What makes people convert to Islam

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Female circumcision, polygamy, burqa and refused handshakes - Islamic traditions unsettle and irritate Switzerland, the media cement an image that discriminates against women. In the canton of Ticino, the tense mood culminated in a burqa and niqab ban. But is there an Islam that respects women's rights? Three Swiss converts tell why they converted.

This content was published on June 30, 2016 - 11:21 am

Barbara Veljiji climbs the stairs into a cozy farmer's room. A fire crackles in the stove, the Veljijis heat with wood. Barbara Veljiji lives with her Albanian husband, three sons, daughter-in-law and mother on her parents' former farm in the Bernese Seeland.

Veljiji converted to Islam in 1992 at the age of 23. "For me, Islam is a good faith," is her simple reason. She found inner peace through Islam. She has been wearing a headscarf for nine years. She prays, fasts and eats halal "whenever possible". She turns a blind eye to fondue chinoise.

She also handles the division of roles pragmatically: because she earns more in her jobs than her husband, she has been the breadwinner of the family since the birth of her children, and he the househusband. This family model is not very Islamic. But Veljiji doesn't care: "I like to work, I can't imagine any other way."

Islam is "logical"

Natalia Darwich from central Switzerland has always been very religious and active in the parish. Around the age of 30, however, she began to have doubts about the Catholic Church: she found it wrong that Jesus was worshiped in addition to God. And she found the pomp of the Vatican shocking. Confession did not convince her either - as a child she invented "sins" so that the priest would be satisfied.

She therefore resigned from the church and dealt intensively with spiritual issues. In doing so, she came across the Koran, which she read from cover to cover twice. She found a more intellectual approach to Islam. "What appealed to me about Islam was the logical way in which questions are answered," says Darwich. For them, Islam is a "complete Christianity".

Darwich married a Lebanese and converted to Shiite Islam. Those around them reacted calmly. At that time she was already over forty years old. That was 8 years ago. Darwich has been wearing a headscarf for three years. Before taking this step, however, she quit her job.

An enlightenment in Dubai

Before she hid her face from the public with a niqab, married a convert - who, according to reports that have not been denied, has a second wife - gave birth to five children, spoke out in favor of polygamy and thus became arguably the most famous Swiss convert, Nora Illi was a normal boy Woman from the canton of Zurich. She celebrated parties, was interested in Buddhism and ate a vegetarian diet.

As an 18-year-old Nora Illi had an enlightenment experience when the muezzin called to prayer on a trip to Dubai. Back in Switzerland, she converted to Islam in 2002. Her boyfriend and future husband, Qaasim Illi, had already converted to Islam two weeks earlier. Both of them are now involved in the radical Islamic association "Islamischer Zentralrat SchweizExterner Link" (IZRS), which is highly controversial because of contacts with extremists and hate preachers, among other things.

Nora Illi says that she herself initially had prejudices against Muslim women: "I thought that women were oppressed in Islam," she says. But she had come to the realization that a lot of things are culturally conditioned and do not belong to Islam. Illi is thinking, for example, of the rather passive role of many Muslim women. In Islam, women are allowed to be active outside the home.

Bringing values ​​into harmony

In the conversations with the three women it is noticeable that they interpret the Koran literally and regard it as given by God, but at the same time try to bring it into harmony with Western values. Sometimes they look for explanations and excuses for Muslim commandments and prohibitions, sometimes they evade or shirk. For example, Veljiji admits that, according to the Koran, the man can hit the woman if she does not obey. "But hitting is always a sign of being overwhelmed, it has nothing to do with religion, and there is chastisement in the Old Testament too," she puts into perspective.

And Nora Illi plays down the ban on homosexuality in Islam, arguing that it is only forbidden in public. At the same time, she advocates a right to marriage for everyone - including homosexuals. "I'm tolerant," she says simply.

The three women seem to identify culturally with Swiss values, especially with the emancipation of women. You make a clear distinction between religion and culture. From a religious point of view, they were missing something in Western society. Islam has filled that void. But that does not mean that the three women correspond to the cultural clichés that the western media - whether true or not - spread about Islam and Muslim countries.

Confident converts

Not even Nora Illi, who provokes with a face veil and statements about polygamy, corresponds to the image of an oppressed and passive woman. On the contrary: She seems self-confident and independent - like the other two converts. The normal girl who followed a vegetarian diet has become a normal mother and part-time working housewife who now eats a halal diet. The reasons for the conversion may have been different for the three women. What they have in common, however, is that they have made their own decision about Islam and its rules and live a self-determined life.

This observation coincides with the research results of Petra Bleisch, who in her dissertation "Lived and told Sharia law in SwitzerlandExterner Link" examined the Islamic norms by which converted women orient themselves. "All the women I spoke to are very critical of the imams," the social scientist told swissinfo.ch. "They reject the gender roles of the conservative imams." No matter how strictly they adhere to the religious rules of Islam - culturally the converts apparently want to determine their own way of life.

Converts in Switzerland

There are no official statistics on how many people convert to Islam in Switzerland. The conversion to Islam happens informally: it is sufficient to speak the creed and wash the whole body.

There are an estimated 10,000 converts to Islam living in Switzerland, that is 2 to 4 percent of the Muslim population. Significantly more women convert to Islam than men. After September 11, 2001, there was a clear increase in conversions in Switzerland, as in other western countries. The reasons are not yet clear.

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