What prompts Belgian converts to Islam to take the leap of faith away from their Christian or secular roots? Khaled Diab spoke to some to find out.
My arm hung sheepishly in mid-air and my confident smile faltered momentarily when Rita Walravens politely declined to shake my hand. Despite the fleeting sense of awkwardness and my hasty withdrawal of the offending limb, I comforted myself that I had not irreparably put my foot in it and that she bore me no ill feelings.
Her gesture was triggered by the fact that I was a ‘foreigner'.
‘Foreigner', in this context, is not a derogatory National Front term nor a description of my immigrant status. A ‘foreigner', or ‘ajnabi', in conservative Islamic parlance, means a member of the opposite sex who is not a direct relation or spouse. Some strict schools of Islamic thought, while permitting men and women to interact publicly, draw the line at physical contact.
Rita is a convert to Islam and lives according to a stringent Islamic code of personal conduct. She is one of an estimated 15-20,000 Belgian converts to Islam, according to a Flemish television documentary. However, the prominent writer on Islam, Lucas Catharine, suggests this figure is overgenerous.
Nevertheless, in a country that has been experiencing a decades-old and continental shift away from religion, this unofficial statistic tickled my curiosity and I wanted to find out, on a personal level, what motivated and inspired people to swim against the current.
After 30 years as a Muslim, Rita really looked the part, despite her blue eyes and pale complexion. She wore a bright lilac-coloured hijab (Islamic headscarf) without exhibiting the slightest hint of self-consciousness or discomfort. Why she would voluntarily choose to ‘imprison' her femininity will leave many fellow European women scratching their unveiled heads.
The hijab is often viewed by Europeans as a manifest symbol of the inferior status of women in Islam. It may surprise some to learn that the veil is also a controversial and contentious issue in the Islamic World, where even liberal feminists are divided over its significance for the status of women.
Rita, for her part, suffers from no such uncertainty: “For me, the hijab is an example of liberty… It makes me feel good… I would never stop wearing it.”
She tells me that it allows her to go about her business, as a receptionist at a clinic and volunteer at the Executif des Musulmans de Belgique, in safety and without fear of harassment. She believes it enhances respect for women because it helps effectively de-sex and, thus, equalise their relationship with men.
Liberals may not be the only ones who would grapple with this explanation. Other converts have also found the veil hard to internalise. “Because of my European upbringing, I found certain issues, such as the hijab and the status of women in Islam, hard to accept at first,” Phillipe Janssens, thoughtfully dragging on his cigarette, confides over the loud background banter in the cafeteria of a Turkish club in Antwerp, where he and a group of fellow converts meet.
As with so many other things in life, the path to conversion begins with a simple story of boy meets girl. Professor Herman De Ley, director of the Centre for Islam in Europe at Ghent University, suggests that most conversions are undertaken in connection with a mixed marriage. He told me that some were for the pragmatic reasons of fulfilling family wishes and others for genuine religious conviction as the partner learns more about the faith.
“When I was about 21, I met a woman,” Phillipe, now 33 and an administrator at a textile company, recalls fondly. He tells me about a one-time co-worker of Moroccan descent in whom he found an intriguing mix of Islamic and European culture. “Because I was very interested in her, I became interested in the way she lived and what she thought.”
Phillipe's courting of the woman eventually led to marriage. However, there was one stumbling block: since Islam is handed down via the male line, he was told he would first have to convert before he could tie the knot. Although he was growing fonder of Islam, he initially scoffed at the notion: “I thought to myself, ‘If you say I have to become a Muslim, you have to become a Christian, too'.”
Wanting his conversion to be for religious reasons, he embarked on an arduous 12-month quest before he resolved to take that double leap of faith. For that year, he questioned, soul-searched and consulted a variety of western and, later, Arab sources on Islam. He became gradually convinced that Islam could fill the spiritual void in his life. “In Christianity I didn't really find my way… I was a believer but I couldn't really define (my faith).”
“My motivation to convert was initially marriage,” Rita says.
She admits that religion was not an issue in her early relationship with her Mauritanian husband, whom she first met at a disco. The turning point for them was the perceived responsibility that came with the birth of their first daughter. “We felt that for our children, for their education, we had to set an example.”
Her husband gave up drinking and became a practicing Muslim once again and she followed his lead. However, she says she felt at home with Islam because it addressed a profound and unfulfilled spiritual gap in her life. Her parents were dedicated socialists and very sceptical of religion. “We never spoke about religion at home… I was not comfortable at home and I felt I was missing something… Faith,” she divulges.
Rita's marriage damaged her already shaky relationship with her family. When she didn't listen to their advice not to marry an African, they refused to speak to her for a year, but her conversion to Islam has kept their relationship lukewarm to this day. It also caused her to drift away from many of her friends of the time and has on occasions elicited suspicion and hostility from certain members of society.
Phillipe's parents, of a younger generation than Rita's, had no objections to his marriage. However, he took to Islam with the fervour of the newly born and his views, spurred on by a group to which he belonged, grew more fanatical. These views, he admits, led to his rejection of his family, society, and, eventually, ruined his marriage. “For a while I was very inflexible and, one way or another, you hurt people,” he confesses.
He partly blames his fanaticism on his determination to prove to a Muslim community that is sometimes suspicious of converts that he was a better Muslim than they were. He says that a spiritually turbulent period of intense self-questioning followed, from which he emerged a more secure and tolerant man with a deeper sense of faith. “In the last few years, my faith has matured into adulthood. I would call the way I viewed Islam before as being my religious puberty.”
Phillipe, whose Islamic name is Eissa (Jesus), says he has stopped denying his roots and now seeks to strike a balance between his European and Christian heritage and his acquired religion.
Rita, too, admits that her views have become more flexible and independent, and have allowed her to accept her daughters' rejection of the hijab and her children's quest for their own path – something her husband, with his conservative upbringing, has had more trouble accepting.
At first, she was wholly reliant on her husband for her Islamic education, which he sometimes tried to manipulate to his advantage. In recent years, she has taken her education into her own hands.
Three decades and seven children on, Rita feels her marriage and her religion have empowered her. They have given her the confidence to become a prominent spokesperson for converts, an active member of the Executif des Musulmans, as well as running a support group for Muslim women.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the 11 July 2002 issue of The Bulletin.