Economist: Religious Conversions: The Moment Of Truth


July 24 2008

In many parts of the world, the right to change one’s beliefs is
under threat

AS AN intellectually gifted Jewish New Yorker who had reached
manhood in the mid-1950s, Marc Schleifer was relentless in his
pursuit of new cultural and spiritual experiences. He dallied with
Anglo-Catholicism, intrigued by the ritual but not quite able to
believe the doctrine, and went through a phase of admiration for
Latin American socialism. Experimenting with lifestyles as well as
creeds, he tried respectability as an advertising executive, and a
more bohemian life in the raffish expatriate scene of North Africa.

Returning from Morocco to his home city, he was shocked by the
harsh anonymity of life in the urban West. And one day, riding the
New York subway, he opened the Koran at a passage which spoke of the
mystery of God: beyond human understanding, but as close as a jugular
vein. Suddenly, everything fell into place. It was only a matter of
time before he embraced Islam by pronouncing before witnesses that
"there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."

Some 40 years on from that life-changing moment–not untypical of the
turning points that many individuals experience–Abdallah Schleifer
has won distinction as a Muslim intellectual. Last year he was one of
138 Muslim thinkers who signed an open letter to Christian leaders
calling for a deeper theological dialogue. The list of signatories
included (along with the muftis from Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta)
several other people who had made surprising journeys. One grew up as
an English nonconformist; another as a Catholic farm boy from Oregon;
another in the more refined Catholic world of bourgeois Italy.

Sometimes conversion is gradual, but quite commonly things come to a
head in a single instant, which can be triggered by a text, an image,
a ceremony or some private realisation. A religious person would
call such a moment a summons from God; a psychologist might speak
of an instant when the walls between the conscious and unconscious
break down, perhaps because an external stimulus–words, a picture,
a rite–connects with something very deep inside. For people of an
artistic bent, the catalyst is often a religious image which serves
as a window into a new reality. One recurring theme in conversion
stories is that cultural forms which are, on the face of it, foreign
to the convert somehow feel familiar, like a homecoming. That, the
convert feels, "is what I have always believed without being fully
aware of it."

Take Jennie Baker, an ethnic Chinese nurse who moved from Malaysia to
England. She was an evangelical, practising but not quite satisfied
with a Christianity that eschews aids to worship such as pictures,
incense or elaborate rites. When she first walked into an Orthodox
church, and took in the icons that occupied every inch of wall-space,
everything in this "new" world made sense to her, and some teachings,
like the idea that every home should have a corner for icons and
prayer, resonated with her Asian heritage. Soon she and her English
husband helped establish a Greek Orthodox parish in Lancashire.

Following the heart In the West it is generally taken for granted
that people have a perfect, indeed sacred, right to follow their
own religious path, and indeed to invite–though never compel–other
people to join them. The liberal understanding of religion lays great
emphasis on the right to change belief. Earlier this year, a poll found
that one in four Americans moves on from the faith of their upbringing.

America’s foundation as a refuge for Europe’s Christian dissidents
has endowed it with a deep sense of the right to follow and propagate
any form of religion, with no impediment, or help, from the state. In
the 1980s America saw some lively debates over whether new-fangled
"cults" should be distinguished from conventional forms of religion,
and curbed; but in the end a purely libertarian view prevailed. The
promotion of religious liberty is an axiom of American foreign policy,
not just in places where freedom is obviously under threat, but even in
Germany, which gets gentle scoldings for its treatment of Scientology.

But America’s religious free-for-all is very much the exception, not
the rule, in human history–and increasingly rare, some would say,
in the world today. In most human societies, conversion has been
seen as an act whose consequences are as much social and political
as spiritual; and it has been assumed that the wider community, in
the form of the family, the village or the state, has every right to
take an interest in the matter. The biggest reason why conversion is
becoming a hot international topic is the Muslim belief that leaving
Islam is at best a grave sin, at worst a crime that merits execution
(see article). Another factor in a growing global controversy is the
belief in some Christian circles that Christianity must retain the
right to seek and receive converts, even in parts of the world where
this may be viewed as a form of cultural or spiritual aggression.

A fighting matter The idea that religion constitutes a community
(where the loss or gain of even one member is a matter of deep,
legitimate concern to all other members) is as old as religion
itself. Christianity teaches that the recovery of a "lost sheep"
causes rejoicing in heaven; for a Muslim, there is no human category
more important than the umma, the worldwide community of believers.

But in most human societies the reasons why conversion causes
controversy have little do with religious dogma, and much to
do with power structures (within the family or the state) and
politics. Conversion will never be seen as a purely individual matter
when one religiously-defined community is at war or armed standoff
with another. During Northern Ireland’s Troubles a move across the
Catholic-Protestant divide could be life-threatening, at least in
working-class Belfast–and not merely because people felt strongly
about papal infallibility.

And in any situation where religion and authority (whether political,
economic or personal) are bound up, changes of spiritual allegiance
cause shock-waves. In the Ottoman empire, the status of Christians and
Jews was at once underpinned and circumscribed by a regime that saw
religion as an all-important distinction. Non-Muslims were exempt from
the army, but barred from many of the highest offices, and obliged to
pay extra taxes. When a village in, say, Crete or Bosnia converted en
masse from Christianity to Islam, this was seen as betrayal by those
who stayed Christian, in part because it reduced the population from
which the Ottomans expected a given amount of tax.

In the days of British rule over the south of Ireland, it was hard
for Catholics to hold land, although they were the overwhelming
majority. An opportunistic conversion to the rulers’ religion was
seen as "letting the side down" by those who kept the faith. Similar
inter-communal tensions arose in many European countries where Jews
converted to Christianity in order to enter university or public

In most modern societies, the elaborate discrimination which made
religious allegiance into a public matter is felt to be a thing of
the past. But is this so? In almost every post-Ottoman country, traces
exist of the mentality that treats religion as a civic category, where
entry and exit is a matter of public negotiation, not just private
belief. Perhaps Lebanon, where political power is allocated along
confessional lines (and boat-rocking changes of religious affiliation
are virtually impossible) is the most perfectly post-Ottoman state. But
there are other holdovers. In "secular" Turkey, the Greek Orthodox,
Armenian and Jewish minorities have certain poorly observed rights
that no other religious minority enjoys; isolated Christians, or
dissident Muslims, face great social pressure to conform to standard
Sunni Islam. In Greece, it is unconstitutional to proselytise; that
makes life hard for Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. In Egypt, the
fact that building a Christian church requires leave from the head
of state is a direct legacy of a (liberalising) Ottoman decree of 1856.

Tactical manoeuvres But the Ottoman empire is by no means the only
semi-theocratic realm whose influence is still palpable in the
governance of religious affairs, including conversion. In an odd
way, the Soviet Union continued the legacy of the tsars by dividing
citizens into groups (including Jews or some Muslim ethnicities) where
membership had big consequences but was not a matter of individual
choice. In post-Soviet Russia, the prevailing Orthodox church
rejects the notion of a free market in ideas. It seeks (and often
gets) state preference for "traditional" faiths, defined as Orthodox
Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. This implies that other
forms of Christianity are "poaching" if they seek to recruit Russians.

But issues of conversion are also painful in some former territories
of the British empire, which allowed its subjects to follow their
own communal laws. Take India, which once aspired to be a secular
state, and whose constitution calls for a uniform civil code for all
citizens. That prospect is now remote, and the fact that different
religious groups live by different family laws, and are treated
unequally by the state and society, has created incentives for
"expedient" conversion. A colourful body of jurisprudence, dating from
the British Raj, concerns people who changed faith to solve a personal
dilemma–like men who switched from Hinduism to Islam so as to annul
their marriage and wed somebody else. In 1995, the Supreme Court tried
to stop this by saying people could not dodge social obligations,
or avoid bigamy charges, by changing faith. What India’s case law
shows, says Marco Ventura, a religious-law professor, is the contrast
between conversion in rich, liberal societies and traditional ones,
where discrimination tempts people to make tactical moves.

And in many ways religious freedom is receding, not advancing, in
India. Half a dozen Indian states have introduced laws that make it
hard for people to leave Hinduism. These states are mostly ruled by
the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But last year
Himachal Pradesh became the first state led by the more secular
Congress party to bring in such legislation: such is the power of
Hindu sentiment that even non-religious parties pander to it.

The state’s new law is billed as a "freedom of religion" measure,
but it has the opposite effect: anyone wishing to switch faiths must
tell the district magistrate 30 days before or risk a fine. If a
person converts another "by the use of force or by inducement or by
any other fraudulent means", they can be jailed for up to two years,
fined, or both. Local pastors say "inducement" could be taken to mean
anything, including giving alms to the poor.

Supporters of such laws say proselytisers, or alleluia wallahs, are
converting poor Hindus by force. It is true that Christian evangelism
is in full swing in parts of India, especially in its eastern tribal
belt, and that it enjoys some success. Officially, fewer than 3%
of India’s 1.1 billion people are Christian. But some Christians say
the real total may be double that. Christian converts, most of whom
are born as dalits at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, often
hide their new faith for fear of losing their rights to state jobs
and university places kept for the lower castes.

But it is unlikely that many Hindu-to-Christian switches are forced. In
states with anti-conversion laws, credible allegations of conversion
under duress have very rarely been made.

Anyway, India’s arguments have more to do with politics than
theology. Hindutva, the teaching that India is a Hindu nation and
that Christians and Muslims are outsiders, has been a vote-winner
for the BJP. Even in Himachal Pradesh, voters were unmoved by the
Congress party’s attempt to ride the religious bandwagon; the BJP
still won the latest elections.

The contest between theocratic politics and a notionally secular
state looks even more unequal in another ex-British land, Malaysia,
where freedom of choice in religion is enshrined in the federal
constitution, but Islamic law is imposed with growing strictness on
the Muslim majority.

Until the mid-1990s, say Malaysian civil-rights advocates like Malik
Imtiaz Sarwar, the federal authorities enforced religious freedom;
the National Registration Department, a federal agency, would comply
when anybody asked to record a change of religion. More recently,
both that agency and Malaysia’s top judges have deferred to the sharia
courts, which enjoy increasing power in all 13 states of the Malaysian
federation; and those courts rarely let a registered Muslim quit the
fold. A recent exception was an ethnic Chinese woman who was briefly
married to an Iranian; a sharia court let her re-embrace Buddhism,
but only on the ground that she was never fully Muslim, so the idea of
"Once a Muslim, always a Muslim" remained intact.

A more telling sign of the times was the verdict in the case of Lina
Joy, a Malay convert from Islam to Christianity who asked a federal
court to register the change on her ID card. By two to one the judges
rejected her bid, arguing that one "cannot, at one’s whims or fancies,
renounce or embrace a religion". Too bad, then, for any Malaysians
who have a moment of truth on the subway, especially if the faith to
which they are called happens not to be Islam.