Book Review: Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe, by Esra Özyürek


Brandenburg-Gate in Berlin: A famous German landmark

Ursula King on a profile of the many faces of Islam in one country

Muslims feature daily in news headlines in the West. We hear about seemingly incomprehensible ethnic tensions, long-running conflicts, hostage-takings and brutal killings. Just as difficult to understand, for many, are the growing numbers of Western converts to Islam. It is estimated that there are now about 100,000 converts in Germany, and similar numbers in France and the UK, at a time when the beliefs of Islam are seen by many as contrary to European values. These often antagonistic contradictions between ethnic, national and religious identities in contemporary Europe demand close analysis of the kind found in Esra Özyürek’s succinct study, which is supported by an extensive bibliography.

The author, a political anthropologist now based at the London School of Economics, spent three and a half years studying German converts to Islam. Of Turkish ancestry, Özyürek describes herself as a non-practising “cultural Muslim” who is able to relate to a wide variety of German Muslims. The result of her research is a fascinating exploration of the dynamics of Islam in contemporary Germany, seen through the prism of its capital, Berlin. Her account provides a multifaceted profile of the many faces of Islam in one Western European country, and it offers readers a good sense of the diversity of contemporary Sunni Muslims in Germany. But they will also be left with many questions.

How can German converts balance their love of Islam, often first awakened by an encounter with a native Muslim of Turkish, Arabic or Moroccan origin, with their compatriots’ fear of this faith? How do converts and ethnically different “native” Muslims relate to each other? What distinguishes and unites them, if anything? And why is Islamophobia so prevalent in the society that surrounds them?

The new German face of Islam reveals many unexpected characteristics. Although conversion has existed in Germany since the Weimar Republic, it occurred then mainly among upper-class Germans, while now most converts are middle and working class, and many are from former East Germany. These converts are, Özyürek argues, drawn to a pure, “culture-free”, universal version of Islam. There are, she adds, historical links with the German Enlightenment and its openness to other religions, especially Islam. The oldest German mosque dates from the late 18th century; it stood for Enlightenment tolerance towards all faiths, and it still exists.

Berlin now has more than 100 mosques and prayer houses, although only eight offer religious activities in German, while the rest cater for Muslim immigrants of particular ethnic or national groups. Some 75 per cent of Germany’s 4 million Muslims are of Turkish origin, and 40 per cent of their mosques are supported by the Turkish state, which trains and pays their imams. Özyürek contrasts the “Germanification” of Islam with the “racialization” of the Muslim immigrant community dominated by low-status Turkish workers whose integration into German society is limited. “Native” Muslims of other origins enjoy a higher status, while German converts to Islam report experiencing a dramatic loss of status among their compatriots. Although many distance themselves from immigrant Muslims, converts often become public spokespersons for Islam, owing to higher levels of formal education.

Özyürek also poses an intriguing but presently unanswerable question: is puritanical Salafism – a fundamentalist version of Islam not unlike Saudi Arabian Wahhabism that is now considered the fastest-growing Islamic movement in the world – the future of European Islam? Her study went to press before recent large-scale gatherings in Leipzig and Dresden by Pegida, a right-wing anti-Islam movement, and the counter-demonstrations that followed. The actions of Pegida have made the situation of all German Muslims, both converts and immigrants, even more complex and precarious.

Despite a paucity of statistical data, the absence of an Arabic glossary and a lack of attention to gender differences, Being German, Becoming Muslim is an excellent study.

Being German, Becoming Muslim: Race, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe

By Esra Özyürek
Princeton University Press, 192pp, £37.95 and £16.95
ISBN 9780691162782, 2799 and 9781400852710 (e-book)
Published 10 December 2014


2 replies

  1. According to the Holy Quran, all children are born Muslims, it is their parents who make them Jew, Christian or others. This is one of the many reasons why now western peoples are reverting to Islam on their own free will. Through out the history, Muslims never forced non-Muslims to accept Islam. This is the main reason why Muslims lost Spain and India.

    The beauty of Islam is that it is a religion which appeals to common sense. There is no blind belief or dogmatism in Islam. The fundamentals of Islam are simple, straightforward and easy to understand.

    If Islam is so bad, then why is it the WORLD’S FASTEST GROWING RELIGION! It is also one of the youngest religions. However no matter how hard everyone tries to give Islam a bad name, it will be twice as more populated. So let’s get straight to the point yeah?, Basically Islam is the most hated religion I don’t know why hmm maybe because it is also the most fastest growing religion and 2nd largest but no one will be able to stop this religion from growing.

    Islam is the fastest growing faith in Britain. Hundreds and thousands of Brits are reverting to Islam. By the middle of this century, over half of Brits would be Muslims.

    “I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of
    its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to
    possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence which
    can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him – the wonderful man
    and in my opinion for from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the
    saviour of Humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the
    dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving its problems
    in a way that would bring it the much
    needed peace and happiness: I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad
    that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to
    be acceptable to the Europe of today.” [G.B. Shaw, THE GENUINE ISLAM,
    Vol. No. 81936.]

  2. Review from Amazon

    Every year more and more Europeans, including Germans, are embracing Islam. It is estimated that there are now up to one hundred thousand German converts—a number similar to that in France and the United Kingdom. What stands out about recent conversions is that they take place at a time when Islam is increasingly seen as contrary to European values. Being German, Becoming Muslim explores how Germans come to Islam within this antagonistic climate, how they manage to balance their love for Islam with their society’s fear of it, how they relate to immigrant Muslims, and how they shape debates about race, religion, and belonging in today’s Europe.

    Esra Özyürek looks at how mainstream society marginalizes converts and questions their national loyalties. In turn, converts try to disassociate themselves from migrants of Muslim-majority countries and promote a denationalized Islam untainted by Turkish or Arab traditions. Some German Muslims believe that once cleansed of these accretions, the Islam that surfaces fits in well with German values and lifestyle. Others even argue that being a German Muslim is wholly compatible with the older values of the German Enlightenment.

    Being German, Becoming Muslim provides a fresh window into the connections and tensions stemming from a growing religious phenomenon in Germany and beyond.

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