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Beyond 'Religion versus Emancipation’

Expert Meeting: Contested Conversions

“Contested Conversions: ‘Authentic Stories and Public Responses’”

In the Western world conversion is predominantly considered as an individual trajectory of religious transformation, to which in particular ‘strong’ narratives (personal, coherent, unequivocal) of the converts testify (Rambo 2014; Gooren 2010). Also in the case of deconversion, where the individual trajectory often consists of narratives of confusion, loss, and reorientation, the stories delivered by deconverts are mostly focused on escaping one specific religion and building a new lifeworld outside of or opposite to this religion (Streib 2014; Brooks, 2018; Davidman 2014; Ensted 2018). In both cases, however, these stories are predominantly interpreted as examples of ‘authentic’ religious transformation in and out religious ‘homes’.

In this expert meeting we aim to explore the field of de/conversion studies from the perspective of ‘contested conversions. The idea of contested conversions takes a different point of view by debating the de/conversion stories also in light of the societal, political and religious discussions that engender these stories and the way these stories reflect, elaborate or ‘speak back’ to these debates (Van Nieuwkerk 2018; Gerbner 2015; Mazur and Shinn 2013; Krstic 2011). This puts new questions on the agenda, such as: what makes a conversion ‘real’, what makes that it counts as a conversion, and who determines if a de/conversion has occurred? This also means that more different disciplines and other concepts will be related to the field of conversion studies besides religious studies and the anthropology and sociology of religion, in particular cultural studies and critical studies (e.g.  postcolonial, queer, and critical race studies) and concepts and approaches that gravitate around the body, agency, transformation, representation, discourse, narrative, and performativity.

We organize this roundtable workshop as part of a five year research programme acquired from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). In this programme we investigate how cases of contemporary conversion become contested as a consequence of political and religious tensions In Western Europe which are studied in terms of religion, (post) secularity, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Three angles of research have been selected: the anthropology of religion in gender perspective (ethnographical approach), the study of religious discourses and gender constructions (religious studies approach), and the study of public controversies on religious minorities and women’s emancipation (cultural production approach). Also, a comparative approach is chosen by studying conversion at these levels in three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in the most secularised Western contexts.

In this programme, the focus is on the relation between conversion and women’s emancipation. The following premises are central: In Western settings, the idea that women’s emancipation is fundamentally conflicting to the adherence of especially the more conservatives religions has gained plausibility over the last decades. In public debates and policy-making in Western Europe, women’s emancipation is predominantly framed in terms of autonomy, individual rights, and equal opportunity. This notion of emancipation is founded upon the individual and autonomous subject. Secularist discourse which dominates the public debates builds on this notion: it specifically constructs the more conservative religions as its ‘other’ and is sees these religions as reaffirming gender segregation and resisting gender equality.

In this programme we argue that the recurrent question of why women are “attracted to and supportive of religious groups that seem designed to perpetuate their subordination” (Martin 2001) implies an opposition which needs to be unpacked. We have decided to focus on the public and academic construction of the religion/emancipation opposition, and in particular on women’s de/conversion to various religious traditions, which we see as potential negotiations of secular and religious discourses on women’s roles and freedoms.

Questions that we want to discuss in this roundtable workshop are for instance:

  • How is conversion experienced and performed as authentic by converts, their community a/o non-religious peers, and how are the boundaries of these authenticities negotiated?
  • To what other narratives are narratives about conversion related in public discourse? How do these ‘accompanying narratives’ influence public responses towards conversion? (E.g. migration, integration, social cohesion, gender ideology, return of religion, new spirituality, coming-of-age.)
  • Which alternative stories are being told (by converts) to question the religion-emancipation dichotomy? Which alternative conceptions of ‘emancipation’ and its supposed value and importance are provided by converts?
  • What concepts do we need to understand converts’ trajectories of dis/empowerment? And vice versa, how does the study of conversion necessitate rethinking concepts such as the body, agency, transformation, performativity? How do converts’ embodied practices confirm or question social assumptions about their emancipation?
  • Which theories and concepts are useful to help us understand the intersections of various narratives? How does the critical study of secularity and race help us disentangle the above described framing of religious converts?