What are the consequences of a change of religion

health : Change of religion: You don't change your faith like a sports club

Fatima Berger (name changed) was brought up as a Protestant. She grew up in Hessen, her father died early. After an extravagant youth with numerous sexual adventures, Fatima married men from Lebanon twice in quick succession and divorced both times. A short time after the second separation, at the age of 27, she converted to Islam.

Transferring to a new religious community is not arbitrary like changing a sports club, it means changing an entire worldview. How do such decisions come about and what is the point of converting to another religion? The sociologist Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, professor at the theological faculty in Leipzig, presented some of the results of her studies on the change of religion as part of the lecture series "Boundaries" in women's and gender studies at the Free University. Wohlrab-Sahr conducted a series of interviews and compared the "conversion to Islam" in Germany and the USA. She is less concerned with the reasons given by those affected for the change of religion, but with the function that the change takes on in the respective life story.

"The first time I went swimming with a friend, I was totally embarrassed. You don't go into the water with clothes on," says Fatima Berger in an interview. As a Muslim she goes swimming fully clothed and meets the glances of the stark naked at the bathing lake. "I said to myself: if they dare to bathe naked, then please dare to go into the water with clothes on."

A violation of the norm

The strict rules of the Muslim faith are in stark contrast to Fatima Berger's former life full of sexual adventures. On the other hand, as a Muslim, she repeats an experience that she has had before: she violates the rules of normality. If she used to be decried as a "bitch", she now lives as a veiled woman against the conventions of Western society. "The change of religion", says Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, "can be a reaction to the experience of personal devaluation. The conversion makes it possible to symbolize this experience, to articulate it and to initiate a solution to the problem."

Wohlrab-Sahr identified three types of conversion to Islam based on her interviews. How a man has to be and how a woman has to function has long ceased to be rigidly defined in western civilization. Some people react to this uncertainty in the area of ​​gender relations by converting to Islam. It sets new (old) boundaries and orders. Wohlrab-Sahr calls Islam here the "religion of morality".

A transfer can also help to cope with difficulties in professional life. Islam becomes the "religion of discipline". An aborted career or failed attempts at advancement in society can, as Wohlrab-Sahr showed with a second example, be compensated for by an alternative career within the Muslim community.

Thirdly, a conversion can also take on the function of "symbolic emigration" in ethnic conflicts. "Islam as an ideology" is a widespread motif, especially in the USA. Here are a large number of the converted Muslims of African American descent. As early as the 1930s, the "Nation of Islam" movement propagated the establishment of its own state with Islam as a "black" religion. The civil rights activist Malcom X was one of the prominent representatives of this movement.

While in the US context the political motives are in the foreground, Wohlrab-Sahr found more personal reasons for the change of religion in Germany. However, it is not primarily the "drifting of borders", not the dissolution of social and gender roles in Western societies, that bring about the decision to convert. Usually it is precisely the failure of traditional role models, such as the father as the breadwinner of the family or the well-married Christian wife, that become the underlying motive for the change of religion. Islam appears as a practicable alternative and provides new structures. Above all, however, it allows those involved to feel at the same time inside and outside of the "western" society.

Islam as a protest reaction

This structure applies to both Germany and the USA, said Wohlrab-Sahr. "Obviously, it is precisely through the appropriation of a foreign religion that problems can be expressed within one's own society." The basic function that Islam currently provides for people socialized in the West is to symbolize the greatest possible distance in their own social context.

Converting to Islam as a problem solution - that does not correspond to the perspective of those affected. The change of religion also creates new problems, makes demands that one had not thought of before, said a converted Muslim woman from the audience. For them, the results that Wohlrab-Sahr described using sociological methodology were understandably unsatisfactory.

The study by Monika Wohlrab-Sahr is also available as a book: "Conversion to Islam in Germany and the USA", Campus-Verlag 1999, 68 marks

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