Abstracts are invited on the topic of religious conversion in the contemporary world, with a special focus on experiences, representations, and social and institutional dynamics. We particularly welcome submissions from practitioners and organisations working with new believers, as well as academics with an interest in religious conversion to or from any faith, from any disciplinary background. Please submit an abstract of 250 words by 12 April 2015 to Philip Rushworth at the Centre of Islamic Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org). The symposium will be held at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. Participants will be provided with a bursary for UK travel to and from Cambridge, together with board and accommodation as required. Submissions from young scholars and recent graduates are encouraged.
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 will provide 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.