguments sloshing around inside out heads itching to latch themselves onto this or that issue, and debate it into the ground. We over-think everything, being ourselves over-thought, over-scrutinised and over-noticed. It’s so hard to get back to a simple, intuitive approach to life, in which different cultures can be appreciated and absorbed without flagellating ourselves over it.

Without any further ado, watch this video and marvel at the Iranian-American cultural fusion. Argument over.

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Muslim Things: Surprisingly Not Scary

  It’s impossible not to notice them. They appear in social network newsfeeds, they appear in the news, in the comments on the news, in conversations overhead on café terraces. At times you can almost see them being thought.
  They are the fears that flit across the minds of anyone who has ever come into contact with a Muslim. Or, more potently, who has ever read the word without ever having met a Muslim. The word has taken on a shape-shifting life of its own, at times monstruous and shadowy, at others defiant and political; the silhouette of it morphs on the screen, taking on the prickly subjects around it and shuffling forward under the burden of their horrors.
  And yet at other times, and sometimes even more intensely on Facebook than anywhere else, it is a key to a vast wonderland of commonalities, of shared loves and expansions, of the imagined song of a nightingale pondering how to attain the rose, of the sorrow of separation into individual bodies when the spirit longs for union again, of the thunder that joy makes in the heart when this long-for proximity is felt. All of this depends on the projections of the thinker, on the bed the word receives in their brain.
  However it beds down in yours, it is never a neutral name. It does not inspire visions of light-hearted, frolicsome, or jovial people, skipping happily through life.
  In the spirit of addressing the imbalance of contexts in which the word ‘Muslim’ appears (take, for instance, ‘Muslim Rage’, ‘Muslim patriarchal values’, ‘Muslim traditions’…) I would like to suggest a few new nomenclatures.
  How about ‘Muslim Badminton?’
  Or ‘Muslim Knitting’?
  Or ‘Muslim Strawberry Farms’?
  We could really go to town here, in our invented, happy-go-lucky Muslim world, where there are no issues surrounding us like swathes of barbed wire, and we are generally pootling along, enjoying life. (Feel free to add your own Muslim Things in the comments!)
  How about…

  ‘Muslim Surfing’
  ‘Muslim Theatre’
  ‘Muslim Fudge’
  ‘Muslim Upcycling’
  ‘Muslim Capoeira’
  ‘Muslim Bake-Sales’
  ‘Muslim Poetry Slams’
  ‘Muslim Silversmithing’
  ‘Muslim Face-painting’
  ‘Muslim Nurseries’
  ‘Muslim Permaculture’
  ‘Muslim Neo-Choirs’
  ‘Muslim Jam Sessions’
  ‘Muslim Skating’
  ‘Muslim Hiking Clubs’
  ‘Muslim Soup Kitchens’
  ‘Muslims Holding Hands at the Movies’

  It is curious how often even I expected myself to write something involving a revolution, repressive regime or Scud missile.
  How inculcated a sense of a word becomes; I would like to do as gay people did when they inverted the sense of the word Queer and made it something they could be proud of.
  In a way, the analogy is not so off the wall. If you were to round up all the gay people in the world, you’d be sure to find a decent dose of substance abusers, HIV positives, sociopaths, and worse in there somewhere. Despite this being so, the truth is that no one gay person can be called upon to answer for all of that. Virtually every gay person I’ve ever met seemed quite serious, domestically minded, and, well, pretty normal.
  So it is for Muslims. Much to the annoyance of journalists, for whom it shreds the simple notions they rely upon to explain us from arm’s length, there is no such thing as a ‘Muslim community’. This hysterically funny satire shows how absurd the idea of a ‘black community’ sounds if it were to be turned on its head.
  If you don’t happen to spend a decent amount of time among Muslims – and that probably accounts for a good number of Muslims themselves, who are equally vulnerable to casting aspersions over themselves after a good hammering by the news – let me tell you that I know Muslims, or know of Muslims, who happily fall into the above categories, and many more innocent, unscary others besides.
  I personally know Muslim midwives and doulas, herbalists, doctors, healers, singers (female too – myself included), musicians, painters, gravestone-carvers, poets, gardeners, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, state school teachers, civil servants, journalists, avid PG Wodehouse fans, filmmakers, photographers, nerds, programmers, adrenaline junkies, mountain-climbers…Sometimes they are inspired, driven by a sense of joy so powerful in them that they cannot but do their art, sport, game, craft, or whatever it is, lest they implode with the excitement.
  It seems peculiar to associate any of these ordinary, or extraordinary activities with being a Muslim, but are they any less relevant than a different kind of Muslim’s penchant for throwing stones at tanks, or issuing prohibitions on women revealing their ankles, or shouting ‘Death to America’? How much is each of them contingent upon the time, the context, the education of the person, the influences they are subject to, or the unfathomable movements of the human mind?
  We are, at our least divided, only human beings. Separating a person’s identity from their freedom to behave like a twit is the first step to viewing them as a human being. Otherwise, we owe what we do to our colour, religion, nationality, immigration status, gender, sexuality, or any other label we have invented for the sole purpose of separating others from ourselves and scattering them into a hierarchy whose apex is us. In this ugly scheme where everything is blamed on the umbrella of identity over our heads, none of us can ever break out of the crust built up of our errors and start over.
  So, dear readers, I shall now desist from my Muslim typing, since my Muslim fingers are tired, and my Muslim glasses smudged with unidentified Muslim splodges. My Muslim ideas have run to a standstill. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall have some Muslim Fun with my kids, playing Muslim Football and doing some Muslim Weeding in my Muslim veggie plot. But for now, I shall brush my Muslim teeth, go to Muslim sleep and, I hope, have a few Muslim dreams.