One often starts with Christianity when discussing conversion. This is not so strange, since Christianity is inextricably connected to the early modern expansion of Spain and Portugal to the rest of the world, as well as to the imperialism of Britain, France, and the Netherlands in the nineteenth century. It is also central to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. One may want to “provincialize” Europe but the fact remains that Europe’s Christianity has played an oversized role in creating world-historical conditions of modernity, although certainly divergent pathways and interactions have created a great variety of conversions to multiple modernities. This is always a history of power, but never a simple one, since conversion under conditions of enslavement or colonial rule gives access to literacy and education, tools for mobilization against oppressors.
When in 1492 Christopher Columbus leaves Spain on his way to “discover” the Americas, he notes in his log that boats with Muslims and Jews were also leaving. While he was going to expand the worldwide reach of Catholic Spain they were on their way out of Spain. This is an interconnected history of expansion and purification; of conversion and inquisition into the truth of conversion that marks not only the history of Spain, but also that of the Low Countries, of France, of Shakespearean England, and of the German lands devastated by religious wars till the Treaty of Westphalia. That this bloody political history of conversion always, in one way or another, surfaces in Shakespearean theatre may not be surprising, but his remarkable literary achievement is to explore it in terms of the performance and narration of radical, personal change. If one wishes, one could even see a number of connections between this long history of religious purification by conversion or exile and much later nationalist ethnic purification in Europe, brought to an extreme in the Nazi race laws, connecting religious and racial identity.
Conversion is not an innocent business. It is also not a simple European business, not only because the Inquisition was brought to South America and the Philippines, but also because the Others were perfectly capable themselves to purify their subjects from alien beliefs. Japanese rulers massacred thousands of Christian converts and kept executing them until the end of the nineteenth century. The formation of the early Turkish Republic brought about the massacre and forcible conversion of Christian Armenians. Thus, “return conversion” by Armenians back to Christianity is always connected to interpretations of national history. Even today Christians are persecuted for their beliefs in many parts of the world. They find themselves in the good company of persecuted Muslims, Jews, Baha’i, and everyone else if the political context demands it.
Religious identity is a deeply political fact that takes different shapes in different political configurations. Conversions are therefore suspect and dangerous border crossings, since the converts move from one political category to the other. This is not only true for Christianity, but also for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and most other expanding religions.
The essays published in this forum emphasize the political nature of conversion and attempt to deemphasize questions of sincere belief. This is tricky since one gets caught up in what one wants to get away from. To argue that conversion is not about “sincere belief” and “interiority,” but about politics and materiality may, unwittingly, perpetuate an opposition between external materiality and internal dispositions that is emphasized in some religious traditions (most famously in some forms of Protestantism) but not in others. Such an opposition should not be taken as an ideal-typical model for understanding conversion.
The problem of “belief” is a vexing one since, as Rodney Needham pointed out half a century ago, “credo” cannot be expressed in many languages, which makes the anthropological assertion that “these people believe in this and that” often quite dubious. This is not a straightforward problem of translation, but rather a problem of the embedded assumptions about the relation between language and the world that are carried in language. Some linguistic anthropologists call this linguistic or semiotic ideology. Anthropologists of China and India have continuously been bothered by the question of “belief” and have foregrounded “practice” above “belief,” but the political witch hunt, focusing on “true belief,” during the Cultural Revolution in China seems not to support this perspective. The total devotional belief in the guru or the messianic leader in both India and China does not allow us to discard people’s willingness to believe or at least suspend disbelief.
The theoretical problems with understanding conversion from one set of beliefs and practices to an (at least partly) other one are therefore simultaneously of a general nature, in the sense that they involve central issues in the anthropology of religion, and quite specific, since they are part of specific historical trajectories of state formation, religious expansion, and imperial interactions.
The interventions that were published in this forum show clearly the social and political implications of conversion in a wide variety of contexts. Conversion is often embodied. Religious identity is in some cases inscribed on the body through scarification or through circumcision as an indelible sign of initiation into a community (perhaps more initiation than conversion). Circumcision becomes the outward sign of the opposition between Judaism (false belief) and Christianity (true belief) in European history. It is not surprising that this continues to be a contentious issue today in legal cases adjudicating religious difference within the nation-state.
Something similar concerns the covering of the body with outward signs of religious adherence, the most contentious of which are forms of Muslim female modesty in clothing. It remains remarkable how jarring forms of veiling are to modern, especially Western, sensibilities. When I did fieldwork in rural northern India many decades ago nobody there seemed to be upset by burqas. Indeed, Hindu women would use shawls or their saris to cover themselves in rather analogous ways. This is not to say, obviously, that Hindu-Muslim relations were anywhere close to being harmonious, but the sensibilities involved were not quite those of the (secular) Christian West.
Forms of veiling are clearly markers of difference and Joan Scott is quite right in pointing out how gender and sexuality are central to secular modernity. Conversion in such a context is not only a question of individuals finding religious truth but also of showing oneself to the outside world as converted. One’s way of dressing shows difference from the norms of secular modernity. The act of dressing thereby becomes an intense preparation for one’s encounter to an often hostile environment. The personal experience of that encounter becomes part of one’s religious experience. The feeling of being rejected by mainstream society is, in many religions, a deeply felt aspect of one’s identity, with the consequence that one’s bonding with the community in which one is accepted (and that is collectively rejected) comes to be reinforced.
Conversion has a number of legal implications, especially in the sphere of family law and inheritance. This has been particularly well-researched in India. Marriages are made possible by what one could call “conversions of convenience.” When they are legally challenged the court has to adjudicate the sincerity and authenticity of religious conversions. Marriage and conversion are comparable in their legal implications, such as change of status, and in their combination of professed loyalty and instrumentality. Conversion and marriage alike are a challenge for boundary maintenance. To marry someone outside the fold can be taken in a number of cases as an implicit conversion. There is a Dutch proverb saying the Devil sleeps between two partners of different beliefs.
Like with conversion there is a culture of suspicion that questions the sincerity of marriage in legal procedures, as is regularly the case with immigrants who by marriage are enabled to gain residency in a country of immigration. Conversion is best regarded as one among a wide set of issues producing legal probing into people’s true motivations, their agency, and the extent to which they are determined by their background rather than by their choices. The transition to a modern legal system that regulates society is therefore the crucial historical development. Given the regular coexistence of multiple religious groups in one space, the ensuing legal pluralism leads individuals to find their way between different kinds of religious legal systems, like in nineteenth-century Morocco and India, as well as between religious and secular rulings today in many parts of the world. Graham Greene’s novels and biography are a good instance of the conflicts of conscience that are the result of this.
Legal systems are rooted in politics. It is especially postcolonial states like India, Vietnam, and China that find conversion problematic and a threat to the civilizational unity that their nationalisms try to projects. India is known for its anti-conversion politics, which pits non-converted disadvantaged “tribal” groups against converted “tribal” groups. Vietnam and China also do this, but given their control over the media, it is not in plain sight. Majoritarian nationalism sees conversion as a form of betrayal of the nation. An interesting case of state interest in conversion is Israel, where one finds a very unstable relationship between ethnic definitions of Jewishness and religious definitions of belonging. While the state’s need for immigration widens the ethnic definition (from matrilineality to a wider set of possibilities of inclusion), the foundation of the state’s family law in Orthodox law and rabbinical courts makes interreligious marriage impossible within Israel and thus makes conversion mandatory for those who want to marry there. Israel is also an important example of the interplay of national and transnational aspects of conversion, because of its dependence on the United States that has a Jewish community with a much more flexible understanding of diversity.
All in all, this is a wonderful forum dealing with conversion mostly in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cases, which belong to the so-called “religions of the book.” They therefore have many features in common. To further open up the question of “conversion,” however, one would need to also examine other expanding religious systems that change their human targets into Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Shintoists, in the Asian contest, for example. Most importantly, one needs also to examine conversion to atheist communism or to liberal forms of secularism. To become secular is an important form of conversion.