Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald discusses the phenomenon of Western converts — or, in their preferred parlance, “reverts” — to Islam:
The whole question of who, in the Western world, “reverts” to Islam — or to borrow a phrase from Jim Jarmusch, reverts to “His Own Private Islam” — is worth investigating. There are the clearly marginal characters, at the bottom of society, such as Richard Reid. Then there are the ex-gang members wishing to find another kind of community for solace, and choose the community of the umma al-islamiyya — such as Jose Padilla. There are also the spoiled brats whose minds are video-rental stores rather than well-stocked libraries, and whose parents, themselves comically adrift, offer little guidance, such as John Walker Lindh. (It should be noted that there are wonderful parents who do everything right, yet their children unaccountably fail to appreciate this and become a constant heartache for parents who did absolutely nothing to deserve it.) There are those who, having married a Muslim, “revert” to please him, or her, and may come to realize that there is a bit more to this belief-system than had at first been apparent, and then are forced to cope as best they can.
Some native speakers of English, including those who seldom read books in their own immediately accessible literature, will spend years learning another language, in their search for the picturesque or unusual. Not Dickens, but Gottfried Benn or Raymound Roussel, is what their souls seem to require. A taste for the new and the exotic drives so much in this world. One wants to be different, to display unusual tastes. And in now becoming a Muslim in the West, one is also making a statement not only that fortunately is still one that is unusual, but also contains elements of defiance and alienation.
Too many people are Serial Seekers After the Truth. They try on now this, and now that, Way to Happiness and Explanation of Everything. Make up your own list: Rolfing, crystal therapy, Hare Krishna, Tantric yoga, Scientology, Marxism, Trotskyism, Sokka Gakkai, Liberation Theology, not to mention controlled substances, sex of every conceivable and inconceivable sort, and compulsive shopping by sad hearts at the supermarket.
Those who, in their Journey In Search of a Final Truth, pull the cord and get off at the stop marked “Islam,” may not only cause the remaining passengers to exchange looks of wariness and suspicion, but also slight smiles, because there is also something comical about these Western “reverters” as well.
One suspects that such a person must be just a bit off — just as 20 or 30 years ago one regarded those who joined what were then easily dismissed as cults, and had to be de-programmed, with a mingling of sympathy and contempt. Muslims, however, understandably regard Western “reverters” as objects of great interest, especially if they appear outwardly to be respectable and not the dregs-of-society sort. They carefully toss out the same well-known names of such “reverters”: the French doctor Maurice Bucaille, the Jewish convert Leopold As’ad, the Qur’an translator Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, and a few others. For such an aggressive belief-system there seems to be a touching need to be validated by the “reversion” of non-Muslim Westerners — not Africans, not Indians, but Westerners. And the more famous they are, like Cat (ne Georgiou) Stevens, the better. The Reid-Padilla-Lindh variety fails to impress, but a Hollywood star, a political figure, even Prince Charles — well, now you’re talking.
But apart from those who marry Muslims and tepidly “revert” to Islam, in an updated domestic version of All-for-Love-or-the-world-well-lost, there are few such “reverters.” What motivates those few? A need for the solace of certainty, and of complete regulation of what is haram and what halal, a need to be special, when one is otherwise so un-special? Students of the psyche, get your tape-recorders and data-disks ready. Islam can trump everything else. Islamic texts carefully instruct “reverts” to Islam in how to treat their non-Muslim relatives, and make clear where their loyalties must lie. No doubt, in the early days of Islam, when the lands of non-Muslims were first conquered, and the conquering Muslim Arabs were dwarfed in numbers by the settled, wealthy, stable, and far more advanced peoples — Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, chiefly, and then later Hindus and Buddhists — they had to figure out rules for those forcibly-converted, or those who, to avoid either death, or the severe disabilities, the humiliation and degradation and insecurity of dhimmi status, “voluntarily” (some volunteers) converted, it made sense to spell out how and why family ties, ties of the heart, had to be cut — for the greater good of that Grand Abstraction, that Total Everything, Islam, Islam, Islam.
But of course not everyone dislikes, or cannot cope with, the messiness of existence. And as for the “meaning of life” — well, one may invoke the answer that J.P. Morgan gave when someone asked how much his yacht had cost. “If you have to ask,” he said, “you can’t afford it.” My sentiments exactly.