Conversion and Proselytism

Great quote here from Gauri VISWANATHAN, author of Outisde the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (1998 Princeton U Press). Her focus is India, and mine is the Middle East in specific, but Islamdom in general. Everything she says here is right on though and it was great to see someone (who is not a missionary) voice these thoughts:

The underlying tension between the transgressive and the assimilitative aspects of conversion erupts most obviously and most dramatically in situations […] where the adopted identity of the convert is at variance with the cultural meanings sanctioned by that society. The radical displacements of meaning brought about by religious change are un questionably major political disruptions and treated as such in the discourse of the dominant community. […] Where there is such disparity, dominant communities prefer to use the term ‘proselytism’ rather than ‘conversion’ to indicate the forcible nature of religious change. The term also carries with it a baggage of associations that identify religious change as an effect of manipulation , propagandistic activity, loss of individual self-control and will power, and sustained political mobilization. The use of the term ‘proselytism’ further denies subjectivity, agency, or choice to the subject and replaces individuals with masses as the unit of analysis. (p 87)

AD says: Why is this important? Because when Muslims talk about becoming Muslim they speak of conversion (or reversion, actually), but when they speak of folks leaving Islam, they speak of proselytism and almost always say the person was brain-washed or offered money or a visa to the West or whave have you.


JDA said…
informative post - so you would say the perceptual difference between 'proselytism' and conversion is a question of contextualization?
Abu Daoud said…
Hi JDA, interesting question. But I would have to say that first there is, I think, a genuine difference between the two things. I would also say that the here the author is not making a point about contextualization, but rationalization. It is much easier when someone has left your community to make an excuse--threy were given a visa or money or a Christian girl, ie they were bribed--than it is to admit that this person actually knew his religion, and decided to leave it.

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