I recently found out that one of my old acquaintances converted to Islam. I listened to his explanation of his decision with polite respect, and was intellectually interested to discover his reasons for becoming Muslim.
This experience got me thinking more about why Westerners in particular become Muslims. As with many people who are religious in general (I am not), the most common explanation for the attraction of Islam to Westerners is the moral and ideological certainty inherent in the faith. In Islam, there is little room for equivocation; for the most part, there is only right or wrong - halal and haram.
In many cases, Westerners who convert to Islam are either people who were non-religious (and usually morally lax, or even entirely absent of morality), or people who were religious (eg. Christian) but had fallen out with their former faith. In these circumstances, the appeal of Islam is obvious: such people are attracted to the certainties of the moral guidance that Islam provides. Submit, and be happy.
Can't you take a joke?
There is a reverse side of the coin to this. After what has happened in the Islamic world in the last fifteen years, it is hard to see how Westerners can convert to Islam, and yet ignore (or rationally explain) the reality that Islam has brought to the world compared to other major world religions. There is little objective doubt that in the contemporary world, Islam is the most uncompromising, polarising and extreme of the major faiths on the planet.
I should emphasize from the last sentence the part "in the contemporary world". Islam was not always so uncompromising or extreme in its methodology, but gradually became so over the last hundred years (more on that here). But the radicalisation of Islam in the last fifteen years or so is impossible to refute or ignore. Compared to other major world religions (Catholicism and its many Christian Protestant off-shoots, Hinduism and Buddhism), Islam is the most-feared religion in the world today. And for good reason.
There is a stereotype that Muslims are cheerless, and take their religion and life too seriously. Unfortunately, this "stereotype" is often proven to be truth in many cases. Recently, some British Muslims made a version of the Pharrell song "Happy". The response to this from some quarters of the Muslim community was less charitable, calling it "haram". This has then led to a debate about whether the idea was "haram" or not. Seriously. This tells you the mentality of some Muslims, living up to the stereotype of being cheerless and taking things too seriously.
Much more controversial was the "Danish Cartoons" issue, that provoked outrage across much of the Muslim world. The worst that can be said of some of the cartoons is that they were in poor taste, but some of the cartoons featuring "Mo" were actually helpful to the agenda of moderate Muslims: one cartoon featured the Prophet at the gates of heaven, saying to two suicide bombers "I'm sorry, we've run out of virgins".
The best way to refute the ideas of extremism is to ridicule and lampoon them.
The controversy about picturing the Prophet Mohammed is that the prophet's face isn't shown because it is considered idolatrous in Islam. And yet "Mohammed" is the most popular name given to men in Islamic countries. There was also a controversy some years ago in Sudan when a female English teacher was arrested for allowing local children to name a school teddy-bear "Mohammed".
Yet why is it not idolatrous for parents to name their children after the prophet? Surely this should be "haram" too, for encouraging the idolatrous idea that the boy is equal to the prophet himself?
A "Trojan Horse"
The most recent scandal relating to Islam in Britain was the unearthing of the so-called "Trojan Horse" project within the school system in urban areas with a high number of Muslims. Again, we see an example of what might be called "Islamic exceptionalism": Muslims being given ground to change the teaching of the national curriculum (as well as breaking schools policy, if not the law) in state schools. The creeping Islamisation of Britain has been going on for decades, but its only in the last ten years that people have paid any attention to it.
Another example is the "halal" controversy just uncovered in some of Britain's biggest food chains. Some food companies had been serving "halal" meat to its unwitting, non-Muslim customers for years. Regardless of the "animal rights" aspect to this issue, which I'll ignore for the sake of the argument, there is the central issue of a) choice, and b) minority rights subverting majority rights. In a supposedly democratic, free-market society, it is extraordinary that private companies are happy to autocratically decide what their customers should eat, out of fear of the wishes of a small minority of their customers.
These two examples demonstrate what is "exceptional" about Islam compared to other contemporary major religions: the disproportionate amount of bullying some of its adherents use to get what they want from society, and the fear that they create in the rest of society. Apart from isolated cases of fundamentalist Christians in the USA, or occasional stories about conservative Hindus in India, the prevalence of this aggressive attitude that emanates from many Muslims is unprecedented in modern society. Of the theocratic states that exist in the world, almost all of them are Islamic; of the most religiously-conservative nation-states that exist in the word, almost all of them are Islamic.
Rebels with a cause
I've digressed from the original theme of this article, which was about why Westerners convert to Islam. Apart from the "moral" reasons, there may well exist a more superficial one. Because it is the ultimate act of rebellion towards "Western values".
Back in the days of the Cold War and the earlier threat of Bolshevism, some Westerners became drawn to some idealistic romanticism of equality and morality that they saw in the principles of Communism. Some journalists had a word for these types: "useful idiots".
While I don't wish to make direct comparisons, it is a self-evident truth that some "real" (i.e. born into the faith) Muslims have a wariness towards Western converts, being initially sceptical of the converts' true belief in Islam. They are wont to "test" them. On the other hand, Western converts often turn out to be much more uncompromising in their Islamic faith than those actually "born into it", often shocking even "real" Muslims about how seriously they take things.
Those imams that are responsible for a Westerner's conversion to the faith often use the strategy of preying on those Westerners that seem pliant and willing to listen to an alternative telling of the "accepted" Western world-view. Tied in with the moral underpinning of Islam is the implicit politics of the faith: that, like Communism, becoming Muslim is the ultimate act of rejecting the "New World Order".
Modern Islam is fused with the politics of conspiracy theories: like Communism (and Fascism), it uses conspiracy theories to argue that Muslims are the world's great "victims", have been oppressed, and that "the Jews" can be squarely blamed for much of it.
It goes without saying that some of these imams are responsible for radicalising converts into suicide bombers or for fighting "Jihad".
The irony these days is that Islam's biggest "war" is not against non-Muslims, but fighting a sectarian war against the Shia Alawite government of Syria. After fighting a "jihad" against the West for ten years, radical Sunnis like Al-Qaeda and others are now fighting a civil war against Shias in Syria instead.
Then again, there is a further ideological divide within the Islamic world, at least in the Middle East. Apart from the sectarian Shia-Sunni civil war in Syria, there is the wider, ideological "cold war" between those supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (such as Qatar and Turkey), and those opposed to it, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
So for those Westerners converting to Islam, please understand what kind of world you're signing up for.