Word CloudJournalists, politicians and even scholars in Europe commonly use the word “Muslim” to refer not to religion, but to a person’s national origin, ethnicity, migration background, and incomplete membership in the national imaginary. This slippage happens as religion is used as an overarching category to speak about Maghrebi and Turkish migrants, and as immigration, Islam, and delinquency are consistently mentioned in the same breath, even in governmental studies. The conflation of religious and racial categories is important to understand because it pertains to a wider tendency of veiling anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in a language of cultural critique. It also makes one wonder whether the secular ideal of separating religion, culture, and politics is unfulfilled, if not hypocritical.

But how exactly does religion become akin to a racial category? And how can we unravel their association? Esra Özyürek, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has written a book that studies conversions to uncover the entanglements of race and religion. Drawing on the experience of “indigenous Germans” who convert to Islam, Özyürek explores how religion, race and national belonging are associated in Germany. Not only is this an insightful study on German national identity and Islam’s role therein; the book also spurs thinking about the wider application of the concept of conversion. What can converts tell us about the entanglements of race and religion? Are the German examples that Özyürek examines equally helpful for understanding these entanglements in other countries, like the U.S., and when they involve other religions, like Judaism? And does conversion always have the potential to unsettle established boundaries of belonging?

Before moving to these broader questions, I think it is useful to spend some time with Özyürek’s observations on German converts. Being Muslim and being German are often thought of as incompatible. Converts challenge this assumption by interpreting and combining religious and national identities in unexpected ways. Özyürek describes how the converts she meets in Berlin unsettle several worlds through their conversions. German families feel uneasy about their child or sibling’s new faith, especially if they are women who choose to wear a headscarf. Acquaintances insist that if these converts are Muslims, they cannot possibly be “real” Germans—Germans by blood. Mosque communities meet their fellow believers with suspicion and exclude them as they continue to communicate exclusively in Turkish, Arabic, or Bosnian.

Borrowing from anthropologist Fatima El-Tayeb, Özyürek uses the term “queering ethnicity” to describe the political effect that the often deeply personal choice of conversion entails. “Queering” has a history of uses and connotations helpful to keep in mind: originally a derogatory term, “queer” was re-appropriated by the LGBT community to describe and celebrate practices that question gender, sex, and desire as something clear-cut and fixed in nature. Both Özyürek and El-Tayeb use the term in a broader sense to talk about acts that question, complicate, and unsettle. They dissociate the term from its common reference to sex and gender and apply it instead to talk about racial and national identities. In this way, conversion can be seen as a “queering” practice because it challenges the idea of an exclusionary, Christian, and white Europe.

One could say that the converts’ mere presence exposes the various boundaries that white Germans, former immigrants, and Muslim communities uphold. At the same time, converts actively address and construe new forms of what it means to be German and Muslim. One example is the group of highly educated converts who seek to show through academic works and public lectures that European history and culture have always been fully compatible with Islam. Lecturing on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s approach to Islam or Islamic reflections on Immanuel Kant, they remind German society, to use Özyürek’s words, “that the most prized intellectuals of German history were tolerant of and open-minded about Islam” and that, in fact, “being a German Muslim involves embodying the very best qualities of both German society and the Islamic community.” Young, faithful musicians, in turn, put forward another definition of being German Muslim. Singing about Islam and their everyday life in Germany, including their frustration with racism and nationalism, artists like Ammar114, who Özyürek mentions in her book, produce an “anti-racist, conversion-oriented Islamic hip-hop” that speaks to the young generations of Muslims.

The converts Özyürek talks to represent a wide range of religious ideas, social backgrounds, and views on what it means to be German. They run the gamut from advocates of naturalist religiosity to pious Salafis; from Eastern Germans who grew up in an insular, atheist society to immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Russia; from proud nationalists to critics of nationalism. And yet, despite this diversity, their conversions all seem to challenge exclusive forms of belonging. Özyürek concludes: “they [converts] defy the newly established boundaries between political alliances, cultures, and civilizations…[and] break ground for genuinely new ways of being and becoming Muslim, German, German Muslim, and Muslim German.”

But do conversions always “queer”? Özyürek points out that interest in the subversive potential of conversion is not entirely new—Jean and John Comaroff, for example, studied how conversions to Christianity in southern Africa helped colonizers subdue native peoples but at the same time, allowed the latter to undermine colonial hierarchies. Yet, Özyürek does not discuss how conversion plays out in different cases. For readers interested in conversion’s interrogative and subversive potential but less focused on Europe, the question is what converts experience in other contexts. Does their decision necessarily challenge boundaries? And when and how do conversions touch upon racial hierarchies?

While wondering about these questions, I came across an example that concerns very different groups and fault lines, but seems, similarly, to lend itself to the language of queering. Various US media have reported on blacks who join the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, especially since the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots in 2011. According to Molly Langmuir at New York, this small group—most, if not all, of them converts—consists of 50 to 60 people among a community of half a million Orthodox Jews in Greater New York. As with the case of Muslim converts in Germany, it is not their number but their unique position that makes them noteworthy to journalists. They are portrayed as courageous frontier-crossers and a curious minority; Trymaine Lee, writing for The New York Times, describes them as a “rare cross-cultural hybrid.”

One cannot help but note that the stories of German Muslim converts and black Orthodox Jews, are extremely dissimilar—starting with the different position of Muslims and (Orthodox) Jews in Germany and in the U.S., and the traditions within each religion. And yet, I think the example of black Orthodox Jews is worth exploring to get an idea of what conversion means and does in varying contexts. What follows is not a comprehensive study but a foray into the complex terrains of Judaism and race relations in the U.S. that should spur thinking about conversion as queering practice.

In the U.S., being Jewish and being black are often seen as mutually exclusive options. A 1960s ad showed a black child eating a sandwich and proclaimed that “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish Rye.” James Baldwin, writing in the same time period, characterized Jews and black as distinct, unequal, and hostile communities: “he [the Jew] is white and values his color.” As Eric L. Goldstein notes, this is only a small part of the story of Jewish-American race relations, because even though Jews entered the white mainstream after World War II, their position within a society that has sought to uphold a black-white divide has remained complex. The “racial dichotomy,” Goldstein writes, “has functioned in American history less as an accurate description of social reality than as an ideology, which has been mobilized at critical points to control a … varied social landscape.” Still today, being black and claiming to be an American Jew do not seem to sit well together for some people. The 2014 documentary Little White Lie offers an example of this when a girl, whose father is African American and whose mother is white American, is told at her bat mitzvah by a fellow synagogue member that it’s “so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence”—assuming that if Jewish and black, one must be from outside of the US. Assumptions like these neglect much of the diversity of Jewish ethnicity, culture, and customs in the U.S. and worldwide.

This perceived incompatibility between Judaism and being black American bears some similarity to the divide between Islam and being white German. But American Jews define “being Jewish” in multiple and complicated ways. By focusing on its definition as religion with racial undertones, I highlight only one idea within a much broader debate on Jewish identity and the boundaries of Jewish communities.1 Black New Yorkers who convert to Orthodox Judaism are thus only the most visible members of what is, in fact, a diverse Jewish community. The New York article chronicled the experience of some of the Orthodox living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, a neighborhood well known for its separate, and sometimes conflicting, communities of blacks and Orthodox Jews. As interviewee Nechemyah Davis suggests, being a convert in this environment means continuously confronting and challenging racial boundaries.

“Twenty years ago, the hotbed of Brooklyn racism was Crown Heights. I tell my friends to try to educate their children so they know G-d created all kinds of people. My hope is that by talking about it, eventually a person who looks across the subway platform and sees a black guy in a hat with peyas will think, Maybe he’s not Amish.”

An op-ed by Chava Shervington, leader of the Multiracial Jewish Network, relates that black Jews, and Jews of color more generally, constantly need to assert their Jewish faith and belonging. In Judaica shops, they are asked whether they know how to use religious articles; in kosher restaurants, other guests stare. At synagogue, they may not be counted for minyan, the prayer quorum traditionally required for a full Jewish prayer service. Such experiences show that even if Orthodox Jews attach the most significance to the religious aspects of being Jewish, race also plays a role in defining the boundaries of their community. Similar to German converts, black Jews are confronted with—and confront others with—assumed amalgamations of race and religion.

Unlike in Germany, where the queering power of conversion works primarily to unsettle ideas about Islam held by the non-Muslim majority, blacks who convert to Judaism seem to mostly challenge the racial boundaries upheld by the religious community they wish to join. Manishtana Rison (also part of the New York story) suggests that they challenge the belief in an exclusively white Orthodox Judaism.

“I went to synagogue for fifteen years with the same kids, but on the street they’d walk past me. For Jews, there’s this sense that we’re the chosen people, so we think we’re better than you. But when a person’s faced with someone they assume is of a lower rung and then they realize that person is also Jewish, it means they’re also chosen. I think that can be really unsettling.”

Viewing Özyürek’s work and these convert’s accounts next to each other, it becomes clear how the queering power of conversion takes different directions depending on the social context and the types of boundaries held dear. The adherents of Islam in Germany have very diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds and thus come nowhere near to the religiously, racially and socially tight community Orthodox Jews form. In addition, Islam and Judaism occupy very different places in German and U.S. society. Özyürek suggests that conversion to Islam is especially subversive in the European context because it is a choice of what is considered a “lower-status religion.” Not only is Islam negatively viewed as putting European values at risk and in need of reform; it is also associated with the lower socioeconomic position of immigrants from Turkey and the Maghreb. Insofar as the image of a modern, democratic Europe is construed in opposition to such a lower-status Islam, conversions directly touch upon, and endanger, the self-understanding of the continent’s societies.

Contrary to these conversions “against the dominant value system’s gravity,” the story of Brooklynite Jews is much more complex. On the one hand, one could say that conversion to Judaism—with its connotations of educated, white affluence—confirms rather than challenges dominant hierarchies. Statistically speaking, Jewish converts join a population whose socioeconomic position is above the U.S. average. On the other hand, to say that those converting to Judaism, especially to its Orthodox variants, are simply affirming “white mainstream” is inaccurate in a number of ways. It ignores the fact, already mentioned, that Jews have also unsettled U.S. racial categories. Eric L. Goldstein observes that Jews have also maintained strong commitment to their traditions, communities, and a type of “apartness” that complicates uniform whiteness—this is probably most true for Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews.2

Much more could be said about the differences and similarities of these two cases.

For now, I want to appraise what they tell us about the benefits and limits of studying conversion. The stories of German Islam and Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn reveal very different boundaries on the ground. And yet, in both cases, conversions provide a valuable lens for learning about the larger entanglements of religion, race, and nation. The experience of converts as well as the responses they elicit from their families and friends, wider society, and the religious community they wish to join, can tell us much about the associations, often tacit, of religious and racial boundaries.

However, Özyürek approaches conversions as something of political, as well as analytical, import. Recall her discussion of queering acts: Not only do conversions highlight existing religious, racial, and national boundaries, they can also affect these boundaries. Conversions can question, shake and transform what it means to be Muslim, German, Muslim German. In that sense, the very personal choices and journeys that conversions primarily are may also, through the reactions they evoke, assume political relevance. But do conversions always succeed in unsettling the faults lines of race and religion?

In this regard, the dynamics of Orthodox conversion are significantly different from our first example. Orthodox Judaism may put hurdles to conversion not found in Islam: Formally speaking, Islam makes conversion a relatively easy and personal choice of pronouncing shahada, the testimony of faith, whereas conversion to Orthodox Judaism is a lengthy, supervised process. Here, conversion itself—discussed so far as the entry point into unsettling boundaries of religion, race, and nation—becomes a well-guarded point of control.

Conversions to Judaism received some attention in the US media last year, as prospective and successful converts spoke out against what they perceived as a too-arduous procedure. Criticism was especially directed at the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an institution that, since 2007, formally accredits Orthodox conversion in the U.S., for placing too-high demands on prospective converts (including moving to an Orthodox neighborhood, acquiring Hebrew reading skills, not dating until after conversion) while leaving them in the dark about the length of their conversion. In a 2014 opinion piece in The New York Times, rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz advocated for reducing hierarchies in the conversion process and making Judaism more inclusive:

“The Jewish tradition has shunned the proselytizing propensities of our Abrahamic cousins, Christianity and Islam, but in doing so, it has seemed, to some, to embrace an ethos of exclusion. The fact that anyone with the drive and perspicacity to convert is allowed to do so is one of the most important checks on the Jewish conception of chosenness; being Jewish is not a genetic condition, but a complex hierarchy of identity and choice.”

There are more organizations that advocate diversity within Judaism, but tight regulation is politically, as well as religiously motivated, as conversion to Judaism also makes someone eligible for Israeli citizenship. Since 1950, the Law of Return grants Jews the right to immigrate to Israel. The boundaries of the Israeli state thereby lie with the question of “who is a Jew?” Currently, being considered a Jew under the Law of Return hinges upon the approval of conversion certificates by the Israeli chief rabbinate. Not only does the chief rabbinate reject conversion it considers un-Orthodox; it is also said to be more likely to challenge conversions that do not run through institutionalized channels such as the RCA. Given its institutionalized and political nature, one wonders how much openness Orthodox Judaism allows and how “queering” a conversion to Orthodox Judaism can be.

Özyürek notes that in the attempt to challenge established religious and racial categories and carve out a space of their own, converts also re-draw firm boundaries. Boundaries reappear as converts and young native Muslims counterpose their German, modern Islam to outdated, too-traditional versions that are faulted for confounding cultural traditions with authentic religion. Orthodox Judaism reminds us that conversion itself can be a well-guarded practice: while converts may unsettle associations of religion and race, they also need to adhere to the strict religious (and, as some suggest, economic) boundaries imposed by Orthodox authorities. Thus, as much as conversion can have a queering effect, it also includes moments where its interrogative potential is muted—either by the converts themselves or by the community they seek to join.

  1. By focusing on this aspect I bracket, among other things, that many US-Americans who self-identify as Jewish often understand it as a racial, ethnic or cultural and not necessarily religious category. Notable also is the definition advanced by Black Israelites (also sometimes called Black Jews), who trace their lineage to the ancient Israeli tribes depicted in the Torah, and who have challenged religious definitions of Jewishness in the US and elsewhere.

  2. The previously mentioned study by Pew Research Center also draws attention to the differences among American Jews, inter alia regarding their socioeconomic positions and the values they hold. It shows, for instance, that the percentage of Orthodox Jews graduating from college is lower than among other “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” but still above the national average.