“I see a lot of love in Christianity, I see a lot of anger and hate in Islam,” stated my anonymous Iranian-American interlocutor to me in his condominium building manager’s office. My interview partner related a revealing personal spiritual and geographic journey away from his boyhood Islamic faith and Iranian homeland to an adult Christian conversion in America.
The son of personally pious Muslim Iranians, “Martin” lived in Iran until 1974, when his parents sent him away at the age of 16 to England for high school. Without any coercion from his parents, his own devotion had prompted him at the age of 12 to attend Quran classes and undertake the Islamic regimen of five daily prayers. Yet Islamic law only requires that boys begin these prayers at the age of 14.
Martin ended his Quran class visits and daily prayers shortly before leaving after the ninth grade for England, where the juxtaposition of his Islamic faith and life in the West created a personal crisis. “I was living in England, all the classes are mixed, boys and girls,” he recalled. “As a Muslim I am not supposed to shake hands with women, I am not supposed to date, I am not supposed to drink, and I couldn’t do that in England.” To violate Islamic strictures in a country like the United Kingdom, “it doesn’t necessarily even have to be sex. But your normal daily life — you can’t do it.”
Seeking to solve his personal dilemma, Martin recalled from his religious training that “in Islam they have different classes of sins,” some minor and forgivable (saghira), others grave and unforgivable (kabira). Among the latter, being a munafiq or hypocrite, the “way I learned Islam, is never forgiven by God. Assume that you are an atheist and you repent towards the end of your life, God will forgive you.” “But if you are a Muslim and you are a munafiq, God will never forgive you,” such that Martin wanted to avoid declaring himself a Muslim while flouting Islamic norms. “I became an atheist out of selfish reasons, because at least there was a chance for me to get forgiven.”
Martin remained an atheist through his college years, graduate school studies, and subsequent life in the United States until 2003 when he married his second wife. This Christian woman wanted a Christian wedding, and he professed his atheism to her pastor during prenuptial counseling. “I was really truly impressed by the way he handled it. You go to a Muslim mullah, try to marry, and say I am an atheist, they will kick you out right away,” yet the pastor did not object and married his congregant to Martin. After he began attending his wife’s church services, the pastor asked Martin to attend Christian education classes, beginning a process that led to his 2013 baptism.
Martin offers interesting reflections upon his personal understanding of the differences between Christianity and Islam. “In Christianity you are loved no matter what by God. The pastor who married us, a perfect example, right, even though I was atheist he was the most respectful person to me.” Additionally, “in our church, for example, when we pray, we pray for other faiths, we pray for people who do not even believe in God….You never see that in Islam, they only pray for themselves.”
By contrast, Martin recalls from his Iranian Quran classes that “most of the Quran is how God will punish you.” In Islam God often “gets angry at you. If you read the Quran, it’s all if you do this you will burn forever, if you do this you will be with snakes,” a vengeance all the more terrifying given Islam’s numerous legalisms. “Christianity is not a rigid religion, whereas Islam tells you what to eat, what not to eat, what to wear, what not to wear, how to make love, how not to make love, how to go to the bathroom, they just have laws for every single thing you do.” Martin recalled Islamic toilet etiquette demanding that a person enter a bathroom with the left leg and not relieve himself facing either towards or away from Mecca.
Martin’s personal joy in becoming a Christian contrasts with the depressing development of his homeland since the 1979 Iranian revolution established Iran’s Islamic republic. Remembering his devout yet tolerant parents, he notes that “I have a problem with Islam as a politics, as an ideology, not as a religion.” “There are two types of Muslims. There are religious Muslims, that is a private matter, it’s for themselves, and there are these political Muslims, which is this new breed since the Iranian Revolution.”
Martin has good memories of the “shah’s generation” in an Iran where the ruling Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi drank champagne and did not force women to veil. “Under the shah, you wanted to go to mosque, you could; you wanted to go to discotheque, you could,” and his father, “as religious as he was, he never forced anybody not to drink, it was their business.” He had Jewish clients at his Tehran carpet shop, indicative of a past more tolerant Iran in which Martin befriended people from Iran’s various religious minorities.
The personal experience of Martin’s first wife, an Iranian Baha’i whom he met and later divorced in the United States, exemplified the Islamic Republic of Iran’s repression after the shah’s overthrow. Islamic doctrine considers this religious community founded in Iran heretical and therefore “najis” or unclean. His choice of wife was therefore not uncontroversial, and “there was some resistance, even from my parents, but they grew to love her.”
The grandmother of Martin’s wife died in 1981 and the Islamic Republic’s harsh repression of the Baha’i also extended into death. Depressing for the wife, Iran’s Islamic laws prohibited public funerals and tombstones for Baha’is, meaning that ‘basically you have to bury them as unknown.” Among various discriminations against the Baha’i in the economy and education, the “most cruel thing is you cannot even bury your dead with respect.”
Martin’s various visits to post-revolutionary Iran have hardly discovered an Islamic paradise:
Now there are more alcoholics in Iran then under the shah, because people are making it in their own homes. The kind of things that are happening in Iran, anti-Islamic things, like sex before marriage, drinking, drugs, you name it, it was nothing like that under the shah. Basically their rigid laws, sharia laws, have backfired bigtime.
Martin remembers that the shah’s Iran was far more developed than South Korea, but since 1979 South Korea has developed into a modern society while Iran has stagnated despite its enormous oil wealth. He last visited in 2002 for his mother’s funeral, but the sight of social malaise such as widespread drug addiction and adolescent girls turned into prostitutes moved him to never return. Additional concerns of being arrested and used as a political pawn like other Iranian dual-nationals such as Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian only strengthened his vow that “I have no desire to go back….I have lost Iran, to me Iran is dead.”
Two of Martin’s sisters have added to his loss by using his Islamic apostasy against him in Iranian legal proceedings in order to claim his inheritance. As noted by his lawyer, his sisters stated in court that their brother is now a kafir, or infidel, making him ineligible for inheritance under Islamic sharia law (his unwillingness to return to Iran only worsened his legal case). These sisters, one of whom used to enjoy dancing in clubs, have bewildered him with their new-found piety after the revolution and their current strong support for Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After a drawn-out 11 year legal process following his mother’s death, Martin’s lawyer was able to only win for him about one-twentieth of his inheritance. His sisters “felt justified cheating me because according to them I am infidel.” “Their God might even reward them basically for cheating a Christian person because according to them right now I am not their brother anymore, I am done. And believe me, if they could, they would kill me.”
Back home in the United States, Martin is “afraid of Muslims becoming powerful here, as they have in Europe,” where incidents of Islamic vigilantism like Germany’s “sharia patrols” have appeared. He “had to kick somebody out of my house” when a Muslim visited with a group of Martin’s friends. The Muslim “said, why are you serving alcohol? I said this is my house; this is none of your business. I said, you don’t like it, get out.”
Martin warns that with sharia-observant Muslims “this is how they start. Oh, could you be respectful, it’s against my religion.” “These Muslims, they say, oh we are a religion of peace and everything. The only reason they say that is because they are in a minority. They want to impose their way of life.” He considers Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose 1989 fatwa called for killing British writer Salman Rushdie; “where is the peace in that?”
Martin correspondingly views American converts to Islam with deep skepticism and reproaches them for naiveté concerning their new faith. “All these young kids here that convert to Islam, any chance I get I ask them, that is fine, that is your free will, but what is going to happen to you if you change your mind.” Any apostasy for them “would be signing their own death sentence” in any circumstances where the traditional Islamic death penalty for apostasy would be applicable such as in Iran’s Islamic Republic; “that is the true Islam.” “It really breaks my heart when I see young kids here converting to Islam not knowing what they are getting into.”
Martin’s isolated optimistic observation notes that, despite severe repression, many Iranians are converting in precisely the opposite direction and swelling Iran’s growing ranks of underground church members:
The reason they are going to Christianity is basically my reason, is love….They have experienced 38 years of rigid sharia law, which is hate really, nothing else, there is no love involved, and people are showing resistance….They have seen what Islam can do.