A blistering and important article from first time contributor Freethinker – and I believe the sites first by a non-Muslim. Pitch perfect, beautifully put and yet very uncomfortable reading nonetheless – I think largely because he clearly has in depth knowledge about Islam and provides a clear headed and humane analysis, rather than the psuedo-intellectual feel good emotional posturing Muslims are used to and seem to prefer. There is so much more I want to say about this superb piece, but I don’t want to hijack it so will let you read it for yourselves…
As a Non-Muslim, I want to talk about something for which I can give a unique perspective on. I have spent years researching Islam inside and out through academia. I have repeatedly interacted with Da’wah speakers through online forums, events, and plain old street Da’wah [broadly speaking, Muslim proselytising, but nowadays a fashionable movement often taking its cue from Salafism – Ed] . Speaking as a non-Muslim (you can throw in ‘evil Kufaar with the Akhlaq of a worm and the Iman of a greasy wheel’ if you like!), I’ve got to say some unflattering things about Islamic proselytising (and some of the other faiths/ideologies) many may not want to hear. But these are the realities of how many if not most non-Muslims feel about attempts to convert them to Islam. I’m also going to give you some further basic statistics and facts about Da’wah and some productive ideas for the things Daiis [those involved in Da’wah] can achieve.
Most non-Muslims regard Da’wah as a joke. Think about the underlying concept: A White, job-secure, Female or Male is walking down the street and they have a passing curiosity with Muslims and their faith (this usually doesn’t mean they want to convert, it is mostly mere curiosity on the same level as how to get the cream into cream crackers). They are then asked to change their whole lives by a bunch of total strangers who often just emigrated from war-racked (even if those wars were caused by the West, which the average Westerner may not know or, shamefully, care about) countries which are being torn apart by Islamist groups of one sort or another.
How many Da’wah guys ask themselves: ‘Am I actually offering this person something better than what they already have?’ Most Da’wah guys I know are thoroughly ignorant of Western culture, much like the majority of Westerners are of anything remotely Islamic. I come from Ireland, and one said to me in the midst of a polite discussion ‘Uh, I know its a Christian country … but that’s all I know’ – right on the steps of the GPO, one of Ireland’s primary historical landmarks. They hang around with their own crowd online and down at the Masjid/Halaqah/whatever, looking at feel-good ‘You-trash’ rants from demagogic yahoos, like the utterly NOT Islamically educated Salafo-spielwinder Zakir Naik, making no effort to find out about the wider community they live in. Ultimately, their effort to ‘convert the other’ is the same effort that drives so many other proselytising efforts be they to bend to the Cross, to Shiva or science. It’s about ego, and making the ‘other’ familiar. They project their own preconceptions of the big bad decadent ‘Kufaar’ [it usually means a pejorative term for non-Muslims, often deployed by salafis and others in the same way as the ‘N’ word by racists] onto their audience and assume that they are living in endless sin, and are really unhappy, deep, deep down. But they never ask what kind of life they have, or indeed is the ‘sin’ they accuse Westerners of living in (sex outside marriage, whatever) actually that sinful/negative? And are they actually unhappy with their life and god, or is that wishful thinking really? Nor do they try to empathise in any real, deep way with their audience. They never ask: ‘Well, is there anything good that could be said about about Western culture?’ ‘And is this replacement I am suggesting actually any better for these people?’ These are tough questions which they rarely have the self-awareness to deeply, objectively consider, any more so than when the US invaded Iraq, or when Christians or Secularists proselytise to Muslims, Hindus or whatever (not trying to compare Da’wah speakers with the former, just pointing out what this kind of logic can lead to). They just bang off endless slapdash Salafi mnemonic call-centre catchphrases and swill-bytes which as Ashari’s Assemble has pointed out, may work well for the speakers corner crazy-crackers or on Ummah / Sunni / wanna be a good bearded Thaubi [the long white dress like outfit Salafis and other ostentatious Muslims are often seen weraring – a Saudi as opposed to Islamic garm] but can’t quite trim it that way/whatever forum, but are useless if it comes anywhere near an educated, informed audience, who are the people one really needs to convince.
They expect somebody to change their whole life (in reality, usually including cutting off all/ many of their ties with friends, family, etc. and totally changing their personal day-to-day routines) but don’t ever ask if this is actually any better for their audience in the real world. For a critically educated Western audience, used to and experienced with hardcore religious conversion attempts (ask the Catholic Church here in Ireland, with its favourite hobby of chucking kids bodies down wells) complete with similar sound bytes drawn from the Bible, this usually sounds utterly stupid. The central foolishness of somebody who emigrated because of superior job opportunities/education/whatever to the West, and then turns around and says ‘But we’ve got a better way of life, it’s just not implemented right’ is a ridiculously weak argument which most of the Da’wah lads rarely convincingly get around.
(No, blaming Western imperialism doesn’t work – no matter how savage, immoral and exploitative it was: the obvious, cold, harsh and logical counter-questions are ‘then why did Muslims come off the true, perfect path so easily? If it expects human beings to live up to rules they really can’t, then doesn’t that mean it isn’t so perfect/can’t work in practice? And why did the West come out on top? What exact point in history did this happen?’ – once again rarely answered effectively, nor can they necessarily be answered effectively, as in so many other faith/secular systems – like Communism most obviously.)
The audience look at someone they regard as a Third World immigrant (it doesn’t matter if he graduated from MIT and owns half a city) and his funny skullcap/beard, and will usually think of him as a strange, weird fanatical little person who is best avoided, frequently sympathised with (‘God, that poor silly man’) and often laughed at in secret. They may not say that to the Da’wah guys face of course, but that is what they usually think (In Ireland and probably much of Europe, people rarely say what they think, thanks to political correctness. You have to look at what they actually do).
Obviously, The West has set up many of these dynamics to begin with, through its own policies, and through interpersonal interactions on the ground. Many Westerners are quietly ostracising Muslims (I know because I have seen it in person and in the workplace as well as its more obvious manifestation in the media/online, whatever), hence why they hang around in their own neighbourhoods, setting up their own Halaqahs [study circles] and friendship networks.
Faced with this cultural reality of ‘Assimilate or be nobody,’ many Muslims turn to the siren-song of Salafism, with its simple rituals, easy, straightforward logic, and charismatic leaders in the likes of IERA and elsewhere. They attempt to ‘change the other’ (just like a filled litter-bin of Western, Hindutva and other ideologies did in the past, and worryingly, present) because they see no middle-ground. Naturally, like any other faith (and most secular ideologies to be honest), they want to believe that in the end, the Ummah, their community, their ideology, will prevail. Sadly, when dreams meet reality – that is when disappointment rears.
The idea seems to be that Westerners ‘just don’t know’ about how wonderful their particular conception of Islam is, and if they can only get past the media (not saying it isn’t perniciously nasty in its distorting, disproportional pursuit of Muslims at times, or driven by Orientalism) and myths (not saying they don’t exist, they most definitely do, and have obvious and often horrific consequences for the Muslim community, like the endless blind eyes turned to the last 200 years of Western aggression), they will have a vast army of converts, and some even see a peacefully converted West coming about somehow. Now first off, lets run a thought experiment: How the hell would a converted, Islamic West just come about/work in practice? There would need to be vast, systematic institutional changes before this civilisation even began looking into something like this. Bear in mind that the legal, bureaucratic, media, and even cultural spheres would all be basically hostile to any such eventuality. And there would need to be huge changes, a new world or pan-Muslim Caliphal bureaucracy not to mention dozens of new institutions all working together. It took 50 years for the European Union alone to do that, and it hasn’t been that successful. There’d have to be thousands of Fiqh [legal] scholars educating literally millions of new Fuqaha. Tens or hundreds of thousands of new mosques. Where are the resources for all this supposed to come from? Generating Islamic institutions originally took centuries back during the Rashidun through Abbassid era and was heavily based around post-conquest booty, and even then the Caliphate did basically fall apart. We’re not even in radio distance of any one of these basic prerequisites for large-scale conversions, leaving aside whether resurrecting a medieval system and stapling it onto a modern, technologically driven world with a completely different set of economic, cultural and social factors is really a good idea.
Leaving that aside, lets face it: How many actual people convert because of Da’wah? Many if not most conversions happen within the context of marriage, and despite the endlessly quoted show-curtain sound-byte of ‘20,000 people converting’ in Britain, half usually convert back/become Eid Muslims, and most are usually from minority groups (yes, most of the Females who convert are not White – both sides seem to think the large numbers of Black Females who convert all have the power of invisibility) or people who aren’t representative of the wider community, or involve people who are on the outskirts of society anyway-they usually don’t have enough clout to make wider conversions possible. Get out your calculators: At that rate of conversions, most likely about a third of all Brits (a country with a relatively high conversion rate) will be converted in a thousand years. And can even this present conversion rate keep going? Can the Islamic awakening (the cultural movement which has led to increased Islamisation across most countries which has been going since the 70’s) keep throbbing on for another ten centuries? I doubt it. Just like the Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as so many Western nationalist, religious and cultural (lets take, say, Irish nationalism/Catholicism in my own country) movements, sooner or later people get older. Energy runs out. The lads want to settle down. Soon their lives become about getting an extension for their house that the wife’s been on about and promotions to that sales position everybody’s being yammering for, rather than a bunch of abstract dreams. I know the progression, because I dabbled in Socialism in university – it was fun for the first few years, but eating dishes entirely of re-hydrated noodles while your friends move on and grow up gets old real quick – and no amount of determination or temper tantrums about ‘The System’ and ‘man-made laws’ will make up the difference. Soon the revolutionaries have families and get old. They settle down, get anaesthetised, and while they may pretend they still care, like some raddled hipster, their kids DO NOT keep up the fight (or come up with their own, often totally contrary revolution) and soon ‘Che’ shirts replace revolution like fashioned-out garish Calvin Klein Hijabs replace a genuine statement. So this massive cultural shift going on for another thousand winters, once the oil money runs out?
In reality, Muslim communities are increasingly secularising and assimilating into larger Western communities. It is happening much slower than in other groups because of dynamics set up by the wars in the Middle East, but it is still happening.
So Da’wah is about window dressing: The devout Muslims get to feel better that they are making an effort to expand (or at least preserve) the Ummah according to some silly set of ‘austere,’ ‘Getting back to basics’ of Islam stuff – AKA Saudi oil-faith Wahhabi maid-beating ideology repackaged for wider Muslim audiences who are often at a loss for what to do, living at a time of immense social ferment – and win a couple of debates against usually clueless Western speakers (because most Western debaters who know something about Islam usually don’t care enough to engage in debate with Da’wah guys, and correctly don’t regard them as a threat). The actual situation (if you look into statistics which I am similarly not bothered looking into here) is that in the long term, Muslims will assimilate into the West just like every other ethnic minority that comes here.
All Da’wah does is give the Right-wing bastards yet another rock to fling at Muslims, and if anything is probably giving the Trump/Brexit/nationalist apocalypse horsemen another leg up. ‘Oh look men of the West, the Caliphate is coming! To arms! I’ll defend you, just like Charles Martel!’ They quietly cooperate with Islamists on the mass conversion (and ‘Muslim birth bomb’) falsehood – it likely boosts their election chances. Right now, the West is becoming ever more racist, more nationalistic, with the likes of Trump coming into power everywhere.
There is no chance whatsoever for mass conversions. Look into the book ‘The Rise and fall of the ‘Salafi Da’wah’ in America’ with its endlessly depressing tale of enthusiastic, hardcore Mr. Smith goes to Washington type proselytisers being ground down by the harsh reality of indifference, ever-increasing Salafo-Spartanism and internecine fighting and being churned into divorced, drug-using cynical wrecks.
On an interpersonal level, I must say most of the Da’wah guys I have met are basically decent and sincere (I’m talking about Ireland, where the savage neo-imperialist criticism constantly swilled at the community and the counter-flow of Saudi-dollared Salafi waffleology in the UK hasn’t caught on yet – though give Rashid/Andalusi/Tortzis etc. and their narcissistic, soundbyte-doping, slavery-advocating ilk time) even if I fundamentally disagree with many of their notions. Daiis in the West are not operating a ‘faith for food’ racket that many Christian outfits operate. (Though in Africa, the supposed vast numbers of reversions and glistening photo-shopped meetings we see on you-spiel videos seem little different to me.) They want to change the world, for the better and make a real contribution to society. Their search is the search for the perfect society we all look for in our own way.
Yet we should not ignore that the world Da’wah movement is dominated by Salafism, which is in turn being pushed forward by the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and other front organisations for the Mecca-Bulldozing Saudi Monarchy. Even if many Daiis don’t realise it, they are basically working to spread Saudi propaganda – a regime which many of them despise. They don’t, indeed can’t realise it because of the multiple front organisations, highly non-centralised, unsupervised and opaque funding pathways which would be hard for Columbus to navigate. The same organisations can be funding the Gaza War orphans and ISIS at the same time.
If I may say, the Da’wah guys should set their sights more realistically: They need to be open to true dialogue (where they don’t try to convert people, but genuinely listen to what they have to say). That way, they can express their feelings, fears, angers, and ideas, and patiently listen to the other side’s equivalent notions, even if they disagree with them. Both can mythbust in a balanced and informed way which truly speaks to the ‘other’s’ concerns. Both groups can learn, and come away with something. And hopefully, this might ease the tensions between the communities. Many are engaged in charity work which I strongly admire (I’ve done secular homeless charity work myself, and know at times what a thankless job it can be), and these are areas where the Islamic youth can make a real difference. There are causes out there crying out for help from young, determined, talented individuals. Or they can engage with local politicians to push for changes that they want, within the existing political pathways, frustrating and time-consuming as these can be (don’t worry, we ALL feel the same way about that County Councillor as well). Please, don’t waste your youth and energy on a cause which will inevitably dead-end. And I must say – The same applies to so very many Christian evangelist, secular or other proselytisers currently shivering or sweating around countless airports and public buildings across Western cities, using exactly the same methods Da’wah groups use.
The Twitter Age is not going to generate some vast civilizational change no matter how much some might want it to – if it didn’t work over the last thousand years, it ain’t going to work now. And this is sadly the reason why non-Muslims don’t convert to Islam and Muslims don’t convert en masse to Christianity or any other ideology/religion: Its too big a change. Speaking as a non-Muslim ‘native’ Irishman, I am basically happy with my life. I have no interest in conversion: I’ve read the Qur’an, and Bukhari/Sahih Muslim’s Hadith, as well as numerous other literatures (Ishaq, Shafi, Malik, Tabari, the much-maligned Waqidi, etc., all the lads), and of course the endless ‘Science and the Qur’an’ leaflets (funded by the Saudis, whose scientific research includes researching the temperature in Hell – wonderful use of time). I’ve gone to talks, chatted with and gotten to know Muslims, even lived in a Muslim country. I feel Islam has many truths. It has many things to recommend it, like a strong sense of a moral community (not always acted on in principal, just like most non-Muslim ideologies including secularism of course) no alcohol rules and other sensible moral injunctions. The Muslims I know are good neighbours, hard workers, respectful human beings and for the most part thoroughly decent. But I just don’t feel the faith works for me either on a personal level or gels with my political/scientific/philosophical concepts. This doesn’t mean I don’t respect it, or am some wantonly Abu Jahl-like evil character cackling away like Montgomery Burns or have been deceived by some grand conspiracy. I’ve read out verses from the Qur’an in the original Fushah. I’ve heard the call to prayer splashing out from a thousand mosques in Cairo and heard Nasheeds sung. It is sublimely, angelically beautiful, and Islamic texts and culture are rightly regarded as amongst the major contributions and civilisations of mankind, whatever the haters say. It just means it is not for me – this doesn’t mean I feel Muslims don’t have the right to worship, or that their views, identity or spirituality should be dismissed out of hand. I am not so presumptious as to think that my path would work for everybody or even anybody else. Nor do I think Western secularism is necessarily the answer for all the Middle East’s problems either, even if I don’t think much of Sharia as the panacea Islamists present it to be. I just don’t want to participate in this faith myself. And I don’t feel I should be regarded as some second-class citizen wallowing in shirk because of that choice. I give to charity, I work hard, and I feel the numinous in my own way. My own path works for me.
That is probably the same calculation many if not most Westerners make when exposed to Islamic culture. The harsh reality is that most westerners Are basically happy if you look up world happiness statistics. These indicate they are basically happier on average than Muslims (mostly due to wealth, not spirituality, where the two cultures work out about even at generating contentment). The notion that Westerners ‘Need’ Salafism is about as wishful thinking as the Middle East ‘needing’ to convert to Christianity and Mecca being turned into a Walmart. It is wishful thinking and self-projection. The shift in Westerner’s lives, and the basic package the Da’wah guys offer is too much cost for too little gain, and no cut-‘n’-paste slogans, dismissive waffle (‘You’re a racist/Islamophobic- but you can’t proselytise in my country because our religion is right and you’re wrong and Western men can’t marry Muslim women, even if I can marry/have a little Mu’ta [‘temporary marriage’] with a Kufaar now and then,’ etc.) or shift in marketing will make up the difference.
I am not sure how Da’wah people might feel reading this, but I would be frustrated. It is never easy hearing one’s own ‘path,’ one’s own identity, being rejected. And I am aware that many Da’wah proselytisers do not subscribe to Salafism, despite its dominance in the trade. But that is the reality. At the end of the day, successful societies are based on the ability to take that tacit rejection and still get on with each other, applying the same rules to each human, in practice, not as some vague principles which are contradicted in the same breath. Otherwise it is a nasty free-for-all as in India 1948, Germany 1933-45, and so on, where very few people end up dominating everybody else, often with horrific consequences. If we could all respect each other’s differences and choices, and treat each other as true equals (no Burka bans, Jizayah taxes or Bumiputera policies [policies favouring Muslims in Malaysia] here thanks), that would be ideal.
Sadly, most types of proselytizing (Christian/Secular proselytizing included) aren’t really about that. It is about converting the ‘Other’ into something more familiar, a pale reflection of oneself. It is, sadly, an extension of the ego. It is not about serving the actual needs of the person one is trying to convert. It is not about asking that tough question: ‘do I actually offer that person something which will work for her/him? And is this actually a better way of life?’ If Muslims are allowed to proselytize here, but Non-Muslims are not generally allowed to proselytize in even nominally ‘Islamic’ states, doesn’t that tell us that maybe there are things to feel good about the West after all such as an open faith/ideas market? At the end of the day, Muslims emigrated to Western countries, not usually the other way round. Assuming every last Muslim who came here wasn’t some media-zombied sheep, I think we can safely say that the West has some good things to recommend itself, not ignoring its flaws. Lets all please listen to the ‘Other’, rather than trying to convert them.