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ESSAY

“We became Muslims”


Why Swedish women convert to Islam?
By Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist

I 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
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
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.
conducted with Swedish women who have movement. After Tony Blair’s conversion At first sight, New Age may not
converted to Islam. Not many Westerners to Catholicism, there has been a trend seem to have much in common with
have converted to Islam and those who among male politicians and cultural fundamentalist and conservative
have taken the step trigger curiosity. Not workers to follow suit. They repeatedly religions. But, they share the idea of
the least, converts who are attracted to preach the benefits of traditional family wholeness. Both are strongly critical of
fundamentalist branches of Islam, tend to values and that stability in the society is the fragmented society, which creates
be noticed by the media. guaranteed by religion. rootless and unhappy people – they
When the converts tell about their Together with New Age, the claim. The religious framework, on the
devotion, they stress – in particular – conservative and fundamentalist branches other hand, lays the path towards a
that Islam stands for true emancipation within traditional world religions are the meaningful and happy life. In the case
of women, and that there is an advantage main religious agents in today’s society. of New Age, the importance to come into
to Muslim family life. The two sexes are Neither the New Age nor the conservative contact with one’s inner self is emphasised.
taken to be different but of equal worth, and fundamentalist movements have a Conservative and fundamentalist religion
equal but subject to a hierarchal order. The coherent agenda, though some of the stresses the importance of being obedient
importance of the wife’s submissiveness main ideas are more central than others. to a male religious leadership, who can
in emphasised – or in some cases of wives’, Within the New Age movement, for interpret the religion in the right way.
since many converts strongly argue in instance, the holy aspects of life take the Those who have converted to Islam
favour of polygamy while some of them shape of forces and energies related do not constitute a homogeneous group,
live in this type of family constellation. to the individual human being. Within on the other hand, some of them point
The converts also emphasise their conservative and fundamentalist religious to values that can be associated with
dream of a Muslim social order – a a fundamentalist idea tradition. From
fair society ruled by the diktats of the a global perspective, some of these
According to the
Quran. With the influence and power fundamentalist movements have extra-
of institutional religion on the decline, interviewees, the two parliamentary agendas. For example:
many Westerners have been attracted to a Murder of doctors for carrying out
sexes are and should be
religious worldview. It should be stressed, abortions, can be justified by a Christian
though, that this is not a mass movement different since they have conviction, while the 9/11 terror
and those being attracted usually do not attacks can be justified with an Islamic
different roles, functions and
stay within their chosen religious group endorsement. In this context, it is
for a long time. preferences. Women should important to stress that the majority
The New Age movement holds a within the religious movements do not
take care of children and
large number of supporters because subscribe to the idea of using political
of its mixture of popular psychology, their homes, men should terror to make religious gains.
health thinking and religious techniques, The converts I interviewed for my
primarily provide for the
providing a worldview that works well for research, do not support terror motivated
the rootless urban middle class. But, even family – the good wife’s by religion. However, the values they
for upper class women, religion may play hold are based upon a religious logic
daily responsibility is
a role as a place of refuge, though their which involves a society governed by
choice of religious context may vary. homemaking while her religion: economy, politics, and law shall
If women in the past could achieve be guided and corrected by the Quran.
husband holds the overall
relative influence and freedom within There is also a strong scepticism towards
the monastery, today the Norwegian responsibility of the family. any critical interpretation of Quranic

Independent World report March/April 2010 39


conditions. Suppressing the natural – as it form of justice. Converts claim that the
Many Western converts is done in the West – has many negative Muslim community not only gives them a
consequences: stress related illness context and a language, it also gives them
– irrespective of religion among women, impotency among men, a tool for formulating a broader critique
– long for wholeness. and rootless children who are forced of the secularised society.
to day-care-centres or have to shuttle The absence of a common moral in
Those I have interviewed, between their separated parents. the society, as well as the absence of an
strive for homogeneity as According to the interviewees, the absolute truth is deeply problematic
two sexes are and should be different for the interviewees. The existence of
they see heterogeneity, since they have different roles, functions different interpretations of the religious
complexity, and ambiguities and preferences. Women should take doctrines and the idea that truth may be a
care of children and their homes, men social construction cause worries among
as threatening and should primarily provide for the family them. It is in Islam, in the Quran, one may
problematic. – the good wife’s daily responsibility is find the eternally valid, true and solid
homemaking while her husband holds answers.
text. The religious doctrine is taken to be the overall responsibility of the family. The interviewees strive for wholeness
God-given, rather than originating from Since women and men are supposed to and harmony in all aspects of life, to
a given historical and social context. be in charge of different aspects of family reach behind and replace the shallow and
Furthermore, the family is taken to be the life, conflicts between married people mechanical relations between people
basic unit of society, not the individual can be avoided. The difference between with a warm and endurable solidarity.
person. From a philosophical perspective, the two sexes frees the Muslim marriage They wish to go beyond a reality that is
they argue, there is an absolute truth from quarrels and conflicts. a social construction and reach a reality
presented by the God in the Quran. According to this hierarchal logic, that is real. They do not want a society
women and men become whole and true, where the religious doctrines are subject

T 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
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
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,
positive identification and a language she hands herself over to her husband. antagonism, and power struggle. In
for critiquing the time in which we live. Equality must be based upon difference. other words, harmony, homogeneity,
The Muslim community is regarded to Other ways of interpreting equality are and equality may only be achieved when
be friendly and free of oppression of doomed to failure since they are the individuals find their own place and role
women. products of social engineering that only in society.
The Western world, on the other hand, creates chaos and disorder in the society. Many Western converts – irrespective
has failed to create happy individuals and The lack of tolerance towards of religion – long for wholeness. Those I
families. Women are forced to keep up ambiguity and complexity means that the have interviewed, strive for homogeneity
with everything: a career, motherhood, converts strive after a holistic thinking as they see heterogeneity, complexity,
taking care of the husband, homemaking. on gender and family – homogeneity is and ambiguities as threatening and
Men are not allowed to be men – they are, central to how they view the good society. problematic. This longing for wholeness
for political reasons, forced into female is expressed on many different levels.
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
A mong conservative
fundamentalist groups, there
is a tendency to react against
specialisation of societal functions,
against pluralism, mass-culture, and
and 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
women’s work at home is valued equally the global market. The longing for theocratic society ruled by Islam.
with men’s job. homogeneity is expressed through the Religion practised in a conservative
Among the interviewees, there is a endorsement of religion as a social order. and/or fundamentalist form, may be
common understanding that the roles, It is supposed to resolve political, legal, thought of as being part of the conditions
properties and preferences of women and moral, and existential issues. for the late modern lifestyle, and at the
men are neither learned nor consequences In this context, the need for economic same time, these religious movements
of gender segregating mechanisms of and political justice is a recurrent rhetoric. react heavily against pluralism and
a society. Instead, they emphasise that During the past year, some groups have secularisation. On one hand, these
the natural gender is being suppressed even started to discuss the terms of the adherents use traditional ideas about
by social conditions, which is different ecologically sustainable society. Religion gender, family, society, truth, and religion;
from the constructivists who claim that functions both as a means as well as an aim they are inspired by pictures coloured by
the natural gender is a product of social in itself, for the implementation of this religion and an idealised society, within

40 March/April 2010 Independent World report


Stockholm Mosque: Photo by Gabriel Ehrnst Grundin.

which they create an identity and space right biological or cultural roots. But, the emphasise the seriousness in their choice
for themselves, in a historical and social conditions for the religious groups have of becoming a Muslim – they even say
context. However, their conditions are changed drastically under the influence that apostasy may be punished by death
not formulated by this idealised society, of the rise of modernity. – several of them have left their religious
but, by the conditions that characterise a Religious groups today can not trust commitment after a few years.
multicultural world. their members to raise their children Some have found meaning in a
During periods of economic decline into a religion-based worldview, and in different religious context, others live
and cultural unrest, religious groups tend this way keep the number of members today a secular life.
to grow, followed by stagnation during intact. They have to recruit new members Perhaps, the freedom and harmony
periods of stability and economic growth. in order to maintain their political were not as large in the patriarchal family
From a wider perspective, religion may be and cultural influence in secularised model; the safety to know the existence
interpreted as an unifying force against societies. of an absolute truth so stable; and the
the modern project. Religious groups that It has turned out to be an accessible path, political life as simple, fair, and pleasant,
manage to catch up and voice criticism for the conservative and fundamentalist as they were promised by the religious
against from rationality and reflexivity forms of religion, to offer values that leaders. �
to capitalism and the global market, refer to safety and stability within the
have good prospect to see the number of patriarchal family model; claims of truth,
members grow. Religion offers a language and to a large extent religiously guided
and worldview that presents a stable political social order. It might look like Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist is a lecturer
ground for life, a demand for eternal paradox that the supporters are forced of Sociology of Religion at Uppsala
truth, an essentialistic gender order, to choose between believing on absolute University. Her research focuses on
and, not the least, a political agenda that truth and an essentialistic view on the fundamentalist religious traditions;
promises a reduction of ambivalence and sexes, but in a pluralistic world, where women in religious traditions; and
complexity. the religiously coloured worldview is one
patriarchal religious control of female
At first sight, it might seem as a among several, it is of central importance
contradiction that religious identity that the members are conveyed that they sexuality and reproductive health. A
finds its legitimacy from belonging to have not chosen to choose. Swedish version of this article, will be
the right faith, rather than having the Although the converts strongly published in the next issue of Humanisten.

Independent World report March/April 2010 41