‘You're no terrorist now, are you?’
By Melanie Wimmer and Christiaan Triebert / Photo’s Reyer Boxem
Luis Enrique Wever (36) International Relations and International Organization, Savaneta, Aruba.
Luis has a Catholic background, but his previous studies in Romance Languages and Cultures made him aware of a dark side to Catholic history. He converted to Islam five years ago after a long period of reading various holy scripts, such as the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran.
‘I never thought I would become a Muslim.’ However, when second-year medical student Peter Gerlatzek from Germany started studying in Groningen, it just happened. He’s recently converted to Islam, but he’s still hesitating to tell his parents.
He’s not the only one who has been drawn to religion, though. Marijke van der Wal, a 22-year old student of Social Legal Services and Nursing at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, converted one and a half year ago. ‘The first time I entered the mosque, I was amazed how many people born as non-Muslims were attending prayers.’
The students attend the Eyüp Sultan Mosque on Korreweg, a former church. However, praying can be done anywhere if need be. Luis Enrique Wever (36), an Aruban student of International Relations, carries his prayer mat with him and prays – if there is nowhere else available – in an empty classroom in the Harmonie Building. He understands Peter’s reluctance to tell his parents. When he converted five years ago, his mum asked: ‘You’re not gonna be a terrorist, are you?’
‘Her son is a Muslim’
She can rest easy, though, Luis laughs. ‘Her son is a Muslim; she doesn’t have to worry about me drinking, chasing after girls or fighting. She knows I am more self-controlled now.’
He has a small beard, just like Peter, but that doesn’t necessarily reveal their religion; unshaven faces seem to be a trend in the student world. However, Marijke, with a tight headscarf that accentuates her blue eyes and light skin, stands out far more.
‘It was difficult’, Marijke reflects on the moment she told her parents of her intention to become a Muslim. Her mother had seen it coming – her interest in Islam had been growing for some time – and accepted her choice.
Her father was critical though. Being captain of a dredger, he has sailed to many Arab countries where he has witnessed ‘contradictions among Muslims’: alcohol consumption and loose behaviour in foreign countries. She had a deep discussion with her father, but it turned out well. ‘The relationship with my parents is now even stronger and better since we’ve had those discussions.’
Marijke van der Wal (22), Social-Legal Services; Nursing, Siddeburen, The Netherlands.
Marijke was born and raised in the Christian village of Siddeburen, where she attended a Christian school and had Bible lessons. She was interested in religion, but didn’t become actively involved until she moved to Groningen and was introduced to Islam. A little more than a year later, after her conversion, Marijke started wearing a headscarf.
It was far easier to tell her friends and fellow students. ‘Some might think that when you become a Muslim you’ll part from your friends’, says Luis, ‘but actually you see who your real friends are.’
That’s why fellow convert Manon Eberhardt, a French Master’s student, has tried to implement the changes as slowly as possible. It makes it easier for her friends and family to adapt. For example, she is not yet ready to cover her hair outside the mosque. ‘It might be the reason why I haven’t had any negative reactions’, she says.
Symbol of oppression
Manon feels that the headscarf is seen as a symbol of oppression and submission by non-Muslims. ‘Whereas for Muslim women, it means freedom from the objectification of women, modesty and piety’, she explains.
When with her female flatmates, Marijke doesn’t wear a headscarf, but as soon as a boy enters the house, she covers her hair. This has provoked some interesting discussions, in which she has explained that wearing a headscarf is not a hindrance.
‘Before I wore a headscarf, men would sometimes hassle me on the street. A friend saw it as a compliment, but I found it highly annoying. That is over now.’
‘You know it is not a secret’, Luis explains. ‘Men like to eye up women. The hotter a woman is, the more we stare. Our dirty thoughts portray a woman as an object. The staring at women changes when she wears a headscarf. In a way, I am more respectful. Do you respect a woman if you have dirty thoughts about her?’
Peter agrees. ‘Men are always attracted to hair, but if you can’t see it, you can focus more on the person. If a girl curls her hair in front of you, you won’t listen to what she’s saying. A headscarf helps prevent a man falling in love with that woman. It keeps men’s thoughts in check.’
The first day she wore a headscarf, Marijke was nervous. How would people react? However, as soon as her friends and fellow students saw that she was still the same person, their judgment changed to curiosity.
Peter Gerlatzek, Medicine, Apen, Germany.
Peter’s family is not religious. His studies are what attracted him to Islam. There seems to be an order, he says, in every part of the world. If it is so complex that I cannot understand it, who made these laws? This drove him into the feeling that there must be more – so he explored various religions, of which Islam was the last.
They all used to party and drink alcohol, and the men used to chat up girls. ‘I did basically all the stuff first-year students do’, Peter says of the cliché student life. ‘Gradually, though, I became more interested in the deeper questions of life.’
That’s the same with Luis. He was looking for deeper satisfaction than the ‘quick fix’ of alcohol and girls.
Do they miss that ‘fix’? Not at all. ‘Everybody’s looking for something’, Luis says. ‘Sport, music, religion – what you want is happiness. A moment of happiness is nice, but constant peace is better. If you find that, you don’t want to go back to your previous life. It is nice that evening, but the morning after you’ll say oh my God, what did I do? The inner peace I have now is truly wonderful.’
Finding the truth
‘No alcohol or pork are two restrictions, but hey, there is alcohol-free beer’, Peter adds.
Why are they living according to the rules of Islam? ‘It’s not an identity crisis in my life’, laughs Manon. She wished people would ask her for the reasons behind her conversion instead of making assumptions.
For those friends who do, she takes the time to explain her long path to finding the truth. Even other Muslims expect a different reason. ‘I did not convert because I married a Muslim guy’, Manon has to tell them again and again.
Marijke has had a similar experience. ‘My hairdresser kind of expected I’d married a Muslim. But I am single. It is my choice. I was raised more or less as a Christian – in a small village near Groningen you have no other option. Eventually, I put Christianity behind me, but I still had the feeling that I believed in a higher power.’
When she moved to Groningen, she met a Saudi student and slowly but surely became interested in his way of praying. That’s when she started googling about Islam – until she had so many questions she went to the mosque.
Manon Eberhardt (24), Euroculture Strasbourg, France.
While on holiday in Tunisia, Manon heard the Islamic call to prayer for the first time. She was moved so much that tears rolled down her cheeks. Her family raised her as a Christian, but Manon never found the answers she was looking for and so turned to Islam. During her last semester in Indianapolis in the United States she decided to officially convert to Islam.
‘I see the entire Islamic faith as a follow-up to Judaism and Christianity – we believe in the same prophets. I couldn’t deny anymore that this idea attracted me.’
Luis and Peter also have a ‘Saudi connection’. They met Saudis at the Medical Faculty – where students from Saudi Arabia get medical training, payed by their government.
‘I could communicate more easily with the Saudi students than other nationalities’, Peter explains. ‘With them, I can discuss big questions, such as “why is there immorality?” and “why is there injustice?”. They gave me logical answers.’
Luis, Marijke, Manon and Peter were all looking for something. Now they’ve found their inner peace in Islam, would they like to convert other students too?
‘Well’, Peter says, ‘I have a problem with the word conversion. It sounds like someone else did it for you, when it is rather seeking and finding more knowledge, with people providing you with knowledge along the way.’
‘Convincing is not a good way, but having a dialogue is very important. Creating understanding among each other is really important. However, we should of course be clear about it – that a Muslim would like another person to be a Muslim too.’