Converts more liable to become terrorists? Really?

Picture of Beenish Ahmed, a young Asian woman wearing a dark blue and black top (or dress), standing at a lectern with a microphoneThinkProgress, a site some of us had taken for a progressive opinion site, recently published a piece titled “Why Converts To Islam Are So Susceptible To Becoming Terrorists”, by one Beenish Ahmed (right). That this is true was news to some of us who are converts to Islam and have been quietly getting on with our lives for years, or decades, some of us quite successfully and some of us struggling a bit. The article claims, on the basis of a report from George Washington University titled ISIS in America (PDF), that 40% of “those arrested on terrorism-related charges” in 2015 were Muslim converts; 23% of American Muslims, it claims, are converts. The article is long on “illustrative examples”, some of which have nothing to do with terrorism at all, and uses a picture of a woman in niqaab to illustrate the point, when in fact the majority of terrorists are men and the majority of women who wear it, even if they belong to puritanical groups within Islam (which not all do), are not terrorists.

I had a brief look at the GWU report as I suspected that the 40% figure must be based on a very small sample, and was right: it’s not 40% of terrorists as a whole but of people charged with ISIS-related activity, and the total number is 71. That’s an extremely small number of people and cannot be treated as representative of the American Muslim convert population. (It is not clear whether they distinguish between actual converts and Muslims descended from them.) Not all the cases involved plotting terrorist acts as such, but were related to affiliation or planning to emigrate to ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq. And not all “terrorist plots” uncovered by the FBI originate with the arrestee; many of them are fabricated by the agents themselves. Eliminate those from the statistics, and the number of American Muslim converts charged with ISIS-related terrorist activity becomes even less significant.

The article gives the example of Elton Simpson, one of three men (one Pakistani and another convert from Philadelphia) who attacked the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, in May 2015 which was hosting an exhibition of cartoons purportedly of the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). The second convert might have been a better example, as he was a recent convert who had a long police record and convictions for drunken driving and assault. Elton Simpson had been Muslim since his school days and his jihadist sympathies were of long standing; in 2007 an FBI investigation received recordings of him stating his intention to travel to Somalia, and although he avoided imprisonment, he was later sentenced to three years’ probation and a $600 fine for making false statements about domestic terrorism. So, this was not a vulnerable convert radicalised over the Internet but a convinced extremist. Furthermore, mass shootings are not a type of terrorist attack introduced to the USA by ISIS. They are a regular occurrence because of the wide availability of automatic weapons; they usually have nothing to do with Islam or religion of any sort, and the usual perpetrators are not Muslims.

There are also two long examples of women who joined or tried to join ISIS. One was a young woman from an Evangelical Christian background from Tennessee, who converted because of a love interest but became a fanatic, marrying an Iraqi refugee living in Sweden and moving to Syria to live with him. Another was a Sunday school teacher from rural Washington who also converted, and talked to ISIS recruiters and a British-Bangladeshi charity boss with a conviction for firearms possession until her family intervened. The second did not have connections to the local (small) Muslim community and her pro-ISIS friends discouraged her from contacting them, knowing full well that they would either turn her against them or inform the police. But much as these two cases make good stories, they are just two isolated women and are part of a statistically insignificant group. Plenty of people become Muslim through researching it through books or online (I did) rather than through knowing Muslims or marrying one, and the vast majority don’t become terrorists.

The author claims that converts’ supposed susceptibility to extremist teachings is partly down to a “lack of grounding” in Islam’s scripture or history: “if converts were better informed of the Islamic teachings on forgiveness, patience, mercy — or, for that matter, its very detailed rules of war — they would be able to differentiate between Islamist propaganda and the Islamic faith, according to Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio of the Andover Newton Theological School”. The fact is that most born Muslims are not taught Islamic law in detail unless they pursue formal Islamic studies, and this includes the law of war. This may explain why organisations like Hamas, Gama’a al-Islamia of Egypt, al-Shabab etc, very few of whose members are western converts, commit acts that many scholars say are anti-Islamic such as suicide bombing and killing civilians. They’ve all heard many a lecture about patience and forgiveness, but their leaders teach them that they don’t apply to those they kill (and they carry much less weight when delivered by an imam employed by an oppressive ruler such as Mubarak or Sisi).

Even in western countries, converts are not the only people deprived of access to traditional Islamic teaching; much of it is delivered in foreign languages, particularly Urdu, which not only is not spoken by most converts (other than those from a Hindi-speaking background), but also not by other immigrant Muslims such as Somalis, or many younger Asians or those from a Sri Lankan, Gujarati or Bengali background; it is generally delivered in boarding schools rather than colleges for adults. Many mosques even have lectures given in Urdu at Friday prayers “for the old folk”, irrespective of the fact that many people cannot understand it. However, although moneyed sectarians often fill the gap left by the lack of teaching in languages other than Urdu, these do not preach violent extremism either, often telling Muslims that the state of the world Muslim community is down to its failure to follow the “way of the Salaf”.

The author then claims that converts tend to seek out a “purer” version of Islam than that on offer from established Muslim communities, to which end “they might eschew centuries of cultural and social shifts that have created hybridized, and often more human, versions of the faith”. In fact, the practice of Islam itself the world over is very similar, but the “human” additions to the faith the convert may have heard about may not be things he or she might want to embrace: the widespread misogyny manifested in everything from the preference to sons to honour killings and everyday discrimination against girls and women, for example, or the caste-ism, tribal chauvinism or biraderism, whatever it’s called, and open racism that is beneath the surface of many an immigrant Muslim community. We do not hear of many female converts living among Somali communities volunteering to undergo FGM either, or subjecting their daughters to it. In fact, their interest in Islam may have been stimulated by someone saying that it is really different from what they have heard about in the media. Many converts are attracted by idealised versions of Islam presented in glossy pamphlets; who can blame them for wanting to embrace a version of Islam without these features? They are more likely, judging by the number of converts I’ve known over the years, to try to accommodate their new faith with their own culture.

The article is written on the basis of a false premise; the vast majority of the world’s Muslim terrorists are not converts, and their road to extremism is generally paved with political oppression (including torture and the disappearance and murder of relatives or political comrades), poverty and powerlessness. As with other crime, it is a huge temptation to ignore these facts and just look for explanations centred on the terrorist’s misguidance or simply their bad character. People who convert to Islam have minds of their own and are capable of reading and asking people things and making decisions about how to live their lives and practise their religion and you can only take explanations that someone didn’t have a Muslim family or community to guide them, etc., so far. The fact is that the number of converts to Islam who have become involved in terrorism over the years has been small, but always tend to get reported as it makes a good story; the “zeal of the convert” is a handy stereotype. But the vast majority of us are not terrorists, and to claim that we are “so susceptible to becoming terrorists”, based on a sample of 71, is plain irresponsible scaremongering and casts a pall of suspicion that has no justification. There is enough of that kind of junk being peddled in the popular tabloids without a supposedly progressive analysis site jumping on the bandwagon.

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