The process of conversion to any religion is best thought of as a journey, and this is how it is often described to others by those who undergo it. While conversion happens in many faiths, conversion to Islam has been suggested as a significant factor in some acts of extreme violence. But what evidence is this based on and what does conversion actually entail?
Conversion to Islam sees non-Muslims take on new religious identities, adopt new beliefs and practices, and learn to live as Muslims who gradually become accepted by others. Technically speaking, it isn’t necessary to “convert” to Islam, as according to Islamic teaching all people are born Muslim; it is more a case of reverting to one’s true identity and submitting to Allah.
In the modern world, the focus is often on individual conversion. However, in a recent guide we produced on conversion in Islam, we point out that this hasn’t always been the case. In the past whole populations converted at once, for economic, political or social reasons.
The best known part of this process is repeating the shahadah three times. The shahadah is a phrase that proclaims “there is no God but God and Muhammad is His messenger”. This pronouncement normally takes place in public, in front of other Muslims. As the testimonies of converts show, however, this is part of a longer process of religious learning and socialisation in which new and existing relationships have to be negotiated.
The journey into Islam isn’t the same for everyone. While some are new to the religion, others grew up in Muslim families, and are either returning after having lapsed or converting to a different interpretation of Islam. For example, salafi interpretations of Islam have proved popular among young British-Somali Muslims, but there are many other Sunni and Shi'a groups with a variety of differences and similarities.
Personal background makes a difference. Returners have prior knowledge, experience and even language to draw on, as well as existing family and community ties. But newcomers have to build all this from scratch, a change which by turns can be exhilarating and traumatic. It may also be hard for family and friends to come to terms with.
Data on conversion is sparse and has to be extrapolated from diverse sources. What research there is suggests that, in most European countries, converts make up between 1% and 5% of the Muslim population (up to 100,000 converts in the UK). In the US, converts (more than 550,000) make up nearly a quarter of Muslims. In the West, most converts are aged between 20 and 30, and more women convert than men.
Why do people convert? The reasons given can be intrinsic – that conversion gives them a sense of belonging, provides certainty about life and the afterlife, or is personally empowering. Extrinsic reasons include encouragement or pressure to convert for marriage, the impact of friends or a feeling of marginalisation by another religious group. Many converts give theological reasons, including the discipline of fasting and prayer, the focus on purity and piety, and the assurance that there is only one God. Some also have a sense of being destined to become Muslims: that Allah willed it.
Whether they converted because they were positively drawn to Islamic teachings and practices, or because of personal crises – such as the death of a family member, the need to combat substance addiction, or as an act of rebellion against parents – the reasons given are linked together in a conversion narrative.
These narratives differ according to the individual’s background and circumstances. White and black converts report different experiences, such as the feeling in some cases that white converts are held up as better proving the truth of Islam. Black converts sometimes find it harder to find partners for marriage, and converts from Hindu and Sikh communities often receive the worst and strongest reaction from their families and communities.
Experiences of conversion also differ due to gender. Women converts are often much more visible than men, and this too can lead to markedly different experiences in how conversion is experienced.
The conversion journey also can be lengthier and more challenging than most people expect. Some people are shunned by family and friends. Some who adopt Islamic dress are taunted in public or worse. Problems may also come from other Muslims who sometimes expect converts to conform to higher moral standards and to cultural as well as Islamic norms and practices.
Conversion places a heavy social toll on individuals, many of whom do not find the welcome they expected in local Muslim communities. The double disadvantage of Islamophobia and a lack of acceptance is difficult to take. Some have the resilience to overcome these hurdles but others find it too difficult. We do not know how many new Muslims leave Islam in the years following conversion. Some continue to practice privately, others withdraw from Muslim communities quietly. Few are outspoken about leaving as being denounced as an apostate can have severe social consequences.
The extremist question
But what about the links between conversion to Islam and violent extremism? As previous terrorist convictions show, a minority of converts are radicalised, whether by extremist organisations, while in prison or online. However, despite their initial zeal, there’s no evidence that new Muslims in general end up more extreme than those born into Islam, nor that those who are radicalised are more socially, economically or racially disadvantaged than those who are not.
That said, research has found that in some countries – which have attracted so-called foreign fighters – converts are over-represented among violent extremists compared to the proportion of converts in the Muslim population as a whole. And research comparing American converts and “born” Muslims involved in violent extremism in 2015 found that converts were more likely to be unemployed, and to have a criminal record and a history of mental health problems. These factors were less pronounced in the UK.
What is indisputable is that the majority of new Muslims are not drawn towards extremism. Conversion and radicalisation are not one and the same, and one does not lead inexorably to the other. The former is a process of adopting a new religious identity; the latter, of being drawn into extremist beliefs and behaviours. Conversion for many marks a reported life change leading to feelings of empowerment, enhanced self confidence and self discipline, a sense of well-being and belonging, and in some cases desisting from self abuse, addiction and crime.