A European woman sharing a story of conversion to Islam

Anthon Jason | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report

Global power structures construct the experience of a Westerner converting to Islam as strange, against logical thinking, and moving from modernity to backwardness. This narrative and discourse last until now, which is a narrative about the superiority of one particular ethnicity and religion to other races and beliefs.

Sharing her experience as a German woman converting to Islam in Indonesia, while locating that experience in a postcolonial perspective, Dr Katrin Bandel gave a presentation at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on April 26th, 2017. She reflected on her experience in relation to her position as an academic, a lecturer at Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta, and a German woman living in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

Dr Bandel began her presentation by narrating her own experience when she went back to Germany to visit her family. As a Muslim woman, Dr Bandel wore a veil (jilbab). However, to avoid conflict and to respect her parents, she took off her veil when she arrived at the airport of her home country. Comparing her experiences as an ordinary German woman and now as a Muslim, Dr Bandel reflected on how her inner feeling has changed due to the shifting identity she experienced in a short time during her trip going back to Germany. “When I had a veil on, I felt like somehow close to all the black people who were working at the airport,” she said, “because although they are black and I am white, we were both the minority, but then when I took off my jilbab, I was just a European woman then suddenly I felt the distance…” In her book, Kajian Gender dalam Konteks Pascakolonial (Gender Studies in the Postcolonial Context), she goes further investigating what it is actually from this experience and why it should interest others.

Common people in Western society imagine progress as a move from a religious society to a secular one. Dr Bandel quoted a Muslim German, Ersa Ozyurek (2005: 3) saying, “Mainstream society marginalizes German converts to Islam, and questions their Germanness and Europeaness, based on the belief that one cannot be a German or European and a Muslim at the same time.” Germany is perceived as a modern state and Islam is seen as opposed to progressive values. Islam is also presented as not compatible with democracy. This perception, Dr Bandel argued, is shaped by global power structures.

The tension between two identities as a German and a Muslim pushed her to an ambivalent position. Her racial identity and religious identity seems unfit to each other in the eyes of common European people. She felt like in the battlefield since she has the elements on both sides; emotionally and logically she engaged with these two identities. She ended her story with questions: Is this relevant to others in Indonesia? Why, and in what manner?

In the Q&A session, a participant asked whether  incompatibility between Islam and Western identity really exists, while there are many scholars who argue that both are not opposed to each other. Dr Bandel answered that whether or not it factually exists, it really exists there as a discourse; and as a discourse that takes shape in hands of media and global power structures, it influences people’s perceptions about a particular ethnicity or religion. Another question that came up in the discussion was whether Dr Bandel had to announce her conversion in public. She said she preferred to keep her spiritual journey in private and didn’t want to be written in a series of muallaf stories. She also doesn’t want to be perceived in a conversion story framed as a win or lose war between Islam and other religions. She honestly acknowledged that her conversion to Islam was a form of hidayah (God’s guidance), a term that, she admitted, cannot be academically explained.

Anthon Jason is CRCS student of the 2016 batch.

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