Conversion and Fundamentalism: A Challenge to Islam and the Liberal Order

Liberal democracy and Islam are two ideologies, each with a set of values.  There are Muslims and Westerners who see the meeting between the two as a clash, and there are those who think the two sets can be merged together and coexist.  It is therefore interesting to examine those Westerners who grew up with liberal values, and chose Islam as their religion.

There are many reasons people choose to convert.  Some do so for love and marriage, others because they are looking for spiritual meaning.  However, there are also those who convert to Islam as an alternative to the current liberal ideology.  Especially after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, converts tend to lean more towards political choices rather than spiritualism and personal choice. 

According to Prof. Stefano Allievi, Islam offers a “spiritualization of politics, the idea of a sacred order  There are converts who choose Islam not for its religious qualifications, but in order to make a political statement, choosing an alternative set of values over those of the liberal West.  Converting to Islam can be seen as a rebellion against the excesses of the West, such as public sexuality, or to the West’s foreign policy, but it can also be seen as a rebellion against its basic liberal values.

Islam offers converts a new set of social laws, offering set boundaries for what is right and wrong, rules that can be followed, and which aren’t provided by liberalism. 

In its most basic sense, converting to Islam has been used as a protest.  In two recent cases conversion to Islam was used as a form of protest against rules with which the convert did not agree.  In one case a Dutch furniture salesman converted so he could open his shop on Sundays.  In another, a group of Norwegian prisoners converted to protest the lack of halal food in the prison.

The idea of rebellion can go much deeper.  A recent study in Denmark conducted by Kate Østergaard and Tina Gudrun Jensen sheds light on a usually overlooked aspect of conversion.  According to the study ‘Nye Muslimer i Danmark’ (New Muslims in Denmark), a sixth of converts in Denmark don’t think Islam can be combined with democracy.  However, about half saw democracy as an Islamic principle.  Islam will rule society, but such a society will be based on democratic values.

Most converts in Denmark have a progressive ideology and are generally critical of the modern capitalist and materialistic society, the same attitude that characterized left-wing groups of the 60’s and 70’s.  A similar trend can be found in Spain.  The first converts to Islam in the post-Franco era were radicals who saw Islam as an alternative to the exhausted West and to corrupt capitalism.

In his book “Al Qaeda in Europe”, Lorenzo Vidino expresses a similar viewpoint.  Converts reach radical Islam through disillusionment with Western and European society.  Especially with Islam, people convert as a form of social protest, with Islam serving as an alternative to neo-Nazi or anarchist groups.

Myfanwy Franks, a researcher who has studied converts to Islam and is the author of “Women and Revivalism in the West: Choosing Fundamentalism in a Liberal Democracy,” said that “being troubled does not necessarily lead people to conversion – people who aren’t troubled convert – but it could lead to extreme radicalization.”

This radicalization is not theoretical.  Converts make up at the most 1-2% of the Muslim populations of different countries in Europe, but according to a recent study, they make up 5-6% of terrorists.  According to Edwin Bakker, head of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, converts tend to radicalism because they try to be as true to their religion as possible.  In other words, for those converts, Islam is seen as a non-democratic movement, set on destroying liberalism.

Islam attracts and converts many types of people: those who see democracy as a Muslim ideal and those who choose Islam as an alternative to the liberal democratic order.  The latter group is dangerous, both to Islam and to liberal democracies.  They are dangerous to Islam since they are strengthening the more violent aspects of the religion and bringing in their own radical elements.  They are a danger to the West since liberal democracies have a much harder time dealing with fundamentalism when it is clothed in Islamic theology, than they do dealing with neo-Nazi or anarchist groups.

Esther is an independent researcher of Islam in Europe who has followed news on the Muslim community for the past two years. She runs the blog Islam in Europe.

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  • Muhammad

    Many Muslims most of them aren’t literate enough to interpret the canonical Arabic texts of Tafseer,Hadith and Fiqh, for themselves may find democracy to be compatible with Islam due to its superficial resemblance with Islamic concept of Shoora (Consultation in all matters of a Muslim Ameer(spiritual-cum-poltical leader) with fellow Muslims).However,as far as most of Muslim Ulama are concerned, there is a consensus that democracy is incompatible with Islam. For example, in an Islamic constituency, even if 100% of people vote to decriminalise Liwat(Sodomy), it isn’t acceptable because the Arabic text of a saying of The Apostle of Allah (May peace and Allah’s blessings be upon Him) explicitly declares
    مَنْ وَجَدْتُمُوهُ يَعْمَلُ عَمَلَ قَوْمِ لُوطٍ فَاقْتُلُوا الْفَاعِلَ وَالْمَفْعُولَ بِهِ
    “If you find two individuals involved in an act People of Lut(peace be upon Him) (Sodomy),put both of them to death”
    Sunan Abi Dawud

  • ashraf

    Esther is a just another scare monger waging a war on islam. Islam doesnt have “violent aspects” as he/she
    has mentioned in the above article. Any violence these mischief makers refer to is extracted by taking verses out of context. All relgions have a violence in the form of defence just as the democracies or contemprory liberalism have weapons that can wipe out life out of this palnet in the name of defence(who intends to be more violent,proof hiroshima and nagasaki).If you let evil run the course on this planet we all will be wiped out in no time, not just muslims but everyone who wants to see justice and see the truth. The difference between islam and corrupt form of democracy is islam distinguishes itself from its followers who are terrorits,whereas a corrupt form of democracy has the principle of bias or double standard,it doesnt have the guts to call people like bush a terrorist nor does the “liberal media”. with respect to converts to islam the war is making way to arrest the spread of the relegion with fear fuelling the establishment of an islamic form of government. this is a utopia, it will never happen you see people can move from tight boudries of islam to indefnite boundries of liberalism or atleast live double lives, but for masses who enjoy intoxication and promiscuity it is unthinkable. There are many converts I know who live by the name of their new relegion ie.salm or silm in arabic means to acquire peace by submitting their will to allah just as every other creature has except the one who has been made superior(duh..humans!). i would like to end my comment with this verse from the quran “when truth is hurled against falsehood, falsehood perishes for falsehood by its own nature is bound to perish”. First it was the jews that troubled europe now its muslims. Insha allah we will get over it by peacful means without compromising our values.

  • Secular Prophet

    Ashraf wrote:
    a) “Any violence these mischief makers refer to is extracted by taking verses out of context.”
    b) i would like to end my comment with this verse from the quran “when truth is hurled against falsehood, falsehood perishes for falsehood by its own nature is bound to perish”.
    I find it exceptionally hypocritical that people who like to quote Qur’anic verses out of context like to berate others who quote Qur’anic verses out of context.

    Islam’s book is extremely violent and demands Greater and Lesser jihad of all Muslims. As Muhammad states, it does not matter what 100% of the Ulemma want or vote for, it will not be accepted if it is against the teachings of the Qur’an. The argument that people quote the Qur’an out of context is merely a smokescreen.

  • Forthosewhothink

    True religion says believe in one God and do good deeds … simple… Islam says it, I imagine Judaism is somewhat similar and all people who really think about it whatever their religion ought to , without compulsion, arrive at this quite reasonable conclusion , i.e. believe in God and do good deeds.   This in my view is the test of life… to believe in God and worship him by doing good deeds.   The people who convert to any religion sincerely recognise that their new religion  fits this natural belief.
    It is interesting to note that those who attack or ridicule any religion do not offer an alternative to the big questions i.e  Is there a God? and how best do we do good deeds?  but merely attack the opponents belief at the most contentious points … I mean the author of the article has (I think) a Jewish name,  but does not say Islam is wrong because of a,b,c and therefore become a Jew because it better addresses a,b,c . all she suggests (without proof)  is that Islam is wrong because it seems incomparable in certain places with some areas of current western thought.   Who is to say that the western thought is right anyhow and why should the current view necessarily be better than the prior view.  For example Aristotle rightly thought the world was round and then only after 1000 years he was proven correct and during the “flat earth times” anyone who thought the word was round would be an old fashioned Aristotlen heretic yet still might be right.