Experts at American University of Sharjah (AUS) and the University of Cambridge presented their insights based on the report Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives, which was prepared by Professor Yasir Suleiman, Project Leader and Founding Director at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, in association with The New Muslims Project, Mark field. This report was officially released at the panel for the first time.
The panel discussion was part of the two-day AUS–University of Cambridge joint conference on Perspectives on Middle Eastern Studies that brought the latest research and insight on several topics that are shaping global discussions on Middle Eastern studies.
Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives is based on original research done in the UK, narrating stories of women who have converted to Islam. It deals with a host of issues, including hijab, marriage, divorce, polygyny, sexuality, domestic violence, mosque provisions for female converts, the challenges facing the children of convert mothers and the role converts play as bridges between heritage Muslims and non-Muslims in society. The report is exclusively about female converts to Islam in Britain, although the converts who took part in the project came from different ethnic, national, faith and no-faith backgrounds that characterize the plurality of British society.
Introducing the report at the panel, Professor Yasir Suleiman said, “Whether a woman converts to Islam through marriage, or for some other reason, no one route into the faith is considered to be more worthy than the others and there was unanimous agreement among the participants on this issue. However, one of the consistent messages from participants in this project, British women from various faiths who had converted to Islam, was their conversion was not the result of any single theme but of various revelations. We have endeavored to describe the experience of women converts to Islam in contemporary British society and the relationship between the convert, the heritage Muslim communities and wider society is explored with reference to their political, social and religious contexts.”
The report states that converts and the Muslim communities they become embedded in are not homogenous groups: they reflect the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, expressions of faith and socio-economic realities that characterize Britain. The needs of converts also reflect this diversity, which necessitates the development of respectful responses mindful of these multifarious characteristics.
“For many converts identity is a fluid and continuous process of self-evaluation and re-evaluation, aligned with the possibility of arriving at a comfortable sense of Self. Perceptions of identity change or evolve as converts develop their own understanding of their faith,” added Professor Yasir Suleiman.
Nawar Golley, Associate Professor in Literary Theory and Women’s Studies at AUS and panel moderator, said she was impressed with the report that portrayed a realistic picture of the women converts in Britain. “The report shows the need to help converts integrate into Muslim society, in order to enable them play a positive role,” she added.
The report details how converts retain their faith in adversity and the extent to which doubts impinge upon and affect their perceptions of Islam, as well as how Islam is understood and incorporated into their lives as part of a lifelong project. Converts discussed how they assess theological presentations of Islam and how they form and internalize these different interpretations of Islam.
The consistent theme flowing through the report is the need for increased levels of support for the convert community.
Support network organizations need to be openly inclusive and reflective of the multicultural composition of Britain’s convert population.
This necessitates supportive organizations operating at both the local and national levels to improve provision of services, along with access to decision-making forums, in order to provide responses focused on a range of sources of help and support for converts. These services are required to address the unique issues and concerns facing converts themselves.
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