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Feb 18 2014

Why Sikivu Hutchinson’s Latest Book Is Relevant To an Angry Romani Ex-Muslim

by Maryam Moosan-Clark

In Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, Sikivu Hutchinson takes us on a roller coaster ride through the different, interacting forms of underprivilege that affect People of Color in the United States, past and present. Throughout much of the journey, despite giving numerous examples a minority person can relate to, she maintains a measure of intellectual distance necessary for proper analysis. This changes on the final pages where she shares one historical and two personal experiences of loss (one still bearable for someone who is a parent, one not) which make everything discussed in the book suddenly and painfully concrete. Godless Americana is thoroughly researched and properly sourced, which is not a given for an activist book and should make the lives of racism denialists somewhat harder. Sikivu’s mastery of language, alternating between intellectual and activist, makes for a very captivating read, especially considering the sobering nature of its content.

Many of the patterns discussed in Godless Americana can be transposed to the situation of islamized minority cultures such as the Khorakhane Romani people, but also in part to Non-Arab, Islam-colonized nation states. To understand this, some context is required. As Sikivu points out, many white non-believers renounce their former faiths on purely intellectual grounds. Often, the same insight in a minority person merely leads to closet Atheism where, for reasons of social acceptance, one remains a member of the dominant religon in name. An additional impetus is usually required for such a person to come out as an Atheist (capitalization intended). The most common ones are socialist political views, the causes of women, gender and sexual minorities, and anti-racism. For myself, and interestingly also for the other Ex-Muslims in our immigrant freethought group, it was the latter.

At some point, I had to admit however reluctantly that the purportedly liberating, universalist, anti-racist religion I had been raised in was actually a racist, colonialist political ideology that promoted Arab supremacy and immunized itself against opposition by also being a religion. I realized that Turkish and to some degree Persian people had managed to bend the ideology to acquire a privileged position in the same way white Europeans have adapted Christianity to their needs. It was this racial hierarchy, which works to the detriment of my people, that ultimately convinced me of the necessity of Atheism. Godless Americana treats white supremacism and the Christian religion as separate but interconnected phenomena. Whereas in the Islamic world, Arab political and cultural imperialism are blended into one, the collection of causes and effects is ultimately the same. The most important commonalities are discussed below.

While this is not explicitly stated, Godless Americana shows how more than two centuries after slavery forced the transition from extended to nuclear families, African American culture has yet to recover from it, and this is one of the many factors that negatively affect the lives of women. Among the Romani people, this transition is in various stages, depending on whether it was or is driven by slavery, genocide, or migration. Most of the time, however, it happens as involuntarily as it did for African Americans. Unlike white people, for whom this was a gradual process over more than a century, our two peoples have had very little time to adjust. This disproportionally affects women, to whom the responsibility for family work traditionally falls, and it leaves broken homes and dysfunctional families in its wake.

Sikivu repeatedly highlights the proprietary relationship between a white master and the body and produce of his other-race bondwoman as the archetypical form of racist-sexist exploitation. This too is a common theme for islamized ethnic minorities. There is the Romani sex slave from the Balkans, whose Arab- or Turkish-owned body is available for rent by White-European males. Unlike her indentured white counterpart, she cannot buy her freedom. Her children are to be removed by forced abortion. She is a piece of factory equipment with productivity metrics, a price tag, and no way out. There is the Asian or African maid in an Arabian penninsula household who, unlike her Arab counterpart, is not merely an underpaid worker who is free to leave any time. She can say the shahada all she wants, her race makes her less than a full Muslim, and consequently any protection from sexual exploitation by her master does not apply to her. Her children are sent to her native country at best, and offloaded via black market adoption (the proceeds of which the mother never sees) or “made to disappear” at worst. In my community work with Eritrean asylum seekers who escaped from Gulf countries in adventurous ways, sexual abuse has been a recurring theme. While at first glance this relationship appears to be discouraged by religion, it is facilitated by it in reality (even more overtly in Islam than in the Christian context Sikivu describes).

Another central issue discussed in the book is the distinction between the purity of “master-race” women and the supposedly feral sex drive of “lower-race” females. This pattern repeats itself in the Islamic world, albeit literally veiled behind an additional layer of complexity. According to Islam, all female sexuality is impure temptation and must thus be hidden from the public eye. But while this concept is relatively strictly enforced in Arabia, the picture is very different in the Western proving grounds of Islamic power mongers. The purity of Arab women such as Ameera Al-Taweel is not compromised by their appearing at Clinton family fundraisers with flowing hair and high heels. Yet, Arab-funded campaigns seek to rigorously confine Muslim immigrant women of Pakistani, Indonesian, Albanian, African, or Khorakhane (Middle-Eastern Romani) descent behind veils, turn them into sexless beings, as their savage lower-race bodies lack the invisible hijab woven from the purity of an Arab princess. A long, figure occluding skirt was a must for a high-school going Khorakhane Romani girl, as the Arab imam so wisely told her parents at the Mosque. The tight jeans of his teenage Arab parishioners who used to walk by his house every day never seemed to bother him. I could give several dozen variations of this account, as told to me by Non-Arab, Ex-Muslim women. It is also no conincidence that the greatest veil-related excesses are found in places such as Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Sikivu further examines how religion forms the basis for feminist activism in the African American and Latina paradigms. Especially relevant here is the transition from orthodox religion to more liberal spirituality. Faith itself is seen as a fixed element that cannot be abandoned, and significant amounts of energy are invested into salvaging it. This pattern is all too familiar among islamized cultures. From Irshad Manji to Malala Yousafzai, Non-Arab feminists in our world use the colonial ideology of Islam as a source of personhood and identity. Passages from the Qur’an and Hadith are taken out of context and reinterpreted with considerable creative license, elements which encourage, or appear to encourage, critical thought are cherry picked, while the bulk of oppressive content is ignored and explained away with intentionally vague and irrational language. This creates a heavily encumbered form of feminism whose liberating power is limited by the dead weight of its religious apologetics.

The book goes on to describe how women, who are given very little maneuvering space in the real world, seek agency in the virtual world of church rituals. This phenomenon was clearly visible in the predominantly African American mosque my family attended during our final year in the United States, both in black and Romani women. But was it really agency they sought? There isn’t much of that for female parishioners to find in a mosque. What I noticed was how tired these women were, no matter how ecstatically they prayed. It seemed to me they came mostly for a break, a pause in their daily routine of being the invisible engines of family life, which gave them an opportunity to just let go and be carried away by the ritual.

I had to smile when I read about fraud schemes being pitched at African American churches. Fundraisers for opaque, supposedly charitable organizations are such an intergral part of mosque culture, it makes you weep. From savings plans for your hajj, to investments in Muslim immigrant businesses (guaranteed interest-free, of course), to donations for mosque construction in developing countries, you got the whole shebang. And they were always pitched to Non-Arabs with particular vigor, because we were gullible enough to be easy marks. The proceeds of such collections often ended up in someone’s private account or worse, in the hands of some islamist campaign, or even a violent group. My family, although struggling to make ends meet, was particularly receptive to such campaigns. After all, it was never wrong to please Allah. This demonstrates why the pervasiveness of religion in minority communities, despite its role in organizing and providing infrastructure, should not be taken lightly. Faith, and its associated thought patterns, set the precedent which allow such schemes to work. Religious communities are fertile grounds for fraud, because religion is fraud.

An interesting aspect of African American Atheism Sikivu mentions, is its strained relationship with white Atheism. This exists in even more extreme form within the Ex-Muslim paradigm, where we see outright perverse alliances between Ex-Muslims and the Christian Western Right, and conversely between the secular Western Left and Islam. Seeing Ayaan Hirsi Ali join a right-wing think tank, was as much an unpleasant surprise, as it is frustrating to see Western liberals form a protective circle around Islam to shield it from opposition. The white sense of entitlement includes the presumption that one is qualified to understand matters without ever educating oneself, and individuals who identify as skeptics, sadly, are not immune to this. The same mentality which inspires white Atheists to bring token African Americans to their conferences for PR purposes causes them to believe that, by defending Islam of all things, they can establish themselves as anti-racists.

Vigilante justice and its application against African Americans, which form part of the book’s historical overview, created a major deja vu effect for this person. It is not just a common theme in the Islamic world, but actually mandated by the religion, and as usual with such things, it is disproportionally applied against minorities. Romani people in the Ottoman empire were frequent targets of barbaric punishment by mobs, such as stoning and the amputation of limbs. Lynch culture and its “civilized” successors, the assumption of guilt, the school-to-prison pipeline, ever-present suspicion, and the constant watching and waiting for one of us to take a wrong turn and thus confirm all master-race suspicions, are a hallmark trait of institutional racism. As a member of the ultimate “dark twin race” to the native, sedentary, rooted, steady, hard-working, uniformed, moral, dependable, honest, intelligent, social, attractive, white majority, this is the part of the book that resonated with me the most. It is also interesting to note in this context, that the gradation of underprivilege between African Americans of darker and lighter skin exists among my people as well. Those of us who are sufficiently mixed with Europeans to “pass as white” are more likely to escape the modern incarnations of lynch culture (until people learn they are Romani) than those who – like my own family – never mixed and thus look distinctly brown.

Overall, Godless Americana provides a thoroughly researched analysis of the interaction between past and present, racist and sexist oppression, superstition, and opposition to those things, which holds up to very high standards. In plain words, it is one of the best books on intersectionality I have read so far. I should, however, mention that it is not without its problems and omissions (although far fewer than usual). While a full rebuttal on those points would exceed the scope of this review (and my spare time), I will sketch five of these issues in the following paragraphs:

One omission from the list of interacting privileges that I’d like to note, since the book concerns itself with youth, is ancestral privilege. While this may elicit amusement from some individuals, its effects are not restricted to seemingly funny, but still unnecessarily frustrating, lines such as “you can choose your clothes once you’re old enough to buy them” (gosh, how I hated that line). Among islamized cultures, but also in Christian circles, there is a strong, religion-mediated, proprietary relationship between parent and child. Rather than providing options and methods of discovery, parents assume the right to define the personality, thought, and behavioral patterns of their offspring far beyond ensuring social function – culminating in obscenities such as arranged marriages. The justification is usually “my parents did it too, and I lived” or “that’s how our culture works”. This is one of the primary mechanisms by which superstition, misogyny, various phobias, and violence are passed down from generation to generation.

Also, while the book speaks about the lack of real-world role models for our youth, it does not really explore the topic of fictional role models. There is a glaring lack of empowering children’s literature for girls of color. Secular books in this area almost always have a depressing side that is far too close to reality to be encouraging. Everything that is truly inspiring seems to have either a Christian or a Muslim twist. But even deeply religious children need an escape into an optimistic alternate reality, where someone they can relate to goes her own way and succeeds. During my childhood in the U.S., my brown self and my almost exclusively black friends yearned for something like that. So we ended up reading the same Tamora Pierce books all the white girls were reading, trying very hard to overlook the constant references to white aesthetics, because nothing written for kids like us that we knew of was available.

Sikivu points out separately how women choose to embed themselves in religious communities and (premature) family life, and how they are defined by their race. What I am missing here, is something to connect the dots, namely a general critique of how group identities are being forced upon minority women. From early childhood, we are indoctrinated to believe that our only source of personhood is the collective. While for young men, the question is “who do I want to be”, for minority girls it is always “which collectives do I want to be part of”. Mentoring rarely happens outside of a group context. Any place where a woman is allowed to build her identity, is necessarily a very crowded place. Not being a huge fan of that particular TV series, but the phrase “assimilated into Borg slave drones” still comes to mind. I cannot recall a single moment during my adolescence when I was able to reflect on who this person should be. Instead, I was completely defined by my connections to others, by my social interactions, which were naturally beyond my control. This was not because I wouldn’t have appreciated the opportunity to build my identity as an individual, who could then step out and be an agent in her community. Rather, I simply had no idea that option was even available to me – and it probably wasn’t. This is a serious impediment to female leadership, which by nature requires an established, independent personality. It relegates women to the role of community builders and organizers, who then make way for assertive male leaders. It makes us great social activists, and puts us at a serious disadvantage with respect to all other forms of leadership. To the point where I honestly have to say, it will be up to my daughter’s generation to overcome this obstacle, while it is too late for me.

There are a few other areas where Godless Americana remains superficial. In middle-class feminism, we find a divide between the sex-positive school and its opponents who criticize this school as unsuitable for minorities (Sikivu takes this position). In reality, both of these schools are expressions of privilege, as both can apparently afford to concern themselves with female appearance, while offering nothing useful in terms of establishing female sexual agency. It is past time we left our convenient discourse over presentation and turned to the hard problem of agency. Self-determined women will produce a diversity of ever-evolving presentation styles. The book also names the acceptance of porn as a major catalyst behind an increase in sex trafficking, a pressing matter for my ethnic community. This feminist folk wisdom falls short of a useful analysis. Romani women were trafficked in increasing numbers long before the general population indulged in porn. As I have recently learned, the rise began in the countries of the former Eastern bloc at a time when pornography was outlawed and male-female interaction was still governed by pre-war etiquette. We will probably find useful explanations for sex trafficking in areas such as the tendency to define human relationships with woefully inadequate methods from business administration, and mass-culture induced dehumanization which amplifies older, race and sex/gender based dehumanization patterns, as well as the aforementioned breakdown of family structures in urban environments.

In my opinion, Godless Americana, like most material produced by Romani activists, is too quick to dismiss science as an instrument of liberation. It is difficult to see this without actual exposure to science, for example it was not apparent to me until I trained to become a lab technician. For a middle-class household, minority or otherwise, where plumbing services, convenience and safety gadgets, and so on, are only a phone call or an internet order away, it is perfectly possible to live without any understanding of science. Its importance, however, rises exponentially with the scarcity of resources. Scientific knowledge makes the difference between successfully repairing a furnace, and the father and sole provider of a family of six receiving a fatal jolt. It prevents working class minority households from taking out predatory loans to pay for “miracle cures” for fictional ailments. It makes the difference between manufacturing a babycam from discarded parts and losing a child. The difference between manufacturing items of personal hygiene, which are otherwise unaffordable, from cheap ingredients, and wasting away. Between knowing how to remove mold from your walls, and your children suffering adverse health effects. All of the above examples are from my own family, and I could name many more. Science is not a luxury for old white males. It is a vital necessity for disadvantaged communities which provides concrete remedies for immediate, real-world problems.

These points notwithstanding, Godless Americana is a must-read for non-believers and possibly even liberal believers of color. For many new skeptics, even from ethnic minorities, authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are the beginning of Atheism. But whereas for white people they may also be the end of Atheism, People of Color have to go further. We cannot fight what we don’t understand, and this holds most especially for something as deeply entrenched as religion in minority environments. Sikivu does an amazing job shedding light on the unfortunate symbiosis between People of Color and religious institutions, which, by seemingly helping our communities, keeps them in a permanent state of dependency and docility.

 

13 comments

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  1. 1
    NORM R. ALLEN JR.

    This review puts my review to shame!

  2. 2
    CBfrmrlyinCrdf

    Dear ms Maryam Moosan-Clark,

    As someone who you would probably disapprove of, that is to say, a white European who is Right-of-Center, may I nevertheless say how much I enjoyed your article?

    I hope this approval from the wrong source doesn’t discourage you. Your apparent commitment to evidence-based assertions, your constructive and reasoned criticisms of the text you were reviewing, and your wide ranging and thought provoking prose would impress me even if I hadn’t been so interested in the content of your article.

    As you can probably guess, given how I’ve described myself, my enjoyment of your article is largely because in you I’ve found someone who reinforces my own “presumption that one is qualified to understand matters without ever educating oneself” . In other words, I’ve found someone, presumably well qualified to have an opinion, who is prepared to say the same critical stuff about the Muslim world as is said often about the Western world, and who, moreover, is prepared to say that in some respects the Arab/Muslim world is worse. I’ve come across, in you, someone who is telling me that the prejudices I’ve absorbed about the Arab world are, in fact, true. So I don’t have to worry about my world view being ‘wrong’, at least in that respect, which is most reassuring.

    Which all puts my conscience to rest somewhat, because I’ve recently been immersing myself in rival religious apologia, and in that field I’ve come across many ideologues who maintain that sharia is the perfect system of law, and that the Ottoman Caliphate and the ancient Islamic world more generally were wonderful utopia’s until everything was ruined by the importation of non-Islamic ideas. Obviously, in so far as I had any prior impression at all of the Ottoman’s, it was mostly negative, having been shaped by references from their western European contemporaries, who used them almost as a by-word for arbitrary oppression, backwardness, corruption, and disorder. So to come across evidence of their having been absolutely wonderful, which I could not, with my limited knowledge, disprove, obliged me to question all my presumptions about both the Ottomans and, of course, Islamism as a poltical force.

    If what you say is true, then the Ottomans were much more as I expected them to be, and I no longer have to question my own arrogant right-wing assumptions :).

    In addition, the next time I come across an assertion about how Islamic law and society is all sweetness and light, with the accompanying negativity about the secular and (more rationally but still unfairly,) the Christian worlds, I can mention some home truths that might moderate the zeal of certain people.

    But unfortunately I wouldn’t feel able to accept, still less to repeat, all your assertions about the mistreatment of the gypsy minority, both in the Ottoman Empire and subsequently in the Middle East, and your comments about the experience of ethnic minority women there, without having read some more about this subject for myself.

    What I mean to say is, please can you direct me to some (preferable freely available) sources both about the Ottomans historically, and about the problems in the Middle East today, which you bring up in the review? I’d appreciate any such information.

    I’d also appreciate being told of somewhere to read about Romani history and experience, not for ideological reasons, so much as because it is a big gap in my education.

    I was very provoked by what you had to say about science being a liberator, by the way. I’m not sure that “science” is the right word for all of your examples – the removal of mould is probably more about practical know-how than knowledge of scientific theory. Nevertheless, the basic point is true, that practical skills which are not needed for day-to-day life in today’s world of specialised and mostly sedentary skills, are nevertheless enormously valuable in helping us to shape our environment without employing an expensive expert, as well as obviously widening our potential sources of income.

    I wish I had more knowledge about such things. In fact until recently I had a terrible mould problem and not a clue about how to deal with it. I can only hope that the health damage is minimal, or non-existent.

    Anyway, thanks, for writing such an intelligent and wide-ranging article.

    1. 2.1
      double-m

      As you can probably guess, given how I’ve described myself, my enjoyment of your article is largely because in you I’ve found someone who reinforces my own “presumption that one is qualified to understand matters without ever educating oneself”. In other words, I’ve found someone, presumably well qualified to have an opinion, who is prepared to say the same critical stuff about the Muslim world as is said often about the Western world, and who, moreover, is prepared to say that in some respects the Arab/Muslim world is worse. I’ve come across, in you, someone who is telling me that the prejudices I’ve absorbed about the Arab world are, in fact, true. So I don’t have to worry about my world view being ‘wrong’, at least in that respect, which is most reassuring.

      Then I’ll have to temper your enthusiasm. I see Arab and white European/American regimes as equally ruthless, and their imperialist power struggle has caused immeasurable suffering (I believe they call this “collateral damage”) all over the world for 1000+ years. The Muslim world is no “better” or “worse” in this respect than the Christian world. I could have written a very similar article with “Islam” replaced by “Catholicism” and “Arab supremacist” replaced by “white supremacist”. There are no good guys in this, they couldn’t care less who gets caught in the crossfire. The callousness and savagery with which both sides (especially the supposedly educated elites) destroy innocent lives often leaves me speechless.

      I’m not currently at home, but I’ll be back with a list of English books (I don’t even know if they have English translations) next week.

  3. 3
    Ani J. Sharmin

    Maryam Moosan-Clark,

    Thanks very much for your review. I actually read this yesterday at SikivuHutchinson(dot)com and immediately wanted to cheer out loud. I am an atheist/exMuslim from a Muslim family (South Asian, in my case) and I can relate so much of what you wrote here. Thank you so much.

    1. 3.1
      double-m

      Ani, thank you so much. Living under fire from both sides, from the white and Arab domainated worlds, isn’t always easy. I’m not ashamed to say I still cry almost everytime people like you make me realize I’m not alone.

  4. 4
    thomaspaine

    I really enjoyed this post. It summed up with precision accuracy what I have witnessed and experienced in practice. The race factor in Islam is one that warrants far more attention. I’m a form Muslim covert. One of the features I found attractive was the purported idea of racial equality (in contrast to the chosen people concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is a form of racism). The stated doctrine of racial equality in Islam bears no resemblance to the actual reality (and the Arabian imperialistic angle has a lot to do with it).

    I recall arguing with an Arab friend of mine. I was telling him Arab Muslims couldn’t be racist. He laughed and said “we’re the most racist people in the world. ” He was exaggerating but after many years of living in Arab countries I came to understand that he had a point. Racism is real despite the official doctrine.

    If any one has any suggestions for further reading on this topic, I’d love to hear them.

    1. 4.1
      double-m

      Thank you very much. I’d like to add that this putative doctrine of equality is also a cover, very much like a white person saying “I’m not a racist, but…”. All nations are equal, BUT everyone must bow towards Arabia. All nations are equal, BUT Arabic is the perfect language, and everyone should have an Arabic name. And so on. The similarities to the de-facto white centric Christian religion are striking.

  5. 5
    Arren ›‹ neverbound

    A thoroughly interesting review, perspicacious and lucid. Surprised that Google turns up no other English-language articles with your byline, Ms. Moosan-Clark — quite the debut.

    (Dawkins is nowhere near the endpoint of atheism for this particular white man, and Harris isn’t even on my timeline. Some of us do try.)

  6. 6
    miraxpath

    As a minority Indian woman atheist who lives in South East Asia and has a fair bit of knowledge of South asian and Malay muslim communities and culture , I am blown away by this article of yours, Ms Moosan-Clark. All of your precisely articulated arguments resonate with me and I really hope you continue to write for FTB.

    1. 6.1
      double-m

      Thank you, it’s so good to hear this. The fact that Indian and Romani people come together in this space provided by our African American hosts, is one of the little things that gives me hope. People of Color from everywhere should stand together against oppression, no matter where it comes from. I’d be honored to write another article for the Black Skeptics some time (will be busy with giving birth and related stuff first though lol).

      1. blackskeptics

        Excellent, Maryam. Just let us know when you can give us more of your powerful (and much needed) analysis and congrats on your newborn!

  7. 7
    miraxpath

    Also , I am curious as to whether the minority muslim Roma community experiences discrimination from Roma of other faiths?

    1. 7.1
      double-m

      Not necessarily along religious lines, but I’ve seen animosity between various local populations, and even bitter rivalries between different families who live in the same area. For example, I’ve met quite a few German Sinti, many of whom are mixed and look white now, who consider Eastern European and Middle-Eastern Roma their “primitive” cousins because of our darker skin and treat us accordingly. Some white regimes in Europe also foster this kind of conflict among our people, by using their resources to entrap the leaders of local Romani communities and turn them against their immigrant compatriots.

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