Religion, Nationality and Race: The Experiences of Western Converts to Islam in Qatar

By Anna Lukjanowicz
Submitted to Session P4881 (Rethinking Wahhabism in the Gulf, 2017 Annual Meeting
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Migration has been a favorite topic of scholarly research in the emerging field of Gulf Studies. Scholars have typically focused on the political and economic dimensions of migratory movements, with considerable attention being paid to the South Asian and South East Asian migrants that make up the majority of the foreign population of these states.

In this paper I focus by contrast on the religious experiences of a different group of migrants – Western converts to Islam – who move to the region seeking both material opportunity and spiritual comfort. Although exact figures are unavailable, Muslims from Europe, North America and Australia are a visible part of the expat population in Qatar. Their experiences and expectations, as I show in this paper, differ significantly from those of other migrant groups in the country.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted during my four-year stay in Doha (2013-2017), this paper explores how religion, nationality and race shape the experiences of male and female converts in Qatar. I show in particular how Western converts’ ideas about community are challenged by the prevailing ethno-racial regime that structures Qatari society. While the converts aspire to be part of a global Islamic community that is indifferent to race and nationality, their experiences in the Gulf constantly reaffirm the uniqueness of their social position.

Although converts benefit socially from their association with the “West” in a country that is undergoing rapid “Westernization”, their Islamic identity is more ambivalent than one might assume. While Islam is a dominant social norm in the country, the Islamic marker does not always enable converts to make sense of the state and the society in Qatar. If converts sometimes benefit from their Muslim identity, a public commitment to Islam can also serve as an obstacle in their social and professional lives.

I argue that the tensions that characterize the lives of Western converts reveal larger ambiguities that lie at the heart of Qatar’s modernizing project.