Rise of convert Islam in Europe

islam in europeTucked away in the middle of The Washington Post Saturday was an extensively reported story about how recent Islamic converts were key players in recently foiled terrorist attacks in Germany. The story starts on the front end discussing what “counterterrorism officials and analysts” are saying and follows up on the back end with a rebuttal of sorts from religious leaders in Germany’s Muslim community. For one reason or another I get the sense that those reporting this story spent less time in the mosques and more time on the phone with law enforcement and public safety officials and thinkers who watch things like this:

In Copenhagen, a convert is among four defendants who went on trial this month for plotting to blow up political targets. In Sweden, a webmaster who changed his name from Ralf Wadman to Abu Usama el-Swede was arrested last year on suspicion of recruiting fighters on the Internet. In Britain, three converts — including the son of a British politician — are awaiting trial on charges of participating in last year’s transatlantic airline plot.

“The number of converts, it seems, is definitely on the rise,” said Michael Taarnby, a terrorism researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. “We’ve reached a point where I think al-Qaeda and other groups recognize the value of converts, not just from an operational viewpoint but from a cultural one as well.”

There is a lot of psychoanalysis later in the story about Islamic converts’ “zeal to prove their newfound faith.” It starts out with the slightly radical but nonviolent mosques in their hometowns, but then come the visits to the madrassas in the Middle East. And then al-Qaeda has yet another suicide bomber, according to the analysts:

Converts are a tiny subset of the Muslim population in Europe, but their numbers are growing in some countries. In Germany, government officials estimated that 4,000 people converted to Islam last year, compared with an annual average of 300 in the late 1990s. Less than 1 percent of Germany’s 3.3 million Muslims are converts.

While religious leaders emphasize that most converts are law-abiding citizens who often promote interfaith understanding, the recent arrests in Germany prompted some lawmakers to suggest that police should keep converts under surveillance.

“Of course not all converts are problematic, but some are particularly dangerous because they want to demonstrate through extreme fanaticism that they are particularly good Muslims,” Guenther Beckstein, interior minister for the state of Bavaria, said last week.

Here are some big questions that are left unanswered and would probably take more than three reporters a couple of weeks to figure out: Why do these people convert? Why the increasing numbers? And what are they converting from? Christianity? Agnosticism? Atheism?

Why would any of these converts turn radical? For the purposes of a story like this, it doesn’t matter if 95 out of 100 converts stop at the madrassas. All we’re talking about in this story is a handful of converts who have since been arrested for being involved in terrorism. This rough spiritual timeline from the so-called experts is nice, but we need more. These are tough questions that will require some tough reporting.

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  • Jerry

    The story said:

    they want to demonstrate through extreme fanaticism that they are particularly good Muslims,”

    You quite properly wrote:

    Why would any of these converts turn radical?

    The story makes a very bad assumption about why a minority becomes fanatical. From personal experience, the story is wrong. Many years ago, I discovered Adele Davis’ books on vitamins. For about 6 months, I was a fanatic – every time someone mentioned something about health, I consulted the gospel of the true word (Adele Davis) and pronounced the word of truth that a certain vitamin would cure all. It wore off.

    For a more recent example, consider Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens. From what I’ve read his story is a classic about a convert’s progression from initial fanaticism back to a more thoughtful view of his adopted religion.

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (from Edinburgh)

    Some statistics would, indeed, be appreciated. I had always been under the impression that most conversions (in Britain, at least) were via marriage – women ‘marrying into’ Islam – although I can’t find anything more solid than websites saying that ‘most European converts are women’.

    There’s a nice piece here about some of the reasons women convert, and it does include an interesting point about some new Muslims become ‘much more pious than fellow mosque-goers who were born into Islam’. It’s a couple of years old though …

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    dpulliam wrote:

    For the purposes of a story like this, it doesn’t matter if 95 out of 100 converts stop at the madrassas. All we’re talking about in this story is a handful of converts who have since been arrested for being involved in terrorism.

    That’s an excellent point. By setting up a social pattern for a few converts seeking more in-depth training, the article paints a picture of a norm that may not (and probably does not) exist for the vast majority of converts. The old bugaboo spectre of the “madrassa” raises its head here–the “madrassa” continues to be this mysterious space where Muslims go in and via the Ulema, terrorists come out, despite the efforts of some scholars to characterize how many of these conservative and reactionary schools actually work and often struggle against popular militancy. And unfortunately, through the remarks of Minister Beckstein and others in the state apparatus, the popular equivalence of “devoted Muslim” with “militant Muslim” continues to provide those already discontented with their status with a “possible identity” that can cause fear and unrest within the elite sociopolitical structures.

  • John M

    I agree with David. Some statistics would be interesting. It would be particularly interesting to know statistics about the ethnic backgrounds of converts.

  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw Richardson

    Yes, more statistics. Unless I miscounted, the article cites 9 converts… out of evidently thousands in Europe in the last year alone. Why concern yourself with converts per se?

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  • Quietus

    The one thing I can’t get past is the Taj Mahal in the “Islam in Europa” banner. C’mon, you can do better than that.

  • Harris

    As a matter of sociology if nothing else, isn’t this push to the extreme a common path of young converts everywhere? Doesn’t seem to make much difference if they’re Reformed, Orthodox or Muslim.

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  • Miriam Seshadri

    I briefly considered converting in my early twenties when I was in uni. Poverty was a big factor, I think, and Muslims seemed to take care of each other whereas our society is more cut-throat. I grew up in a fairly fundamentalist Christian family and Islam really did not seem that far removed from the religious ideals that we were supposed to uphold. At the time, I was particularly unhappy with my evangelical church (Reformed Baptist) because it didn’t seem to encourage us to actually behave in a Christian manner – they were constantly exhorting us to buy stuff, tapes and books, youth group ‘leaders’ were sleeping with all and sundry and our pastor talked constantly about the duty of tithing whilst he went and bought a boat (and then left to go back to selling insurance). From a theological perspective, Islam also seemed to make more sense to me because I never did like Paul’s interpretation of things and had my doubts about the Trinity. Then I read the Hadith. It was a HUGE turnoff. I realized that there was going to be no ‘perfect’ religion for me – I still think about it a lot though and wonder if I took the right path. There is a violent element to Islam but at the same time, I think that the current evangelical leadership is doing itself a great disservice by treating lay evangelicals like village idiots. It’s as much about promoting a culture of death (by dumbing us down) as the jihadist mentality. I think there is much of value in all three monotheistic traditions – it’s just cutting through all the brainwashing bits that are tricky.


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