Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Call to Convert Muslims is a Bad Idea
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is well known for her courageous advocacy of secular Western Enlightenment values over the tyranny of Islam. She speaks as one who has been there, for she first encountered the misery, poverty and violence that radical Islamic fundamentalism always brings while growing up in her own family in Somalia.
She is a powerful thinker and debater and someone I deeply admire -- yet her suggestion that Western-based church groups convert large numbers of Muslims as a partial solution to Islamist radicalism has always struck me as both hypocritical and insufficient.
Watching the explosion of violence both throughout the Islamic world and in Western cities where large numbers of Muslims have immigrated, one can't help but be struck by two scary thoughts. One, that the so-called "insignificant minority of Muslims" who are fans of sharia and jihad has been vastly underestimated. Two, that this phenomenon of Islamist radicalism (in terms both of outright violence and incitement) is growing.
Hirsi Ali has explicitly suggested that conversion to Christianity could act a sort of methadone program, turning hateful and violent Islamists into relatively benign believers in Christ. On the face of it, such an approach does have some things going for it: if is preferrable to win the conflict between Islam and the West in the hearts and minds rather than on distant battlefields or in security states at home, then conversion through persuasion would seem to be a viable tactic.
As well, it seems intuitively easier to turn a Muslim into a Christian than the ideal of a secular humanist, since converters would essentially be making a kind of religious/ideological substitution rather than dissolving their worldview and rebuilding almost from scratch (from fixed God-demanded principles to moral and behavioral principles based on reason). If we can't turn the flag-burning, Jew-Christian-gay-pagan-liberal hating Muslim contingent into live-and-let-live Richard Dawkins-reading agnostics, at least we can turn them into bake-sale Christians -- or so the theory goes.
But this argument isn't entirely persuasive to me. First, we have the example of Hirsi Ali herself: an apostate Muslim who has become an atheist. She is not alone, even if it is rare (We must not underestimate the difficulties of converting from Islam; in addition to the social ostracism one would encounter when leaving any religion, Islamists have frequently targeted apostates with violence and death -- something that is explicitly sanctioned in the Koran). So we know it is possible to avoid a Christian-flavored opiate of the masses and move in a relatively straight line to a secular existence if one is so inclined. It may be tougher, but at least it has the benefit of not exchanging one set of big lies for another.
Second, mass conversion of Muslims to Christians could backfire in a fairly predictable way. Rather than turning relatively angry Muslims into relatively peaceful Christians, we may end up with mass numbers of newly-radicalized Christians. There is precedent for this.
Some have postulated that the doctrine of Christian holy war during the Crusades was a direct defensive response to the well-defined Islamist doctrine of jihad used by those who preyed on Christendom's borders. More generally, the inability of the West to assimilate Muslims into countries anywhere suggests that the result of conversions may be to radicalize the churches rather than domestication of jihad-friendly sharia fans. In the end, we could end up facing both jihadists and a new species of "crusader" Christians.
I'm even leery of the prospect of unexpected success in converting the masses to Christianity. If this strategy were to bear fruit, and the number of Muslims sank like a stone while numbers of Christians shot up somewhere above the 3 or 4 billion range, I can't help but think that a triumphalist, supremacist Christianity would be a natural development. Again, we'd be trading one form of theocratic fascism for another.
I wish that Hirsi Ali could be faithful to the courage of her secular convictions. I don't think we can say that secular societies have failed to assimilate Muslims, from the USA and Canada to Europe, Australia and elsewhere. It's more accurate to say that we haven't tried.
Instead of converting Muslims to Christianity, I'd much prefer secular people reaching out to their Muslim friends and helping them understand the benefits of a reason-infused life. Instead of missionaries talking about the love and glory of Christ, have proponents of a secular worldview talk up their most spectacular selling point: the ability to think and act with freedom, unhindered by the blinders and chains of religious doctrine.
Let's not replace one set of lies with another. Instead, let's help them Muslims understand that they can be free from the hateful dictates of religion altogether.
Jonathon Narvey is the Editor of The Propagandist