Sunday, August 27, 2006

When converts become easy pickings for extremists

THE headline from the Weekend Australian (12-13 August 2006) screamed out: “Terror’s new ‘white converts’”. Don Stewart-Whyte’s arrest shows extreme forms of Islam sometimes attract new recruits from unexpected quarters.

Like Christianity, Islam actively seeks recruits. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no central church or priestly hierarchy. Converts don’t go on any register. The process of conversion is quite simple – just recite a two-sentence Arabic creed. No priest or witnesses are required. People even convert on internet chat channels.

Islam attracts people from all walks of life. Prominent Aussie converts include former diplomats, prominent sportspeople and a former ABC foreign correspondent. A convert now heads the Islamic Council of Victoria.

Muslim converts often prefer to be known as “reverts”. Muslims don’t believe inherited or “original” sin. Babies are born naturally sinless. Hence converts claim they have merely “reverted” to that original sinlessness.

People turn to Islam and other non-Christian faiths for any number of reasons. They might feel outcasts in conventional society or disillusioned with aspects of mainstream culture. They might even be searching for an alternative lifestyle.

Mainstream religion isn’t a problem in Australia. Most Muslim Aussies treat their faith as a deeply personal affair. Religion only becomes collective during religious festivals or at weekly Sunday (or in the case of Muslims, Friday) services.

Islam’s core is deeply spiritual Sufi tradition Sunni Muslims describe as tasawwuf and Shia Muslims describe as irfan. It’s the stuff that inspires Turkey’s whirling dervishes. To this day, translations of Sufi poet Rumi remain the biggest selling poetry books in the US.

Most converts enter Islam after exposure to Sufi teaching for reasons similar to the attraction of Tibetan Buddhism.

Islam isn’t the only faith be hijacked by fringe extremists. In Sri Lanka, deeply pacifist Hinduism has been hijacked by Tamil Tigers who have turned suicide bombing into an art-form.

Mainstream Muslims take for granted that Islam forbids suicide. The Prophet Muhammad said that the first man to be judged and sent to hell would be a person who claimed to have died as a martyr. In fact, that person didn’t die for God but only to be glorified by others after death.

Fringe politicised Islam has few followers among migrant Muslims. Australia’s radical “thick-Sheiks” have few followers among migrant Muslims, tending to attract Muslim youth and converts.

Mainstream Muslims aren’t a security threat, but failure of mainstream institutions to provide facilities for young people and converts is. Converts bring to the Muslim community a zeal which many migrant Muslims born into Islam don’t share.

Converts feel frustrated when ethnicity and migrant culture are presented as Islam by Muslim leaders. They are angered at imams who cannot speak English and at leaders making goofy public statements. Some non-European imams expect converts to abandon parts of Western culture, to change their names and to separate from their families.

Dean Jones recently described an observant South African cricketer as a terrorist. His gaffe reflects popular attitudes to Islam. Converts often hide their faith for fear of non-Muslim families and networks ostracising them. Younger converts are often dependent on their parents. The combined stress of family break-up and lack of support from “ethnic” Muslims is a source of enormous stress for converts.

New Muslims with no family support and on the fringes of Muslim communities fall into a dangerous twilight zone. Compounded with other factors (such as un-medicated depression), they are fresh pickings for extremist groups.

One effective ways Muslim communities can contribute to fighting terror is to be more welcoming to converts. Support services should be set up and mosques should break down their cultural and linguistic barriers. When Islam becomes a genuinely Australian religion and not just a cultural artefact, terrorists will be forced to look elsewhere for recruits.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. An edited version of this article was published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 15 August 2006.)

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