By Dr Yasir Suleiman
February 04, 2016
There is an obsession with conversion to Islam in the West, but not always for the right reasons. The rhetoric of extremist Islamist groups of seeking to convert the West to Islam is, undoubtedly, one reason behind this obsession. The fact that this rhetoric is more a case of hot air than substance does not seem to allay the fears of some people in the West who think of Islam, rightly or wrongly, as a mortal threat to Western civilisation. In this context, reports of increasing numbers of conversions to Islam in the West, year on year, are read as evidence of this mortal threat. The right-wing media play up these conversions without ever referring to the fact that, based on statistical evidence, the numbers of Muslims who ‘leave’ Islam in one form or another is said to be almost the same as those who convert to it.
For Islam to continue to be seen as a threat to all things Western, one hears from time to time how, in recent years, the name ‘Muhammad’ has emerged as the most popular name in countries such as the UK. The right-wing media in this country has bandied this about as evidence of increased religiosity among born-Muslims who are joined by converts in pursuit of one grand design of Islamizing the West. Right-wing commentators cannot understand how white, middle class converts give up what they have for a belief system that is seemingly at odds with the rationality of Western civilization; a religion that is thought to oppress women and to foment strife among its followers, let alone people of different faiths.
When asked, Western converts to Islam talk about spirituality as a prime reason for converting to the faith. This is borne out by a landmark study of women converts to Islam in Britain: Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives, launched in May 2013. Since this launch, the report was downloaded more than 150,000 times, which testifies to the huge interest in the topic. Participants in the project underlying this report, of which I had the honour of being the Project Leader (see inset image), rejected the aspersion that they had joined a project of Islamizing the West. However, their conversions are often undermined by claiming them to be conversions of convenience rather than conversions of conviction. According to this theory, women convert to Islam for love and marriage rather than because they see any merit in Islam as a faith. For these women, in actual fact, it is the greatest insult to describe their conversions as ones of convenience, even when love and marriage were the initial motives that led them to Islam.
The above report, which can be downloaded free of charge, made clear that a Western woman’s conversion to Islam is not an event but an unfolding life-story in which commitment to Islam deepens as time passes. In fact, some women reported that their commitment to Islam got stronger after they had divorced their born-Muslim husbands who seemed to be sloganeers for Islam rather than committed believers in it. These women coined the memorable phrase ‘Ditch your man, and keep your iman (faith)’. When a born-Muslim husband becomes a hindrance to true religiosity, his convert wife does not turn a blind eye to his errant ways; rather she takes him to task, facing him with his hypocrisy and false declarations of wanting to live an Islamic life before she ‘fires’ him as a partner.
This hypocrisy extends to the racialised narratives of conversion to Islam in the West. One of the great attractions of Islam to Western converts is its egalitarian and non-racialised ethos. However, this ideal is not consistently realized among heritage Muslims in the West. In the Cambridge project, women converts narrated how the conversions of ‘white’ women are given greater social value by born-Muslims than the conversions of ‘black’ women. As this report expresses it, white women converts are treated as ‘trophies’ who are given pride of place on the Muslim mantle-piece. Black conversions have no such value. Conversions by South-Asian women, called ‘brown’ conversions, are even less regarded. Following the launch of the Cambridge report in London in 2013, I was contacted by a number of Muslim men who wanted me to make introductions to the unmarried members of the project. This request was always conditional on the convert woman being white, not black or brown. If this is not a racial tinting of Islam, I do not know what it is.
Based on the evidence of the Cambridge report, the story of women’s conversion to Islam in the West is a complex one. It certainly is not about the takeover of the West. It is a story of women seeking spirituality and the ideals embodied in Islam. However, it is also sometimes a story of disappointment due to the hypocrisy of (some) born Muslims who replace commitment to faith by sloganeering and a racialised hypocrisy. Also it is a story in which conversion is prone to be treated as an encounter with the ex-colonizer in which the superiority of the colonised is vindicated through the conversion of the white woman to Islam. Without this, the treatment of white convert women as trophies cannot make sense.
Dr Yasir Suleiman (University of Cambridge and the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies