Something about the convert experience may explain why a small minority, like the Woolwich attackers, find extremist messages attractive
Now that we know the two Woolwich attackers are converts to Islam, questions are being asked about whether converts are more likely to adopt extremist ideology. The vast majority of Muslim converts are law-abiding, decent citizens, but there is something about the convert experience that may explain why a small minority of converts find extremist messages attractive.
At least five years ago, influential politicians were warning that Muslim converts pose a particular threat to British security. When official counter-terrorism policy was revised two years ago, converts were given a specific mention (on page 87 of this report) as prone to being radicalised. Notorious Muslim converts have helped sustain the impression that converts are disproportionately represented in extremist circles: there is Al-Qaida’s spokesman Adam Gadahn, the shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Germaine Lindsay was one of the 7/7 suicide bombers,Nicky Reilly attempted a suicide bombing in 2009, and more recently,Richard Dart was convicted on terrorism charges.
It is important to stress that from the estimated 5,000 converts to Islam every year, almost all of them embrace Islam after being inspired by its monotheistic clarity, its moral guidance and its holistic framework. Conversion to Islam is rarely political, but it is usually connected to personal self-building and spiritual awareness. My own extensive research with converts over the last five years has brought me into contact with hundreds of converts who overwhelmingly describe themselves as “bridge builders”. It’s commonplace for converts to see themselves as having a vital role to play as ambassadors to non-Muslims on behalf of Muslims, but just as crucially, to see themselves as ambassadors to Muslims on behalf of non-Muslims.
It would therefore be plainly wrong to insinuate that most converts are likely to engage in extremism. This not only ignores the huge diversity that exists among how converts approach Islam but may also lead to an unhelpful and discriminatory profiling of converts. It is more accurate to say that those converts who subscribe to extremism may have done so because of experiences that are particular to converts.
Various research, including a recent report by Cambridge University, has shown that conversion to Islam is a testing journey. Choosing to embrace a religion which is routinely considered as backward and foreign often results in the convert being shunned by non-Muslim family and friends. Many converts expect Muslim communities will compensate by welcoming them and providing a new support network as is encouraged by Islamic teachings.
However, in reality, this welcome is not always forthcoming. Rather, converts can be ostracised by lifelong Muslims because they are still perceived by some as “outsiders”. If a convert feels rejected by both non-Muslims and Muslims, loneliness and disappointment can manifest, and the promise of membership to a closely-knit clique offered by extremist groups may become attractive.
The other consequence of not being accepted into a Muslim community may be an increased fervour to prove oneself. Muslim converts are familiar with encountering lifelong Muslims who doubt their sincerity and may even be asked to recite parts of the Qur’an to prove their authenticity. Some converts may see no better way to demonstrate how serious their commitment to Islam is than by adopting an aggressive extremism which may require them to sacrifice their liberty, and in some cases, their life.
Converts to Islam often talk about grappling with trying to distinguish between authentic Islamic teachings and Muslim cultural practices. Most converts are determined to follow the teachings of Muhammad, but would rather leave South Asian culture for South Asian people. The ideology of extremist groups is based on a literalist interpretation of Islamic sources which they claim is pure and uncontaminated, or in other words, free from cultural bias. This is of course highly contestable but for some converts, the promise of an Islam that resembles its earliest form can be especially appealing.
There is no one type of person who converts to Islam. The backgrounds of many converts are rather banal and as “normal” as the average person. However, there are some converts to Islam whose previous lifestyle involved criminality, gang culture and general hostility towards authority. These converts may seek redemption in Islam or a clean break from a troubled past. In some cases though, that past remains within their psyche, and it is in extremism that they find a familiar framework. Significantly then, not all extremist converts are radicalised by Islam, but by a previous lifestyle that lingers into their post-conversion life.
Many converts are impressively knowledgeable about Islamic teachings and debates. It is often the case that an individual spends years reading about Islam before taking the plunge of converting. Yet, there are some converts to Islam who have not had the resources, time or aptitude to appreciate the history of Islamic scholarship and the multitude of contemporary perspectives. These naive and ignorant converts may be indoctrinated by extremist preachers with their simplistic binaries and obvious solutions if they do not encounter the mainstream, traditional and much more tolerant interpretations of Islam that is subscribed to by most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
It would be shortsighted to explain the Woolwich attacks solely by reference to the potential loneliness or ignorance of the attackers, however. These are just some of the factors that may explain why a small number of converts may find extremist groups attractive. To fully understand why we are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, we have to recognise that our foreign policy is highly problematic. It is the west’s use of violence in Muslim countries – which often causes great harm to civilians – that ultimately provides the fuel that allows extremist groups to recruit both converts and lifelong Muslims.