Religion, Culture and the Double Stranger: British Converts to Islam and Dynamics of Belonging

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Thomas SEALY, University of Bristol, United Kingdom
As has been documented in a number of studies, converts to Islam very often face discrimination and ethnicization from both majority society and born Muslims. As a result, these studies suggest that British converts to Islam are conceived as ‘bridge builders’ and as existing in ‘liminal’ space or a ‘third space’ of hybridity. Yet these frameworks leave converts out-of-place and positioned as double strange. Drawing on narrative interviews with British converts to Islam this paper argues that such conceptions do very little to understand their experiences as Muslims and as British, instead confining them to the existing terms of the debates, and as such leaves them in something of a conceptual wilderness. Taking Simmel’s Stranger as a starting point, I argue that converts, who both explicitly and implicitly draw a line between ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ with regard to Islam and Muslims, offer a challenge and different perspective on what these terms can mean in Britain today and thereby contribute to discussions of identity and belonging. This divide is contentious, complex, and problematic. Nevertheless, by taking the culture-religion divide as a prism through which to explore ideas and aspects of identity and belonging, moves can be made towards viewing converts in-place. The divide suggests the need to put the religious at the centre and it is in this way that varying horizons of ways of being can be brought into conversation. In this paper I trace the various lines of this religion-culture divide to explore how British converts to Islam do and do not relate to Islam, Muslim communities and wider society. This involves consideration of the dynamic interplay between the personal and the social, as well as, importantly, the Divine.