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Susanne Leuenberger {*}

Various Motives

Conversion to Islam in Europe

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2010, P. 422-426
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    Islam is not only the religion of non-native strangers in Europe but also of a small but growing number of converts. What are Europeans looking for in Islam? How are Islamic practices acquired, and do thus European forms of Islam develop?

 

The conversion to Islam is not a new phenomenon in Europe. Already at the beginning of the 19th century the first Europeans converted to Islam. The Basel scholar Johann L. Burckhardt (1784-1817) e.g., who rediscovered the rock city of Petra, came to Islam through his extensive travels to the Orient. Also in the first half of the 20th century a number of eminent European figures converted to Islam, such as the Austrian Leopold Weiss (alias Muhammad Asad, 1900-1992) or the adventurer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904). A group of artists and writers around the Frenchman Rene Gubion (1886-1951), the German-born artist Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) and the Swiss Titus Burckhardt (1908-1984) sought in Islam a spiritual alternative to the secular West and founded the first Sufi circles in France and Switzerland in the forties.

It is difficult to say how many converts to Islam live in Europe today. Available estimates on the situation in Scandinavia speak of a proportion of 1.5 to 2.5 per cent of the respective population group with an Islamic background (Anne-Sofie Roald, New Muslims in the European Context. The Experience of Scandinavian Converts, Leiden 2004, 1). If you extrapolate this percentage to the German-speaking countries the number of converts might amount to approximately 40,000 to 60,000 people in Germany and in Switzerland and Austria each to approximately 10,000 men and women. Since 11 September 2001 and in recent times in the context of European debates on Islam, the media increasingly report of a significant increase in conversions to Islam. It is difficult to assess to what extent this presentation concerns a media hysteria or Islamic propaganda. The currently increased number of conversions, however, is plausible because of the increased media coverage of Islam - although in the context of negative headlines. "No advertising is bad advertising," said an interlocutor in an Islamic center in Bern. In addition, the Muslim part of the population is growing in Western Europe. This increases also the chance of an encounter with Islam and Muslims.

 


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There are many motivations and approaches behind the phenomenon of conversion to Islam. At the latest since 11 September 2001 and the discussions triggered by it, Islam stands in many respects for the "alien" and "different" in local societies. This perception of Islam ensues from a centuries-old history of cultural encounter and confrontation, which from time immemorial has been oscillating between defense and fascination.

 

Values and Ideas that Seem Lost in Western Societies

While the negative associations, such as violence, oppression of women, fanaticism and backwardness are dominant, at the same time Islam as counter horizon attracts not a few Europeans. For many people the grappling with Islam begins by the fascination of Islamic forms of expression. A Swiss convert describes his first experience with Islam, "It was a family holiday in Tunisia. With my parents we visited a small village near the tourist beach. When we got off the coach, the Adhan (call to prayer) sounded from a mosque. This someway went deeply into my heart. Something has stirred in me."

Many converts see Islam as an alternative way of life and look for values and ideas that seem lost in Western societies. The respondents mention the logic and simplicity of Islam, the strict monotheism, the direct reference to God, the spirituality, and the way of life that encompasses the entire day-to-day life as reasons to embrace the Islamic faith. Important values in Islam, such as community, hospitality and orientation towards the family are points that are also emphasized by the converts. For example, a young Swiss convert said, "For me, Islam is a comprehensive way of life. It is about the coexistence of people, the solidarity among people. That is what impresses me most in Islam: simply the equality and community among people."

While the early converts came into contact with Islam by traveling to the Orient and the study of Islamic texts, today most of women and men convert in the context of a love relationship with a partner of Muslim origin. These are often acquaintances that were made in Europe. The conversion to Islam tends to be a female phenomenon, about 60 to 70 per cent of converts are women. Many men, but also some women convert for more formal reasons (many Islamic countries do not recognize a marriage between a Muslima and a non-Muslim). For many of these Muslims the belonging to Islam ends in case of separation from the Muslim partner and remains a passing episode in their life. For others, the conversion is an intensive long-term process in the context of their bi-cultural partnership.

Still others meet Islam via Muslim friends and acquaintances, in the context of visits to Muslim countries, or they find Islam because of a personal religious search for meaning. An interlocutor comes in his adolescence during an identity crisis via Muslim colleagues in contact with Islam. "At that time I have much dealt with various religious traditions. I was not fixated on Christianity, but for me it was always clear that a God exists. Many Lebanese lived in my neighbourhood and I began to discuss with them about religion and so on. I have asked them how they practice it, and began to read the Koran. That was the beginning."

 

A Conversion Usually Proceeds over a Longer Period

The spectrum of religious orientations among converts ranges from a lifestyle that is strictly oriented towards the model of the Prophet Muhammad and the early Islamic community, as it is practiced in forms of Islam influenced by Salafism, up to mystically oriented practices in which inner encounters with God and self-awareness by ritual practices are at the centre.

Contrary to the popular view of conversion as a kind of lightning-like experience, which is the decisive factor for an abrupt change in lifestyle and identity, the conversion usually proceeds over a longer period. Step by step practices such as fasting during Ramadan, praying, or abstaining from pork and alcohol are "tested" and practised. Converts gain information and knowledge about Islam especially through the reading of Islamic texts and introductory works, and, in recent years via Internet. In their learning process, the converts are mostly accompanied by individual Muslims.

Often it takes years until the converts speak the Shahada, the Islamic profession of faith, which as a ritual act, spoken before two witnesses, marks the conversion: Aschhadu an La Illah illa Allah wa Muhammadan Rasul Allah (I bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger). Many converts also adopt a new Islamic name. In some cases it replaces the previous first name. Others use the Islamic name as a middle name or decide, depending upon the social situation, how they want to be called. The male circumcision is not a religious duty but was accomplished by some interlocutors.

 


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While the professing of the Creed and the adoption of ritual obligations as e.g. praying or fasting were described as continuous transition by the interviewed converts, the wearing of Islamic clothing, especially the female head scarf indicates outwardly a visible break with the past and the non-Muslim environment. Many converted Muslimas long hesitate to take this step. A young converted Muslima e.g. remembers, "Before I visited my mother for the first time with a headscarf, I have written her an SMS, to prepare her that I wear a headscarf." Another interviewee compares this step of donning a headscarf with the "coming out" of a homosexual, as regards the scope of the social consequences and responses. Other converted Muslim women never wear a headscarf, except for prayer.

 

Conflicts with the Family of Origin

Not least because the Islamic religion has a bad reputation, new Muslims and Muslimas often meet little understanding in their former environment. While in some cases there at least a temporary breakup of contact takes place, other families and friends are prepared to compromise and find together with the converts humorous ways of behaving.

Conflicts with the family of origin arise, for example, if common family rituals such as Christmas, weddings, christenings or meals in which alcohol is drunk, are shunned by the converts. The ways of dealing with customary family traditions and practices, esp. practises that are difficult to reconcile with Islamic commandments, turn out to be very individual, and depend on the Islamic orientation as well as on willingness to compromise on both sides.

It can often be observed that the newly converted practice a very strict Islam. The very correct practice of Islamic norms and commandments is on the one hand due to the fact that converts have often acquired their knowledge by "reading up" on Islam; i.e. they practise ,in the full sense of the word, a literal Islam, and also ritual physical practices such as fasting and prayer are deliberately practiced. The adoption of Islam implicates many changes in everyday life, to which the new Muslims pay attention. This means that Islam and the effort to learn the correct practice is given much attention in their lives. On the other hand the new converts also seek the recognition of their brothers and sisters in faith via the correct practice of Islam. Often the initial rigor of Islamic interpretation and practice subsided with a certain routine of the converts.

The social tensions in the milieu of origin and at the workplace are tendentially more severe for women who convert, especially if they wear headscarves. Like many other Muslimas, many female converts are faced with the decision to remove the headscarf while working, to change their profession, or to abandon it altogether. By contrast, the Islamic identity of many converted men, if they do not adopt ostentatious Islamic body and garment codes, as e.g. the typical Islamic beard, long shirts, Turkish trousers, and turbans, remains "invisible" for their environment, and therefore unproblematic. With men the belonging to Islam is often only noticed when they in a friendly get-together abstain from alcohol, do no longer eat meat, or refuse for religious reasons to shake hands with a woman.

While the non-Muslim environment perceives the conversion as a social break, the converts are mostly gladly admitted by Islamic communities. As someone who knows also a different religious and cultural tradition and decides in favour of Islam, a convert is a kind of living proof of the superiority of their religion. In addition, converts strengthen the self-confidence of the minority religion, which has a bad image. So a convert tells, "Muslims have great joy when a Swiss comes to Islam. When we went somewhere and my Muslim colleagues have introduced me, the first thing they say is alway, 'He is a Swiss'."

Often converts make an appearance at Islamic public events and tell their conversion story. It is here about a collective ritual, in which through the story of the convert, the empathy in and reliving of his experiences and insights in the audience the feeling of togetherness is reinforced - and also the Islamic identity of the speaker is strengthened.

 

Converts Promote Islam

Despite all the joy at the new brothers and sisters in faith, the majority of Muslim communities and organizations are neither linguistically nor culturally adapted to the needs of the new European Muslims. Existing clubs and organizations are often organized according to ethnic criteria and cover rather traditional and cultural needs of the immigrant generation. Converts distinguish between "religion" and "culture", and they seek an Islam that is detached from traditional practices and ideas. In the words a convert, "Since we as converts have no Islamic background and no culture, we can really learn simply Islam as it is."

For a long time mission among Europeans was a marginal phenomenon, which was done mainly by organizations such as the globally organized Ahmadiyya Community, or Sufi groups.

 


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Only in recent years new organizations have emerged, which are often originated by converts and meet better the needs and questions of European people. These new associations "translate" Islam into the European languages and cultural contexts and are therefore attractive for converts and young Muslims who grow up in Europe.

It is not surprising that the currently most successful Islamic preacher in the German-speaking area, Pierre Vogel is a convert. His stage performances and his website "Invitation to Paradise" (www.einladungzumparadies.de) has great success particularly among young German-speaking Muslims from immigrant backgrounds and converts. Vogel and his environment preach a fundamentalist Islam and are critically discussed in the public and observed by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Vogel's pop-cultural imagery and eye-catching style, which follows the rhetoric of Evangelical preachers, is attractive to young German, Swiss and Austrians. His video clips are swapped and offer, by simple moral instructions, orientation to young people in their search for identity.

Also in the area of Sufism, the Islamic mysticism, it is striking that converts play important roles. In Germany, for example, the "Osmanische Herberge" [Ottoman Inn] around the German Sufi Shaykh and the musician Hassen Dyck can be mentioned, to whose Naqshbandi Order above all German converts of both sexes belong (www.osmanische-herberge.de).

Basically, one can for some time observe that converts of either sex to Islam do association work, establish German-speaking mosques, or develop new forms of teaching Islam. Female converts are substantially involved in the development of Islamic women's organizations, because many traditional Islamic offers are structurally and spatially dominated still by men (see also Herder Korrespondenz Spezial, "Die unbekannte Religion. Muslime in Deutschland", 2-2009, 28ff.). The German network "Al-Huda" e.g. is chaired by female converts and provides a platform for Muslim women and their concerns (www.huda.de).

In Switzerland, too, since the nineties a number of Islamic women's associations was founded on the initiative of converted women, such as the Berne "Dar an-Nur", which offers room for exchange and Islamic education. Converts to Islam can often be found in the position of spokesmen and translators.

In Germany, a convert, the academician Ayyub Axel Köhler holds the position of the Presidency of the Central Council of Muslims. Converts are also active in the field of Islamic media. The "Islamic newspaper", e.g. is published in Berlin by the converted lawyer Abu Bakr Andreas Rieger (www.islamische-zeitung.de). Numerous Islamic texts and introductory works are translated into German by converts.

The spectrum of "translation work" of the converts is widely varied: not only with regard to language but also to culture, many forms of Islam are adapted to the European context. Converts to Islam have a "double symbolic capital", in so far as they can resort to their European background, and know Islam. They hold not only within the Muslim communities intermediary positions, but they also address self-confidently the non-Islamic public.

Thus, in Switzerland in the context of the adoption of the minaret initiative (see HK, January 2010 7 ff.), the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) was founded, the board of which consists mainly of Swiss converts. The Central Council sees itself as a grassroots organization of Muslim people in Switzerland and calls in the medium term for public recognition of the Islamic religion, the establishment of Islamic schools, and the establishment of an Islamic Fatwa Council. By their eloquent performances in public the converted protagonists, who represent a fundamentalist-oriented Islam, caused recently media debates about the radical nature of converts to Islam and the question of the integration of Muslims in Switzerland.

 

The Conversion to Islam is not a Unilateral Learning Process

The conversion to Islam is not a unilateral learning process, in which a convert adopts a new identity and completely frees himself from his old habits. A convert to Islam always also brings views and habits that are familiar to him in the "foreign" religion. The image of the radical defector is not correct, because each conversion is also a translation and adaptation performance, howsoever radical or liberal the interpretation of Islam will turn out.

Also at the level of everyday practice new forms of European-Islamic life style can therefore be observed. Among young Muslim converts popular leisure activities are e.g. mountain hikes or bike tours, as they also belong to the basic repertoire of European leisure activities. In a Muslima association in Zurich, for instance, a young female convert offered recently a course in repairing bicycles. Also elements of Christian traditions are incorporated into the Islamic practice of converts. An Islamic children's book publishing house in Switzerland, for instance, offers Islamic Ramadan calendars, which are inspired by the Christmas advent calendar.

 


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It is also possible that the conversion to Islam, as e.g. in the context of a marriage with a Muslim partner, is a symbolic resource for shaping the common everyday life. Thus a convert told, "When I met my Indonesian wife, we discussed a lot. On what base would we put our relationship? And now we see it this way: Islam is our common ground." Then Islamic rituals such as prayer, but also festivals such as Ramadan as well as typical local traditions arrange the common life. In the Swiss context, for instance, the brewing of an "Islamic fondue (made with apple juice instead of white wine and cherry brandy) is popular in the family circle and among friends. Here, then in the true sense of the word Islamic hospitality and Swiss "cosiness" merge.

 

    {*} Susanne Leuenberger (born in 1978) is research assistant at the Institute of Religious Studies at the University of Bern. After finishing her studies in divinity, Islamic studies and philosophy in Bern and Cairo, she is, supported by the Swiss National Fund, working on a thesis about Swiss men and women who convert to Islam.

 

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