ESSAY

“We became Muslims”
Why Swedish women convert to Islam? By Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist
n 2006, I defended my doctoral thesis, We became Muslims: Conversion narratives among Swedish Muslim women, at Uppsala University. My research was based on a series of interviews I conducted with Swedish women who have converted to Islam. Not many Westerners have converted to Islam and those who have taken the step trigger curiosity. Not the least, converts who are attracted to fundamentalist branches of Islam, tend to be noticed by the media. When the converts tell about their devotion, they stress – in particular – that Islam stands for true emancipation of women, and that there is an advantage to Muslim family life. The two sexes are taken to be different but of equal worth, equal but subject to a hierarchal order. The importance of the wife’s submissiveness in emphasised – or in some cases of wives’, since many converts strongly argue in favour of polygamy while some of them live in this type of family constellation. The converts also emphasise their dream of a Muslim social order – a fair society ruled by the diktats of the Quran. With the influence and power of institutional religion on the decline, many Westerners have been attracted to a religious worldview. It should be stressed, though, that this is not a mass movement and those being attracted usually do not stay within their chosen religious group for a long time. The New Age movement holds a large number of supporters because of its mixture of popular psychology, health thinking and religious techniques, providing a worldview that works well for the rootless urban middle class. But, even for upper class women, religion may play a role as a place of refuge, though their choice of religious context may vary. If women in the past could achieve relative influence and freedom within the monastery, today the Norwegian

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princess Märta Louise enjoys the same freedom within the New Age movement. Upper class men, on the other hand, seem not to be attracted to the holistic prescriptions churned out by the New Age movement. After Tony Blair’s conversion to Catholicism, there has been a trend among male politicians and cultural workers to follow suit. They repeatedly preach the benefits of traditional family values and that stability in the society is guaranteed by religion. Together with New Age, the conservative and fundamentalist branches within traditional world religions are the main religious agents in today’s society. Neither the New Age nor the conservative and fundamentalist movements have a coherent agenda, though some of the main ideas are more central than others. Within the New Age movement, for instance, the holy aspects of life take the shape of forces and energies related to the individual human being. Within conservative and fundamentalist religious

According to the interviewees, the two sexes are and should be different since they have different roles, functions and preferences. Women should take care of children and their homes, men should primarily provide for the family – the good wife’s daily responsibility is homemaking while her husband holds the overall responsibility of the family.
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groups, the idea of a patriarchal God plays a central role – this God is not only the bearer of traditional male attributes, he is also transcendent, omnipotent, and often surrounded by taboos. At first sight, New Age may not seem to have much in common with fundamentalist and conservative religions. But, they share the idea of wholeness. Both are strongly critical of the fragmented society, which creates rootless and unhappy people – they claim. The religious framework, on the other hand, lays the path towards a meaningful and happy life. In the case of New Age, the importance to come into contact with one’s inner self is emphasised. Conservative and fundamentalist religion stresses the importance of being obedient to a male religious leadership, who can interpret the religion in the right way. Those who have converted to Islam do not constitute a homogeneous group, on the other hand, some of them point to values that can be associated with a fundamentalist idea tradition. From a global perspective, some of these fundamentalist movements have extraparliamentary agendas. For example: Murder of doctors for carrying out abortions, can be justified by a Christian conviction, while the 9/11 terror attacks can be justified with an Islamic endorsement. In this context, it is important to stress that the majority within the religious movements do not subscribe to the idea of using political terror to make religious gains. The converts I interviewed for my research, do not support terror motivated by religion. However, the values they hold are based upon a religious logic which involves a society governed by religion: economy, politics, and law shall be guided and corrected by the Quran. There is also a strong scepticism towards any critical interpretation of Quranic

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Many Western converts – irrespective of religion – long for wholeness. Those I have interviewed, strive for homogeneity as they see heterogeneity, complexity, and ambiguities as threatening and problematic.
text. The religious doctrine is taken to be God-given, rather than originating from a given historical and social context. Furthermore, the family is taken to be the basic unit of society, not the individual person. From a philosophical perspective, they argue, there is an absolute truth presented by the God in the Quran.

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he specific form of Islamic family life constructed by the converts is based upon what they are critical against and what they are longing for. In Islam, they have found a context for positive identification and a language for critiquing the time in which we live. The Muslim community is regarded to be friendly and free of oppression of women. The Western world, on the other hand, has failed to create happy individuals and families. Women are forced to keep up with everything: a career, motherhood, taking care of the husband, homemaking. Men are not allowed to be men – they are, for political reasons, forced into female activities: doing household chores and taking care of children. The converts are critical of how the Western society values women’s and men’s activities. They believe, equality is to be achieved when women’s work at home is valued equally with men’s job. Among the interviewees, there is a common understanding that the roles, properties and preferences of women and men are neither learned nor consequences of gender segregating mechanisms of a society. Instead, they emphasise that the natural gender is being suppressed by social conditions, which is different from the constructivists who claim that the natural gender is a product of social

conditions. Suppressing the natural – as it is done in the West – has many negative consequences: stress related illness among women, impotency among men, and rootless children who are forced to day-care-centres or have to shuttle between their separated parents. According to the interviewees, the two sexes are and should be different since they have different roles, functions and preferences. Women should take care of children and their homes, men should primarily provide for the family – the good wife’s daily responsibility is homemaking while her husband holds the overall responsibility of the family. Since women and men are supposed to be in charge of different aspects of family life, conflicts between married people can be avoided. The difference between the two sexes frees the Muslim marriage from quarrels and conflicts. According to this hierarchal logic, women and men become whole and true, only when they start subscribing to the idea that men are superior to the women. A woman becomes emancipated only after she accepts her true femininity, she becomes emancipated only after she hands herself over to her husband. Equality must be based upon difference. Other ways of interpreting equality are doomed to failure since they are the products of social engineering that only creates chaos and disorder in the society. The lack of tolerance towards ambiguity and complexity means that the converts strive after a holistic thinking on gender and family – homogeneity is central to how they view the good society. mong conservative and fundamentalist groups, there is a tendency to react against specialisation of societal functions, against pluralism, mass-culture, and the global market. The longing for homogeneity is expressed through the endorsement of religion as a social order. It is supposed to resolve political, legal, moral, and existential issues. In this context, the need for economic and political justice is a recurrent rhetoric. During the past year, some groups have even started to discuss the terms of the ecologically sustainable society. Religion functions both as a means as well as an aim in itself, for the implementation of this

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form of justice. Converts claim that the Muslim community not only gives them a context and a language, it also gives them a tool for formulating a broader critique of the secularised society. The absence of a common moral in the society, as well as the absence of an absolute truth is deeply problematic for the interviewees. The existence of different interpretations of the religious doctrines and the idea that truth may be a social construction cause worries among them. It is in Islam, in the Quran, one may find the eternally valid, true and solid answers. The interviewees strive for wholeness and harmony in all aspects of life, to reach behind and replace the shallow and mechanical relations between people with a warm and endurable solidarity. They wish to go beyond a reality that is a social construction and reach a reality that is real. They do not want a society where the religious doctrines are subject to interpretation. They wish to have a society based upon rules, a harmonious society based upon the idea of functional division of labour. It is a social order that is viewed as being free of competition, antagonism, and power struggle. In other words, harmony, homogeneity, and equality may only be achieved when individuals find their own place and role in society. Many Western converts – irrespective of religion – long for wholeness. Those I have interviewed, strive for homogeneity as they see heterogeneity, complexity, and ambiguities as threatening and problematic. This longing for wholeness is expressed on many different levels. They wish to have stable heterosexual gender roles and are confident with the traditional, patriarchal family model. They argue that the absolute truth can be found in Islam, and they wish to live in a theocratic society ruled by Islam. Religion practised in a conservative and/or fundamentalist form, may be thought of as being part of the conditions for the late modern lifestyle, and at the same time, these religious movements react heavily against pluralism and secularisation. On one hand, these adherents use traditional ideas about gender, family, society, truth, and religion; they are inspired by pictures coloured by religion and an idealised society, within

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Stockholm Mosque: Photo by Gabriel Ehrnst Grundin.

which they create an identity and space for themselves, in a historical and social context. However, their conditions are not formulated by this idealised society, but, by the conditions that characterise a multicultural world. During periods of economic decline and cultural unrest, religious groups tend to grow, followed by stagnation during periods of stability and economic growth. From a wider perspective, religion may be interpreted as an unifying force against the modern project. Religious groups that manage to catch up and voice criticism against from rationality and reflexivity to capitalism and the global market, have good prospect to see the number of members grow. Religion offers a language and worldview that presents a stable ground for life, a demand for eternal truth, an essentialistic gender order, and, not the least, a political agenda that promises a reduction of ambivalence and complexity. At first sight, it might seem as a contradiction that religious identity finds its legitimacy from belonging to the right faith, rather than having the

right biological or cultural roots. But, the conditions for the religious groups have changed drastically under the influence of the rise of modernity. Religious groups today can not trust their members to raise their children into a religion-based worldview, and in this way keep the number of members intact. They have to recruit new members in order to maintain their political and cultural influence in secularised societies. It has turned out to be an accessible path, for the conservative and fundamentalist forms of religion, to offer values that refer to safety and stability within the patriarchal family model; claims of truth, and to a large extent religiously guided political social order. It might look like paradox that the supporters are forced to choose between believing on absolute truth and an essentialistic view on the sexes, but in a pluralistic world, where the religiously coloured worldview is one among several, it is of central importance that the members are conveyed that they have not chosen to choose. Although the converts strongly

emphasise the seriousness in their choice of becoming a Muslim – they even say that apostasy may be punished by death – several of them have left their religious commitment after a few years. Some have found meaning in a different religious context, others live today a secular life. Perhaps, the freedom and harmony were not as large in the patriarchal family model; the safety to know the existence of an absolute truth so stable; and the political life as simple, fair, and pleasant, as they were promised by the religious leaders. �

Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist is a lecturer of Sociology of Religion at Uppsala University. Her research focuses on fundamentalist women in religious traditions; and female religious traditions;

patriarchal religious control of

sexuality and reproductive health. A Swedish version of this article, will be published in the next issue of Humanisten.

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