Six Things to Know about Mass Conversion

Last week, I had the pleasure of driving out to Rhode Island and back with some of my coworkers for a meeting, and on the way back, they asked to hear a bit more about my research.  Nearly everyone I’m working with at the moment is a research scientist, and so we’ve had lots of conversations about the differences in how research is done in the sciences versus the humanities.  But this conversation struck on a topic that I was surprised to realize I haven’t talked about here – is Europe going to convert to Islam?

In the car, this came up in the context of talking about Islamophobia, and whether fears of mass conversion were a valid defense for apparently-Islamophoic behavior.  In trying to explain why I didn’t think that argument held water, I realized just how many complications there are in talking about mass conversion as a possible future event.  So I thought I’d compile some of those points here (in a list, because who doesn’t love lists?!):

Six things to know about mass conversion:

  1.  Academics tend to assume mass conversion is an organic event.
  1.  It’s important to differentiate between spiritual conversion and social conversion.
  1.  Social conversion rarely involves the complete abolishment of previous traditions; a new, amalgamated culture is more likely.
  1.  Missionizing is actually pretty ineffective (presuming it’s not back by military force).
  1.  That’s because most people convert for pragmatic reasons.
  1.  Exposure to other religious traditions is not the same as conversion, but is actually a requirement of offering freedom of religion.

Starting with the top: we academics tend to assume mass conversion is an organic event.  By that, I mean that when we study mass conversion in a historical context, we tend to look for reasons why it was successful, particular in terms of social adaptation and social advancement, presuming that you can’t actually just will people to change their religion. We do so mostly because historically, that perspective seems the most accurate.  We have plenty of examples of people preserving in their religion despite legal repression (eg. alternating groups of Protestants and Catholics in the UK), social pressure to convert (eg. Christianity in the first two centuries of Muslim rule), or both (eg. Jews in both Europe and, at various points, North America, as well as native communities in North America, Africa, and Australia).  Forced conversion is generally ineffective and, at best, forces people to hide the practice of their religion rather than abandon it entirely.  

By comparison, mass conversions of large populations or regions are relatively rare historically, and in studying them, we often find complex combinations of social pressures, financial benefits, cultural shifts, and political machinations that lead to them.  Even with all of these features, we still don’t really know why they happen, and so we tend to fall back on the explanation of phenomenology – that that tradition fit those people in that moment, for whatever reason. Indeed, that’s exactly why I study what I do, because although we know that at some point the Middle East went from being predominantly Christian to predominantly Muslim, we can’t really pin down exactly when or exactly why.  So when asked if Europe is going to convert to Islam, as a scholar, my answer is just ‘maybe?  If it’s a good fit?’  I don’t see a future in which a mass conversion can take place that doesn’t fit with the general wants and needs of the population, which is clearly what people are afraid of in talking about conversion in Europe.

Indeed, before we can even ask if Europe will convert, it’s important to differentiate between spiritual conversion and social conversion.  This point goes hand-in-hand with how academics study mass conversion.  When we talk about mass conversion, at best we’re expecting mass social conversion, meaning that the majority of the population all come to participate in the practices and rituals of the same, new religion and/or the ruling party enforces a new religion as a new civic religion, which people have to swear public allegiance to in order to maintain their citizenship/identity within that society.  Spiritual conversion is what someone actually believes in their heart about the nature of the divine, and this we, as scholars, know very little about.  People have to write about what they really believe and then somehow preserve that documentation to come back to us, and that just doesn’t happen very often.  When it does, we find examples of people pretending to convert, as I just discussed, hiding their true religion while outwardly appearing to have given in to social conversion.  However, it’s unclear if we should count this kind of multi-layered religious identity as ‘mass conversion,’ if people are performing a religion socially that they don’t really believe spiritually.

It’s probably also worth noting that Europe’s current identity as a ‘Christian’ region is itself an example of this multi-layered identity.  We call Europe Christian mostly because historically its rulers instituted various Christian sects as the national religion.  Europe has never been 100% Christian, as there has always been some non-Christians living in Europe, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others.  And there are plenty of Europeans who call themselves Christians and who may participate in public Christian rituals like Christmas and Easter who, in their hearts, are actually agnostics or atheists.

This multi-layered identity also demonstrates how social conversion rarely involves the complete abolishment of previous traditions; a new, amalgamated culture is more likely.  Even while Europeans may call themselves Christian because they participate in rituals at Christmas or Easter, many of those rituals are actually lifted from the pre-Christian religions and societies of Europe.  There’s nothing in the Bible about Christmas trees, putting out your shoes to get chocolates, or bunnies who carry eggs.  People liked these traditions, so even as they took on a new public religious identity, they kept practicing them, giving them a Christian veneer to explain their relevance.  Perhaps the best example of this in the Christian tradition is the worship of saints – even as Greeks and Romans started to accept Christianity as the new imperial religion, they missed being able to pray to specific deities for specific problems, and so the cult of saints was born, and instead of praying to Apollo for healing, you could pray to a saint for the same.

Even if Islam became large enough, socially-powerful enough, and popular enough for the majority of Europe to accept Islam as the new public or civic religion, it’s very unlikely that Europeans would suddenly adopt Middle Eastern or Asian social practices along with it.  It’s much more likely that Christmas decorations and St. Nick would take on a Muslim persona, so that Europeans could continue to give each other presents in December.  Basically, if Europe did convert, it would be to a European kind of Islam, not a Middle Eastern one, just as they did with Christianity more than a millennium ago.

How that conversion is going to take place, however, will have more to do with demographics and adaptiveness of Islam than with direct missionizing, as missionizing is actually pretty ineffective (presuming it’s not back by military force).  

So missionizing is hard to talk about because so much of the history of modern missionizing is tied up with Western imperialism, which carried with it tremendous legal, military, political, social, and cultural authority.  So while 19th and 20th century missions in Africa and East Asia were often successful, it’s debatable if these successes had anything at all to do with the religion they were trying to spread.

The rise of Muslim missionizing in Europe is much more like the worldwide missionizing of the Church of Latter Day Saints or the American Transcendental Buddhist and Hare Krishna missionaries in North America.  These movements have had some success in increasing the numbers of their own faith, but have had almost no success in swaying the dominate religion in the areas in which they work.  There are, to date, no LDS-identified nations, and although there are a handful of cities in North America that are predominantly American Transcendental Buddhist or Hare Krishna (Fairfield, Iowa and New Vrindaban, West Virginia, for example, respectively), these movements have had relatively little effect on North American culture and society, and are still almost always presented in mainstream culture as exotic or foreign. Given sufficient immigration and missionizing, it’s possible that whole cities in Europe might become primarily Muslim, but there’s a huge difference between that and ‘Europe’ as a whole converting.

Indeed, immigration will probably play a bigger role, as most people convert for pragmatic reasons.  The rise of Islam in Europe in this century is tied in part to increased immigration, not native conversion.  If it were to move to native conversion, based on research into conversion in other communities, we would expect to see practical reasons for that native conversion.  Again, LDS is a useful example here – although LDS has a massive missionary program, people’s reasons for converting often focus on the church’s active social component, that it offers a ready-made community, and often provides family care and recreation activities.  In some cases, the church has even supported their members financial in cases of serious injury or sudden job loss.  Similarly, in his seminal work, Transforming the American Religion, Alan Wolfe discusses pragmatic conversion, noting interviews with individuals who changed denominations due to issues like how far a drive it was to attend, what the preacher was like, or how the services were run.  Although these latter two are sort of religious in nature, they also highlight how practical people can be in how they practice their religion.

Unfortunately, this point actually supports the idea that conversion in Europe might result in increased extremism, as Islamist groups have been very successful in leveraging their roles as social support systems to drive recruitment in the Middle East.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was particularly successful in the 20th century in serving as a local support system for communities who lacked government intervention, opening schools and clinics in Egypt and the neighboring region, and even buying Christmas trees for Palestinian Christians.  However, this avenue is also easily prevented if local governments are willing to provide sufficient resources and equal access to their minority communities.  Most European nations are good on the former, providing public housing, healthcare, and education, and so would only need to work at making sure minority communities have equal access to these resources.

However, although European countries should be acting to reduce discrimination, doing so will probably not stop people from becoming Muslims or from missionizing for Islam, and we shouldn’t want it to because exposure to other religious traditions is not the same as conversion, but is actually a requirement of offering freedom of religion.  We’re really good about this when it comes to freedom of speech, and really bad at it when it comes to freedom of religion.  We understand that freedom of speech means public speech, that people have to have the right to go into the park or on TV and make statements we disagree with.  We don’t have to listen to them, but we can’t stop them, either.

Well, the same goes for religion – people have to be able to practice their religion publicly, and that includes missionizing.  You have the right to politely decline and walk away, but you don’t have the right to stop them from trying to missionize to you in the first place.

I’m not sure when we as a society decided that “separation of church and state” means separation of religion from the public sphere, but freedom pretty much only exists in the public sphere.  If we only allow people to practice their religion privately, then we’re back to the social versus spiritual religion problem, except that we’re effectively enforcing atheism as a civic religion.

Don’t get me wrong, being prostelytized to can be annoying, but so can people wanting you to sign a petition or hear their political platform or calling you a jerk, and yet we recognize that these things are annoying but necessary for maintaining a free society.  Furthermore, allowing religion in the public sphere won’t mean people can force you to convert because we already know that freedom needs to be limited by individual safety – that’s why it’s not free speech to shout fire in a crowded theater unless there’s actually a fire, no matter how much you feel the need to celebrate the existence of combustion.  People have to have the right to freely express their beliefs – even extremist beliefs – in order to be free.  That means a sign of a truly religiously free society would be that we’re all a little bit exposed to a whole lot of religions, in the same way that we’re all a little bit exposed to a whole lot of ideas.

So will Europe convert to Islam?  Maybe, if enough people find social or cultural fulfillment in Muslim beliefs, and the movement is wide-sweeping enough to either convert the majority of the population or take hold of the civic religion.  Even then, it seems unlikely we’ll see Europe abandon Father Christmas or wearing candles as hats.  More likely, French haute couture would start producing designer hijabs and Austrians would start making schnitzel with lamb.  

Whether or not Islam continues to expand in Europe, however, hopefully what we will see in the next few decades is European nations ensuring true free access to government resources and true freedom of religion, including the expression of radical or unpopular ideas.  And it’s important for the global community to recognize that those changes won’t be a sign of Europe’s imminent conversion to anything but true liberalism.

So there you have it: mass conversion – a confusing concept, and a generally unlikely historical outcome.  I hope you enjoyed it!  This is also going to be my last post of the year – a couple of people have emailed me with questions, and I’ll answer these first thing in January.  In the meantime, merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and I’ll see you all in 2016!

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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