by Uriya Shavit and Frederic Wiesenbach
1st part of 2
The conversion of Christians in Europe and the
The history of Muslim-Christian relations is to some extent that of two civilizations championing a universalistic message and competing for world domination. In the early phases of this struggle, as demonstrated by Bernard Lewis, Islam was more tolerant: In Muslim lands conquered by Christians, Christianity was imposed by force, and Muslims were sooner or later forced to choose between conversion, exile, and death; in Christian lands conquered by Muslims, Christians were tolerated alongside Jews as "People of the Book." One reason for this difference in attitude was that Muslims considered Christ a precursor while Christians considered Muhammad an impostor. In Muslim eyes, Christianity had some truth in it; in Christian eyes, Islam was completely false. Today, the balance of tolerance has dramatically reversed: In the West, freedom of religion allows for people of all faiths to convince others that theirs is the one and only truth; on the other hand, in some Muslim societies, non-Muslims are prosecuted, and promotion of other religions is a punishable offense.
Exact data on the number of converts to Islam in the West is incomplete because conversions are not always recorded. While the data do not suggest a massive wave of new believers, there are enough to matter. In
While the data do not suggest that conversions can fundamentally change existing European demographics, they do highlight the challenge of conflicting values for Western democracies. Freedom of religion guarantees every person the right to convince or be convinced that a different faith than his own is true; however, some Muslim converts reject the very liberal foundations that allow them to operate freely. And the same Muslims who accept conversions to their faith may not accept conversion away from it. When even a very small percentage of converts to Islam turn fanatic, there is a very real security risk, not only in the state of residence but also in every country with which that state enjoys reciprocal visa-free travel. Indeed, this is a major reason why the U.S. Department of Homeland Security now requests pre-screening even for travelers from countries not requiring visas prior to travel to the
Immigration for Proselytization
Many Sunni scholars urge their co-religionists in the West to spread the word of God actively. The call to convert, which increased along with the number of permanent Muslim immigrants to
Writing about the "duties of Muslims living in the West," Egyptian-born Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, perhaps the most influential contemporary Sunni jurist, wrote:
Muslims in the West ought to be sincere callers to their religion. They should keep in mind that calling others to Islam is not only restricted to scholars and sheikhs, but it goes far to encompass every committed Muslim. As we see scholars and sheikhs delivering khutbas [sermons] and lectures, writing books to defend Islam, it is no wonder to find lay Muslims practicing da'wa [spreading Islam] while employing wisdom and fair exhortation.
Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-96), a renowned Egyptian religious scholar, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the head of da'wa for Egypt's ministry of religious endowments, expressed the hope that the hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants "will not only maintain their religion, but become pioneers in spreading it, if only the Muslim umma (nation) wished for that and worked for that to happen."
Hamdi Hassan, a professor of media studies at
In Saudi writings, these notions of proselytizing acquire a militant, confrontational tone. One source of these writings is the Saudi scholar Safr al-Hawali, who has invoked the need to conquer the West with da'wa, using terms unequivocal in their combativeness:
And if one would ask: Why should we not invade
The call on Muslim immigrants to Islamize Westerners finds resonance in some works by Western Muslims. Muhammad al-Qadi al-'Umrani is a Sunni Muslim living in the
Islamic Internet Proselytizing
Internet sites operated by Muslim scholars and organizations play an important role in encouraging the conversion of Christians. This role is part of an embrace and use of the Internet as a medium in the service of Islam. While policymakers have focused most attention in recent years on jihadi websites, these attract comparatively little traffic. While the most widely viewed Islamic websites are not jihadi, they do, nonetheless, often include hateful depictions of the West.
Muslim scholars traditionally reacted to new technologies—especially those developed in the West—with skepticism, fearing that such new innovations could bring more harm than good to Muslims. Printing machines entered the Ottoman Empire three centuries after they were first introduced in
The attitude towards the Internet has proved quite different. Even the strictest Wahhabi scholars have legitimized the Internet—and launched their personal websites. Clerics understand that the Internet is a crucial arena in the fight for the souls and minds of the younger generation, and also that the Internet can be better controlled and screened compared to other media technologies. Using the Internet for Islamic purposes was not only permitted by scholars, even strict Wahhabi ones, but even encouraged.
Ja'far Sheikh Idris, a Sudanese professor of theology, wrote in 1999 that new technologies allow Muslims to spread da'wa more easily and are, indeed, proof that Islam is the true religion (for only God could have known fourteen centuries ago that the day would come when the world would turn into one global village, needing only one global prophet—Muhammad). However, these new technologies also allow non-Muslims to do the same with their ideas; indeed, at this point in time, the West enjoys better capabilities in making use of these technologies and might weaken Muslims' beliefs through them. But these risks, argued Idris, do not deny the merits of the Internet; they only emphasize the need for Muslims to further utilize these technologies in the service of Islam.
Analyzing Convert Narrations
Some Internet sites created by Muslim scholars and organizations reserve significant space for literature on Christians converting to Islam. Conversion efforts are promoted also by print media, books, and DVDs, but the Internet shines as an especially effective medium.
Islamic Internet sites promote conversion in several ways: basic introductions to Islam; basic information for non-Muslims who wish to convert; news celebrating Islam as the world's and the West's fastest growing religion; and guides instructing Muslims in the West on how to bring others to Islam. Such guidelines are at times detailed and have the ring of marketing expertise.
A key method Internet sites use to promote conversions is through the testimonies of former Christians who have converted to Islam. Perhaps the most famous conversion narrative is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the American black nationalist, who described his early life as one of gambling, doing drugs, and dating many women amid crime-ridden neighborhoods in
These narratives play a dual role: To a potential non-Muslim audience, they serve as apologia celebrating different aspects of Islam's superiority over Christianity. They aim to prove that any difficulties faced during the process of conversion may be overcome. The other role narratives play is to reassure Muslims that their religion is the true one and to educate them on tactics of persuasion in bringing non-Muslims to Islam.
A connecting thread for many narratives on conversion, suggested directly or indirectly, is the concept of reversion: the idea that everyone is born in a natural state of Islam—a state of submission to the will of God—which is corrupted by family and society and that rather than converting away from something, coming to accept Islam is reverting to that original human state. The way to Islam is thus depicted as natural, almost obvious, rather than rebellious or exotic.
Strategies of Persuasion
It is one thing to make conversion a goal. It is quite another to fulfill it. Studies on conversion to Christian sects found that only one of a thousand approaches by proselytizers resulted in conversion. Eighty narratives of converts to Islam appearing on the most widely-accessed global Muslim Internet sites and two other Islamic web sites of lesser popularity, analyzed for the purpose of this study, demonstrate several arguments and strategies. While it is difficult to quantify narratives as they appear continuously, they do not differ significantly, and these eighty are representative.
There are several Islamic interest web portals involved in catalyzing conversion, among other activities. Islamway.com, launched in August 1998, is the world's most popular Islamic website, according to the web traffic-ranking company, Alexa.com, and offers content mainly in Arabic and in English from the 'Asir region in southern
The narratives associated with these four websites divide generally into three sections. First, the narrator explains why he was discontent with Christianity or with his life in general; then, he depicts how he first came to learn about Islam; and, finally, he glorifies the merits of Islam. Narrations seem to depict real life experiences, emotions, and convictions and are rich with biographical details, some of which relate to sensitive personal issues such as crises in marital life. This creates an impression of authenticity and generates empathy, allowing the reader to forget that the confession is part of a larger project to persuade that Islam is a true religion.
Scholars studying conversion find that spiritual poverty is a frequent condition prior to conversion, and a sense of closing the distance to God is the result of embracing a new religion. The online narratives by converts to Islam, much like the autobiography of Malcolm X, reflect this. Converts commonly begin with depictions of the agonizing lives they had before they found Islam. In narrating their religious affiliation prior to conversion, two main story lines are common: that of converts who were Christians either because they were coerced or because of opportunistic consideration, and that of converts who were strictly practicing Christians but developed grave doubts about their faith.
While an uneasy relationship with Christianity varies in its consequences and reasoning, all narrators describe practicing Christianity in their early life as a result of their social background, rather than from a self-made spiritual choice. Asserting the concept that every person is born a Muslim and only society corrupts him serves to rationalize the conversion process. The former relation to Christianity is depicted as having more to do with culture, tradition, and society than with true personal faith.
While secularism, and even atheism, is an option in Western societies, it hardly finds resonance in these narratives. Lacking empirical evidence, it is impossible to determine whether this background of religiosity reflects the overall reality of converts or an editorial decision made by site managers. However, because a wider spectrum of backgrounds would support the claim of these sites regarding Islam's universality, there is reason to believe the common religious background is not an editorial manipulation.
In detailing doubts that clouded them, often from an early age, converts whose relation to Christianity was profound describe how they gradually developed an understanding that Christianity is an inherently irrational religion. They invoke a variety of disagreements with several Christian dogmas: the concept of God as a human being; the concept of the Trinity; the concept of sainthood; and the concept of original sin. Discrepancies in the Old and New Testaments are also mentioned by several narrators.
On IslamOnline.net, convert Abu Mohammed Abdullah Yousef offers non-Muslims a simple challenge: "You Are a Muslim, You Just Don't Know It Yet." Abu Mohammed describes a post-World War II, English childhood in a strictly Catholic home. Religion was one of his favorite subjects in school, and at the age of eleven, he earned a scholarship for a Jesuit boarding school. However, at school he began to notice "the inconsistencies between what was taught in religious lessons and what was taught in history classes." He could not understand how the infallibility of the pope was commensurate with the changing of old rulings by new popes.  Of course, such changing interpretations are not unique to Christianity. Within Shi'i Islam, followers must find new sources of emulation when the Grand Ayatollah whom they follow passes away; this might mandate revision in the interpretation followed. And, of course, while Sunni leaders may not claim infallibility, Sunni scholars dispute among each other the authenticity of hadiths (narratives of the Prophet).
Another depicts Islam as a remedy to the growing secularization of Western life, which Christianity fails to fill. Hayat Anne Collins Osman, an American whose age is not specified, writes in "Could I Speak with God Directly" on IslamOnline.net that she was raised at a time when "Americans were more religious than they are now." Her parents were involved in a church community, and they often invited priests to their home. In junior high school, she attended a Bible study program for many years. However, the more she learned her Bible, the more she doubted it. The idea of original sin did not make sense to her: "I had a baby brother, and I knew that babies were not sinful." The concept of the Trinity also troubled her: "How could God have three parts, one of which was human?"
Converts to Islam describe a range of circumstances for their conversions. They mention hostile Western media portrayals of Islam that encouraged them to further their knowledge; Muslim friends, colleagues, and neighbors who introduced them to Islam; falling in love with Muslims; incidental meetings; and traveling to Muslim countries.
While circumstances differ, four themes are repeated:
First, the converts knew nothing, or almost nothing, about the true foundations of Islam before embracing it.
Second, converts were not drawn to Islam because of any material benefit or social pressure.
Third, narrators present the path to Islam as an individual quest and never as a group experience.
Fourth, converts say that they were introduced to Islam by individual Muslims, most commonly ones without formal religious training but with a simple desire to share the truth with others.
In describing how negative press and social prejudices had the counter-effect of introducing Islam as the true religion, the narratives turn weakness into strength. It is God's will that Islam spreads; thus, attempts to dishonor it in the West are bound only to promote it. Such is the narrative of David Pradarelli, whose age is not mentioned and whose story appears on IslamOnline.net under the title "Finding the Truth." He testifies to having been raised as a Roman Catholic, who always had "deep fascination with the spiritualities of other cultures." Spending some time in the Catholic Franciscan order, Pradarelli was disappointed in what he describes as the order's arrogance and hypocrisy. Once he had left the order, he began searching for a way to find God. Then, "I decided to research Islam for myself and draw my own conclusions. What I found paled all the negative images that the satanic media spewed forth. I found a religion deep in love and spiritual truth, and constant God-mindfulness."
Uriya Shavit and Frederic Wiesenbach
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