For some Muslims, Islam came along following an active choice to convert. The journeys these Muslims take in discovering themselves, their narratives around ‘being Muslim’ and practicing the religion differ from those born and raised in Muslim families. This is what our research on Muslims in Europe highlighted. Convert Muslims face huge challenges: isolation, depression Islamophobia - the list goes on. Although most of the converts we met were white, their conversion to Islam is essentially a loss of their whiteness, and to make matters worse, they are sadly seen as traitors who have betrayed their nations by joining the other side.
As an institute concerned with positively influencing how the Muslim world lives and is understood, we take these findings seriously. To our shock, we found during our research engagement that some of the challenges which converts face actually originate from the very Muslim institutes which were supposed to support them! We share their stories and voices here. All names are pseudonyms and all identifying details have been anonymised.
What Does Academic Research Say?
Muslim converts go through contradictory experiences of ‘acceptance and rejection, inclusion and exclusion, integration and isolation’ (Suleiman 2013: 9, 2016 cf. Bonino 2017: 152; Burdsey 2011; Moosavi 2014). Earlier research tended to focus on positive experiences and perceptions. Ansari (2004) highlighted how white British converts weren’t faced with the issues and conflicts with self-identity compared with their culturally raised Muslim counterparts. Roald (2004) highlighted the advantages enjoyed by native Scandinavian converts: their ‘transcultural identities’ enabled them to ‘move freely’ within various circles and even engage other ‘subcultural communities’.
Moosavi (2015) went further to highlight the ‘white privilege’ enjoyed by converts: their whiteness gave them a sense of respectability amidst their Muslim circles. Interestingly, white reverts tended to receive a privileged status vis-à-vis their black/non-white counterparts (al-Qwidi 2002: 228–229; Haddad 2006: 40; Zebiri 2008: 65, 98–99) - a paradox to the finding that black people have been attracted to Islam’s forceful anti-racist teachings (Reddie 2009; Simmons 2006; Moosavi 2014).
Experiences of Poor Race Relations in Muslim Institutes & Communities
Emily, a Scottish revert was confronted by an identity crisis when she first encountered the Edinburgh Muslim community. She quickly found herself carefully navigating the fine lines of religion, race, ethnicity and culture. This made it difficult for her to initially “fit in” making her feel like she was a “minority within a minority.”
I accepted Islam, and for two years, I wasn’t part of the Muslim community. I just practiced Islam on my own, I didn’t know other Muslims. It was difficult, but more so because of my family. And then when I entered the Muslim community, that’s when I had a slight identity crisis. I was a white, Scottish Muslim walking into a mosque which was predominantly South Asian and Arab.
(Emily, Scottish revert)
She went on to describe the “pressure” to adopt certain cultural practices like having to wear Salwar Kameez and eating certain foods. Emily outlined: although she had become Muslim, she wanted to retain her Scottish identity. When conditions weren’t quite ripe for her to balance between her new-found Islamic identity with her Scottishness, she resorted to withdrawing herself from active community participation. Being made to feel like a minority within a minority was profoundly expressed as “belonging to no country” by Emma, a Swedish convert who told us how she is seen by some Swedes as a traitor.
Traitors and Stateless Citizens
Emma appears to have been subject to more direct anti-Islam hate than Emily was. We share her story as she recounted a series of horrible experiences which have influenced her perception of what it means to be a convert Muslim in Europe in this day and age.
I was with [sibling sister] at the time, and this man came up to us and he asked me: “do you know speak Swedish?” I’m like: yea! “Are you Swedish?” I [thought]: ok, some people want to ask you things out of curiosity and it’s ok. I was being open, and then he just put his fist in my face and like: [clenching her fist making an aggressive face] betrayer! Traitor! Förrädare! The worse thing was I saw him a second time. I was with two sisters, and this time, he was very threatening only to me, because I’m Swedish. He hates me because I’m a traitor. The other ones were wearing the same clothes as me, but they were Somalis. It was just me he was targeting, probably [for] leaving Swedishness and … becoming Muslim.
(Emma, Swedish convert)
Islam enabled a good number of the converts we met to embrace their sense of national belonging and recognition that being Muslim wasn’t mutually exclusive with being Scottish, Danish or Swedish. Sadly, this wasn’t the sentiment they received from the members of their societies. Some continued to see and treat them as Others, and even worse, as ‘traitors.’
Emily: I think I would be seen as more of a threat than the native Muslims who were born into the religion because I’ve made that active choice to join the Other.
Yahya: Are you seen as a traitor?
Emily: Yea! And I know that statement’s existed in my family among some people. So I would completely agree with that. People do kind of view you as a traitor to the country, to Scotland, to your people, you know, you’ve gone and left us and joined the other side.
How Does this Fit in With Current Academic Research?
The experiences we have shared relates with current research which highlights that converts are highly susceptible to ‘Islamophobia’. Their relatively frequent contact with non-Muslims made them privy to ‘frank remarks’ about Islam and Muslims. Whilst a “privilege” on the one hand, whiteness could also be “confiscated” (Moosavi 2014). The conflation of religious and racial identity has led to the identification of white converts as: “Pakistanised” (Kose 1996, Moosavi 2014), “foreignized” (Badran (2006), “crossing the borders of whiteness” (Franks 2000) and even “race traitors” (Franks 2000, McDonald 2005, Moosavi 2014, Nieuwkerk 2006). With regard to the “race traitors” label, women, in particular have been highlighted as being more vulnerable to targeting “due to the added pressure on them to ensure that the boundaries of the white race remain intact.” (Moosavi 2014: 7).
Being a Convert Muslim is Challenging
Converting to Islam and being Muslim is not an easy affair. It’s a path strewn with many trials and tribulations: from taking on an identity which others see as being the complete opposite to mainstream society to learning the rituals of worship necessary to practice the religion; and from living the stigma of being connected to a religion that has been implicated in a number of atrocities to dealing with the stereotypes of Muslims and Islam.
The greatest challenge introduced to the converts’ lives was the challenge of being visibly Muslim. The convert Muslims we met were outwardly ethnic Scots, Swedes and Danes. The only factor which distinguished them as “being Muslim” was that of visible practice - first and foremost, Hijab and then the beard. Other elements would perhaps include: non/physical contact with the opposite gender, not socialising with friends and family on certain occasions (birthdays, Christmas, weddings etc.) or in certain spaces(e.g. having a drink at a pub). With practice came visibility, and with visibility came experiences of prejudice. This was notably the case when it came to the Hijab.
As far as the current state of research goes, a huge responsibility lies within Muslim institutions and communities to support converts due to the multiple challenges which face them. How unfortunate is it then when it emerges that some of these very institutions and communities are among the sources contributing to the challenges faced by converts?! If anything, Muslim institutions need to be aware of the complex problems and issues which converts have to deal with so that they can provide the services which could better support them. At Olive Tree Madrasah, we recognise these complexities and are therefore prepared to mentor and work with our convert brothers and sisters.
This support starts with the way we have designed our curriculum to be holistic, comprehensive and one in line with the social realities Muslims in Europe find themselves in. Our recognition that social relations are key to individual wellbeing, we are fully prepared to not only work with converts, but also with their families and the faith or non-faith communities which they belonged to in order to facilitate better understandings of Islam and each other.
Bonino, S. (2017). Muslims in Scotland: The making of community in a post-9/11 world. Edinburgh University Press.
Suleiman, Y. (2013). Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives. Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge.
Suleiman, Y. (2016). Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Male Perspectives. Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge.
Al-Qwidi, M. 2002. Understanding the Stages of Conversion to Islam: The Voices of British Converts. Leeds: The University of Leeds.
Badran, M. 2006. “Feminism and Conversion: Comparing British, Dutch, and South African Life Stories.” In Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West, edited by K. V. Nieuwkerk, 192–229. Austin: University of Texas.
Burdsey, D. 2011. “Strangers on the Shore? Racialized Representation, Identity and In/Visibilities of Whiteness at the English Seaside.” Cultural Sociology 5 (4): 537–552.
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Nieuwkerk, K. V. 2006. Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West. Austin: University of Texas.
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Roald, A. S. (2004). New Muslims in the European context: the experience of Scandinavian converts (Vol. 4). Brill.
Simmons, G. Z. 2006. “African American Islam as an Expression of Converts’ Religious Faith and Nationalist Dreams and Ambitions.” In Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West, edited by K. V. Nieuwkerk,172–191. Austin: University of Texas.
Zebiri, K. 2008. British Muslim Converts: Choosing Alternative Lives. Oxford: Oneworld.