At first it seemed like a pretty open-and-shut case. As the New York Times told it, a young Mississippi couple got caught trying to fly to Syria to join ISIS. One of them was a 19-year-old pre-medicine student named Jaelyn Young, the other a newly-graduated 22-year-old lifelong-Islamic man named Muhammad Dakhlalla with a degree in psychology who was set to go to graduate school in the fall. They were newly sort-of-married and using a honeymoon as the reason for their trip, but got arrested at the airport on what would have been the first leg of a very long journey. They’re in custody now without bail.
Somehow, these two small-town Southern young people had fallen in with terrorists.
It was hard for me to see how the young man involved could have gotten so radicalized. His parents sounded like the epitome of gracious, kindhearted, generous people. When you hear the phrase “a religion of peace” used to describe Islam it’s usually used as a sarcastic joke, but they really seemed pretty damned nice as described and were “absolutely stunned” at the idea of one of their kids joining terrorists. His dad’s an imam who seems genuinely concerned with being a humanitarian teacher and human olive branch. Not like it’s never happened before that good people had a kid who went bad, of course–but it just seemed so unlikely.
Then the story took a murkier turn: the young woman in the couple was the one who was posting on social media expressing sympathy for these terrorists, and taunting the FBI over how much growth ISIS was seeing. (Pro-tip: do not taunt Super Happy Fun FBI.) More than that, it sounds like she was the one requesting advice for how to get to Syria with her sweetie, and she was the one sweating security details as they prepared their cover story and itinerary. Hell, she’d never even been out of the country before, as she told one FBI agent posing as an ally–which makes her husband’s decision to let her do all this planning all the more odd.
Then I found out that she was actually a really new convert–as in, she converted to Islam from Christianity in April. She converted because she was worried that the Bible had been translated so many times that maybe it wasn’t trustworthy–while the modern Koran seemed much closer to its roots (we’ll talk about that later on; it’s an interesting topic but this is already long). It sounds like she wanted something more hardcore than what she was used to seeing, something that gave her feelings shape and form, and she found it.
Just like that, the story made more sense.
Converts seem like they radicalize up a lot easier than longer-term believers do.
In Good Omens, the demon Crowley has an embarrassing relationship with Satanists. “You couldn’t actually be rude to them,” he reasoned, “but you couldn’t help feeling about them the same way that, say, a Vietnam veteran would feel about someone who wears combat gear to Neighborhood Watch meetings.” Normally, in the novel’s world, Satanists were like regular Christians: they went to meetings once a week where they said the right words, did the right motions, and then they went home to be regular people again with nary a thought of serious evil in their minds.
Lifelong Satanists, in the novel, knew that religion was not something to get lost in, but rather something that should be part of a person’s life without dominating it. So Crowley felt uncomfortable around the converts who got ideas about “some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years,” only to blame their own wickedness on demons when they got caught.
In the same way, I grew up Catholic–but I never met Catholics more hardcore and overzealous than ones who converted into it, especially from fundamentalism. One of my ex’s siblings had married one of those, and she was downright terrifying in her glittering-eyed devotion to the Catholic cause, whatever she thought it was. In my family, we just ignored the teachings that didn’t work for us. Not this lady. We went to church and then went home and the rest of the week it was pretty much business as normal, while she had a shrine in her bedroom to Mary and attended chapel every day with her young sons. To her, it was all new and exciting and dramatic and TRUE.
The Catholicism I’d grown up with was completely foreign to hers. Even her husband was a little weirded out by her ardent fanaticism. Even his parents were a bit taken aback by her zealotry; they had books about Catholic saints on their living-room bookcase to demonstrate their focus (in the same exact way my mom kept the Owner’s Manual biology books in the same location at her house and I keep my cookbooks and gaming books in mine), but they shied away from the fervor that their new daughter-in-law displayed on a regular basis.
I myself experienced this situation in reverse when I converted into Pentecostalism from Catholicism some years previously. There weren’t any differences at all. I came into a religion that didn’t have any built-in brakes on its teachings that would stop someone from going overboard, and unsurprisingly I proceeded to go overboard.
Some of it’s simple demographics; Christianity as a whole is losing adherents like mad, so there are simply way fewer converts generally. When you run across a Christian, chances are it’s someone who’s been in the religion for a while and not a new convert. That may be why more Christians every day are coming out in support of LGBTQ rights and women’s rights and why so many of them are perfectly fine with evolution being a real thing. They’re like Crowley: they’re sensible enough to know that there are limits to their religion. They’ve absorbed a million little signals that tell them where those limits are, signals that stop them from going too far.
My denomination was pretty extreme by fundamentalist standards of the day, but it’d be mainstream today–and the people in it were pretty normal people by most standards. I remember the first time I saw a female member of the church wearing pants during the week. I went into overdrive, I was so shocked. She had seemed so fervent! But over time I’d realize that I was almost the only one taking those “holiness standards” seriously. Even the pastors’ kids had televisions in their rooms (another thing forbidden to our denomination). Notice I said “almost” there? There were a few other young women who were as observant and fervent as I was.
They were all new converts like me.
I began to realize that my peers in church thought I was kind of weird for taking all that stuff seriously–they were all listening to relabeled homemade Madonna tapes in their Walkmans (it was the 1980s–those were the must-have toy for teens back then), going to movies on the sly, and finding new and innovative ways to cut their hair and wear makeup without looking like they had done so.
Had my church been more extreme, chances are the young people there wouldn’t have known what non-Pentecostal kids were like and wouldn’t have gotten any exposure to any other kind of life.* They had had a lifetime of realizing that their prayers were not actually answered and that promises of Hell (or at least Hell on Earth) for disobedience were actually bullshit. They knew that miracles didn’t really happen and that the Happy Christian Society my church pushed wasn’t nearly as idyllic as it seemed. And I can easily imagine that they’d also had a lifetime of hearing Bible stories that ran contrary to the narrative of a God of Love and Prince of Peace and of wondering about all its various contradictions.
But new converts like me hadn’t had the benefit of that lifetime of signals. I converted on the strength of perceived miracles, the perceived greater correctness of Pentecostal doctrines, a message of ultimate importance that set me in the middle of a universal struggle between good and evil, and an offer of universal salvation from a fate literally worse than death. So without exception, the most fervent kids in my church were all new converts–especially ones that came in on the “88 Reasons” Rapture scare. (I mentioned some time ago how only new converts were present when that cult leader came a-recruitin’–I had wondered at the time why that was, but I don’t anymore.) I was frustrated that my peers–who had the benefit of a lifetime away from the horrible secular world and its sins and temptations–seemed so nonchalant about it all and didn’t seem to appreciate their great fortune.
One could look upon the two groups of us when we gathered together and immediately tell which group was which: the children-of-existing members, and the new converts. And it wasn’t just because of the converts’ shorter hair.
A Pew study on the topic may have found that while converts did almost always show more fervent behaviors and attitudes than non-converts (with the sole and glaring exception of Mormonism!), the differences were fairly small, but my experiences flew in the face of that study–the differences seemed absolutely huge to me. It doesn’t sound like I’m the only one to notice this stuff, either. And yes, I felt very threatened by what I saw. They didn’t take it seriously. Why the hell not? I don’t think they had anything to do with my actual conversion**, but they did confuse me very badly–and feed my ego, I’m sorry to say.
So I can well imagine that someone could convert into Islam and face the same temptation of radicalization that I did. There wasn’t any way someone could tell me to chill out and take it easy without revealing that they knew the Pretendy Fun Time Game*** wasn’t for real. Given that I’d converted on the basis of it being real, imperative, pressing, and all-consuming, that would have ruined everything. Indeed, experts on the subject are already aware that converts to Islam are way more likely to go the route that this young woman from Mississippi did. Converts to Islam are 2-3% of total Muslims in the United Kingdom, yet according to that link represent some 31% of terrorism convictions there. I’m sure if we ran a similar examination we’d find something similar among Christianist hate groups like those listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s site.
Obviously, I’m reluctant to generalize too far.
It’s possible that Mr. Dakhlalla was the one to radicalize first, not Ms. Young, and then found his desired partner in a brand-new convert. It seems unlikely given that Ms. Young appears to have been the one arranging everything, taunting the Super Happy Fun Feds, networking with potential allies, and figuring out the main details of their travel. Though she struck me as the more active-sounding of the two of them in working out this plan of theirs, her new husband wasn’t totally passive in this sad story, either, which only demonstrates that plenty of lifelong believers in all religions can go overboard–I’ve met tons of them too.
Being a convert doesn’t guarantee that someone will become an extremist, any more than being a lifelong believer in something dooms someone to lukewarmness (Christianese for “someone who isn’t as fervent as I am”). It’d be offensive even to suggest such a thing. There aren’t many statements one could make that would apply to all believers everywhere in a religion, especially huge ones like Islam and Christianity. I’m just saying I see something unsettling–and uncomfortably familiar–in this story of a brand-new convert racing off to join a holy crusade.
I don’t see anything changing, either, given that Christianity is not based on anything objectively true. As long as it sells the idea of sin, Hell, eternal stakes, Judgment Day, Rapture, and all the rest of that crap, converts are going to take it way more seriously than the people who live around rhetoric like that all the time and have grown up with it and its demands and promises–and who consequently see that it’s more rhetoric than reality. Hence why you’ve probably seen me ask why I should take the religion seriously when its own adherents, most of whom grew up with it and have had the opportunity to see how “true” and “real” it really is, don’t do so. Worse, their leaders would be fools to try to tell people explicitly not to do anything too far-out, because that’d call into question a slew of their positions. Read simply, there’s not much of a way someone could see something like the Bible and not freak out and start acting like an extremist to try to save everyone in sight from a perceived danger. Had anyone even tried to tell me otherwise back when I was Pentecostal, they would have become instantly suspect as lukewarm in my eyes.
Many lifelong believers in a religion clearly know that it’s just stories. Many converts, however, don’t. Not yet. That ground between unfamiliarity and understanding is where the danger is. When we’re looking at the validity of a belief system, we need to be looking not at the converts, who don’t know their product very well yet and are still in their honeymoon phase of belief, but at the people who’ve been in it for a long time and know their “partner” very well. I think that some of Jaelyn Young’s decisions have a lot to do with her being in that honeymoon phase, and I can only hope that she figures out where she went wrong before things go worse for her. And I really hope that both she and her husband get their heads together so their promising futures aren’t completely destroyed.
I’m not excusing either one of them, only expressing that I’m not super-surprised that one of them turned out to be a new convert to the religion they pursued.
* There’s a reason I really feel awful for religious-homeschooled kids–they only rarely get those signals. Many of them seem like they’re living in The Truman Show, in a very carefully curated set of experiences and influences that are meant to guide their development in a deliberate-constructed vacuum. Because there’s no way that can possibly go wrong.
** I did not deconvert because Christians were hypocrites, or because I wasn’t treated well, or because I didn’t get what I wanted from the magic ATM in the sky. I deconverted because the religion’s supernatural claims weren’t true and I didn’t want to be involved in a religion that was as unhealthy for me as Christianity was if its claims weren’t true. If those kids had been the truest-blue of all true-blue Christians in the world, that still wouldn’t have made their claims true.
*** By that term I just mean exactly what it says: a sort of shared group exercise where the people involved know it’s a game and are in on the act. I got the phrase years ago from someone on LiveJournal who was using it to describe roleplaying gaming in general so he could criticize people who took gaming way too far and let minor setbacks or disappointments become huge dramas because of their lack of perspective. NSFW.