Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West

By Karin Van Nieuwkerk | Go to book overview

FOREWORD
Conversion and Gender, Two Contested Concepts

Willy Jansen

This book is the outcome of a conference, Gender and Conversion to Islam, held at Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in May 2003. It tackles a topic that is highly relevant at the moment. The two main concepts, conversion and gender, are in themselves and in their combination highly contested.

The past decades have seen a shift toward an increased interest in religion. The processes of conversion toward Islam have apparently accelerated significantly after September 11, 2001, as has the expression of suspicion and hostility among the Western Christian or agnostic population toward such converts. These religious shifts are increasingly given political weight. Conversion, in particular conversion to Islam, has a political dimension, whether intended by the convert or not. Understanding the effects this brings about, both in the convert and in the surrounding society, is of crucial importance and the subject of several of the following studies.

A discussion of conversion is not only socially but also theoretically relevant. The concept of conversion has been found difficult to define. The common definition of conversion as an act of free will, as an authentic experience, or, in the Christian Pauline sense, as an inward transformation after a thorough search and/or divine inspiration, has been criticized before. Conversion takes on a wide variety of forms and meanings, which can only be understood in the specific contexts and specific power relations of the individuals and groups involved. The individual's free choice of religion is more an ideal, abstract notion than an observable fact. The level of freedom varies according to the rules set by the available religions or the accessibility of information, as well as to the historical context. The scholars in this volume have applied themselves to the task of uncovering the level of freedom within the context of restraints and opportunities, and indicated in which cases the concept of conversion is appropriate and what it exactly means. They have shown how personal conversion narratives form part of several wider discourses. Conversion is analyzed as a complex social phenomenon rather than only as an individual spiritual transition.

Conversion, beyond being a personal experience and an expression of personal religious preference, has a much wider impact and meaning. It nearly

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