Even before the National Investigation Agency begins to look into the conversion of Akhila Ashokan to Islam and her subsequent marriage to Shafin Jahan, it should try to comprehend why thousands in the West, particularly those from the white middle class, have chosen to become Muslim. This will likely disabuse the investigating agency of the notion that there is necessarily an Islamist conspiracy to proselytise non-Muslims in Kerala.
For sure, the National Investigation Agency, the country’s anti-terror agency, should peruse A Minority Within A Minority, a report released in 2011 by the London-based Faith Matters, an organisation of faith communities that seeks to reduce conflict and fight extremism. The report was based on a survey conducted by MA Kevin Brice, of Swansea University, who specialises in studying the conversion of whites to Islam.
Brice calculated that there were 60,669 converts in the United Kingdom in 2001, 55% of whom belonged to white ethnic groups. Ten years later, the number of converts was estimated to have crossed 1,00,000. In 2010 alone, 5,200 people were said to have embraced Islam. Brice, as also others, believe women converts outnumber men by two to one.
In the United States, the Pews Research Centre estimated that 23% of 3.3 million Muslims in 2015 were converts to Islam. Among the converts, 91% were born in the US and almost 59% were African-Americans. A 2001 study of Ihsan Bagby, of the University of Kentucky, estimated that 27% of converts to Islam were white. Different studies show that women converts outnumber men in the US by four to one.
Reasons for conversion
Most divide Muslim converts into two categories. There are those who are “converts of convenience”, embracing Islam because their partners are Muslim. The other group comprises people who, because of their cultural experiences, engagement with Sufism, travels, and Muslim friends, embark on an odyssey of discovering Islam that eventually leads to their conversion to that faith.
In the Faith Matters survey, 45% of conversion was not linked to marriage in any way. They converted before they were married, and their decision to choose partners from within their faith flowed naturally from their embracing Islam.
Akhila, who now goes by the name Hadiya, conforms to this trend – she was not dating Shafin Jahan at the time of her conversion. Thereafter, she registered on a matrimony website and chose Jahan because, as she said, he met the yardsticks she had laid out.
The Faith Matters survey reported that 86% of respondents received help from friends or acquaintances to convert, 96% from books, and 64% from the internet. Only 52% received no help or advice from mosques for their proselytisation. These figures demonstrate that people wishing to convert tap several resources to do so simultaneously.
This holds true for Hadiya as well – her inspiration to convert was a Muslim girl, Jaseena, with whom she lived during her college days. According to a Scroll.in report, Jaseena’s father tried to dissuade her from adopting Islam, but once he realised that she was adamant, he took her to the Therbiayyathul Islam Sabha in Kozhikode, one of two government-recognised centres of conversion to Islam in Kerala.
The Faith Matters survey did not directly delve into the causes that triggered the desire among the respondents to convert. Yet it seems the rigidity of Islam, with its strict dos and don’ts, had an attraction for the respondents, for 59% of them classified their lifestyle prior to conversion as “bad”, “sinful” or “lost”. Most thought that “alcoholism or drunkenness”, “lack of morality and sexual permissiveness” and “unrestrained consumerism” were among the bad features of British culture.
The attraction of Islam’s strict rules had Yasir Suleiman, the founding director of the Centre for Islamic Studies, Cambridge University, to note: “The question female converts often face is this: ‘why would a liberated/free Western woman embrace a backward faith that oppresses her?’ The fact that conversion to Islam may be a rational choice made to deal with some real philosophical and existential problems facing female converts in the modern world appears to be an embargoed idea…”
Suleiman made this observation in the preface he wrote for Cambridge University’s Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives, a study released in 2013 and downloaded 1,50,000 times. Three years later, the University published a report on male perspectives on conversion. Both reports testify to the white middle class turning to Islam to cope with the pressure of modernity.
In its commentary on Cambridge University’s reports, The Economist magazine observed: “In all manner of ways, from consumer products to moral values to personal styles, Western culture of the 21st century lauds variety, choice, experimentation. A Westerner who converts to Islam is making a self-conscious move in a diametrically opposite direction: accepting non-negotiable rules in respect of diet, dress, sexual and social behaviour. Perhaps the prolixity of mainstream culture makes the uncompromising strictness of Islamic rules more attractive to a significant minority.”
Could the “uncompromising strictness of Islamic rules” have prompted Hadiya to convert? It does seem to have been a factor in her choice, for, in her affidavit to the Kerala High Court, she said she was attracted to Islam by the timely prayers it prescribes, apart from the good character of her flatmate, Jaseena, and her sister, Faseena.
A matter of faith
To fathom better the soul of the convert, the National Investigation Agency should also pore over anecdotal accounts of Muslim women converts. Take the story journalist Eve Ahmed wrote for the Daily Mail some years ago.
Born to an English mother and a Pakistani father, Ahmed was brought up in an extremely conservative Islamic tradition. “As far as I was concerned, being a Muslim meant hearing the word ‘No’ over and over again,” Ahmed wrote. She promptly rejected Islam as soon as she was old enough to assert her independence.
Surprised at the trend of middle class white women converting to Islam, Ahmed met some of them to understand their choices. One of them was Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A broadcaster, Booth converted to Islam after visiting the shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh in the city of Qom in Iran. Of that moment, Booth reminisced, “I sat down and felt this shot of spiritual morphine, just absolute bliss and joy.”
But this moment of spiritual awakening had been preceded by Booth’s deep engagement with the Palestinian issue and her empathy for Islam. “I was always impressed with the strength and comfort it [Islam] gave,” she said.
After she converted, Booth took to wearing the hijab and praying five times daily.
For her story, Ahmed also interviewed Kristiane Backer, a former MTV presenter, who was exposed to Islam through her two-year courtship with the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. She took to studying Islam and, eventually, converted even though Khan and she were no longer together by then.
Backer told Ahmed, “Because of the nature of my job, I’d been out interviewing rock stars, travelling all over the world and following every trend, yet I’d felt empty inside. Now, at last, I had contentment because Islam had given me a purpose in life.”
Backer added: “In the West, we are stressed for superficial reasons, like what clothes to wear. In Islam, everyone looks to a higher goal. Everything is done to please God…You are not chasing every fad.”
Ahmed also interviewed ordinary middle class people, most of whom found strict Islamic dress “empowering and liberating”. One person, Lynne Ali, after converting to Islam, wore the hijab to celebrate a friend’s birthday at a bar. Ali recalled that evening, saying, “They were drunk, slurring their words and dancing provocatively. For the first time, I could see my former life with an outsider’s eyes, and I knew I could never go back to that.”
After meeting educated women who had converted to Islam and still seemed happy, Ahmed tried to figure out the difference between her experience and theirs. She concluded, “Perhaps if I’d felt in control rather than controlled [while growing up], if I’d felt empowered rather than stifled, I would still be practising the religion I was born into, and would not carry the burden of guilt that I do about rejecting my father’s faith.”
Another narrative is of feminist writer Julie Bindel, who, because she rejects religion on the grounds that it promotes inequality between men and women, was intrigued by educated Muslim women being attracted to Islam. She met a few, their explanation for conversion to Islam echoed what Ahmed too had heard.
To make sense of the responses of her interviewees, Bindel met Birmingham University’s Haifaa Jawad, author of Muslim Women in the United Kingdom and Beyond. Jawad said that Islam “provides a sense of belonging and a clear identity. Islam has clarity to it that some other religions or lifestyles do not. Some women in the West may feel let down by feminism. But it is for spiritual reasons that many women convert. We have to ask, why go through with it despite the negative view of Islam at present?”
This is the question to be asked of Hadiya as well. Why did she convert to Islam given Hindutva’s demonisation of Muslims, its onslaught against them in the country? Perhaps we cannot comprehend her choice as Bindel couldn’t of those whom she interviewed. As she wrote, “Perhaps it is my disdain for all religion, perhaps it is my radical feminism.”
Nevertheless, the trend of white middle class people converting to Islam is in contrast to the trend decades ago. At that time, conversion was a mark of protest by African-Americans raging against racism. In India too, conversion to Islam has been a form of protest against the inequalities of the caste system.
However, Hadiya did not describe her conversion as a protest. She was attracted to Islam, as she said, because of her flatmate Jaseena’s good character – shorthand perhaps for Jaseena being friendly to her after she moved in 2011 to Salem in Tamil Nadu, 400 km away from home, to attend college – and the discipline of praying five times daily. Hadiya ascribed the personal traits of Jaseena to Islam, which might have seemed a buoy to her 18-year-old self in Salem, far away from home.
Islam perhaps sheathed Hadiya from the travails of cultural dislocation, as it seemed to have many of Ahmed and Bindel’s respondents, and those who participated in the Faith Matters and Cambridge University’s studies.
But there is another side to the conversion story of the West. Given that only 4% of the UK’s 65.64 million people are Muslim, what is the significance then of its one lakh Muslim converts? Again, since Muslims constitute just 1% of the 323.1 million people in American, the converts among them, particularly whites, represent, at best, a fringe sub-culture.
Muslims constitute 14.2% of India’s population today, up from 13.4% in 2001. The rise is ascribed to an influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and to the community’s higher fertility rate. We have no idea how many of Muslims are first-generation converts.
A 2016 Times of India story showed that the Gujarat government in the preceding five years received 1,838 applications for conversion, mandatory under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act. Of these applicants, 1,735 were Hindus, 57 Muslims, 42 Christians and four Parsis.
Obviously, thousands of Dalits who embraced Buddhism in Junagadh in 2013 did not file applications with the government. Barring mass conversions, the Gujarat government’s figures show that the incidence of conversion is likely insignificant. It also shows that Muslims too also exit their faith. All this establishes that politics drives the National Investigation Agency and its Hindutva masters to become apoplectic over cases of Hindus individuals embracing Islam. Hadiya is the victim of their paranoia.