Monday, May 14, 2012

What is conversion?

I just saw the first episode of the first season of All-American Muslim (for the first time!) on TLC, and in this episode, Jeff, an Irish-American from a Catholic family, has to undergo a conversion in order to marry Shadia, a Lebanese-American who was raised as a Muslim.

Episode 1 Season 1

There was a good amount of footage of Jeff's mum who had flown in from Chicago for the wedding, but she didn't know that Jeff had to convert. That was a huge parallel with our personal situation. I saw what the Dutchman went through, but those scenes with Jeff's mum had me almost in tears (minutes 19:15-21:28, 24:50-25:50) because that was a side of the story that I didn't participate in.

Of course, it's difficult to see a huge break with tradition. Maybe she also felt like she was losing her son to an unknown pack of wolves terrorists Muslims, because of the dominant image of Muslims who bring a lot of their culture with them (in the case of migrants) , and who may also expect conformity to the culture as part of being Muslim. I understand it would feel like her son was lost to these people. And when you add the whole formal conversion procedure...

One of the biggest bones I have to pick with being Muslim in Singapore is that Islam is so heavily institutionalised. If you are not Malay on your identity card, or if you don't have an Arabic name, then you are assumed to be non-Muslim and in socio-legal situations you have to prove that you are.

If you are Malay, then to act in a way that is counter to institutionalised Islam in a socio-legal situation (such as opting to register your marriage in the secular court or ROM), you have to prove that you are not Muslim. For example, the Dutchman was not raised Muslim, doesn't have an Arabic name, and as a "foreign spouse", so no matter the state of his heart and beliefs, he would have to show proof of being Muslim if we were to marry, pay zakat, or arrange for a pilgrimage from Singapore.

The firmly-held belief that it is only men who have to convert to marry Muslim women, while Christian or Jewish women do not have to convert to marry Muslim men, is also rooted in a certain idea of a male-led family, which is for another post. In Singapore at least, bother parties have to be Muslim in order to register their marriage in the shari'a court, because that's written in the law (thanks to the British?).

The episode touched on the issue of choice, or agency, to convert -- at least in the Singaporean context. (I'm tempted to make a conversion matrix!) It doesn't matter what you actually believe, the fact that you have to provide proof of conversion (and from a semi-government body, no less) makes a mockery of the supposed division between religion and state. In other words, there is freedom of belief for all Singaporeans except Muslims.

So I did experience several awkward moments when people asked if the Dutchman was 'converting', and it didn't matter which way I said it; skeptics would insist that he converted just so we could marry, and the naive would insist that a formal procedure (i.e. with a ceremony, a certificate, change of name, offer of circumcision) was the only way to ensure that he was a 'true Muslim'.

I'm not a fan of formal procedures for something so personal, and here's a beautiful story to explain why. I personally believe in the concept of fitrah (every human being is born with the tendency towards God), and I do prefer the term 'revert' because it reflects this. But I wouldn't go so far to say that the parents of non-Muslims 'corrupt' their children with another religion, because which parent doesn't want the best for their child, and which parent doesn't want their child to be a good, moral, ethical, loving person that is useful to society?

I concede that some of the aspects of a formal conversion procedure may have sociological or psychological benefit, like letting the wider Muslim community know that they have a saudara baru (Malay, lit. new relative) whom they should support, cognitive clarity or the feeling that one is turning over a new leaf, and legal and financial support (enough money for a round of teh tariks in Singapore or monthly income in Brunei!). Also, in case of death, finding a conversion card would be helpful for burial, for sure.

However, I feel that the obsession placed on formal proof of conversion is not reflective of Islam's teachings of compassion. There are many reasons why a public, formal conversion would not be ideal for someone. In the episode, Jeff ended up cursorily reciting repeating the shahada (Arabic, lit. testimony. To bear witness that there is only one God, and the Prophet Muhammad is his Messenger) in Arabic, a language he doesn't understand (minutes 13:45-15:30, 27:00-28:30), as part of his 'conversion'. And in Singapore as well, you're expected to memorise these foreign sounds and repeat them in front of two witness (male, of course, did you expect anything else?).

Maybe some people feel that Arabic is a magic language, but I don't see why one has to prove to be a Muslim only by being able to pronounce the shahada correctly. Witnesses and friends then celebrate...his ability to imitate sounds accurately? In the episode Jeff clearly says that he converts to make the family of his future wife happy, and so that he can stay with her -- I couldn't help but wonder if the Dutchman felt a little bit of this too? But what disturbed me the most was how everyone just seemed really happy that his commitment to Islam involved only repeating the shahada.

How do you be sure that someone converts for the sake of God? You simply can't. That is in itself, a way of thinking that is specific to Muslims and our socialised desires for authenticity and visible sincerity. Some converts tell me there is no internal conversion process at all; there is no change from a non-Muslim to a Muslim. They remain the same person as they are, and they hope that their family and friends will also see them the same way.

For some, a formal procedure is helpful. But for some, it is enough that the realisation that the actions, beliefs and values they have felt all along to be true and right, has a name to it... finally.

1 comment:

aletha said...

It might also be part of our desire as a community, not to 'bersubahat', by allowing 'immoral' activities to continue.
A quasi-govt body, with formal conversion rituals, helps assuage our collective guilt, that a convert might not be converting for the right reasons (which is a whole other issue)
So really, i see the ceremony more for the incumbent muslim community's benefit, rather than the convert per se



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