Source: The Economist
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.