In the last decade, scholarship on conversion has come a long way. Rather than relying on the protestant ideal of conversion, where the individual follows a change of heart, contributors to this forum convincingly show that more than individual conviction is at play. Religious converts reveal and unsettle social, political, and historical boundaries, even when they do not intend to. Can we apply what we have learned about religious conversion to instances in which individuals do not embrace the convictions and belief systems of their ancestors?
Secularism, Christianity, Islam, liberalism, and democracy are among seemingly universalist worldviews, inviting any individual, community, or government to embrace them. However, they are also considered indigenous to certain geographies and populations and foreign imports to others. My overall research agenda explores this tension between the universalism and particularism of globally appealing religious and post-religious belief and value systems by studying them ethnographically as they travel in and out of their assumed natural habitats. More specifically, I am interested in the personal experiences of individuals who embrace a universalistic ideology or belief system they did not inherit from their grandparents, but instead choose to borrow from others and make it their own. I explore what it means to be a secular Turk in a country where political Islam was on the rise; to be an ethnic German who converted to Islam; and a Turk who converted to Christianity. I am currently working on a project about Turkish Germans who look for ways to adopt the memory of the Holocaust as proof of their commitment to liberal democracy and empathic humanity. I examine the conditions under which such engagements are judged as genuine and sincere, or as suspect and fake.
Each individual choice of adopting a worldview, belief system, or lifestyle that one did not inherit reveals that moving in and out of seemingly opposing worldviews is quite possible and common. At the same time, the particular challenges these individuals face give us clues into how humans make and remake divisions in the first place. While overlooked, individual acts of borrowing across genealogies are fundamental to the formation and transformation of these alignments. Importantly, consequences of conversion are independent of whether or not the individual converts with a political motivation. The acts of conversion I study explore the nature of porous boundaries between Islam and Christianity; religion and non-religion; democracy and authoritarianism; Turkey and Europe.
In Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey I trace the consequences of a growing political Islam for secularist beliefs and rituals. As Islam grew out of its designated private realm in modern Turkey in the 1990s, it challenged secularism as an imported, disingenuous, and even forced upon, lifestyle. Secularists in return tried to legitimate their views and values as authentic and sincere by circulating modernist state symbolism in the private sphere through the market, the home, civil society, life history, and emotional attachment. I ask why and how citizens who used to be strong believers of etatism now translated the history and symbolism of state-led modernization into the conceptual frameworks of the market and love?
After completing this project on the diffusion of secularism across spheres of life, I decided to explore its limits by focusing on religious conversion. Unlike ethnic minorities, religious minorities have the potential to convert the members of the majority and thus threaten the assumed religious and cultural purity of the political unit. Over the past few years, sensational reports about Muslims taking over Europe have repeatedly appeared in popular magazines. An older alarmist strategy, which is still alive, highlights the high birth rates of Muslim immigrants. The new alarmism emphasizes the spread of Islamic ways of thinking and living among non-Muslim Europeans. The idea behind this new anxiety is that Muslim values have already started to dominate the European public culture, because liberal Europeans are too permissive to stand up for their values and protect them. Nationalists frame converts not as independent individuals following their spiritual calling but as naive puppets manipulated by foreign political forces aiming to take over the country. How do converts feel and act in this framework?
“I would never have become a Muslim if I had met Muslims before I met Islam.” During the entirety of my research for Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe, this was the most common sentiment I heard. Although almost all German converts I met during my research embraced Islam following intimate relations with born Muslims, many nonetheless distance themselves from immigrant Muslims, and especially Turks, following their conversion. Many wanted to make sure love had nothing to do with their conversion and tried to assert the reliability of their conversion as a purely rational choice. The book demonstrates how as mainstream German society marginalizes converts and questions their national loyalties, converts respond by disassociating themselves from immigrant communities and promoting instead a purified Islam untainted by Turkish traditions. Converts I got to know well exerted a lot of effort in finding headscarf styles that did not make them look Turkish, lived in neighborhoods far from those popular among Turks, and blamed Turks for giving Islam a bad name.
Amir is the son of a Lebanese father and a German mother. He was raised by his Christian mother as a non-Muslim and converted to Islam several years ago. One afternoon Amir, his Polish wife, and I we were sitting down on the lush green carpet of a mosque in Berlin run by the Turkish government and talking about the situation of Islam in Germany. The issue of reform in Islam came up. When he heard the word reform, Amir straightened his posture and told me firmly:
We do not need reform in Islam. What we need is a reform of Muslims. It is really shameful that these Turks have been here for more than forty years, and so many of them cannot speak German. If they were good Muslims, they certainly would have read the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions that say “If you travel in a foreign country for more than fifteen days, make sure to learn its language so that you can communicate with the people there.” So if these people were better Muslims, they would have mastered German and be integrated in society.
A good number of German Muslims believe that, once cleansed of ethnic customs inauthentic to Islam, the religion that surfaces will fit well with German values, especially those of the German Enlightenment. In the last hundred years, several German Muslims studied Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing from a Muslim perspective. The myth that Goethe converted to Islam is quite widespread. In one among many such studies, Abdul Hadi Hoffman lists key values common to Kant’s philosophy and Islam, including emphasis on peace and learning, the concept of the independent individual, a focus on an individual’s motivation, and rationality.
In their attempts to explain how and why a German can and should become a Muslim, German Muslims see Islam as a chance to simultaneously reform Muslims and German society. While secular Turks believe will and love are necessary to show their sincerity, German Muslims emphasize reason to explain why Islam is naturally good for Germans and Germans are naturally good for Islam.
Tentatively titled “Making Germans out of Muslims: Holocaust Memory, Democracy Education, and Governing Minorities,” my current project concentrates on the challenges and contributions of Muslim Europeans in engaging with the Holocaust and its legacy. By focusing primarily on the experiences of Turkish-Germans, I highlight instances where immigrants arriving after World War II are perceived as incorrectly engaging with the Holocaust, exporting anti-Semitism to a continent otherwise cleared of it, and hence unfit for [German] democracy. I discuss some of the ways in which they narrate memories of the Holocaust from their marginalized standpoint and explore why these engagements are not perceived as acts of civil courage, empathy, or commitment to democracy.
The historical record is replete with individuals who refuse to inherit worldviews, lifestyles, and belief systems. Even though all beliefs are, in theory, universal and open to all, serious doubts arise about authenticity and sincerity when such beliefs are adopted by people who have not inherited them from their grandparents but take them from other people’s grandparents, whom many times they never met. Secular and Christian Turks, German Muslims, and Turkish Germans who embrace a new religion or take up lessons from the memory of the Holocaust are accused of adopting a religion or a history that is not theirs. They cannot be authentic holders of those beliefs.
In his discussion of democracy, Jacques Derrida argues “that democracy has the structure of a promise, a promise that is kept in memory, that is handed down . . . inherited, claimed, and taken up.” Religion, and civil religion, even more than democracy, holds a promise of a future that extends to coming generations and often to afterlife. This promise is dependent on this particular religion or civil religion already passing from generation to generation. But as Derrida reminds us, the promise of future is dependent on the fact that the heritage is actively inherited, claimed, and taken up. It is this active agency necessary in inheriting belief that makes it possible for individuals and groups to claim beliefs of others’ grandparents. Sometimes the fact that others who did not inherit a particular religion are adopting it becomes the strong affirmation of the promise of a future and hence the truth of that religion. Despite often being seen as uncommon, inauthentic, or even suspicious, the active and boundary-crossing inheritance of converts highlights the complex relationship between the past and the future, and across groups of communities of believers.