ETHNOCULTURE (Vol.2, 2010 pp. 27-44)
ETHNICITY AND ISLAMIC CONVERSION IN BELGIUM
Christiane Stallaert, Priscilla Choi, and Iman Lechkar
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
Conversion into and away from Islam is a phenomenon that has existed for some time in Western Europe. Rambo defines ‘tradition transition’ as “the movement of an individual or a group from one major religious tradition to another . . . when there is contact between two different cultures” (Rambo 1993: 14, 38). He distinguishes this form of conversion from other categories as apostasy or intensification. It is obvious that ‘tradition transition’ of Western non-Muslims into Islam, and vice versa, also offers, besides purely religious aspects, the possibility of other forms of boundary crossing, viz. ethnic, cultural and social. What interests us in this paper is the possible relationship between religious and ethnic boundary crossing in both conversion situations. It is important to clarify, however, that in the research presented here our converts into Islam are former secular/Catholic Christians who converted into Sunni Islam and our converts away from Islam converted from Sunni Islam into Evangelical Christianity.1
There are no official numbers of converts from Islam into Christianity in Western Europe. In Belgium, the phenomenon is best known among Iranians, whose conversions take place in transit situations (e.g. in Istanbul, see Leman 2007), as well as among asylum seekers. Among Moroccans the phenomenon is rather unknown. For converts into Islam, there is a general consensus about the increasing impact of the phenomenon, quantitatively (number of converts) as well as qualitatively (societal impact). However, again there are no official numbers. Figures given in the media or by Muslim associations vary greatly. In 2005 there were estimated to be approximately 30,000 Muslim converts in Belgium. Every year since 2005 there have been 300-500 new converts. This information was given in February 2008 by a source at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Brussels. One third of these are believed to be situated in Flanders. As the differences in figures are quite high, it is not beneficial for us to focus on them. Our interest here is in the qualitative aspects of both processes, specifically from an ethnic point of view.
Even if Iranian converts from Shia Islam are the most numerous group among the Brussels migrants of Islamic origin who have converted to Christianity, for the sake of comparability with the secular/Christian Belgians converted to Sunni (mainly Moroccan) Islam, we will focus in this article on the relatively much smaller group of immigrants of Moroccan origin who convert to Evangelical Christianity.
In concluding this introduction we have to confess that it is much easier to study those who have converted from Christianity to Islam than those who convert from Islam to Christianity. That has not solely to do with the fact that it is probably a much smaller community, but with the fact that they have absolutely no interest in running the risk of being ‘recognised’ as such, because of possible sanction from within their own family or on family members in the country of origin. It is thus extremely difficult to interview these ‘new Christians’ of Moroccan provenance in depth, and to attend Sunday meetings frequently with them. Almost all of them have taken the ‘tradition transition’ step without the knowledge of their immediate family, and the members of their extra-familiar groups, both in Brussels and in Morocco, are totally unaware of their conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Within our small group of converts to Christianity there is only one case of someone who was supported in his choice by his Islamic father, who constantly stimulated him to choose a religion for himself.
Society at large doesn’t applaud new religious identity, neither in Morocco nor in Europe. So we noticed that Sunni Belgo-Moroccans that have become Shiites also don’t feel the urge of expressing at any cost their specific religious reorientation. They keep it secret not only within the Muslim community, but also from native Belgian friends or colleagues. They don’t see any added value in expressing their choice because, according to Kamal (32 years old-teacher of economics) and many other informants: “for many, Islam is one homogenous entity”. Some informants did say something about it but the first reaction they got was: “but Shiites are more radical no?” (Fatima, 25 years old-university student in Brussels).
In religious self-identification one ascribes oneself to a community of believers. Religious conversion is seen as “a passage from the old life to the new life” (Ruel 1982: 9). Fundamentally the decision is in the hands of the individual who wishes to adhere to a certain community. Ethnic self-identification concerns “categories of ascription and identification by the actors themselves” who are interested in both religious and ethnic boundary maintenance (or crossing) and in creating boundaries vis-à-vis ‘others’, while these boundaries have become places of social interaction, “that mark difference and shape identity” (Brettell 2007: 10-11). Religions may explicitly emphasize and externalize a ‘difference’ between one another.
In the first part of our paper we study whether boundary crossing from Islam into Evangelical Christianity has an ethnic meaning. The research data have been collected by Priscilla Choi, a doctoral member of our team, from an Evangelical Christian community with some Moroccan members in Brussels. Some findings of this research will be compared with some findings on converts from (secular) Christianity into Islam, collected by Iman Lechkar, another researcher of our team. Secondly, we want to see if in both cases the concerned people enter equally deeply in the religious as well as in the ethnic structures of the ‘new’ community in which they try to integrate. The final objective is to understand the new ethnic reality that has become the expression of their religious and social practices. In case one should conclude that they come to occupy some in-between state, a last question may be if this ‘in-between’ is ethnically similar for both cases.
We will also focus on which levels the religious and ethnic processes are situated. We will use the Barthian approach for the study of ethnic boundaries (cf. Barth 1969), which distinguishes between three levels: a micro (or personal) level, a macro level (of ‘state policies’), and a median level, where processes “create collectivities and mobilize groups for diverse purposes by diverse means” (Barth 1994: 21).
First of all, we will present the findings on Moroccan Muslims converting into Evangelical Christianity and, secondly, the situation among Belgian secular/Christians converting into Islam. In both cases, we will strictly focus on the creation, maintenance or negotiation of ethnic boundaries.
Belgo-Moroccans converting from Islam into Evangelical Christianity
Our findings are based on participant observation, in-depth interviews, and long-term contacts maintained with sixteen converts and the minister from the concerned Evangelical community in Brussels (2007-2009). For comparative purposes, we will divide this small group of informants into three sub-groups, in order to grasp minute differences that become significant points of reference in their ethnic identity (re)making processes. The three sub-groups of Moroccan converts are seven first-generation immigrants (ages 40-88); six second-generation adults (ages 23-40); and three second-generation teenagers, still attending secondary schools (ages 14-16). This paper will examine the ethnic shifts for all three sub-groups along with their religious conversion experience.
The Evangelical community concerned is a multi-ethnic church composed of people from the Middle East and Maghreb countries, and they can be grouped in three different ways: (a) Ex-Muslim (Sunni and Shia) converts to Evangelical Christianity from various Muslim countries, (b) traditional Orthodox Christians from various Muslim countries, and (c) non-Christians coming from a Muslim background but seeking to understand the Bible and Christianity. In this Evangelical community, there are more than these sixteen Belgo-Moroccan members whom we have interviewed, but several other Belgo-Moroccan members declined to be interviewed wishing to remain completely anonymous (a choice that we fully understand and thus entirely respect).
Evangelical Christians as well as new Muslims make use of some typically ethnic ‘membershipping’ strategies—such as the use of family terminology (‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’)—to communicate and remind themselves as members of the newly forged faith-family ties. In Evangelical Christianity, as in Islam, there is an important ‘rite de passage’ (van Gennep 1909) for being admitted: in Evangelical Christianity it is adult baptism (and in Islam it is Shahada, see later). Unlike Islam, however, this ‘rite de passage’—as far as Moroccan converts to Christianity are concerned—never seems to take place in front of a large audience, since their blood family members who are Muslims are absent in the baptism service—the symbolic event of the convert’s ‘rebirth’ into the new Christian ‘family’. As such, the new believer’s entrance into the Christian faith community is witnessed only by other Christians.
Calling each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ remains restricted to the place of worship. Perhaps other rituals and new faith-family markers among Moroccan Muslim converts to Evangelical Christianity seem more restricted within the boundaries of a private realm than is the case among nominal Christian Belgian converts to Islam. Evangelical Christian Moroccans usually do not meet at each other’s homes or at places other than the place of worship and its adjoining building. However, if they live alone or if their entire family members are Evangelical Christians, they prefer to meet people in their homes.
First-generation converts to Evangelical Christianity
Seven people interviewed (three men and four women) lived until at least the age of fifteen in Morocco where they were brought up as Muslims. They came to Belgium between the late 60s and the late 90s to study, to work, and for family reunion. Five of them came to Belgium with their immediate family members except for Hadi (at age 30) who came to study, and Houda (at age 36), who was sent by her husband (an imam from a town in North Morocco) to work and send money back home to support him and his daughter.
What is most noticeable in this small group of seven is that two profiles of ethnic divergence can be distinguished between six Arab Moroccans and the one Berber Moroccan. The six Arab Moroccans who have no historical reference to Christianity emphasize Morocco as a secular, multicultural society with various religions. There is a further division into two sub-groups within the Arab Moroccan group by virtue of one’s level of Christian faith practices: a highly practising group (the HPG) and a lowly practising group (the LPG). There are two converts in the HPG. Hadi grew up under his father’s consistent encouragement to choose his own religion. He was a passionate Muslim before converting to atheism at age 16 and eventually to Christianity at age 30. Hadi says he was an ardent atheist before his conversion to Evangelical Christianity. According to the minister, he is now a fervent Christian who is preparing to become a minister in the future. Houda was a very zealous Muslim as the wife of an imam, but after her conversion she has become very enthusiastic and seriously devoted as a Christian. Hadi and Houda are first-generation converts who call themselves Christians first and Moroccans second. Both of them introduced themselves during the first interview saying, “I am Moroccan but a Christian.” However, when asked to choose their identity between ‘Moroccan Christian’ and ‘Christian Moroccan’ during the second interview conducted separately, Hadi and Houda instantly responded ‘Christian Moroccan’ without hesitation. Hadi elaborated:
“I am first a Christian and then a Moroccan because I am now an adopted son of God. My Christian identity is forever. It will continue to be important even after I die. My Moroccan identity is important for the government, not for me.”
Houda echoes a similar perspective when she says
“Me being a Christian is the most important thing in my life. When I die, I will go to heaven because I am a Christian not because I am a Moroccan. Being Moroccan says that I have mother and father who are Moroccans and I was also born in Morocco. That is about it.”
Both Hadi and Houda, who are from the HPG, derive their core identity from their religion without abandoning or neglecting their Moroccan-ness.
The LPG Arab Moroccans include Abu, Kaity, Farra, and Isra. They described themselves during the interview as ‘nominal Muslims’ or ‘cultural Muslims’ before their conversion to Evangelical Christianity, and they are assessed by the minister as also not really devotedly practising Christians nowadays. The LPG members introduced themselves in the interview in a slightly different way than the HPG, who said “I am a Moroccan but a Christian.” Abu, Kaity, Farra, and Isra each said, “I am a Moroccan and a Christian,” and seemed to emphasize the widespread nominal Muslims in Morocco and greatly stressed throughout the interview that Morocco is increasingly becoming secular. Moreover, the LPG constantly stressed that being Moroccan and being Muslim are incorrectly seen by most Moroccans as being one and the same. Possibly, this might be a reflection of their own lived experience as ‘nominal Muslims’ or ‘cultural Muslims’ in Morocco before their conversion to Evangelical Christianity because these kinds of comments instead of an enthusiasm about their new-found faith were not observed during the interviews with the members of the HPG. Both the HPG and the LPG do not see that being a Moroccan and being a Christian are mutually exclusive identities; hence they embrace both categories as if they were carving out a new ethnic space within the Muslim state of Morocco, by inserting their ethnic roots back to Morocco as Christian Arab Moroccans. This might be the possible new ‘ethnogenesis’ for Belgo-Moroccans (Roosens 1989).
The question about the ‘Christian Moroccan’ identity versus the ‘Moroccan Christian’ identity to the LPG also brought out a different type of response than was seen from the HPG, even after an explanation on the priority in identity making—that ‘Christian Moroccan’ identity implies that a person is a Christian who merely happens to be a Moroccan and conversely, ‘Moroccan Christian’ refers to a Moroccan who happens to be a Christian. The LPG may not distinguish a bit of priority difference between these two identities perhaps due to their growing experience under the persuasive arguments of and for diversity. The LPG’s reaction is best summarized in Kaity’s comments. She says, “Come on, what’s the difference? ‘I am a Christian Moroccan’ and ‘I am a Moroccan Christian.’ I don’t see the difference. It’s the same because in the end, I will go to heaven anyway. This is me. I am a Moroccan and I am a Christian.” For both the HPG and the LPG, the dominant ethnic identity is Moroccan. However, taking a step further, one can see a difference between the two, since the HPG respondents also chose to draw their core identity from Christianity while the LPG respondents drew their main ethnic identity from a multi-cultural, secular, and modern Morocco that is inclusive of Christianity.
The Berber Christian Moroccan places his Berber identity above Moroccan identity. Abdel was a Berber Muslim. Never having embraced Islam, Abdel remarks that he was a ‘cultural Muslim’ because he was surrounded by Muslim culture. He is proud that he has returned to his original Christian roots through his conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Yet, Abdel appears not to be enthusiastic about this new faith as he misses many Sunday worship services and does not participate in many activities for no compelling reasons. He is also assessed by the minister as not really devotedly practising Christianity nowadays, like the Arab Moroccans of the LPG. Abdel introduced himself as ‘a Berber from Morocco,’ clearly giving prominence to Berber identity first and adding the Moroccan label in the second place. Abdel recalls Christianity as Berber’s original heritage prior to any Islamization by naming Saint Augustine as the icon par excellence and thereby making a direct connection with his ancient roots. Unlike Arab Moroccans (both the HPG and the LPG) who engage in ‘ethnogenesis’ by linking Arab Muslim Moroccans with Christianity, our Berber Moroccan is going through an ethnic reversion, re-activating his ‘original’ non-Muslim identity through his conversion.
Regardless whether a first-generation Moroccan convert to Evangelical Christian says “I am a Moroccan but a Christian” (in the case of HPG) or “I am a Moroccan and a Christian” (in the case of LPG), all seven of them are planting their new roots of “Moroccan and Christian” identity in Belgium and in Morocco, thus changing the ‘ethnoscape’ (Appadurai 1996) of both lands. In doing so, they are not only certifying already existing diversity and plurality within Morocco, but they are redefining what Moroccans are—people from various cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, challenging the common assumption that all Moroccans are Muslims. Moroccans are more than Muslims.
When the parents of first generation immigrants were brought into the conversation it became conspicuous that both parents of the HPG were presented by the interviewees each time as zealous Muslims, although in at least one case the father had always strongly emphasized religious freedom of choice for his children. The LPG, however, usually described their parents as ‘nominal Muslims.’
Among the LPG, it was once again noticeable that interviewees strongly expressed the Berber identity. On the other hand, among the first generation Moroccan-Christian converts, we didn’t find a correlation between holding Belgian nationality and religious practice. They had no sense of belonging to Belgium even after they received Belgian nationality because they felt they have been continuously treated like Moroccans by Belgians and Moroccans alike. They say that they are “Belgians only on paper.” That appears to be different among the second generation. Even so, none among the first generation, either men or women, devoted or less committed, ever came to the place of worship in their traditional clothing (e.g., jelaba).
From the ethnic perspective, the seven first-generation respondents show a degree of shift, not so much in how they behave, but rather in their self-identification. For the HPG the new religious personal identity clearly takes primacy over any reference to original ethnicity. Among the LPG a constant reference to either a multicultural and secular Moroccan/Berber identity or a Moroccan ethnic sub-group identity, are keenly present. This identity was invoked by them as if to plead for pluralism in Moroccan categorization, a pluralism that allows them to be at the same time Christian and Belgo-Moroccan.
In spite of this ethnic shift, certain traditional Moroccan cultural elements such as the world of spirits (singular jinn, plural jenoun) persist, mainly among women. Although belief in the world of spirits is not rejected by Evangelical Christianity, the respondents are initially hesitant to talk about it—but once their ‘tongue is loosed’ the interviewer is drawn into a series of very detailed experiences in their earlier life period. The converts ascribe these experiences to those people in their family and circle of friends who have not become Christians, and assert that they have left those experiences behind them by converting to Christianity. A few fragments from an interview with Houda illustrate this:
“My husband (an imam in a town in Northern Morocco) lived for thirty years with a female jinn. Each night the female jinn came and took him by his hand and flew with him to an ocean where she would set him down on a rock in the middle of the ocean. He spent the whole night there with strong winds swirling around and high waves foaming white hitting right underneath his foot. She only brings him back to his house right before the sunrise. He lived 30 years like that. For 30 years, he lived alone in his house and no women could enter his house except his mother, who brought him food in the morning and left the house immediately afterwards. He could not go out of his house during the daytime, because after eating he would sleep for he was completely exhausted only to be woken up by the same female jiin to be taken to his nightly travels to no man’s land.”
At the age of 15, Houda was obliged by her mother to marry this 45 years old imam, when he was finally declared released from his jinn after 30 years. After Houda’s marriage, her father returned to Spain to find a better job since he had lived and worked there when he was a single man, leaving his wife and his family behind in Morocco. Houda states that she has never encountered a jinn personally but she was particularly afraid of darkness even as an adult because her mother said that jenoun live in dark places and that they were active during the nighttimes. So until becoming a Christian, Houda kept every room in her house with bright lights all day and all night long. She dreaded coming back home after work during winters in Belgium because there was a short section of a street leading to her apartment that would be under a thick cover of darkness. Since her conversion to Evangelical Christianity, Houda herself has no more fear of jenoun, but she still recognizes their existence:
“Yes, I know what jenoun are. They are demons. I don’t believe in them and I never believed in them because I never saw them with my eyes. But I had fear for them before I became a Christian. Jinn is in the darkness and she comes out in the evening. Where Jesus is, no darkness can exist.”
Adult second-generation converts to Evangelical Christianity
The five people (one man and four women) we interviewed were either born in Belgium or in Morocco, but came to Belgium before age six and went to schools in Belgium. Four have Belgian nationality (Nail, Basma, Lina, Sara) and one Spanish nationality (Rana). They all have part-time or full-time jobs and converted after the age of 22, except for one whose parents became Christians many years before her birth: Basma converted at age 13. All five of them underline their ethnic Moroccan identity over their nationalities citing how they have always been treated as Moroccans and therefore as Muslims as well. Lina. who was born in Belgium, seems to typify an average adult second-generation convert’s experiences of growing up in the country. Lina speaks while she points at her face:
“Of course I am a Belgo-Moroccan. I am Belgian but not completely. Look at me! I have a face and colour of a Moroccan woman. When people look at me, they see my Moroccan face and automatically think ‘Aha! She is a Moroccan, another Muslim.’ It is hard to feel that I am a Belgian since I am never treated like one. And it is also hard to feel that I am a Moroccan when I never visited Morocco in my life and cannot even speak Arabic, but nonetheless I am seen as nothing but a Moroccan, because I was born of Moroccan parents.”
Like Lina, Sara is a second-generation convert born in Belgium who emphasizes her Belgium nationality over her Moroccan ethnic identity. However, as a successful banker working with international business corporations, Sara tells that she feels either a Belgian or a Moroccan depending on the people who are around her:
“When I am amongst international people, I feel like a Belgian and they treat me as if I am a Belgian. When I am with Belgians, I feel like a Moroccan because I feel like I am not 100% Belgian and they treat me like a Moroccan.”
Both Lina and Sara’s testimonies demonstrate once more that how they ethnically feel is very much dependent on how other people on the other side of their ethnic boundaries treat them. Hence feeling like a Moroccan or like a Belgian is, in the situation of these second-generation converts, a complex and compounding result of active social, economic and linguistic negotiations for what is a Moroccan and what is a Belgian between each actor and his/her perceived interlocutors from the society-at-large (Hutnik 1989, 1991; Moinian 2009; Pavlenko and Blackledge 2004).
Rana, who is most outspoken about her Moroccan identity, is the only one who has a mixed heritage. Rana was born in Morocco and has a Spanish mother who converted to Islam by declaring Shahada during her Muslim marriage ceremony upon marrying a very non-committed Islamic Moroccan man. On the surface, because of Rana’s mixed heritage and proficiency in many languages, combined with her high level of education (Master’s in Law from a University in the Netherlands), one might think that she employs the various different layers of ethnic identity at her disposal, and she does. Rana says:
“I never felt like a Spaniard, or not even a half-Spaniard, for a moment in my life. I know I am a Moroccan. I would say I feel more like a European Moroccan - a Moroccan who lives in Europe because I can live and work in any country in Europe. And I have done that already in Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium.”
Perhaps Rana can even afford to underline her Moroccan identity in public places by wearing jelaba due to her broader perspective of Moroccan identity in light of European Union citizenship. In spite of ambiguity or selectivity toward their ‘in-between’ ethnic identity, all five of the second-generation converts commented that they felt themselves perceived as Moroccans by Belgian society at large.
Sara and Lina were ‘nominal Muslims’ and paid no attention to religion until they were around the age of 15, when they began to have existential questions about life, the self, and the universe. They first experienced intensification within Islam looking for answers to those questions. They quickly became seriously committed to the teachings of Islam, deciding against the wishes of their parents to wear the hijab. However, they started to look beyond the boundaries of Islam when they were unable to find satisfying answers to their questions. It is interesting to note how Sara and Lina first went through a period of ‘intensification’ within Islam, their own religion of origin, before making a ‘tradition transition’ into Evangelical Christianity. Moreover, during their adolescence, Sara and Lina quickly changed from being non-committed to very committed Muslims. While still practising Islam with high intensity, they converted to Evangelical Christianity in their early 20s and the intensity came together with their conversion. Sara and Lina continue to be HPG people, but since the moment of their ‘tradition transition’ they are now HPG Christians. However, Rana and Nail, who converted to Evangelical Christianity in their late 20s, had no experience of ‘intensification’ within Islam either during their teenage years, like Sara and Lina, or at a later time before their conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Both of them quietly moved over from low intensity Islam to LPG Christians since their conversion.
All the fathers of second-generation converts to Evangelical Christianity were successfully integrated into the labour market and were able to provide for their families with their wages. They adopted different types of attitude as Muslim immigrants living in a non-Muslim society. The parents of Sara and Lina were described as neither devoted nor altogether irreligious but non-committed Muslims barely observing Ramadan. They encouraged their children to behave like ‘normal’ Belgian kids while strictly enforcing Moroccan or Muslim traditions when it came to dealing with friendships with the opposite sex. Rana’s father and Nail's parents were very ‘nominal’ Muslims who did not observe Ramadan. In their own words, they lived ‘normal’ lives, like their non-Muslim neighbours, and told their children to be ‘normal’ like the next-door neighbour kids, since they now lived no longer in Morocco.
What is interesting is that all five adult second-generation converts feel that they are not well accepted by Belgian society, to the extent that Sara, who has the most successful career, switched over from one Evangelical church to a Brussels Sub-Saharan African Pentecostal church. Her circle of friends is also of Belgian-African background, and with them she finally feels ‘accepted.’ Looking at it ethnically, it seems that the four women identify themselves with a plural and open citizenship, whether that is of a Belgian or a Moroccan type, but they are deeply aware of the racial Moroccan identification ascribed to them by the surrounding society. However, Nail, another second-generation convert, feels that he is locked into his Moroccan identity and does not feel that he is a part of Belgian society at all. In Nail’s words: "I am 100% Moroccan because my parents are Moroccans. My Belgian national identity card does not affect how I feel about myself. It is just a piece of paper.” Nail has no knowledge of the Arabic language, grew up in all-Belgian neighbourhoods, and had Belgian friends at school. However, after leaving the school system without any degree or special job skills, Nail struggles to find steady work. He is hopping from one job to another.
Among this group of respondents, references to the world of jenoun are entirely absent and have been replaced with references to demons, evil spirits, and Satan, except in the case of Rana. Although she grew up in Spain, Rana routinely visited Morocco for prolonged periods of time during her formative years. Rana says she has heard a lot about the world of jenoun in Morocco but never in Spain.
Rana behaves most ambivalently, right down even to her clothing. She is the only one who comes occasionally to church activities dressed in a jelaba, although this excludes Sundays. In the view of the minister, Rana is also the one who has least taken to heart the principles of Evangelical Christianity and she behaves as such, even though she emphatically calls herself a Christian. Rana has never requested prayer from the faith community or from the minister for life problems that she generally encounters in her relational and professional life, and she does not take part in worship services when she faces life’s challenges. Rana recounts: “It is very difficult for me to come to church when I have a difficult time because I get easily depressed. And also I do not want to come to church when I am down because I do not want to hear ‘Are you feeling ok?’ from the church members.” “This is almost the opposite reaction from that of most Christians,” says the minister, who continues:
“Christians come to church especially when they are down and are facing difficulties in life. We come together to share about our difficulties with the community and we receive care, prayers, and encouragement from the community, and we go through our difficulties together with the community.”
In spite of calling herself an Evangelical Christian, Rana was engaged to a Muslim. Marriage did not come about because the fiancé ultimately did not want to marry her. “In a normal Evangelical Christian circle, an Evangelical Christian would not be engaged to a Muslim, nor pursue marriage with a Muslim,” the minister says. In one of her interviews, Rana states that in her opinion the world of the jenoun doesn’t exist because she has never experienced them. At another time, however, she spoke very spontaneously about the world of dreams, and one hears a reference to her contacts with jenoun. Rana recounts:
“One night I was not able to sleep. I was restless. I was turning and turning in my bed. This is when I was living with Houda in separate bedrooms on the third floor of the church building. So I came down to the church sanctuary and I started to pray and pray. When my prayer was done, I think it was about 4 or 5 a.m. in the morning of December 24th, I went up to sleep. When I lay on my bed, I saw a big sun through the sunroof in my room. At first, I only saw a big and bright part of the sun and I was so happy to see it. But then I saw the dark part too. The sun was a big circle half bright and half black. I was frightened. It was so strange, so weird to see this huge sun half bright and another half dark. I screamed “Houda! Houda! Come here!” but she never came. She continued to sleep in the other room and I could hardly wait until the morning to talk with her about it. . . . I still do not know the meaning of this dream.”
Rana is very well acquainted with Houda (a first-generation person) and it is difficult to imagine that they have never spoken together about the jenoun. In the same interview, Rana states, “Before I became a Christian that was the biggest problem for me: not having the wisdom. . . . After I became a Christian, I did not have any bad dreams. It was normal.”
A story about a sun that is half light and half dark seems nevertheless to reveal Rana’s very strong inclination to a Moroccan way of thinking similar to Houda’s, which Rana very consciously denies because of her conversion. Referring to ‘darkness’ and ‘fear’(which Houda closely connects with the world of the jenoun) as that which seek to overpower ‘brightness,’ a dream that Rana considers to be very important, is probably not an insignificant matter. Again, it shows Rana to be quite ambivalent in her ‘passing’ process.
Adolescent second-generation converts to Evangelical Christianity
The people concerned here are two boys, Fouad and Youssef (ages 15 and 14 respectively), and their sister Dua (age 16). Their mother Isra was a Moroccan Muslim, married to a Moroccan Muslim man until their divorce over 13 years ago when he left Isra, still five-month pregnant with Youssef, and the toddlers Dua and Fouad (aged two and one respectively). Isra got married a second time with a Lebanese Orthodox Christian after she converted to Evangelical Christianity. Dua, the oldest child, sees her Lebanese stepfather as her only real father and does not want to be regarded as a Moroccan. She says that she sees herself as a Lebanese and a Christian because Dua converted to Evangelical Christianity at age six. Since then, she has been faithfully attending weekly Bible studies and Sunday worship services and the annual summer and winter International Christian Camps. Dua does not socialize with any peers of Moroccan origin, and she states:
“I really do not care about Moroccan girls. They are nosy and square, always busy trying to find out where I live, who my parents are, instead of trying to be my friend. If Moroccans at school ask me if I am a Moroccan, I answer them ‘No, I am a Lebanese,’ and they leave me alone. I do not have to explain to them why I take Christian Religion class instead of Islam. Besides, I do feel like a Lebanese more than a Moroccan anyway, because my birth father who is a Moroccan has never come to see me or my brothers after he left us. I was two years old when he left. I do not remember him at all and I do not know him. Now, my stepfather is a Lebanese. To me, he is ‘my father’ because he played with me . . . he took care of me and my brothers. See, you know now why I feel more like a Lebanese.”
On the other hand, Youssef, the youngest child, has a totally indifferent outlook towards his Moroccan heritage. He regards himself as a Belgian, stating:
“I don’t care about what colour of skin you have or what language you speak. I play with whoever wants to play with me, and become friends with whoever wants to be my friend. That’s all that matters to me. If you are of Moroccan background, that’s fine, if you are not, that’s fine with me too. But they need to be nice people. . . . I find that friends from the church are much nicer than friends who do not go to any church.”
The person who has encountered most problems is Fouad, who was ‘exposed’ by his schoolmates as a ‘Christian Moroccan’ and was beaten up for this in the schoolyard by a group of Moroccan students, while the teaching staff refused to intervene even though he screamed for help. He distances himself from Moroccans, even though he does this as the only one of the family who calls himself a Belgo-Moroccan because, in his view, he was born in Belgium of Moroccan parents: “I am both a Belgian and a Moroccan. I can take what is good from both Belgium and Morocco and make the best out of it.” In addition, in Fouad’s eyes, Moroccans are ‘backwards.’ He says that being Moroccan should mean being open to pluralism, but that many Moroccans are too tight-lipped to see that. His sister and brother have actually solved the dilemma by simply denying their Moroccan heritage and by opting to be Christian.
As far as ethnicity is concerned, the ‘boundary crossing’ of these 16 converts to Evangelical Christianity is characterized by the common option of taking the plural interpretation of Moroccan identity as being dissociated from being Muslims. In their opinion, religion and ethnicity are two different things. Across all generations, the deeply committed Christians consider their Christian self-identification as their most important identity. For the first- generation and the adult second-generation converts this is not incompatible with being Moroccan. Although the second-generation adults would probably place their Belgian identity immediately after their Christian identity, they realize that society continues to regard them as Moroccans. The second-generation youngsters display a different self-image, possibly because they live in an atypical situation, possibly also because they have not yet entered the labour market. Their diverse self-image and attitudes probably have much to do with their adolescence, a period in which they are still seeking to know who they are.
The nucleus of the processes of ‘boundary crossing’ entailed here seems to be that those who wish to conceptually separate their religion from their ethnic characteristics, while simultaneously wishing to move toward a non-Moroccan/Western world, are not in reality ‘breaking loose’ of certain Moroccan practices and beliefs, such as around the world of jenoun—at least not in the first generation. All of the examined generations are aware that their social environment continues to identify them as Moroccans. They clearly live ethnically in an ‘in-between’ status, and the deeply committed practising Christians try to transcend this ambivalence much more than the less committed.
While discussing this ambivalence, it interests us also to understand some internal dynamics of the process. For example, are there some striking dynamics vis-à-vis some past practices? In a multicultural setting people show the capacity to be ‘affected’ (Deleuze 1990: 93-95). In Derrida's terms, one may call it a process of differencing: ‘becoming different’ as ‘deferred in time’ (Derrida 1982: 8-9), applied in our context to an ethno-cultural process of self transformation. Among our converts, some cultural practices and beliefs become repressed (cf. Derrida 1982: 17-18), such as the world of jenoun, at the point of internal affiliation (e.g., during adolescence or at other moments of self-questioning, which doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘crisis’, see Gooren 2007). At the time of an important positive encounter (Deleuze 1990: 239-240), some new ‘sign’ (Derrida 1982: 9) may change the vector of one’s meaning system (Paloutzian 2005: 333). It may create some new ‘ideality’ (Derrida 1967), here interpreted as a conversion to a new cultural reality with its new ethno-cultural perspective. It may, nevertheless, remain partially integrated in a field of former socio-cultural practices.
Such a complex process of converting as ‘differencing’ (i.e., as temporization and spacing in becoming different) may help to explain why lowly practising Muslims, in spite of the new ‘sign’ that reorients their self-understanding, may convert as Christians who continue to be lowly practising, while highly practising Muslims may convert into highly practising Christians, each within their ethno-cultural hybrid ‘in-between’ space.
We don’t claim that the dreams to which some converts refer really are a true historical reproduction of the dreams these people had in the past, but they most probably give us an insight in the process of repression of some cultural practices and beliefs and of their reintegration into a new orientation. “What is (…) obvious is that migration and the multicultural setting invite some people to question themselves and that some of them see it as an invitation to opt for a new way, to restart their life” (Choi 2008: 60).
Secular Christian Belgians converting into Sunni Islam
In this second part of the article, we will focus on the ethnic shifts that accompany the religious boundary-crossing of secular Christians who converted into Sunni Islam. The researcher, Iman Lechkar, interviewed 20 converts in the period 2006-2008, and also conducted participant observation in three associations in which converts frequently meet.
These conversions take place between people without a migration background who themselves take the step to become Muslims; thus, we will not differentiate between generations. Among the converts to Christianity, the group that offers the best comparison with the converts to Islam is the ‘adult’ group of four women from the second-generation converts. We have seen that in this category the highly committed practising Christians passed through a more intensive religious experience at about 15-16 years of age, previous to their conversion. To some extent, we can find the same profile among the converts to Islam, and some of the characteristics described for the converts to Christianity can be documented among this group of converts too, such as a distancing from their own community and culture of origin, both religiously and ethnically, combined with the awareness that religious passing doesn’t go along automatically with an ethnic passing, despite the attempts that are made in that direction. As both the ethnic group in which one wishes to integrate on religious grounds and the ethnic group of origin continue to associate the converts with their ‘native’ ethnic identity, the converts end up in an ethnic ‘in-between’ status.
The context of conversion
From the interviews and from the participant observations it is clear that very frequently it is young adults who convert to Islam.
“My mother asked the Moroccan neighbours whether I could play with their children during the weekend, so every weekend I went to their house. The mother did not speak Dutch, so I learnt Arabic through her children. Then Ramadan came, they were all fasting and I felt the need to fast with them. Now I can say that my education was very Moroccan. I do not have to think anymore when I speak Arabic.” (Ecram, speaking about her childhood and adult life)
“In the beginning it was very hard. My mom would quarrel with me. At a certain moment I realized that I couldn’t eat Haram meat. And she would say: I have Moroccan colleagues who said that you can eat anything except pork.” (Anas)
“I started to work for a company that had many Turkish and Moroccan customers. We became friends and I started to visit them regularly. I was very curious, so we spoke about religion and believing. We also spoke about Ramadan, which fascinated me. In our tradition, fasting has lost its value, but it is very important to Muslims.” (Ibrahim)
“I worked for the city council and had many Moroccan and Turkish colleagues, so I loved going to Morocco and Turkey. In Turkey, in a small village at the Russian border, I woke up in the middle of the night hearing Azzan (the call for prayer). I was very much impressed. The next morning I asked the imam what that meant. I felt that I had been called and chosen.” (Ismail)
What is remarkable is that at the beginning there is a link with an intercultural setting in which the candidate convert finds himself/herself at a relatively young age. This is comparable to our second-generation converts to Christianity. The stimulation for their conversion is for all of them their being in a multi-ethnic environment. The examples above are personal stories, not supported by a collective project.
The rejection of Western ‘materialism’ and the search for a new type of meaning
From the beginning there is a certain sense of feeling uncomfortable with native Western culture and its values. Something similar occurs with the converts to Christianity but in the opposite direction. The converts into Islam criticize the West as a ‘materialistic’ society, where people are not concerned enough about values.
An important moment in the conversion process is the transition ritual, the ‘Shahada’, at which the convert adopts a new name. The new Muslim name can be chosen according to various factors such as the similarity with the former Christian name or a preference for a particular personage in the Koran, but in all cases it signifies a rupture with the past.
“I cannot stand it when someone calls me Wendy. I will not be angry with my parents when they do that, but when I introduce myself with my Muslim name I want people to use it. If I hear Wendy it reminds me of my past. (…) Salima compared to Wendy is more peaceful, tranquil, helpful, empathetic with people, understanding. I am not a hanger-on anymore, nor am I greedy.” (Salima)
Not all converts consider Shahada as the most important moment of their conversion process, and some mention their first Ramadan as the starting point for their awareness of being part of the Muslim community.
The incompleteness of a desired ethnic passing
The converts attach very great importance to being completely accepted by the larger Muslim community. This means that the religious boundary-crossing is increasingly linked to an ethno-cultural boundary crossing, namely their enculturation and socialization into an Islamic cultural community (and thus not only a ‘community of believers’). This form of boundary- crossing is displayed by the converts through the adoption of ethno-cultural surface pointers (e.g., dress code, food), or even by inserting themselves into the Muslim community in historical-biological terms. Besides the usual change of name (which is a general phenomenon among Muslim converts), characteristic of conversion is the use of kinship terminology, as well as the interpretation of ‘conversion’ as a type of ‘reversion’ to an original form of belief.
However, even if the adoption of a new Muslim name during the Shahada, and the distancing from the Belgian, Christian (and in their opinion: materialistic) community are important steps in the conversion process, they don’t guarantee a fully recognized membership of the Islamic community, which in practice always remains also an ethnic community.
“I had christened myself Jameela to integrate myself. They heaped praise on me, they appreciated me. I was accepted, but marrying their son was problematic. You can be a sister in Islam, but not in the inner family circle.” (Jameela)
The main obstacle for full ethnic membership is the lack of biological ties with the Muslim community, the Umma. The Islamic notion of Wali or Guardian is a perfect example of where converts have no biological-genealogical link and thus need to create their own substitute. In Islamic law, the Wali is the closest male relative with authority over a woman whom he is not permitted to marry. Usually the Wali is the father, brother or uncle of the woman and traditionally his permission is needed when she wants to marry. An imam who helps female converts in the preparation of their conversion often functions as their Wali.
Among others, the lack of biological ties and the resistance by the receiving community of recognizing converts as co-ethnics is the driving force in the elaboration of the median level, the organization and structuring of Muslim converts in Western Europe as a specific subgroup of the local Umma.
An ethnic ‘in-between’
Converts try to relate their sense of not being fully ethnically and/or religiously accepted to a doctrine that lends greater legitimacy to their ‘border crossing’, at least in the eyes of their new community: the doctrine of the Fitra. In Islam the Fitra is the natural status or predisposition of all human beings at birth to believe in God. Converts interpret this Fitra very strictly as a predisposition to be Muslim. In that regard, many neo-Muslims regard themselves as reverted instead of converted, because they believe that they were born as Muslims. In line with a widespread interpretation of a famous Islamic teaching, or Hadith, many Muslims see in each human being a Muslim at birth. It is the parents that later educate the child as a Jew or a Christian. Various converts express this belief thus:
“What I want to say is that I did not convert. I consider myself reverted because I was born as a Muslim, but was not raised in a Muslim family.” (Salima)
“According to Islam, everyone is born as a Muslim, whether your parents are or aren’t… However, sometimes you can get in touch with that knowledge and personally choose to return to your natural Muslim self.” (Gregory)
This doctrinal creation of a common ancestral past has an ethnic functionality, as it should also lead to a more integral inclusion of converts in the new community. In addition, many converts will also adopt some characteristics of the material culture of the ‘new’ community, such as clothing, food and even the use of language. But it is in that domain that the ambivalence is then fully expressed:
“I will not put up with Moroccan culture and I will not hesitate to tell someone off… I will not allow myself to do something in the name of Moroccan culture. If I wear a jelaba, I do it because it has a symbolic meaning. Wearing it means that I want to give extra attention to spirituality in my life… Just like in a company, you wear a suit because you exercise your position.” (Jonas)
“No, I have not taken anything from the Moroccan or Turkish culture. That is why I don’t wear a jelaba. In the beginning I wore such a Moroccan traditional long dress with a hood. They told me that I was a wannabe Moroccan. It did not suit me, so I had to create my own identity. I started to buy fabric and asked a dressmaker to make my clothes, and you know, I still looked like a Moroccan woman. That is why I decided to put another layer under my veil, now I have two layers.” (Salima)
For most of the informants, conversion to Islam means the rejection of a socio-cultural model (the secularised Western society) and the search for inclusion in a new community, the worldwide Umma. In this ‘imagined’ global community of Muslims there is an inversion of the main Western values, which are experienced as negative by these informants. Against the individualism and consumptive behaviour of the West these converts place an idealized vision of a ‘warm’, ‘collectivist’ Muslim community.
To make this conscious distancing from their original culture and community visible, these converts make use of ‘surface markers’ (Nash 1996) that refer to the culture of the local ‘ethnic’ Muslims (i.e., especially the Moroccan culture). Through this the religious conversion undoubtedly acquires an ethnic meaning, which is however regarded as imperfect by both the original and the new community. The greatest handicap in terms of a complete ethnic ‘fit’ is the lack of biological ties with the new Muslim community and, on the other hand, the impossibility of breaking completely with the original family. After all, Islam says that the parents should be honoured, so that converts find themselves in the ambiguous situation that to be good Muslims they must not break the ties with their parents, and thus with their being biologically non-Muslim. To break this deadlock, converts refer to the doctrine of the Fitra, as a consequence of which their being Muslim acquires a primordial and thus ethnic meaning.
Among the converts to Islam we studied, we don’t see a similar distinction between lowly practising and highly practising ones as among the converts to Evangelical Christianity. There doesn’t seem to be among these converts to Islam a similar field of socio-cultural practices that becomes repressed. It is more the opposite: some of them may like to pick up some practices of the Moroccan and/or Islamic community, and they do it consciously, practices however that are not related to the world of dreams or of the unconscious, but rather apply to family and community relations. What both groups have in common is a positive encounter with some ‘sign’ (mostly a person) representing religious and cultural otherness within their multicultural society.
‘Ethnic in-between’ at micro, median or macro levels?
Among converts into Christianity, as well as among converts into Islam, current processes of ethnic boundary-crossing occur at the micro level, at least in Belgium. However, the first signs of a structuring at the median level, at least for converts into Islam, are also becoming apparent (e.g., through the inclusion of converts in the official Muslim representation in Belgium, the opening of a mosque for converts in Antwerp, the establishment of associations of converts, etc.). In other European countries, such as the UK and Denmark, a structuring at the median level is already more advanced, probably due to a lack of recognition as full ‘co-ethnics’ by other ethnic Muslims (Allievi and Dassetto 1999; Köse 1996). In Spain, the median level interacts with the macro level through State policies (see Stallaert 1998, 1999).
The generation of Belgian converts into Islam in the period 2006-2008 mostly came in touch with Islam through the inter-ethnic environment, and they place much importance on the framework offered by Islam with its symbols, rituals and prescriptions. The small group of Belgo-Moroccan converts into Evangelical Christianity also came in touch with Christianity through the inter-ethnic environment. The difference with the converts into Islam is that these neo-Christians don’t place importance on the Christian framework of rituals and prescriptions, and sometimes seem to perceive such frameworks as oppressive. Christianity is surely also related to the West, as a realm of multiple options and freedom of choice. At organizational level, for social and political reasons, the converts from Moroccan Islam to Christianity remain restrained for their conversion practices to the micro-level, and sometimes they even restrain their expressions strictly to the place of worship.
In all cases, however, the shift currently pushes the converts into an ‘in-between’ area, between indigenous people and Muslim ethnic minorities. Boundary maintaining and boundary creating mechanisms are at work, and are typical for the process of ethnicizing. In their position of in-between, Muslim converts as well as Christian converts create at least some micro niche of ethnicization.
In this article we examined the intersection between religious and ethnic boundary-crossing. On the one hand we applied the interactional ‘boundary approach’ of F. Barth, and on the other hand we assessed the process of ethnic passing by the adoption of ‘surface pointers’ (Nash 1996). It appears from our study that for both groups of ‘converts’ the border crossing entails much more than a merely religious passing and the adoption of purely spiritual values and religious convictions.
In both the categories of converts studied we can conclude that the religious ‘border crossing’ also contains ethnic components, without it actually being a complete ethnic transition. It is noteworthy that in both cases the converts also attempt to link their religious conversion to an ethnic membership acknowledgement by the new community, in particular by taking on ethnic ‘markers’. The idea that a religious transition can be felt to be imperfect has to do with the connotation that exists between religion and ethnicity (or even nationality), especially in the case of Islam in Morocco where this connotation is given an official construal through the fact that the Moroccan king is also the country’s religious leader. Moroccan Muslims who convert to Christianity in Belgium remain bound to the Umma on the basis of their inalienable Moroccan nationality. By distancing themselves from Islam as a religion, these people enter an area of political and ethnic tension, which explains why informants in this category are extremely difficult to reach.
With the secular/Christian converts to Islam, the connotation between religion and ethnicity leads to these converts adopting the cultural-ethnic characteristics of mostly Moroccan Islam, in order to make their religious conversion appear more complete to insiders (ethnic Muslims) and outsiders (secular/Christian westerners).
Even though both Christianity and Islam are religions with a universalist message whereby religion transcends ethnic boundaries, yet it is an unavoidable fact that in the multi-ethnic environment in which the study was conducted, ethnic and religious boundaries in part coincide, so that each religious ‘transition’ also supposes an ethnic repositioning within the societal context. While the religious boundary can be crossed with ease, it appears that the ethnic boundary is much more unyielding, and that it is also the components of ethnic identity that ensure that the converts end up with an ‘in-between’ status.
Historic case studies (Stallaert 2003; 2007) have shown that the status of ‘convert’ can take the form of a new religious-ethnic category, which in the first place is the product of the perception of outsiders (in this case, the ‘ethnic’ Muslims and Christians). In such cases, however, the ethnic profiling enters also clearly at median and even partly at macro levels, which is currently not yet the case in Belgium with either new Muslims or new Christians.
1. This study is part of a broader anthropological research project on ‘conversions
and border crossing’ (supervised by Prof. Dr. J. Leman and Prof. Dr. C.
Stallaert), conducted at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minority Research
Centre, Social Sciences, Catholic University of Leuven. The research project
(from 2007 to 2010), titled Crossing boundaries: Conversion to and within Islam
in a Belgian and globalizing context (cf. second part in this paper) is funded
by the Research Foundation Flanders (Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen).
Doctoral researchers: Priscilla Choi, Iman Lechkar.
All names of converts, New Muslims as well as New Christians, have been changed.
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