The Threat of Conversion

The Australian reports today that members of the PM’s Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG) have taken a break from calling for government acceptance of Hezbollah as ‘freedom fighters’, and chanting “death to the enemies” (of Lebanon) at anti-war rallies to put forward a rather novel idea. The MCRG are calling for the establishment of a mentoring program for converts to Islam, complete with an ‘orientation pack’ for new Muslims.

MUSLIM leaders have urged the Howard Government to back a plan that would help prevent new converts to Islam from having their minds poisoned by extremist clerics.

Under the proposal by John Howard’s Muslim advisory board, mentors would bring converts into the fold to stop them falling into the hands of radicals.

There appears to be a common pattern emerging in the MCRG’s dealings with government: highlight some supposed ‘threat’ and then propose a solution that requires the expenditure of public funds to achieve it. In this case, the MCRG are promoting the threat of the radicalised convert and then asking that the government ‘back’ (i.e. fund) the production and distribution of supposed ‘convert packs’.

The proposal, called “engaging with converts to Islam”, is part of the group’s 32-page interim report obtained by The Australian. The report urges the development and implementation of “an orientation pack for converts, containing details of recommended mentors within the Muslim community”.

This would “minimise the risk that new converts to Islam will be vulnerable to extremists”, the report says. The MCRG urges the Australian Government to support it, given the prominence of some converts in extremist-related events.

Firstly, is there any evidence whatsoever that converts are in greater danger of radicalisation than others that were born Muslim? As anyone who has worked for a grassroots organisation would attest, the biggest challenge facing Muslim converts is continuing to practice their religion. Many, many people convert to Islam only to ‘drop out’ due to a variety of reasons that are far beyond the scope of this discussion.

It seems, however, that converts are being targeted for special attention because of events abroad where some converts have been found as part of terrorist plots or cells. There is also something intrinsically menacing to the broader community about a man who turns his back on his culture and religion to fight against that same culture.

Mr Soliman said converts were vulnerable to feeling isolated from Muslim and other communities and were considered prime candidates for extremist recruitment.

“You might have the more extremists of the groups or the recruiters looking for these types of people, understanding their vulnerability, understanding their yearning to connect on a deeper level,” he said.

Again, the idea that there are ‘recruiters’ actively searching for new converts and preying on their impressionable minds isn’t really supported by reality. If one looks at the people who have been arrested or charged thus far, the overwhelming majority of them have been Lebanese Muslims. Of course, nobody would suggest that we need special packs for Lebanese men, and yet there is now the suggestion that because some converts may have landed in trouble we need to give them special treatment. The fact is that those converts that do become radicalised don’t become ‘radicalised’ (if such a word even applies) immediately after conversion but they — at least, those whose cases I am familiar with — moved gradually towards their ideological destination (whatever that might be). In that sense, they are like everyone else.

The idea that converts are coming to Islam with a lot of ideological baggage such as anti-semitism and anti-Western sentiment is also not supported by any evidence. Whilst it may be true in some isolated cases, logic would suggest that the opposite is more common: people who grew up in the standard Australian cultural millieu do not hold the same sorts of views about Jewish people as, say, Muslims who grew up in the Middle East. Whereas the attitude to Jews in Western culture is overwhelmingly positive, they do not enjoy such good press in the Muslim and Arab world.

Regardless, government-funded ‘conversion packs’ makes little sense. If someone is indeed converting to Islam because he seeks validation of his anti-Semitism in the texts of this religion, he is not going to be dissuaded by a government pack advising him to not be extreme and to seek the guidance of some confirmed moderate mentors instead. If someone has decided to adopt a radical interpretation of the faith, then he won’t decide to question that faith just because he sees a glossy folder stamped with a government logo. If anything, a radical would see the interference of government in the religious affairs of Muslims as a validation of the old critique that Western governments are conspiring against Islam.

Furthermore, people are not converting at the hands of the MCRG. The MCRG, government and peak organisations do not know who is converting, where they are converting or what ideas they are adopting after conversion because, unlike many other faiths, Islam is completely decentralised. Nobody even knows how many people convert to Islam each year and how people renounce it. How can anyone then seriously suggest that they or any other individual organisation has the capability to get this information to new converts?

Yet, the most serious aspect of this proposal is that its advocates are effectively arguing that there is a real and significant threat posed by Muslim conversion. And surely that is not a message that serves the best interests of Muslim converts nor the broader Muslim community.