Frank was a teenager growing up in a divorced family and became a chap who derives meaning to his existence from Islam. In my conversation with him, what appears to be a journey of moral uplift through religion, driven by his desire for a community with a greater sense of togetherness, turns out to also be a critique of the values he sees in society around him.
Dutch Values and Islamophobic narratives
Leerdam, a small Protestant Dutch town, gave birth to a century-old tale of woe about one Dirk Willems. “A pious, faithful brother and Jesus Christ follower” who saved his prosecutor from drowning only to be captured and martyred outside the city for “harboring prohibited doctrines that are contrary to the holy Christian faith” (Nolte, 2015; p123). In modern days, we can hardly square our view upon religiosity with such blind devotion and inhumaneness. After all, the secularization of the Netherlands brought staunch Christians, churchgoers and atheists under the same roof. We prefer to imagine our society as friendly in an indifferent and rational way, and we pay lip service to the enlightenment slogan “sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding”.
By situating our understanding of the social milieu in which Frank’s experience with religion and society was formed, we can more plausibly interpret his narrative
This sagacity and rationality is somehow absent, however, from the Islamophobic narratives commonly constructed by popular media and politicians. Particularly since the war on terror in 2001, “the ‘othering’ of Muslims and sensational media news coverage about Islam and Muslims not only distress mainstream society but they also make Islam more visible” (Iner & Yucel 2015). Subsequently, we see the rise of anti-Muslim discourse in many places: Donald Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries in the United States; Alice Weidel in Germany galvanizing homosexuals into the view that the presence of Muslims is threatening their safety; Viktor Orbán in Hungary castigating the Sharia law as imperiling his nation’s Christian values; Pauline Hanson in Australia drawing analogies between Islam and a contagious disease.
Hence, being identified as a Muslim in the west not only is idiosyncratic, but somewhat derogatory given the sinister undertone propagated by Islamophobic discourse. Over the course of my conversation with a friend I will call Frank, a native Dutch young man who converted to Islam in his early 20s, I tried to get answers to something that had me wondering: why Islam?
This article is not written with the purpose of praising Frank’s courage to be the person he wants to be, nor of engaging readers into a theological discovery of modern Islam. Rather, this article is centered on the question of “what are the political, familial and religious conditions that incentivized Frank to become a Muslim convert”? Thus, I look at identity as something socially constructed and conditioned.
My goal is to explore the connection between these conditions and Frank’s identity construction. In order to elicit Frank’s own understanding of his affiliation with religion and society, I employed an open-ended interview as my method.
In the first part, I tried to catch latent signs in his family life that may have contributed to his conversion. Then, I asked for his opinions about the political influence on the process of identifying as a follower of a religion. Finally, I focused on the why question in regard to his choice of Islam.
Thanks to the open nature of a qualitative interview, there is no yes-no answer to this article’s guiding question, rather, it is a process of understanding through interpreting Frank’s self-reported stories upon which his process of becoming and being took place. By situating our understanding of the social milieu in which Frank’s experience with religion and society was formed, we can more plausibly interpret his narrative.
Not having been raised in a Muslim family, nor having been exposed to any social connection or education related to Islam, it is hardly conceivable that Frank’s adolescence would climax with a conversion to Islam. Common practices that are emblematic and unique to a Muslim, such as the five daily prayers and complying with the dietary standards of Halal were not implemented in Frank’s religious identity construction process.
Yet what became clear from the interview is that the makings of Frank’s Muslim identity in the context of a secular Dutch society primarily derived from his skepticism about the hegemonic status of Christianity. Rather than learning ‘how to become a Muslim’ on Youtube or immersing himself in studying the Koran, it was a set of events that occurred in Frank’s family life, his education and his life as a western citizen that provided him with the ingredients that led to his evolution into a Muslim convert.
While recalling the role of family in fostering his relationship with religion, he brought up the despondency he felt having to endure parental divorce at a time when he was in need of a complete and caring family. “Your parents don’t agree with each other, you don’t have anyone to trust”. As a result, Frank said: “socially I’m really not advanced, so I was a bit lonely”.
The absence of family values that promote affection and trust created a void, and sowed the seeds for filling that void with religion. What captivated Frank later about Islam as a community was that it supplemented ‘role models’ and ‘coping skills’, identified as two potential sources of religious influence on adolescents by Smith (2003). The former refers to the relationship with adults and peers as ‘role models’ in a religious community that offers young people lessons in tying their life together through religious moral orders.
The relationship with role models therefore cultivates a sense of religious commitment and wisdom in youths’ lives. ‘Coping skills’ are religious rituals that strengthen youths in coping with difficult situations, such as meditation, confession and reconciliation (Smith, 2003. p22-3). At that moment Frank may not have realized that community as part of a religion can foster a positive relationship among its adherents, along with promoting rituals that help individuals to resolve life’s problems. Thus, the unavailability of ‘role models’ and ‘coping skills’ prepared Frank for embracing the set of beliefs and rituals that are emblematic of a Muslim community later.
Religion as a political identification
Part of the ‘idiosyncratic’ identity Frank has assumed by practicing Islam is the result of his skepticism about Christian hegemony in the west. "It is in the bible that you need to care about others, but it is not practiced as such in Christianity today in Europe, like how we are dealing with refugees." Frank’s take is that the fact that Christianity has been politicized against Islam in the response to the European refugee crises is biblically unfounded. He refers to Geert Wilders’s incompatibility theory, grounded by ‘Christian values’, which aims at justifying Islamophobic discourse among voters by invoking these values: “Dutch values are based on Christianity, on Judaism, on humanism. Islam and freedom are not compatible” (Hjelmgaard, 2017).
Likewise, the Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán justifies his grandiose 175 km fence to lock out Muslim refugees on the basis of ‘Christian values’. However, in Frank’s view, the Christian values defined by Wilders and Orbán fall flat in comparison to the message promoted by Jesus. If we turn to the Bible to learn what Jesus would do for whoever is in need of food, water, clothes and shelter, this suggests the Christian thing to do is the opposite of exclusion: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:34-36, New International Version).
Part of Frank’s ‘idiosyncratic’ identity by practicing Islam is the result of his skepticism about Christian hegemony in the west"
The rationale for doing so is explained as follows, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40, New International Version). What appears as a redefinition of Christian values by Wilders and Orbán is tied up with hegemonic nationalism, and the term ‘Christian value’ seems to be used as a license to justify a culture war.
Though Frank situates his skepticism of Christianity within the sphere of politics, it is of course not the case that such politicization of religion by political actors is unique to Christianity. Rather, it is applicable to all religions in the world. For instance, radicalized followers of Islam use the Koran to justify their violence; so-called ‘monks’ galvanize hate speeches against the Muslim minority in Myanmar.
To Frank, identifying oneself as a religious believer is a process of self-absorption that ought to be immune to the agenda of ethnocentric social engineers whose goal is essentially “to explore ethno-cultural characteristics, to homogenize them through acculturation and to scrutinize their socio-economic deficiencies in discovering paths for social cohesion” (Iner & Yucel, 2015). However, growing up in a Christian environment, the hegemonic quality of nationalism embedded in religious discourse by political actors to achieve their goal eventually made a strong impression on Frank regarding the legitimacy of Christian organization.
Ritual as an identity expression
When I asked Frank how he had come across Islam and what component of it had appealed to him, he zoomed in on the ritual and social dimensions of his encounter, which took place during a trip to Morocco. “First of all, hospitality, (in Morocco) many people invited me to their homes, offered me food and a place to sleep which I never saw in my home country. And they never asked me anything afterwards. Later I found out they do it among themselves as well - to share food and everything”.
The ritual of sharing among Moroccan Muslims within and outside their ethno-religious community constructed Frank’s early impression of the Muslim way of life. To him, the codification of sharing food, drink and shelter into the common practice of all Muslims underlies unconditional, selfless affection and trust between people.
Experiencing the fruit of a community that values collective well-being for its adherents encouraged Frank to partake in the Ramadan festival in Morocco. Switching his role from an observer to a participant in fasting, abstaining from food and water, he realized it is not only the feeling of hunger, but the importance of collective empathy taken in the strict form of self-deprivation.
It also made him realize that the very Dutch pursuit of materialism and individualism may be the very reason for the neglect of a codified ritual that celebrates the collective well-being of all people. Take Christmas, ‘the season of goodwill’, a western equivalent of Ramadan in terms of its importance to public life. Originally it was marked by its “doctrine of love and anti-materialism” which translated into the experience of family closeness and helping others, yet gradually we see that “the materialistic elements of the Christmas holiday have become predominant, with the primary figure of reverence being Santa Claus, a “secular version of Christ” whose “realm is that of material abundance”” (Kasser & Sheldon, 2002).
After Frank’s time in Morocco, not being able to square his Ramadan experience with his role in Dutch society led him to become a Muslim. Specifically it was his nostalgia for being in a community that promoted the cultivation of collective empathy, conviviality and generosity through strict and shared activities that encouraged him towards conversion.
How Islam filled the void
From the outset, religion was not viewed by Frank as a valuable resource that imparts wisdom and vitality because it was not expected to provide him with the necessary remedy to cope with his dysfunctional home and his deficient sociability. In the public sphere, what remains the same, from Dirk Willems’ tale of woe to modern Islamophobic discourse, lies in the ‘otherness’ or the ‘us vs them’ tradition. Being surrounded by the hegemonic status of Christianity, Frank’s view towards Christianity as a cultural and political norm has been treated with skepticism.
Following his trip to Morocco, a country where religion manifests itself in the everyday lives of humanity more profoundly, through strict ritual activities, his attitude towards religion changed. Savoring the conviviality and hospitality that for him epitomized the Muslim custom, he went so far as to reproduce his fleeting encounter with Islam by committing to its rituals and beliefs.
In other words, converting to Islam was not only guided by Frank’s calling for a remedy that could fill the void left by his past life experiences, but more importantly was conditioned by his refusal to accept the reality of a Christianity that has been hegemonized by political actors in order to otherize rival religions.
Bible, Matthew 25:34-40, New International Version.
Hjelmgaard, 2017. Exclusive USA today interview with Dutch Anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders.
Iner, D. & Yucel, S. 2015. Muslim Identity Formation in Religiously Diverse Societies. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Kasser, T. & Sheldon, K. 2002. What Makes For a Merry Christmas? Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Nolte, R. 2015. Nominal Christianity. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. p123.
Smith, C. 2003. Theorizing Religious Effects Among American Adolescents. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42:1 (2003) p22-3.