Saturday, February 23

The problem of conversion, can you be Danish and Muslim at the same time?

The fact that Immigrant Muslims and native Europeans are at loggerheads is not in doubt. Just look at the current huge hoo-haa around the Archbishop's silly statement. The Muslims are firmly noted as the "other" and this is across most of the countries in Europe. Specially in Denmark, where the feeling is much stronger than other countries (it has even elected clearly racist parliamentarians!). But what about the native Danes who covert to Islam? I got some very interesting clues from this paper.

Converts are seen as dangerous and possible traitors because (1) they have abandoned the Lutheran Protestantism and (2) they violate the unspoken rule of not showing their religion in public by wearing veils, praying at work, using different language, etc..

I would have thought that conversion would not show up that dramatically but apparently it does. The author talks about women changing clothing by wearing the veil, changing names, growing beards (for men that is), wearing different headgear, changing social locations such as pubs and churches to mosques etc. Estimates run from 2100-2800 Danes who have converted over the past 3 decades.

So why did they convert? Well, reasons range from a religious quest, search for the meaning of life, identification with the "other", rebellion against the common, and identification with the downtrodden/oppressed Muslims, identification with Islam as opposed to materialism, capitalism and modernity.

An interesting if unrelated joke point about this illness which converts seem to face called as convertitis and I quote, "which is at the same time an allusion to the generally assumed pathological nature of the conversion and a partial affirmation of this....The newly converted often exhibit a so-called fanaticism with their new religion, which is expressed in very ritualised behaviour such as only wearing Islamic dress and a preoccupation with the Islamic rules of what is haram ('forbidden') and halal ('allowed') - of doing things 'right'. This often leads to ironic situations where converts repudiate people who are born Muslims for not doing things in 'the right way' or not living up to what is defined as being 'Muslim'..

But all jokes have a kernel of truth. Converts who are going down the Islam route to find God usually end up in the Sufi or spiritualist camp. The other way is the literalist way and it shows itself with a pre-occupation with rules and regulations, it involves huge amounts of fixations and unquestioned beliefs and relates more to the Salafi or Hizb-ut-Tahrir type of fundamentalist school.

But when asked about their conversion and the path to/following conversion. Converts frequently talk about conversion as a love story which is very beautiful to hear personally. I quote,

This is especially reflected in the many cases that involve the relationship to a Muslim man or woman, where physical love conflates with metaphysical and spiritual love, both initiating identical processes of radicalism and transformation. It can also be seen in the various metaphors of love used to describe the conversion process, such as in the phrase 'Allah opened my heart to Islam', as well as other terms revolving around religiosity and conversion like 'submission', 'surrender', 'attraction', 'fascination', 'admiration', seduction', and 'willingness'.

But the converts are usually very hesitant to talk about their relationships with Muslims of immigrant background and would prefer to keep it secret. Why? I quote, "The avoidance of talking about one's often intimate interactions with people who belong to the immigrant minority population seems to be related to converts' reproduction of a public discourse that associates Islam with alienation, forming an enemy image that threatens Danish society"

Seems like there is serious psychological trauma involved, with converts being deeply defensive or offensive when asked about their conversions. Awkwardness and defiance is frequent on one end while on the other end, out and out rebellion is visible. Curiously, while some Dane converts have consciously and totally rejected Danish culture (as defined by pork eating, alcohol drinking sexual promiscuity...), others have not and say that they dont see any harm in being Danish and Muslim.

Family reaction seem to be a major factor in conversion, and there is unfortunately and sadly far too much family breakdown after conversion. But that just means that after conversion, the relationship to the original family breaks down and a new relationship with the "others" begins.

There is an amusing interlude about how a convert woman removed the legs of the sofa because her Muslim Husband did not like to sit on tall sofa's but then made it taller by padding it up by cushions and padding. But seems like converts then take on the racial overtones that is common, for example, referring (in a bad way) to "Arabs".

Religious observances such as Iftar during Ramadan being celebrated in the way they used to celebrate Danish Christmas (without, obviously with the church bits) with the same kind of food, discussions, drinks, etc. And in the end, integration proceeds quietly. Quite a sensitive and interesting paper, very well written without prejudice or discrimination on this small minority in steadily and increasingly Islamaphobic Denmark.

JO - Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Routledge, Jensen, Tina Gudrun, To Be ‘Danish’, Becoming ‘Muslim’: Contestations of National Identity? 1369-183X, 2008, 34, 3, 389-409
AB - This article discusses the relationship between national, ethnic and religious identities as embodied by so-called ethnic Danes who convert to Islam. The point of departure is the constructed polarisation between Islam and the West. The article explores how converts experience their apparently contradictory identities as ‘Danish’ and ‘Muslim’. Identity is dealt with as processes of both difference and similarity, whereby the constructions of ‘self’ as ‘same’ and ‘other’ as ‘different’ are questioned. In exploring the space between ‘self’ and ‘other’ among Danish converts, it is argued that they negotiate their identities as both Danish and Muslims by engaging in an ideological struggle over otherwise commonsense meanings. This process opens a space for re-making identity by connecting relations between these identities, which are otherwise perceived as having nothing in common.


PS: Denmark is burning for the past many days and this has a direct bearing on the above. 

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