My little brother, the Muslim

What's a family to do on Christmas when one of the flock converts to a different religion? Coming together under such circumstances can take a little effort. A Berlin Studentin recounts how her sibling’s sudden conversion changed their whole family.

Image for My little brother, the Muslim
Tree by Kelvinsong (Wikimedia Commons) / Prayer rug from Walters Art Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

A Berlin Studentin on how her sibling’s sudden conversion changed their whole family.

“Do not tell your mother I told you this!” When my father said this to me, I expected something dramatic, something so scandalous my mother would not be able to take it. The announcement: “Your brother has converted to Islam.”

I don’t remember what my response was, but I do remember thinking, “We’ll see how long that’ll last.” My brother doesn’t have the greatest track record of going through with things. As a matter of fact, in the 12 months prior to that point he had considered joining the Bundeswehr, emigrating to Canada to become a shepherd and many other things that he talked about at length but never actually undertook. So I naturally didn’t expect this particular idea to stick. That was three years ago. My brother is now a fully converted Muslim – circumcision and all.

He started to bring his prayer rug everywhere he went in order to pray five times a day, which I have to admit is quite an admirable act of discipline.

I still don’t understand his motivation. He was 17 years old and studying abroad in Canada for a year. Apparently he had made friends with several people from a Muslim community who welcomed him with open arms. When my father and sister went to visit him, he enthusiastically told them about his new religion. When my mother was finally clued in, she chose to act as if everything were completely normal – easy enough while my brother was still in Canada. But when he moved back in with our parents in western Germany, the entire family’s patience was seriously tested.

I was home from university for the summer, and at first I didn’t think things would be that different. Although my brother chose a new Muslim name and even changed his email address, his appearance didn’t change drastically – he did grow a beard for a while, but shaved it off eventually. He didn’t change his hobbies, either. He had always enjoyed hanging out in his room painting, reading or playing video games.

But his opinions and his lifestyle changed all the more severely. First, there was his diet. You’d think that one person abstaining from pork wouldn’t be an issue. You would be wrong. My parents were not allowed to have pork in the house at all. And yes, they did obey their then-18-year-old son. During that summer, his diet became stricter and stricter and, consequently, the family fridge became more and more restricted to certain foods. He could only eat halal, so my parents started buying their meat from a mosque. Next, he insisted on banning all dairy products that might at some point have been in contact with pigs. And he started nagging us whenever we did anything forbidden by Islamic law, like serving champagne at my mother’s 50th birthday.

It is important to note that at no point did I ever actually mind his newfound beliefs. I even understood how the strict Catholic school we were sent to might have produced this in him as an adolescent act of rebellion. Granted, it was hard to talk to him about anything really – religion (obviously!), politics, education, Western films or books. But I figured in the end we still believed in the same god, and both of our faiths advocated compassion and tolerance… so why not live by these rules and just accept a person’s right to believe whatever they want?

But then his attitude towards me, my sister and even our mother became more and more patronising. I didn’t like being told that I shouldn’t be drinking wine or attending university, but rather getting married and having children. When he heard our sister – who is two years older than him – was planning to study abroad in Hungary, he insisted she needed “male protection”. I couldn’t believe he was actually saying these things, never mind believing them! Fortunately, we could still put our opinions aside and, as the family geeks, bond over a game of Age of Empires for an hour or two.

And we eventually became too busy to have any energy left for arguments. He started an apprenticeship as an electrician (and was thrilled that his boss, a Muslim himself, didn’t mind him praying at the required times), moved out of our parents’ home and started a routine as a believing Muslim – while I, back at uni in Berlin, continued my wine-drinking, class-attending life.

Christmas that year was a different story. Being a Catholic Christian family, we usually celebrated Christmas quite traditionally. But this time around, we had to pass on most of our traditions to accommodate my brother who, for some reason, insisted on spending the holidays at the family home. We did have a tree in the living room, but that was about it. My father prepared a huge halal Christmas meal, consulting my brother on every single ingredient. Unfortunately, though, the mosque couldn’t provide him with the meat he had ordered specially, and my father had to do with ordinary veal, thinking that his son would be fine eating the vegetables and the side dishes.

When my brother found out, he was furious. He exploded: we were not being tolerant and we didn’t support him in his choice. He left the house in a rage, leaving my mother and my sister crying and my father and I angry. The holidays were ruined. My family decided not to celebrate Christmas anymore.

I didn’t speak to my brother for several months after that. But the following May, we went on a trip with the entire extended family and I had to share a hotel room with him. I decided not to let him get to me, and it seemed like he had calmed down as well. I was able to eat pork at dinner and even wash it down with a glass of wine without being pestered about it. On my side, I accepted that his alarm clock would go off at dawn and he would then proceed to pray for what seemed like hours while I tried desperately to go back to sleep.

Everybody – my parents, sister, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – got used to his prayer rug, which he brought with him everywhere he went in order to pray five times a day, which I have to admit is quite an admirable act of discipline.

Over the following months, the tension between us started to dissolve. It was easier to talk to him, even ask him questions about his beliefs and his rituals. Some of my uncles were still worried that he might become an extremist. In fact, I know my brother is extremely critical of ISIS, arguing that they’re misinterpreting the Quran.

At this point, it has become clear to us that this really isn’t a fad. My family is still adjusting – some family members are more accepting than others, but everybody’s trying. As for me, I am happy that he has found something that is important enough for him to really follow through with.

Now, he’s courting a girl in Pakistan he has never met because he wants to start a family as soon as possible. Here it is: I might become an aunt in the near future, and I’m ready. I am going be in that child’s life for sure!

*Given the sensitivity of the topic, the author used an alias and refrained from using names or details that would make her family identifiable.