Convert – the word has a metallic ring to it. When weapons are converted, there is a promise of a more peaceful future; in humans, the opposite appears to be the case: here, the ploughshare becomes the sword. Nowadays, those who convert to Islam are regarded as ticking time bombs.
In books on Africa’s colonial and missionary history, different phrasing is used: here, the Africans “accept Christianity”. This is a lovely way of putting it, connoting a decision freely made – religion as an invitation that one can either accept or reject (as though it all really happened that bloodlessly).
There is, of course, a reason why white history does not speak of “conversion” in this case. This reason is the widespread disdain for the older belief systems in Africa. They represented a primordial state of nature, paganism, not “religion” enough to be recognised as currency.
Among Muslims, it is likewise customary to speak of the “acceptance of Islam”. According to Islamic teaching, every human being is born Muslim – that is the broad definition of being Muslim: the human as image of God, without the construct of Original Sin. Consciously accepting Islam then becomes a mere “testimony” requiring few words, not a transformation.
The supremacy of Arab Islam
A large part of today’s Muslim world has a “conversion background”, as the Germans like to put it, because Islam once made inroads among Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, etc. Those who can supposedly trace back their family tree directly to the Prophet consider themselves superior – even in Iran, where Arabs are not generally well-liked.
For all its multiculturalism, Islam has not been able to shake off the supremacy of the Arab branch of the religion. German Muslim converts frequently add an extra Arab first name to their given name, which is quite amazing really, as though the private avowal of the faith would require an act of baptism, a new sign on the door to one’s life.
The same practice was followed by the mothers and fathers of a German Islam almost a century ago. Islam has namely been part of Germany much longer than the tiresome debates about integration might lead one to believe.
Opinion rather than research
In the 1920s, the Ahmadiya Mosque in Berlin-Wilmersdorf was a meeting place for intellectuals and writers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Converts were part of the elite back then, counting aristocrats among their ranks, and some later became members of the Nazi Party. These facts are cited by Esra Ozyurek, professor at the London School of Economics, in her research paper “Being German, Becoming Muslim”. In contemporary Germany, by contrast, people seem to prefer voicing opinions about converts rather than doing research on the history of Muslim converts in Germany.
The “German Muslim League” was founded in 1954 in the restaurant at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus theatre. Fatima Grimm, a veteran of the League, notes that the original statutes required members to have German nationality; Islam was not to be perceived as a “religion of foreigners”.
Her recently (posthumously) published memoirs, “Mein verschlungener Weg zum Islam” (My Winding Path to Islam), are in many respects a document of contemporary history. The author was the child of an SS general who was a friend of Himmler. Stepping out of his shadow, as Fatima Grimm puts it, was one of her motives for turning toward Islam.
In southern Germany, the first Muslims rented taverns for Islamic celebrations because there were as yet no mosques there. Headscarves were unknown, and the few German Muslim women even wore short skirts. The first mosques were later established in Munich, Aachen and Hamburg by people from academic settings: Arab students and German converts.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed
The Archbishop donated the chairs for the auditorium of the Munich mosque. Back then, the political climate was unimaginably different from today: Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood, welcome as opponents of Nasser, were even officially invited to the opening of Oktoberfest.
Fatima Grimm’s memoirs, which are written in conversational form, were published by the Narrabila publishing company, itself founded by a new Muslim. The “Islamische Zeitung” newspaper, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary, was likewise established by converts. Their essays on the intellectual life of Islam are studiously overlooked by German majority society – in order not to jeopardise its own stereotypes.
Wolf Ahmed Aries became a Muslim in 1954, at the age of 16, in a middle-class household in Hanover. At the time, his family laconically remarked of his decision that some people became boy scouts, others Muslims. Aries was director of a Volkshochschule (adult education centre) for a quarter-century. That evidently doesn’t qualify him to be invited to speak on a talk show on the subject of Islam, however; on the contrary, producers today are only on the lookout for strident opinions, says Aries.
Focus on radical converts
People in Germany seem to feel the need to constantly talk about radical converts, about the crazies, the preachers of hate – the swords.
Theologian Rabeya Muller, who was born into the Catholic faith in the Eifel region in 1957, exemplifies a different brand of radicalism. She was already in the women’s movement before she converted, and then became a Muslim feminist and one of the founders of the Cologne “Zentrum fur islamische Frauenforschung” (Centre for Islamic Women’s Studies). She is an imam who leads prayers and performs marriage ceremonies.
Does the social history of conversion in Germany reflect a loss of prestige for Islam, asks Islam scholar Esra Ozyurek, who traces its path from an elite niche religion to the religion of foreign workers and finally today to an outcast faith. “The more Islam is marginalised and criminalised in German society, the more attractive it becomes for marginalised non-Muslims.”
But does this theory go far enough? The frequently cited figure of 100,000 converts in Germany may or may not be true – but in any case, there are too many converts in Germany to reduce them all to one single phenomenon.
Germans who embrace Islam not out of frustration but out of a sincere passion for the religion are often disappointed by native-born Muslims, finding that they insufficiently embody the beauty of Islamic doctrine and spirituality. Politics sees things the other way round, accepting Muslims (out of necessity), but not Islam.