While the number of people converting to Islam in the West is growing, new converts face a variety of significant challenges, both from inside and outside the community, leading a segment to drop out after some time.
“Apostates” among converts remains an under-researched and difficult topic, according to several participants at sessions on “Moving In and Out of Islam” at the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies, which RW attended in Ankara, Turkey in late August. Muslims actually prefer to speak of “reverts,” since babies in their natural state are supposed to be born sinless Muslims. The convener of the sessions, Karin van Nieuwkerk (Radboud University, Nimegen, Netherlands), suggests seeing conversions as an ongoing process, rather than always putting the emphasis on a radical break with the past.
When people embrace Islam, reports Mona Alyedreessy (Kingston University, London), many actually join a subgroup, such as Salafi, Sufi or Ahmadi, without being initially aware of it. And whatever the group, they face minor challenges, such as changing habits, as well as major ones, like fitting in the Islamic community, lack of support or difficulties with their family. Not to mention the media stereotypes that make them suspects. According to Alyedreessy’s research, those in her sample who suffered most from leaving their original religious community were people of Hindu background.
A segment of converts abandon Islam after some time, for reasons ranging from disappointment and bad experiences with the Muslim community, which include marital failures or racism, to social and emotional hardships. Some exit peacefully and other ones publicly, but there are also closet disaffiliates who do not reveal their apostasy, partly due to fear that it could be taken very seriously. According to a survey, 36 percent of British Muslims believe that apostasy should be punished by death.
During her research on Dutch female converts living in Egypt, Karin van Nieuwkerk explains that there were various reasons for moving from the hope of gaining religious knowledge and providing religious upbringing to children, to a wish to follow the wishes of husbands. But adjusting to daily life in Egypt does not prove easy, starting with stronger class differences and the material consequences for women coming from a European middle class background. Long-term religious trajectories are often not the same for husbands, who have less difficulties.
For many women, there have been ups and downs, leading to a reconfiguration of their relation with Islam. For some women, coming to Egypt has made it easier to practice their religious duties and has furthered their commitment. A few slowed down after investing much energy in their initial embrace of the faith and observing every rule; after maturing, several of them started to explore Sufism. For those experiencing disillusionment with their husbands, there are often consequences for their faith, too.
(Among support groups for new Muslims: Solace for Revert Sisters in Difficulty – http://www.solaceuk.org – deals with some of the above issues.)