Eren Cervantes-Altamirano debunks seven common misconceptions surrounding converts to Islam.
Since my conversion to Islam four years ago, I have had my share of experiences with both ‘born-Muslims’ (someone raised as a Muslim) and non-Muslims. I have consistently noticed some myths around the whole conversion experience that both groups of people are very attached to. Thus, I think it is important to tackle some myths that have made their way into our communities.
Myth 1: Girl meets Muslim Prince Charming and converts to marry him
We all might know a few girls who meet a handsome born-Muslim guy and like him badly, but the family won’t accept them as potential wives unless they convert. It is usually a sad situation. Nonetheless, the image of the crazy-in-love convert girl is not flattering at all. Not every convert was in love before her conversion; women convert to Islam for a variety of reasons.
Some women read the Qur’an and instantly connect. Others meet a fellow Muslim sister and are impressed by the ethical and moral principles of Islam. Others still just pick up a book and discover that Islam is all they ever wanted! If anything, conversion stories are so varied that they cannot be generalised.
In my case, no marriage plans were involved. I knew I was a Muslim after reading this verse in surah Al-Baqarah: ‘Yes, whoever submits his face in Islam to Allah while being a doer of good will have his reward with his Lord. And no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve’ (2:112).
Myth 2: All converts are white and Western
This is a particularly strong assumption in Western countries or cultures where whiteness is highly preferred. For example, in my community in northern Canada, many born-Muslims from Middle Eastern, Asian and African backgrounds think of only white Canadians as being converts. White converts have become a hot ‘commodity’ for Muslims who believe that white and Western is better than their own backgrounds. These Muslims specifically seek convert women for marriage and look no further.
Well, I must disappoint those who believe this myth. Converts come from a variety of backgrounds that do not include Western, fair-skinned or Judeo-Christian backgrounds. In recent years for instance, Latin American converts have made headlines as small Muslim communities flourish in countries like Mexico, Chile and Argentina. Islam holds a universal message of equality among human beings that has attracted thousands of people around the world.
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge (30:22).
Myth 3: Converts have been brainwashed
This falsehood is prevalent especially outside our Muslim communities. Some people think we have been brainwashed by Muslim extremists or that we are just dumb. In some cases, it is even our own families who think so. After conversion, we are suddenly perceived as brainwashed women who silently follow extremist men and accept things like domestic violence, arranged marriages and female circumcision.
Yet, converts’ opinions on these issues and marital experiences vary greatly. In most cases, our opinions have little to do with brainwashing and more to do with our personal experiences even before conversion.
Myth 4: Converts are mediators
In some communities, there is the idea that female converts can mediate between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. We are encouraged to perform da’wah on non-Muslims, because we supposedly offer an ‘appeal’ not found in born-Muslims. Likewise, non-Muslim communities often perceive us as sufficiently ‘Westernised’ as to still fit and interact freely with them.
However, not all of us want this role. Some have no interest in proselytising back and forth between communities. Others face the painful reality of being expelled from their non-Muslim communities after their conversion to Islam. Converts should not be expected to become bridges between communities, but rather recognised as full members of the community that they have chosen to belong to.
Converts can take on a variety of roles, just as born-Muslims can themselves become mediators and ambassadors.
Myth 5: Converts are accomplices of Islam’s negative stereotypes
After 9/11, many Muslim issues were brought to the forefront of public discussion in the media. From terrorist attacks to domestic violence and forced marriages, converts are often confronted with these questions. For many non-Muslims, converting to Islam means that we, as converts, accept and endorse things like child marriage, gender violence and violence against non-Muslims. In fact, opinions on these issues vary greatly from convert to convert and they are, more often, a result of our own personal views towards certain issue than a matter of having converted to Islam.
Myth 6: We were all ‘bad’ girls before accepting Islam
I have been in countless conversations where converts describe their ‘pre-Islam’ drinking habits, pork-eating feasts, mini-skirts and other habits which are generally not accepted by Muslims. Many Muslims enjoy these stories of ‘wild’ girls who become good, and converts are a good source for these.
But not every convert drank alcohol, ate pork or wore mini-skirts. Nor does every convert consider their past to be ‘bad’. The way I see it, we are Muslims now and our past is part of our journey to Islam. Our experiences and life stories should be cherished and reconciled with our present as Muslim women.
Myth 7: Converts know little about Islam
How many times have we been approached by well-intentioned (but sometimes annoying) born-Muslims who think that because we are converts, we know nothing about Islam? While we appreciate the polite gestures to assist us when we need help, many converts have done their research and know a lot about Islam – they were convinced somehow, right?
Fellow converts often complain about community members patronising them and correcting them every step of the way, when the reality is that learning never ends for any Muslim. This can be very challenging for converts and make some of us feel unwelcome and unappreciated. As a rule of thumb, we will ask you if we need help.
Myths and stereotypes about converts are quite common among born-Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The conversion experience is often complex, emotional and challenging. Converts need support, time and space to develop the appropriate skills to become successful Muslims. Debunking the myths surrounding female converts is part of the process.
This article was updated on July 22, 2013 to add an additional myth