Tag Archives: conversion

The personal isn't always political

Conversion – like my own to Islam – is a deeply personal experience, even if it can have political ramifications.

I’ve been reluctant to write about my own conversion to Islam in 1989: I’ve always regarded it as a personal matter, as something hard to write about without coming across as deluded or pretentious, given the widespread cynicism and lack of interest about religious matters. I’ve also forlornly harboured a hope that after 20 years I would be seen as just another British Muslim, rather than primarily as a convert. On top of that, I’ve always been rather averse to “hard sell” proselytising. Religion is not something one routinely brings up in conversation; on the other hand, if someone is interested, they can always ask.

Conversion is a fascinating phenomenon about which much could be said; however, in my view, it isn’t of interest as an argument in favour of religion itself. I’ve always been unconvinced by the idea that religion can be effectively judged through formal logical argument either for or against the existence of God. I feel my scepticism is reflected in traditional teaching to be found within Islam and indeed other religious traditions. Formal theology only proves the possibility of God’s existence; it doesn’t demonstrate the fact of God as such. So the sages of Islam taught, such as Ghazali, the Persian philosopher and mystic, who lived at the time when William I conquered England. These scholars taught that God’s limitless nature is beyond human language or reasoning to encompass: our arguments or descriptions aren’t even approximations.

The idea that God could be sought through reason alone comes out of a post-Enlightenment view of religion as belief expressed through logical propositions that may either be proved or disproved. Yet, as Ghazali taught, religion’s greatest argument is simply one’s own direct experience of God through prayer and service. Encountering a saint who embodies the religious life at its best is proof enough; in other words, saintliness is its own argument. So the point of logical arguments is simply to open our minds to the possibility that the religious life is neither absurd, irrational nor useless, something that the saint makes apparent.

My own saint – the first person I met who seemed to embody the best in religion – was a wisecracking metallurgist from Lahore. He was an extraordinarily selfless man who was allergic to proselytising on behalf of the faith he felt so profoundly, yet a faith that, despite his reticence, nonetheless radiated through his every act. It took me over three years to get past my own lack of interest in all things religious to ask him about his faith. I was presented with no argument but simply with holiness, with the possibilities of contentment, integrity and wholeness that the religious life offers. More generic reasons for converting came later after stumbling attempts to lead that religious life myself. While the case for the centrality of religious experience is ancient, it is post-modern too. It relativises every story of conversion, rendering it deeply personal and even solipsistic.

Obviously, conversion to Islam has become particularly controversial in the west of late. Converts challenge the received order of things by upsetting boundaries, and are often labelled traitors or, more kindly, as eccentrics. The Elizabethans confronted with Ottoman naval power dubbed such converts “renegades” who had betrayed their country by “turning Turk”; undoubtedly, in the age of al-Qaida, the 21st-century variant is “turning terrorist”. Think of Richard Reid, the shoebomber from London who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight, or John Walker Lindh, the Californian who volunteered to fight for the Taliban, for instance. Yet while a few are drawn to Islam as a vehicle of radical anti-western protest, the timeless truths it addresses still attract those seeking meaning to life.

A few months after I had converted, I remember being rather nonplussed when confronted by an angry young man who demanded that I support the so-called fatwa of blasphemy and summary execution against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. “Why should I make this my business?”, I thought, “What has this got to do with my learning to be a Muslim?” Later on, understanding the context in which Islam served as a means of protest for some young British Muslims became unavoidable, but it was never an integral part of the impulses that drove my own conversion, nor do I believe has it motivated others who have found shelter, or for those born into the faith, reaffirmation, within the many-windowed house of Islam. The current level of tension and conflict between two self-styled monoliths, “Islam” and the “west”, makes the mundane truth that Islam is still one of the world’s great faiths rather than some murderous anti-western cult more preposterous than it really ought to seem.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on the 20th August 2009.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religion

Conversion and Betrayal

Today we live in an age when the boundary between two allegedly monolithic entities, “Islam” and the “West” appears to be rigid, politicized, ring-fenced. So the question arises as to the motives of converts to Islam. Are they converting to faith or to an anti-West political cause? Such questions get asked after terrorist incident involving converts like Richard Reid, Don Stewart-Whyte, and Germaine Lindsay.

Such examples reinforce the view that conversion to Islam is an act of joining an anti-West political cause rather than one of the world’s great religions. If conversion to Islam was dubbed “turning Turk” to the Elizabethans and the Stuarts confronting Ottoman naval power; “turning Terrorist” is its twenty-first century variant.

It can be observed that cultural boundaries between these two so-called worlds can, with time and circumstances, grow more or less rigid, or conversely become more or less permeable, with conversion seen as less threatening, as less remarkable. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “the American Taliban”, provides an iconic illustration of the tensions around conversion today.

Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, and sets out for the next few years to master Arabic and to memorise the Qur’an, in trips to the Yemen and secondly in Pakistan, to a simple madrasa in the NWFP. Exposed to the idea of global jihad, he signs up with Harakat al-Mujahidin for basic training in May 2001 and is then sent to Afghanistan in  to fight jihad there. In June 2001, Lindh, now fluent in Arabic, is sent to one of the Arab traning camps, al-Farooq, run by Bin Laden. Fighting for the Taliban he idealised against the Northern Alliance, Lindh never fires his gun once. He is shortly captured and incarcerated at a basement in the Qala-i Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif. Of 330 men, only 85 come out alive, Lindh included. Lindh comes to global attention in a CNN interview just after he is captured but not yet in full American custody, as “the American Taliban”.

At the end of his trial, all charges relating to terrorism were dropped and Lindh was charged with carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, for which he was sentenced to 20 years, and forbidden by a court ruling to speak Arabic in prison. In his final court statement Lindh repudiated terrorism, and al-Qaeda’s ideology and approach.

Lindh was the first prisoner to be “Abu-Ghraibed”, to be photographed naked and bound, blindfolded with the word “sh*thead” written across it, to be denied access to the Red Cross or to a lawyer. His was the first test case for the Bush adminstration’s creation of a legal state of exception by which international and constitutional rights were suspeneded.

Frank Lindh, John’s father, says that his son was born Muslim, always focused and disciplined from a young age. Throughout his journey to and through Islam, Lindh comes across as driven, but also as passive, as innocent to the complexities of the wider world around him. Lindh comes across as a majdhub, drawn to faith, to good practice, almost as if by a bestowal of Divine grace. He has an idealism, a divine foolishness, a fatal incuriosity for the practicalities of the world and the messy realities of politics. Tom Junod’s remarkable prison portrait leaves the unmistakable impression of itmi’nan, of Lindh being at peace with himself, in serenity at his lot in prison, reliant upon his Creator and constantly prayful. He is never known to miss the fajr prayer or to fail to offer his tahajjud devotions in the night. As the prison librarian he devotes himself to ancient Arabic texts. As a constant target for violence and abuse, Lindh cannot afford to leave himself in unsupervised parts of the prison. As Junood, puts it, despite being described as a global villian, as a modern-day “renegade”, “in response to what America has done to him” Lindh “has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim.”

Lindh is portrayed as an insider, the innocent American abroad, naive to political realities, touched by a simple profound faith of the heart, that divorces his intentions from his acts. But Lindh is also an outsider, one who has took up a task and a choice that few converts have: the cause of jihad on behalf of the Taliban. He is the terrorist, one for whom the basic dignities  and human rights afforded a prisoner of war and a citizen were suspended.

Lindh’s story indicates that choices away from liberal self-enlightenment can only be seen as acts of betrayal. But betrayal of what? Of enlightened morality and sound reasoning, as conversion enacts a reversal of the process of reformation and enlightenment. Such a choice might have been seen, in kinder times, as naive or eccentric, but today are seen as subversive, defiant, traitorous. Converts to Islam must be deconstructed as moral persons to make safe the boundary around liberalism (and indeed Islam), marked by words of rejection and acts of violence, such is the dangerous ambiguity of free choice, of acceptance and betrayal, that the convert represents.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 44, May 2008.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Terrorism, war-on-terror