Being German, Becoming Muslim. Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe

The most zealous of the zealous, a potential risk to society or radicals on their way to blow something up: that is the picture many have of converted Muslims. At least there is certain uneasiness about them: why did they choose a supposedly foreign religion? Behind the scary picture often drawn by politicians and security officials lays a complex world mostly hidden from public attention.

“[The converts] challenge European post-Cold War ideology that defines itself through the exclusion of Islam and Muslims and brings to light the inconsistencies in the myth of European culture that defines itself as tolerant of diversity as well as respectful of individual choice” notes Esra Özyürek in her book Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe. She introduces readers to the world of German converts to Islam. At the same time she touches on several related topics including the changing patterns of racism that increasingly emphasizes culture rather than blood. This racism of our time dominantly manifests itself as Islamophobia.

German Muslim

Many of her colleagues in academia would wish they could write as accessibly as Ösyürek, yet her philosophical arguments are highly sophisticated. Her style is that of a reporter venturing into a foreign culture: she sits down with women of liberal convert groups, discusses with members of a German speaking Muslim youth organization their experience of building a religious identity beyond ethnic divides, and convinces a grumpy convert Salafist to give her an interview despite his initial defiance. We learn a lot about their path and gain a deep understanding of why people decide to become Muslims. The life stories of the people she meets are the backbone of her book. Reiterations of observations help to keep track of the argument advanced – even though this is a bit redundant at times.

The main observation Ösyürek’s book offers is that converts have to deal with two main issues. While they are hardly accepted in mainstream society they also do not fit into the ethnic Muslim communities forcing them to find a place for themselves. Many converts believe that mainstream society does not accept them because immigrant Muslims “have given Islam a bad name” and hence they have to unfairly endure a loss in social status.

To build an identity that combines their Islamic identity and German heritage and at the same time rids them of that stigma they distance themselves from the immigrant society – their attitude towards which can be shockingly racist. They believe that the immigrant’s Islam is polluted by traditions that have little to do with religion itself but are responsible for its bad reputation. They strive towards something they consider to be a “purified” Islam. This search for an Islam devoid of local traditions is a highly intellectual endeavor in which they evoke protagonists of German enlightenment (among others Schiller and Goethe). The converts form tight-knot communities made up of almost exclusively German converts. These groups are very different from the mosques that the working class immigrant Muslims will visit to feel at home in the abroad. Instead they are thriving forums of innovation.

The converts insist that it is possible to be both German and Muslim and seem to be quite successful in spreading that idea through their own organizations. They define Islam universally, use German during services and classes, and define themselves as part of German society, and not apart from it as many immigrant organizations still do.

Interestingly these groups share their project of purification with the most controversial Islamic group of recent times: the Salafists. Ösyürek does not evade the topic and her field research in Berlin actually includes the notorious Salafist al-Nur mosques. While it is laudable that she ventured into that scene which too many still believe to be inaccessible – it is really not – here her book is at its weakest.

When trying to understand why the isolationist Salafism is so attractive to converts she criticizes contemporary literature that advances what she calls a “functionalist logic”. According to this logic alienation from society is the main driver. It gives young people an outlet to rebel as well as a way to bridge the identity gap of being German and Turkish. Yet, conversion to that particular brand Islam is connected to a massive loss in social status. So why would someone pick it when he is looking for a way out of his alienation, Özyürek asks.

According to her, most literature ignores the spiritually fulfilling qualities of Salafism. She argues that theological reasons constitute the attractiveness of the movement. It requires a lot of missionary work (and actually undertakes it), it is very literal and supposedly only refers to the written sources of the Sunna (actions of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Qur’an and finally the movement is very democratic (it is relatively easy to acquire what is considered knowledge among it followers).

Ösyürek’s understanding of the literature she criticizes is unnecessarily reductionist. The factors she mentions are part of the radicalization discourse. The theological aspects she discusses are actually quite sociological. And for the alienation: the Salafist movement does provide a new social group that morally elevates the individual believer above the infidels as well as other Muslims. For many this is a way out of their marginalized position in society.

Yet, Özyürek makes one very important observation: Salafism is very attractive to converts. New Muslims are often overwhelmed by the different rules they ought to follow and information is not easily available in German as well as frequently contradictory. Salafism brings order in the chaos by offering clear rules with reference to written sources. This is important to the converts because many in the beginning attempt to transform their entire life to follow the rules of their new religion. After some time many become more relaxed about it – as many of her interviewees confirmed to Özyürek. Yet, Salafis groups will at least implicitly urge followers to cut contacts with their now infidel family and friends, making later disengagement more challenging. The combination of a potential recession of zeal as well as the importance of contacts outside of the milieu to leave underline the argumentation of many social workers that help families of young Salafists: They advice the their clients not to abandon their zealous youth but to maintain and rebuild emotional links. That way disengagement is easier and the strict holistic worldview of Salafism is challenged by contradicting ideas.

When Özyürek turns towards Jihadism (admittedly a very brief passage) there are also some issues. She believes that most people who turn to Jihadism are isolated individuals on the Internet. She quotes Marc Sageman who has argued that almost all Jihadism is “leadless” – a controversial argumentation[1].

Her example is Arid Uka who killed two US airmen at Frankfurt Airport in 2011. Uka is said to have self-radicalized on the Internet but there have also been allegations that he was in contact with members of the Salafist movement. This case is taken from the Guido Steinberg’s book German Jihad. What Özyürek does not mention is that there are a few other incidents in the book that far less resemble her model. To mention one: In 2006 authorities arrested a group that had received training in Pakistan and was radicalized by a preacher at a known center of Jihadism: the Multiculture House in Ulm. Ironically, her own example of Denis Cuspert – a former gangster rapper turned Jihadi – contradicts her argument as well.

In any case, the more important argument to her seems to be what motivated those Jihadis: foreign interventions of Western state in the Islamic world. By now it should be quite uncontroversial that war in far away places can have severe repercussions in the West.

Throughout the book, Özyürek argues that the converts are considered suspicious because they contradict the mainstream society’s conceptualization of foreign and domestic. This is an interesting observation. And she correctly criticizes statements by prominent German politicians who have suspected all converts to be potential terrorists. However, when it comes to her suspicion against Germany’s domestic security services she overshoots. Yes, there are problems when it comes to the question of which organization should be monitored and which should not, but what seems to slip her mind is that there is actually a terrorism problem and it has only grown with the rise of the Islamic State. Domestic security services have to deal with the problem and that will mean the surveillance of certain Islamic groups.

Despite these shortcomings Esra Özyürek has made a very valuable contribution to the better understanding of the diversity of Islam in Germany (and beyond). Converts are not a monolithic group but part of a society that is becoming more and more diverse and we would well advised to finally realized that instead of still discussing whether Islam is part of Germany or not.[2]

Jan Raudszus (King’s College London)

[1] See “A Not Very Private Feud Over Terrorism”, New York Times, June 8, 2008

[2] “Merkel says Islam ‘belongs to Germany’ ahead of Dresden rally”, Reuters, January 12, 2015.

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