Other aspects of Islamist organization and recruiting raise controversial questions about civil and religious liberties. All European states accept that individuals have a right to adopt or change religions, and they deny that religious adherence should cause people to be treated as likely criminals, except in the case of a few notorious cults. Over the past decade, though, the increasing presence of converts to Islam in the ranks of radical extremists has led to the prospect of special surveillance.
Some of the most notorious Islamist terrorists of recent years have been converts to the faith, including Richard Reid, or the London suicide bomber Jermaine Lindsay. Both men, from Afro-Caribbean cultures, were drawn by extremist evangelism in prisons and criminal milieux. Also from Caribbean roots is Abu Izzadeen, formerly Trevor Brooks, a spokesman for al-Ghurabaa'. Even by the standards of Lon-donistan, one of the most vociferous Islamist preachers is the Jamaican-born Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, formerly Trevor Forest. His threats of mass murder against Jews, Christians, and Hindus led to his imprisonment for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. ("How wonderful it is to kill the Kuffar [unbeliever]!") No less than three of those accused in the airliner plots of August 2006 were British-born converts. Jason Walters, one of the most vociferous militants of the Hofstad group, was also a convert, and had an American father. Dhiren Barot, who plotted mega-terror attacks in London, converted from Hinduism to Islam at the age of twenty.36
French intelligence agencies see the recruitment of converts as an explicit strategy by al-Qaeda and related organizations. One example was Pierre Richard Robert, who was imprisoned for trying to form a terrorist network in Morocco and who had plotted major attacks on French soil. Police surveillance of another French convert led to the arrest of one of his associates, the organizer of the Madrid train bombings. About a third of the members of Djamel Beghal's French network in France were converts, and a large-scale study of French converts to Islam found that almost a quarter identified themselves as Salafists. Radical converts have been active in other countries. Christian Ganczarski, a German citizen of Polish birth, converted to Islam in the strongly Muslim environment of Duisburg. As "Ibrahim the German," Ganczarski was accused of holding senior rank in Qaeda, and he was accused of organizing the 2002 bombing of a Tunisian synagogue that killed twenty-one people. In 2005, a white Belgian woman carried out a suicide bomb attack against U.S. forces in Iraq. Belgian converts have also provided logistics and support facilities for jihadi extremists around the world, including Afghanistan.37
Converts do not represent a vast proportion of European Muslims. (Technically, one does not convert to Islam, but rather reverts, accepting the faith as a natural birthright.) The German Muslim population might include 100,000 ethnic Germans, while France reports a like number of native converts, and Italy has anywhere from 20,000 to
50,000. People convert for many reasons, usually laudable: they are drawn to Islam by its intellectual or spiritual appeal, by the glamour of its history, or by close association with Muslim communities. The commonest single factor in conversion is marriage, with European women converting to marry Muslim men.38
Conversion to Islam need not imply any adherence to extremist politics, and some of the most prominent advocates of Euro-Islam are themselves European converts. The German Central Council of Muslims (Zentralrat der Muslime) elected as its president a moderate and liberal chairman of German origin, named Ayyub Axel Köhler. In many cases, though, people convert to Islam as a way of rejecting mainstream European society: these are "protest conversions." In Spain, converts of native origin constitute an important part of the leadership of the local Muslim community. Many are veterans of the radical left of the 1960s and 1970s who were attracted by Islam's mystical tradition. They grew up under the repressive Franco regime, which boasted of its links to the nation's glorious Catholic past, making the acceptance of Islam a peculiarly subversive act. A close analogy would be the African-American drift to Islam as a conscious rejection of the nation's Christian credentials, and a clutching for a radically alternative ideal. One Spaniard prominent in the restored Muslim community of Granada declares simply that "we've come to offer society the only alternative that exists to lead it out of chaos."39
Recent converts to radical Islam fit a long-established pattern in European radicalism in which young people, often of good families, drift to extremist causes, often pursuing a seductive vision of utopian society. In the words of Olivier Roy,
The young people in working-class urban areas are against the system, and converting to Islam is the ultimate way to challenge the system. They convert to stick it to their parents, to their principal. . . . They convert in the same way people in the 1970s went to Bolivia or Vietnam. I see a very European tradition of identifying with a Third World cause.40
Modern Muslim converts include white youth in their teens and twenties who in earlier eras might have given their loyalty to radical secular ideologies, to anarchism or nihilism, communism or fascism. Since the 1980s, though, all those causes have been discredited. Islam, in contrast, offers certainty and assurance in a world with few ideological alternatives. In the words of a British convert to the Muhajiroun, "Look to capitalism, it has only existed for 75 years and it's crumbling already. Communism is finished. The only other ideological belief around now, not a religion, Islam is not a religion. Let's make it clear. It's a political ideological belief."41
Especially since 2001, Islam of the fiercest and most radical kind also stands out as a principal challenger to forces of capitalism and globalization. It presents successful practical models of resistance, both political and cultural, and it gives adherents a whole alternative history and set of heroes, immensely more attractive than the often vilified icons of Western Christendom. At least some disaffected youth— white and black—find Islam of the severest kind attractive for its promise of community, fraternity, and strict sexual standards, in contrast to the atomized society of urban Europe. In the words of a young British man named Wayne, who joined the Muhajroun under the name "Osama,"
Going back before I decided to convert to Islam, my life wasn't any sort of life. I was drinking alcohol, lack of work, lack of family around me, didn't have no family. Now I've got one billion point, so many brothers around me. I couldn't ask for a bigger family in my life now.42
Though European converts to radical Islamist politics might not be numerous, their importance is out of proportion to their numbers since they are less likely to attract official suspicion. While security officers might be alert to threats from people of Middle Eastern appearance, they would be less likely to pay close attention to a clearly European individual, especially a woman. Black people would likewise attract little concern if their speech and manner proclaimed them local residents rather than recent immigrants.
Was this article helpful?