onsdag 20. januar 2010

Konvertitis - en konverteringsgalskap

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To be `Danish´, becoming `Muslim´: Contestations of National Identity?

Tina Jensen

This article discusses the relationship between national, ethnic and religious identities as embodied by so-called ethnic Danes who convert to Islam. The point of departure is the constructed polarisation between Islam and the West. The article explores how converts experience their apparently contradictory identities as "Danish" and "Muslim." Identity is dealt with as processes of both difference and similarity, whereby the constructions of “self” as “same” and “other” as “different” are questioned. In exploring the space between “self” and “other” among Danish converts, it is argued that they negotiate their identities as both Danish and Muslims by engaging in an ideological struggle over otherwise common-sense meanings. This process opens a space for re-making identity by connecting relations between these identities, which are otherwise perceived as having nothing in common.

Islam – Denmark – conversion – identity - politics

Since the events of September 11, 2001, Muslims have become the ultimate “other” par excellence, the target for the new global racism (Gingrich 2004; Hervik 2004a). The expression of so-called islamophobia thus expresses a new racialization of Muslims (Silverstein 2005). In Europe as elsewhere, Islam has become a highly politicized field, an increasingly heated debate aimed directly at the Muslim immigrant population. In the public discourse, the debate, in its more sober tones, revolves around the incompatibility between so-called Western values and Islam. Democracy, individualism, secularism and liberalism are contrasted with what is often referred to as “The Dark Middle Age” of Islam, which primarily alludes to a backward primitivism, oppression of the individual, and failure to accept the separation of religion and state. This incompatibility appears to mark the overall frame of interpretation to a degree that being “European” and “Muslim” is seen as a contradiction in terms (Bourque 1998; Van Nieuwkerk 2004). In Western countries, responses to multiculturalism generated by migration tend to reflect a move toward a defensive nationalistic discourse. This converges with, on the one hand, a politicization of culture, by which identity politics is linked to culture in terms of a political necessity, functional homogeneity. On the other hand, a new culturalization of politics is emerging, formulating political values such as secularization as essentially cultural (Mouritzen 2005: 5).

The context of Denmark represents a nation-state in the guise of a kulturnation. Tensions around intolerance and ethnocentrism are relatively high, and the fear of immigration threatening Danish “national culture” has increased since the 1990s (Togeby 1998: 190). This fear is aimed specifically at religion, mainly Islam, represented by the presence of immigrants with a Muslim background. In current debates, the issue of religion is thus addressed in various and contradictory ways. First and foremost, Muslim values are contrasted against the notion of the so-called particularity of Danish values that are drawn on Lutheran Protestantism - the Danish state church - as a catalyst for Danish national culture and values such as democracy, liberalism, and egalitarianism. From this perspective, people of other religious backgrounds, e.g. Muslims, are generally seen as "not-Danish." Second, due to a prevalent discourse on secularism separating religion from politics, it is considered "un-Danish" to mark one’s religiosity in public, as in the case of Muslim women wearing hijab (veil), praying at work, etc. This polarization between Danish and Muslim values is reflected in the dominant discourse on “Danes” versus “Muslims,” an “us” versus “them" argument. As this type of binary reflects, the category of "Muslim" thus includes anyone of immigrant status. Due to the polarization between "Danes and "Muslims", Danes who convert to Islam are also seen as people who have become “the other,” and thus are considered members of the immigrant minority population in Denmark regardless of citizenship status or ethnic background. Converts may also appear as highly contradictory and dangerous beings. This reflects another Danish way of dealing with the relationship between "self" and "other;" the emphasis on consensus, unity and equality, celebrating ”sameness,” and the exclusion of what is perceived as "differences" that threaten national unity (SjØrslev 2004: 90).

The above-mentioned rhetoric is used heavily by the Danish People¥s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) which has experienced increasing popularity in Denmark over the last decade. Central to the party’s platform is its emphasis on defending the “Danish national heritage” against the threat posed by immigrants, which is reflected in a political rhetoric of cultural fundamentalism and exclusion (Stolcke 1995). Not surprisingly, politicians representing this party perceive Danes who convert to Islam as dangerous national traitors. As a young politician from the Danish People¥s Party expressed it: “There are still only a few Danes, who have converted to Islam. No doubt many of these persons are even more dangerous than those we have received from the Middle East. Unfortunately, there is no possibility to deport them, but we can make sure that the Secret Service watches them closely” (Ekstra Bladet, November 22, 2004). A couple of months later, the same politician responded with this answer twhen I asked if Danes who become Muslims by converting to Islam were not Danish any longer: “They leave their Danish background behind because they abandon central concepts in Danish identity like liberalism, democracy, equality… Danishness, as an archetype, disappears the more numerous the Danes who convert to Islam become.” With this formulation of substantial Danish culture, the effect of Danes who are converting to Islam is directly measured as a loss of Danishness, communicating both cultural essentialism and anxiety (Grillo 2003).

This article explores converts' responses to the way they are positioned and their own self-localizations in relation to identities as "Danish" and "Muslim". It assumes the notion that religion in the modern secular state tends to become a category of identification. Thus religion shares features with analytical categories of race and class, by which the act of converting comes to represent a threat to the cohesion of a nation (Viswanathan 1998: xii). The case of Danes who convert to Islam thus represents a taking on of an otherness that is perceived as dangerous. The analytical focus is on the centrality of both sameness and difference as constantly constructed and negotiated, working together in the shaping of experience (Nagel 2002). Negotiating identity thus simultaneously includes processes of “sameness” and “difference,” “self” and “other,” making out an inherently dialogical relationship in which identity is multidimensional and contradictory (Gingrich 2004: 6). At a structural level, this takes various forms as different grammars of identity and alterity reflect how multiple discourses organize the relationship between self and other (Baumann 2004: 19). Gerd Baumann thus identifies three universal grammars or structures: “Orientalization” indicating opposition and total distance, “Encompassment” as an act of selving by appropriating otherness, and finally “Segmentation” (segregation?) indicating fission yet equality and neutralization of conflict at a higher level (Baumann 2004: 19-27). The different grammars offer different solutions, all grammars being at one’s disposal as argumentative tools and positions for social actors. This indicates a constant change of grammars according in relation to context (ibid. 31). The different grammars at stake in the Danish public discourse on Muslim immigrants alter between "Orientalization" through the discourse of polarization (marginality?) and "Encompassment" through the discourse of assimilation. These discourses in several ways influence the self-perceptions of Danes who become Muslims by choice.

This article is based on fieldwork carried out among Danish Muslim converts in the cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus from January 2004 to May 2005. The fieldwork consisted of participant observation at various settings dominated by converts, from Islamic classes to private study groups, life-story interviews and guided interviews with 30 male and female converts representing various Muslim orientations, and finally a survey with 534 Muslim converts from all over Denmark.

Danish converts to Islam: Who, Why and What?

Not surprisingly, the aforementioned polarization in Danish society has a strong impact on the formation of the Muslim community. This community, which consists of about 200,000 Muslims of immigrant background, is characterised by an “inner inclusion” by which members form a religious genealogical community, and an "outward exclusion” to non-Muslims, marking strictly defined boundaries between “Muslims” and “non-Muslims.”

It is not easy to localize any common “community of converts”. One group of Danish converts has visibly transformed themselves as the "other," blue-eyed or not, by inventing a symbolic ethnicity. In the case of Danish women, this constitutes wearing what is referred to in Arabic as the hijab (veil), the jilbab (coat dress), and the niqab (veil that only uncovers the eyes). In the case of male converts, this transformation into otherness is expressed by growing beard, wearing different headwear, and sunna-clothes. Both women and men take on a Muslim name like “Ali” and "Fatimah." Another group of Danish converts insists on not wearing any visible signs of their conversion and unlike those discussed above, appearing to oppositionally mask their identity as Muslims. Converts inhabit the same religious spaces as Muslim immigrants, represented in the same milieus around mosques and other Muslim institutions. They tend, however, to create a kind of sub-group where, for example, female converts seek to gather at home for private study groups on Islam, to drink coffee and teach each other about Islam, interpret their life situations within Islam, and teach the new converts how to do the prayer (salah).

It is estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 Danes have converted to Islam during the last three decades (Jensen & ˇstergaard, forthcoming). Women marrying Muslim immigrants primarily represent the “first generation” of Danish converts. Today, converts appear to make out a more heterogeneous group, cutting across different social backgrounds, age groups and genders. However, one noticeable majority among converts is young Danes between the ages of twenty and thirty, who grew up in urban milieus. This generational shift in the demographics of converts reflects an increasing interaction among young Danes with different ethnic backgrounds. The generational shift is additionally reflected in the various paths which lead to conversion: from falling in love with Muslim immigrants to socialization with second-generation Muslim immigrants.

There are several motives for converting to Islam. One widespread and popular motive is that of being a religious seeker, searching for the meaning of life and the truth in answers to questions on such topics as the creation of the universe. Another motive is mainly "culturalist." It revolves around a fascination for and identification with what is stated as “the culture” of immigrants. This especially concerns young Danes, who have experienced an extensive socialization with children of Muslim immigrant background in youth-based institutions such as housing estates and schools. Finally, another prevalent motive appears to be related to matters of society and politics. As a result of the smear campaign against Islam since September 11, Islam appears to have taken over the former enemy position as “against the West” of Soviet communism (Hervik 2004a). Conversion is then brought about by a social indignation to injustice and feelings of solidarity with the oppressed people in the world order. It is at the same time represented as a clash with materialism, capitalism, and the “degeneration of the modern world."

In the Muslim community, it is a common joke that the recently converted suffer from an illness referred to as konvertitis, which is at the same time an allusion to the generally assumed pathological nature of the conversion and a partial affirmation of this (Winters in Roald 2004). Newly converted often exhibit a so-called fanaticism with their new religion, which is expressed in generally very ritualized behavior such as only wearing Islamic dress and a preoccupation with the Islamic rules of what is haram (“forbidden”) and halal (“allowed”) - of doing things “right.” This often leads to ironic situations where converts repudiate people who are born Muslims for not doing things in “the right way” or not living up to what is defined as being " Muslim." The phenomenon of konvertitis expresses both an awareness that one has undergone an identity transformation into the highly polemicalized “other” in Danish society and a need to demarcate and affirm one’s new identity convincingly, both in relation to oneself and to others. If this type of convert emphasizes radical change and rupture with former identity, other converts hesitate to show off their conversion and seek to emphasize continuity with their former lifestyle.

The different positions among recently converted Danes indicate both different conversion processes and different modes of religiosity. There appear to be two very basic modes of Muslim religiosity at stake among converts. One mode of religiosity tends to be spiritual and emotional, dealing with exploration of emotion, reflection, self-knowledge - the relationship between the interior and the exterior. It deals with the body as a place of experience and personal space, e.g., in the prayer (salah) and its influence on personal states of mind. It cultivates a personal relationship to God. The image of this mode of religiosity is the pilgrim, in motion, searching for knowledge and truth yet not in any fixed or absolute form. It is a religiosity that is open to and in continuity with the world, taking an active part in the world through voting in elections, volunteering in NGO's, and many other activities. The other mode of religiosity is characterized by a preoccupation with following rules, with what is haram and halal, and is oriented toward truth and proof in a fixed and unquestionable form. It is occupied with rationality in contrast to emotions and with putting Islam on the same footing as science. While this mode of religiosity may also have a strong emphasis on the body, it is more as an observation of rules and as a marking of Islamic identity, for instance, by taking on Islamic dress. In one's relationship to God, submission is strongly emphasized. It is a religiosity that in several ways marks discontinuity with the world as well as a transformation in general, both in the reaction against individuality, modernity, and democracy as human beings in contrast to a divine rule of the world represented by sharia and the caliphate and in the overall denunciation of worldly things with a focus on doomsday and the hereafter.

In their ideal-typical forms the two modes of religiosity , correspond to, at the one extreme, the case of the “spiritualist” or Sufi tradition, and in the other, the case of the “rule-observationist” or Salafi and Hizb-ut-Tahrir oriented groups. This indicates a distinction between Muslims religiosities that represent one the one hand, ethical Islam, and on the other, neo-fundamentalism (Roy 2002). In reality, the two modes of religiosity do not exist in any “pure” forms and are not mutually exclusive. They merely represent different positions from which people can and do oscillate in their conceptualisations of conversion in terms of respective continuity and rupture with former identities.

Narrating the conversion

The narrations of life and conversion stories of Danish converts to Islam are brought forth in several themes. Generally, when speaking about their conversion, converts are very aware of emphasizing their conversion as a process that also continues after the act of taking the shahada which is the act of pronouncing the profession of faith that constitutes the very moment of converting to Islam. Whether this process is one of continuity or change in relation to one’s life and values, however, is constantly debated among converts, as reflected in the above-mentioned modes of religiosity. Another shared theme that runs through the conversion stories is the theme of love, which can be perceived as the first stage in the conversion process (Roald 2004). Conversion stories often appear as love stories. This is especially reflected in the many cases that involve the relationship between a Muslim couple, where physical love conflates with metaphysical and spiritual love, both initiating identical processes of radicalism and transformation. It can also be seen in the various metaphors of love used to describe the conversion process such as in the phrase “Allah opened my heart to Islam,” as well as other terms revolving around religiosity and conversion like “submission,” “surrender,” “attraction,” “fascination,” “admiration,” “seduction,” and “willingness.” What makes the one kind of love difficult to distinguish from the other is the general notion of love as “becoming united,” creating a relationship that unites (Schneider 1980), whether the object of love be either God or a person.

Love and the relationship to Muslims of immigrant background are, however, issues that converts generally hesitate to talk about. These issues are often cut from life and conversion narrations, leaving major gaps in the story. These issues seem to constitute the very “filth zone” in which intimate relations to the “others” at the margin of Danish society and the “risk” of mixture through miscegenation goes counter to and threatens to “pollute” Danishness. These issues thus appear to be silenced and are kept secret.

“Not Without My Daughter”

In the narration about one’s conversion to Islam, the second step is always about the convert’s concern for the family and the family’s reactions to one’s conversion. There is a strong tendency to keep one’s conversion secret from the family, at least during the first 3-12 months. Revealing conversion often involves a family drama at some level. The reaction of the family is generally expressed with a reference to the North American novel and movie Not Without My Daughter (Mahmoody 1987 & 1991), focusing specifically on the mother’s fear of loosing her child. While the conversion to Islam itself is an issue for the family, the real conflict starts when the son or daughter begins to practice the religion at home. For instance, leaving the family behind in the living room in order to pray in another room is perceived as a break with the sense of family community. The conflict peaks when the son or daughter begins to mark their Muslim identity in public, especially in the case of Danish women who start wearing the hijab (veil). These incidences of staging difference, not the conversion in itself, may result in the family choosing to cut ties to the convert for a while. This reaction to the daughter’s or son’s “marking of difference” can be seen as a response to a break with the very “sameness” that characterizes the construction of Danishness, consequently resulting in an exclusion by the family: One is too different to be seen as “Danish” any longer. Broken family relations happen in most cases are initiated by the family. Ironically, converts rather unconsciously use the metaphor of “cutting off the hand,” a punishment of theft in sharia, to describe the family’s breaking of ties, thus inverting the common prejudiced image of the “barbaric Muslims.”

Conversion to Islam is interpreted as leaving Danish identity behind. The parents’ common stereotypical conjecture about the incompatibility between Muslim identity and Danish identity or Muslim identity as “not Danish”, has a clear effect on the way that converts perceive themselves as having become "different." Converting to Islam is framed in the same language as committing the crime of becoming “different.” Converts often explain their conversion to Islam as partly motivated by the sensation of being different from other Danes, thus by the common rhetoric “I have always felt that I was different.” They can also be seen as forced to perceive themselves as “different” due to the common incompatibility between being “Muslim” and “Danish,” which leaves no space for alternative ways of viewing the self.

Between parents and children, various positions in between rupture and continuity are at stake.

At some point, however, there appears to be a general feeling of mutual loss, which in the case of converts involves the loss of one’s parent’s emotional support – and thus a kind of inverted fulfilment of Not Without My Daughter: The daughter looses her mother. One woman characteristically described converts as “orphans” (for ldrelØse). Another convert, who converted three years before she married a Muslim immigrant, referred to the phrase “Palle Alone in the World" (Palle alene i verden) as a reason for her marriage. Marriage may the appear as a solution for marking and reinforcing one’s identity as a Muslim, a matter of social belonging that fulfils the conversion, often appearing to serve as a kind of appendix to the conversion. It is simultaneously a first step into relationships with “others.”

How tall is the sofa supposed to be? Or: Tell him where he gets off

In February 2005, I visited the home of Leila, a 35 year old woman who converted to Islam at the age of 25. After her conversion, she went to Lebanon to marry a Palestinian refugee and they were subsequently reunited in Denmark. Today, she had arranged an impressive coffee table in their apartment in NØrrebro, an immigrant neighborhood in Copenhagen. The invited guests were all female Danish converts married to Muslim immigrants. As we sat around the coffee table, the talk centered on one of the women, Pia, and her struggle with her Moroccan in-laws. Immediately after the wedding ceremony, which took place in a South Moroccan village, Pia's Moroccan in-laws insisted that she now was “one of them” and had to take on their local traditions. She then firmly asserted that it was actually the other way around since their son lived in her country. Among the women present at the coffee table, this initiated a long conversation about “cultural differences.” Earlier that morning, I had admired Leila’s new sofa. Leila continuing our conversation, gave the example that her Palestinian husband preferred they sit on the floor as he was used to in his family’s home in Lebanon, not on a sofa. When he moved into her flat, she had welcomed her husband’s wish by agreeing to remove the legs of the previous sofa. Over the years they continued to have several discussions about the appropriate height of the sofa. Lately, Leila had invented several tricks to raise the sofa, padding it up with cushions and plaids. Now that she has a new tall, Danish-style sofa (a present from her parents) her husband was forced to accept it.

Converts have close relationships to “others,” i.e. Muslims of other ethnicities and of minority status, both through marriage and friendships. A majority of converted women and men are married to Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds and are that subsequently intimately involved with so-called “otherness.” When female converts gather for coffee during the week, they talk about men, choice of marriage partners, mixed marriages and especially about their husbands. In particular they talk about how they “differ” from their husbands, above all in relation to the husband’s “culture” (kultur), “tradition” (tradition), and “nationality” (nationalitet). The talk revolves around negotiations of culture, identity and religion that these women are experiencing in their interactions with their husbands and their in-laws. This is in many cases based on tried and failed attempts to “go native.” Situations ranged from agreeing to live with the husband and his family in his country of origin to being accused for not being a “genuine” Muslim because of one’s identity as an “ethnic Dane.” These discussions reveal the limit to one’s taking in of otherness. The talk about one’s Muslim relatives of other ethnic origins thus quickly leads to the talk about separating "religion" from "culture" or "traditions," which is a common and weighty theme for converts. It is also another way of differentiating oneself from the “other.”

Relations between “self” and “other”: a mimetic model

Leila’s friend, Zeinap, also a converted Danish Muslim married to a Palestinian refugee, likes to speak of her Muslim immigrant friends in terms of “the Arab.” Her preference seems to be speaking about “the Arab,” how “the Arab” does this and that, about “her, the Arab”- always with an air of distance and much sarcasm. When a young converted woman once asked her why she did not just call people by their names, Zeinap, with dramatic emphasis, argued that it was much more exiting to refer to them in this way. To Zeinap, her Orientalist ways of singling out ethnicity appeared to be related to a desire to invoke difference, making things stand out for the purpose of drama and sensation.

Converts have a certain fascination for “ethnicity,” evident in a focus on "cultural difference" in its most dramatic forms as in the case of honor killings, forced marriages, and plot twists as is the case In Not Without My Daughter. They speak of ethnicity in an essentialized, stereotypical and slightly discriminatory way. The presence of one’s “self”, with the discriminatory voice of the common Dane, shows up in the way that converts represent the “others.” This includes an emotional need to make ethnic categorizations for everyone. However, because of their ambiguous appearance as Danish Muslims, converts are also , subject to others’ need to categorize them in the same manner.

At times converts apply common prejudices to their non-Muslim family members, as in the before mentioned fear that their family will “cut off their hand” as a metaphor for breaking ties. Other times, converts objectify themselves by way of portraying Islamic stereotypes. This happens in many ways as converts are either defensive or offensive about their status as other. In the one extreme, converts have taken in an otherness to a degree of objectifying themselves as “Muslims” with all the prejudiced connotations it involves in the eyes of the common Dane, resulting in feelings of awkwardness and defiance. At the other extreme, converts use the Muslim identity as a point of rebellion. In response to the so-called islamophobia of the Danish People¥s Party, a male convert said: “They cannot expel me from my country, I have the right to defend myself with the sword.” This phrase represents a taking on of the stereotypic image of Islam as “the religion of the sword” with a dramatizing effect. This is only one among several ways of acting upon the public discourse on Islam and Muslims as different, through affirming the Orientalist essentialized image of Islam. Ironically, this image becomes an act of differentiation and identification, of standing out with a difference that makes a distinction while also dramatizing identity.

Thus, there appears to be at least three ways to invoke stereotypes about “others”: 1) in relation to the “self” represented by one’s family and other common Danes, 2) in relation to the real “others” of Muslim immigrant background, and 3) in relation to “oneself” as a figure betwixt-and-between “self” and “other.” In the case of applying stereotypes to one’s parents (“to cut off the hand”), there appears to be a discursive inversion occurring in which “we” are in fact seen in a negative light. Additionally, there is another element of pure parody in the way that converts speak Arabic and “Paki Danish” (“perkerdansk”) in certain situations, e.g. when reprimanding their kids. The invocation of stereotypes mirrors a mimetic process of “othering” (Taussig 1993), in which the imitating agent shifts face, thus moving between different contexts and identities. By directing attention to “the other” through mimesis, the very essence of the polarized and discriminatory construction of “self” and “other” is questioned. In these representations, a demotic discourse emerges, dissolving the dominant reified discourse on “culture” and “ethnicity” (Baumann 1996). It thus reflects a possession and subversion of stereotypical and discriminatory constructions, as formulated by the British sociologist Les Back regarding black South Londoners¥ parodying racism and subverting racial meanings: “The boundaries of significance and semiotics of these interactions are ambiguous. But clearly they exemplify instances where ideological struggles over meaning are taking place. […] In a sense there is a tension between, on the one hand, the reproduction of racist images within this process and, on the other, the potential to subvert the content of racist ideas through parody” (Back 1996: 177-178).

Danish culture and Danishness

While converts dissociate themselves from the culture of the “others,” i.e. Muslims of other ethnic background, they also appear to dissociate themselves from what they perceive as the dominant definition of “Danish culture.”

When speaking about “Danish culture” and “Danishness,” converts often mention activities that they can no longer take part in like eating pork, drinking alcohol, participating in parties and sexual promiscuity. As one newly converted women of 18 said when asked about what comes to her mind when mentioning “Danish culture” (dansk kultur), she replied: “I think of my past.” Converts seem to talk about "Danish culture" in two ways. One way concerns their own understanding of Danish culture, often an essentialized and reified but nostalgic image of customs they no longer take part in. This kind of self-imposed exclusion is closely related to another way converts speak about culture: As a political, hegemonic concept defined by those who claim to have the monopoly on "culture" in the field of power, relating nationalism to the project of homogenization.

For some, self-exclusion has created the perception of “emigration” (udvandret) from Danish society. As Leila spoke of another female convert she knew: "There was this other Danish Muslim who said `But she had emigrated. She had emigrated from Danish society because she had become a Muslim, because she was like… Really she was not a Dane any longer, but she was not a foreigner. […] She described herself… I thought it was so funny. She had emigrated from the Danish society, not immigrated. In fact I thought it was very telling because that’s an issue, one differs, and one is not accepted by the Danes, like that, right away…" As this quote indicates, converts tend to think of themselves as "Muslims" in opposition to "Danes." If some see themselves as having emigrated from Danish society, others designate themselves as "immigrants" (indvandrere).

Others, however, insist on the continuity of their Danishness. They seek to be conscious about the political definitions of the concept of culture, of culture as an “invention,” and go against the discriminatory discourse on difference that indicates an incompatibility between being "Danish" and "Muslim." First and foremost, they seek to separate culture from religion, pointing to their identity as "Danish" as a national identity and to their identity as "Muslim" as a religious identity. By this, they seek to universalize Muslim religious identity in a strategy of inclusion with, not in opposition to, a Danish context.

There appear to be various positions on "Danishness." Some argue that "you do not have to take part in the culture to be Danish." Others maintain that "diversity" already characterizes Danish culture and society, whereby they go against the homogenous and exclusionary definition of "Danishness." Others still insist that they take part in "Danish culture", although in a different way, emphasizing that to be "Danish" is to remain the same, have the same qualities. People who insist that giro 413 (a popular radio program), "the Danish cosines” (den danske hygge; a cozy get-together) and family gatherings accompanied by Hammond organs are still important elements in their self-perception. Like a male convert of 38 said to me when speaking about being Danish and Muslim: "I will say it in another way, of course I’m Danish, but I have also taken some other things into…my life, and it is of course because my religion says so, and of course I do that. […] So in that way, I integrate myself, in that way, you can say, in another culture’s ways of living at some points, and that I incorporate with my own Danish upbringing." The same man relates about his presence at a family gathering, his sister’s 50thbirthday celebration taking place in the countryside where he grew up: "Well, I have to say that even though I am a Muslim, well then I also feel at home there in some way. Off course I do not drink all that fine liquor, right, but I can still sit and enjoy the music. Well, one can say that John Mogensen is still John Mogensen, right. And that text, of course, it’s still about this unhappy love and all that misery, that socialist realism, right? Still, it is. And what about all the other songs, that one has heard, well, I mean. [...] Don’t you think one could sing `Jens Vejmand' in Arabic? Well, I suppose one could, and then they would choke on it, right, but it’s still Jens Vejmand…." For this man and other converts who consciously go against the public discourse that differentiates them from "Danish culture", they react to terms like "integration" and “multiculturalism” as abusive because they are used in a political strategy of polarization that insists on separation and distance, cultural homogeneity and hegemony.

With regards to the question of “Danish culture,” there appears to be certain tendencies in relation to the modes of Muslim religiosity depicted above. Those characterized by a “spiritualist” mode of religiosity emphasizing continuity, insist most on their “Danishness.” While they point to the continuity with Danish culture, they still insist that culture differs from religion as a strategy of separating yet uniting identities. Those characterized by a “rule-observationist” mode emphasize Danish culture as having to do with things haram and thus see their conversion to Islam as a rupture with Danish culture. However, the “rule-observationists” do not value culture in the sense of “nationality,” but rather in the sense of practice, such as in the case of drinking alcohol. The important point is, however, that these are religiosities from which converts interweave. Above all, wavering between religiosities representing respectively continuity/inclusion and rupture/exclusion of Danishness mirrors different degrees of acting on and submitting to the public discourse of incompatibility between Danish and Muslim identities.

Making relations: Ramadan and Christmas

The invocation of “difference” and “similarity” relies on practices that seem to, on the one hand, authenticate “difference,” and on the other, oblige “similarity,” as practices of exclusion and inclusion. These are also processes at stake in building relationships between what is formulated as “oppositions” between being “Danish” and “Muslim,” and thus form part of the identity processes of “Danish Muslims.”

During the Ramadan of 2004, I participated in various ihftars, breakings of the fast that take place at sunset. I went to Zeinap’s home, an apartment in a social housing estate in the immigrant neighbourhood of N¯rrebro. At the ihftars held in Zeinap’s home, mainly female Danish converts were gathered. In contrast to other gatherings, these ihftars appeared conspicuously unrestrained and “homey;” the women had loosened their hair, taken off their jilbabs, wearing common jeans and shirts. The women would gather around noon to spend hours cooking in the kitchen. Other women would arrive at the moment of breaking the fast, each bringing a special dish. Before breaking the fast, the women would make salah. They would break the fast by eating a date. This, together with prayer, was not coordinated among the women but an individual affair, which in some cases was followed by the immediate consumption of one’s favorite craving for example, a can of Coca-Cola or a cigarette. The moment in which the sense of community was evoked was clearly around the dinner that followed after the breaking of the fast. At every ihftar, we would sit around a long table in the kitchen, illuminated by candles. The women glowed with well-being and hilarity and the atmosphere satiated with Danish “cosiness.” The scene appeared very similar to a Danish Christmas celebration. Christmas food like rice ‡ l¥impÈratrice (ris ‡ l¥amande), different kinds of Christmas cakes (pebern¯dder, Êbleskiver), and other more common Danish dishes were served. When we were gathered around the dinner table, somehow the talk always evolved around the theme: Who were most “purely Danish.” The women would sit and, one by one, account for their ethnic roots and in the end one was deemed most “purely Danish.” It was never really clear if being “purely Danish” was a winning or a loosing situation or if the women felt pride or shame about being “purely Danish.” It is important to note here that most of the women were married to Muslim immigrants and their children were not considered “pure.”

At one of these occasions, Inger, the oldest among the women, started to argue that Danes were not so “purely” Danish as one would think, and besides that, she hated the word “pure.” Despite her attempted objection, we then went though the obligatory round of “who were the most purely Danish.” After one of the women had been appointed as “the most purely Danish,” Inger took up her revolt by starting to speak about Pia KjÊrsgaard, the leader of the Danish People¥s Party, who in several ways represents the epitome of “Danishness. This was, however, silenced by the ongoing conversation about Christmas and Christmas food.

Rituals are often assumed to be acts of communication (Leach 1978), thus social interactions or social acts reflecting ways of talking about society and it’s “Others” (Baumann 1992). Furthermore, it can be argued that while rituals have no meaning in themselves, they induce meaning in a given social space as markers activating a certain meaning in the social space (Ardner 1992). In the case of Danish converts to Islam, the Ramadan stands out as a particular moment in which for the converts, the very negotiation of their identity as “Danish Muslims” was at stake. Ramadan, the ritual structuring the practices taking place, thus pointed to a tradition that was “other” to the common national traditions in Danish society, especially in relation to Christmas. Christmas was also present in the Ramadan, as a topic of conversation, in the food eaten, in the candles decorating the table and the general atmosphere of Danish “cosiness.” While Ramadan structured the event, the content was predominated by the “self:” the clothes, the food, the conversation about “Danish purity.” The negotiation of identity took place through the women drawing on “sameness” in a context considered “different.” The introduction of Danish themes and practices, which may have been somewhat influenced by my presence, appeared as a justification for their celebration of a tradition that is other to “Danishness.” However, with the inherent critique against Danish culture as a political concept by pointing to a political figure, the leader of the Danish National Party, the voice of nationalism and racism in Danish society was still very much apparent.

While the Ramadan of the Danish converts resembled Danish Christmas, Christmas was to follow Ramadan. Converts¥ many positions in relation to Christmas mirrored the importance of the identity processes at stake. Some converts openly articulated that they celebrated Christmas because they considered it a national, not a religious, tradition. Others considered it haram even to wish other Danes a “Merry Christmas.” There was an avoidance to speak about, or use terms related to “Christmas” (jul) like julemand (“Santa Claus”) or juleferie (“Christmas holiday”). Although it was verbally ignored, everyone seemed to participate at some level in the celebrations for Christmas together with their biological family – silently compromising to the wish of their family. Converts´ many positions in relation to Christmas mirrored the importance of the identity processes at stake. Some converts openly articulated that they celebrated Christmas because they considered it a national, not a religious, tradition. Others considered it haram even to wish other Danes a “Merry Christmas.” There was an avoidance to speak about, or use terms related to “Christmas” (jul), like julemand (“Santa Claus”), juleferie (“Christmas holiday”), etc. Yet, although it was verbally ignored, everybody seemed to participate at some level in the celebrations for Christmas together with their biological family – silently compromising to the wish of their family.

Ramadan as well as Christmas appeared as events in which “differences” between Muslim and Danish traditions were refuted. both events can be seen as the epitomes of celebrating “Danishness” and “Muslimness” respectively. While converts in other contexts authenticated “difference,” occasions such as these appeared to transcend “difference,” emphasising “sameness.” They were moments of marking and negotiating identity as something that simultaneously includes processes of “sameness” and “difference,” “self” and “other” (Gingrich 2004: 6). Participants hereby aired their own voices regarding their identity, responding to the voices in the Danish public that speak of the incompatibility between their identities as Danish Muslims. By doing so, they were shaping and developing their conversational experiences in continuous interaction and contestation, unfolding a dialogical principle of the many layers and different voices in utterances (Bakhtin 1986).

Liminal existences and the potential for social critique

It was not strange that most of women represented at the ihftars in Zeinap's home were so-called ethnic Danes. Converts often describe themselves as "being squeezed between two sides," "split between Danish culture and the culture of Muslims." They describe themselves as people who appear in a context in which they are "different," both in relation to Danes and to Muslims in general. They point to the fact that they have no social networks since they are not born into a Muslim family - which also alludes to their situation as "orphans." Converts often talk about the lack of ambience and social networks for converts, perceiving themselves as a separate and isolated group. Other Muslims often describe converts as people who have a lonesome start on their path to Islam. They are alone with their religious choice, vulnerable and introverted...

Married female converts often refer to themselves and their husbands in first person singular: “I” instead of "we." In relation to both their Danish and their Muslim relatives, converts feel the need to keep things secret, or tell white lies. This is partly based on the condition of “not being understood” both in relation to their Danish relatives and in relation to “born” Muslims. Reversibly, converts dissociate themselves from both Danes and Muslims in general, due to their own inability to understand them. Danes and Muslims are people who converts, in various ways are close to, yet remain separate. As expressed by Hanne, a 36 year old female convert who has been a Muslim for 20 years: “I am a part of the Pakis [perkere] because I have children with Pakis. I can’t relate to Pakis just because I sleep with them. I can’t relate to the white pigs [“Danes”], but I am one myself.” This woman further described converts’ inability to fit into any common category: “In the eyes of Muslims, I am the wrong kind of Muslim. In everyone’s eyes, I am a bizarre human being.”

In the ways that converts stand out as apparently disproportionate, contradictory beings, being neither-nor, both-and, betwixt and between, they are liminal. Symbolically, they appear as beings in a stage of liminality (Victor Turner (1979 (1964): 240). And by that, they mark liminality as a stage of reflection that challenges common sense assumptions on culture and the social order. Converts often point out that by being “Danish” and “Muslim” in ways different from the majority of Danes and Muslims, they are good examples, both in relation to Danes who are prejudiced toward Muslim immigrants and vice-versa. However, in this context they also appear to embody the conflict between majority and minority Danes. Therefore they arouse sensation, fear and hatred. With their blue eyes and veils they are a silent, ironic comment and critique to the construction of identities such as “Danish” and “Muslim,” and to the social premises for these constructions. In the words of Gauri Viswanathan, a professor in literature specializing in comparative research on conversion, the act of converting to a minority religion has often been perceived as a means of cultural critique, a revolt against the national community, and thus “a dissent that unsettles the boundaries by which selfhood, citizenship, nationhood, and community are defined, exposing these as permeable borders” (Viswanathan 1998: 16). It is a factor that not only tends to erase racial identity, but also nullifies the community that grounds racial identity (ibid. 164). This perspective indicates a creation of new and hybrid identities.

"…Not a mixed country": Future, youth and identity

Three scenes from the field appear as both telling of the present state and potential for the future. All scenes are from the mosque milieus in Copenhagen, in which converts are represented. The first is from an eid (Muslim feast) at NØrrebrohallen, a major sports center, just before the start of the khutba (sermon). I am sitting next to an older black woman, an immigrant from Tanzania. In an attempt to communicate, I start a conversation with her about the prejudiced climate against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular in Denmark. She relentlessly explains it away, indulgently saying: “But I understand the Danes. Denmark is not a mixed country. People are not used to that situation.” The second scene is at an Islamic class for women in a popular mosque, where two teenage girls sit on the floor, leaning against one another. Both girls are in their teenage outfits of tight jeans and T-shirts. One is of Danish background, the other of immigrant background. However, in this situation, I extract no meaning. The third scene takes place on my way out the doors to a mosque. Two young men, one Danish the other of immigrant background, ask me where to find the imam. It is Friday after salah jumar (the Friday prayer), and time for taking the shahada.

Socialization with people of Muslim immigrant background is one of the many motivations for converting to Islam, especially among young people between 15 and 30 years of age. There are stories of Danes who grow up, especially in social housing estates together with children of Muslim immigrants, spend time in their homes, learn Arabic in school, become fond of Muslim traditions, convert to Islam in their early teens, go to private schools for Muslim immigrant children, marry a Muslim of another ethnic background, have children, speak Arabic or English as their second language, or perhaps a dialect characterised as perkerdansk (“Paki Danish”) -- and generally appear as a kind of hybrid “culture’s in-between” (Bhabha 1996).

When love and marriage to Muslims of immigrant background are represented as the “filth zone,” it is most likely because of the threat of “pollution” as referenced by Douglas (1966), i.e., in the context of polluting the so-called purity of Danishness through the intimate act of "mixing." The outcome of mixing is, in a Danish context, liminality, as referred to above: Being both-and, betwixt and between. But this also relates to the act of creating something new. In his model of ethnicity in relation to syncretic cultures among black and white youth in South London, Les Back makes use of the concepts of "liminality" by Van Gennep and Turner and the "rhizome" by Deleuze & Guattari (Back 1996: 244). Back constructs “liminal forms of ethnicity” as being based on syncretic cultures, emphasising liminality in the sense of "the renunciation of roles" and "the demolishing of structures." In this process, the alternative public space occupied by people of different ethnic backgrounds constitutes a liminal space. In his elaboration of his model of ethnicity, Back draws on the concept of the "rhizome" as "cultural intermezzo” based on "[…] doing and making connections between things that have no necessary relationship to one another" (ibid.: 245). The liminal space is thus a space of transformation in meaning, of re-making identities. The result of participating in "liminal culture" is: "Social knowledge, in the sense that this word is used to mean the range of one’s information about the nature of the social world. Thus, participation in liminal forms of ethnicity can result in the creation of a critical perspective resulting in a knowing effect" (ibid, 248).

In the alternative public sphere, life rhythms and identities are negotiated, revitalized and transformed (Tireli 1999). When young Danes of different ethnic backgrounds walk together or appear side by side in alternative public spheres like the mosque, they constitute a liminal space. They are making connections between things that in the public discourse are represented as having no relation to each other. These alternative spaces appear as “fun spaces,” autonomous social spaces that incite a privileged form of knowledge or cultural practice that break down boundaries and challenge fixed definitions of common collective identities and subjectivities (Werbner 1996). By creating "fun spaces," young Danes contradict the prevalent grammar of identity based on distance, separation and exclusion, and the altogether "Danish cultural world of unbridgeable differences" (Hervik 2004b). Whereas the grammars of identity put into play in the Danish everyday discourse on the relationship between “us” and them” alter between "Orientalization" through the discourse of polarization and "Encompassment" through the discourse of assimilation, this alternative space indicates a grammar of “Segmentation” indicating fission yet equality and neutralization of conflict. As these young people appear together, crossing racial and ethnic categorizations, they represent a grammar of segmentation in which alterity is still present though as a matter of context, and in which the idea of equality is accentuated (Baumann 2004: 48). The question remains if this may indicate a more prevalent and permanent trend, which also mirrors a shift in the academic discourse on migrants and migration toward conjuncture and convergence (Silverstein 2005: 377).


In the general public debate in Denmark, identity as "Muslim" referring to the immigrant population is associated with ultimate otherness and identities such as "Muslim" and "Danish" are essentially polarized. In this article, I have attempted to relate to different grammars of identity at stake in Danish society. Such identity structures tend to alter from, on the one hand, an "Orientalist" grammar of total differentiation between "us" and "them" and, on the other, a grammar of encompassment based on a general commitment to sameness excluding what is perceived as "different." Danes who convert to Islam embody these apparently polarized and incompatible identities in various ways. Converts mirror their own Danish "selves" represented by their biological family and the overall dominating discourse on Danish culture, by which they come to see themselves as "different," "not-Danish," and excluded from Danish society. This is reflected in their very expression of different modes of religiosities, communicating, respectively, continuity and inclusion, rupture and exclusion of Danishness. Converts’ moving between these different kinds of religiosities mirror different levels of acceptance of oneself as a "Danish Muslim,” and thus different degrees of uneasiness in regards to having taken on an identity that in the public debate is constructed as highly problematic. This uneasiness also seems to be reflected in converts’ talk about having “emigrated” from Danish society, communicating exclusion, while the silent comprise to celebrate the ritual of Christmas with one’s biological family reflects inclusion. It expresses a submission to and an integration of the polarization between “Danish” and “Muslim” identity but also a questioning of this polarization. Moreover, this is reflected at the level of dialogue, in converts’ representations of the Muslim “other,” which merge with representations of their Danish "selves." By that, the constructed nature of "self" and "other" is dissolved into an ideological struggle over meaning that subverts stereotypical constructions. Furthermore, the dissolution of stereotypical and discriminatory constructions is present in the endeavour to build relationships between practices and identities that in the public debate are represented as having nothing in common, negotiating one’s identity as a "Danish Muslim." In the context of ritual life taking place in the private sphere, this is expressed by practices that connect “Muslimness” to “Danishness,” on the one hand, relating the ritual of Ramadan to Danish identity, and on the other, compromising the ritual of Christmas to Muslim identity. In the public alternative space, this is expressed by the existence of such institutions as "the Danish mosque," occupied by Danes with different social backgrounds, i.e. so-called "ethnic" Danes and Danes of other ethnic backgrounds. The constitution of this liminal space indicates an assertion on making connections between things that in the public discourse are represented as having nothing in common, in other words, "Muslimness" and "Danishness." New contextualizations of space and identity in relation to being "Danish" are indicated, reflecting new contexts in the Danish landscape. In this, a generational perspective is entailed. The majority of present-day converts to Islam are young people who generally seem to be less affected by the polarization between "Danish" and "Muslim" identities. In the midst of the noise of public differentiating and discriminatory discourse, a quiet integration thus persistently whispers.

1 kommentar:

Julia sa...

Utrolig komplekst tema. Jeg mener muslimer flest i norge lever utenfor norsk kultur og jeg ser generelt ikke på de som kulturelt norske (uavhengig av etnisistet) selv om de er selvfølgelige norske statsborgere (jeg ser heller ikke på smiths venner som kulturelt norske). Jeg er en av de artikkelen diskuterer som skiller ikke bare etter 'overflaten' i kulturen som matvaner og klær, men mer sentralt etter verdier. Det dominerende synet på kvinner og kvinnens rolle, på homofile og på mennesker med annen religion blandt muslimer er arabisk/islamsk kultur og står for meg omtrent så fjernt fra norsk kultur som man kommer idag.

Jeg håper min datter kommer til å bli norsk...og da mener jeg mer enn bare å ha et pass. Jeg håper hun vokser opp til å bli en ung kvinne som for eksempel kan gifte seg med den mannen hun vil ha og ikke være begrenset til at mannen må være muslim/være en del av islamsk kultur. Om hun blir en troende muslim som tror det er galt for henne å gifte seg med ikke-muslimer da har hun for meg avsondret seg seg fullstendig fra norsk kultur...hun kan ikke da engang se menn fra sine forfedres kultur som potensielle ektefeller. Dette er for meg en enormt trist og opprørende tanke.

Mannen min finner seg ikke til rette i en kultur. Han vokste opp i sverige og har tatt med seg mange 'skandinaviske verdier' som til tider kolliderer med hans islamske verdier. Den store kulturkollisjonen i vårt hjem står han for alene :)