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Symposium on Religious Conversion

15th June, 2015 @ 09:00

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

On Monday 15th June 2015, the Symposium on Religious Conversion was held at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. The symposium was jointly organised by the Woolf Institute and the Centre of Islamic Studies.

Religious conversion is a process of change and continuity, enacted, in some instances, by a rapid and systematic reconfiguration of multiple spheres of the self and lived experience, and in others, through gradual negotiation shaped in contextual and contingent ways. The new beliefs, identity and conceptions of moral personhood of converts may be marked on the body and through everyday practices of 'cultivating selfhood'. Converts may adopt new sartorial practices and a change of name, alongside lifestyle changes, in the form of consumption habits, spatial practices and conceptions of gender norms; all of which may be shaped by a convert's class, gender and ethnicity. Religious conversion can be a hopeful and inspiring process of 'becoming', the final resting spot on a journey, or simply a stage on that journey, enmeshed with new ties of belonging, new values and, in some cases, hope for individuals trapped in cycles of violence and crime. Or it can be a process wracked by doubt, disappointment and loss. Converts can experience strained relationships with friends, family and wider society, a process of becoming 'other' associated with a renegotiation of social status.   

Conversion cannot be discussed without recognising its place within a maelstrom of social, cultural and political discourses in most societies at most times, from scales of the local to the national and transnational. The convert is both 'insider' and 'outsider', defined by an 'in-betweenness' which wrestles with social taxonomies of 'us' and 'them'. On the one hand they can be heralded as conduits between communities, individuals who traverse fault lines, reflecting, in some cases, an 'indigenisation' of erstwhile 'non-indigenous' faith traditions, such as converts to Islam in the UK who are commonly viewed as the embodiment of 'British Islam'. At other times converts can produce a hardening of battle lines. Represented as self-loathing, even pathological, their conversion may be explained as the malfeasance and conspiracy of their religion and its religious communities. The converts' representation in these discourses often reveals a lot more about anxieties circulating in society than the lives of converts themselves. However, the voices of converts are not silent. While many are unable to shape discourses in the public sphere, or do not want to, others forcefully convey the complexity of conversion narratives and often in the process of doing so become articulate 'cultural critics', raising questions about tacit social and cultural norms.   

Religious conversion is the focus of a long tradition of scholarly interest and inquiry. This symposium provided an opportunity for contemporary research on conversion connected to the four panel themes listed below, and a platform for scholars to engage in conversations around conversion across disciplines and regional and faith specialisations.   

The Panel themes were as follows:

The Public Sphere  

Papers considered the ways religious conversion interacts with the public sphere. How does conversion engage, bolster or unsettle understandings of national identity in the public sphere? What role do converts play as sources of knowledge and representatives for their religion and religious communities? In what ways have converts served as 'cultural critics' of mainstream norms in the public sphere? This theme also includes consideration of how converts express or manage identity and religious practices in "secular" public spaces.

Prisons and Gangs   

The interaction of conversion with the dynamics of prisons and gangs are the subject of this panel. What draws people to convert in prisons and gangs and how does this differ to other cases of conversion? In particular, how can the high rates of conversion to Islam in prisons in the UK and in other countries be explained? How do prisons and gangs shape the ways in which religion is learnt and enacted? What is the impact of prison staff, such as prison chaplains, and faith-based networks and organisations in shaping the decision to convert and experiences of conversion?  

Ethnicity, Gender and Class  

Papers are invited to explore the ways in which ethnicity, gender and class interact with conversion. How far do these factors shape the rationale for conversion? In what ways do they shape the lived experience and the shifting contours of identity and practices of converts? This theme will also consider the role of ethnicity, gender and class in the reception of converts and conversion. How do these factors shape attitudes towards converts among family, friends and social networks and, at a wider scale, the depictions of converts in national media and broader society?

Ruptures and Continuities   

When is conversion experienced as a rupture and continuity? In which fields of everyday life is rupture explicitly marked and in which is it apparently more subtle and tacit? What kinds of rupture are considered important by converts, and how do these differ to those considered important by families, friends and wider society? How far does conversion modify other forms of identity, such as pre-conversion faith identity, or national identity? Papers are also invited to consider how change and continuity is reflected in scholarly and popular representations of converts and conversion. 

Please Note: The entry date for this conference has now passed.

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