The atrocities in Orlando and Nice -- and today in Normandy -- keep a burning question alive: will Muslims ever integrate successfully into Western societies? If you listen to Donald Trump or Marie Le Pen, the answer is no. Their sympathisers seem to believe that Muslims will always be a cyst within the secularised West.
There is another possibility, though. Why don’t Christians aspire to convert Muslims to their own faith? The novelist Michel Houellebecq created a stir with his most recent novel Submission (Soumission in French) which imagines France governed by an Islamic party in 2022. The central character, a professor of literature, decides to convert to Islam because he can get a secure job and multiple wives.
But why is this scenario more plausible than the gradual conversion of Muslims?
This is not as absurd as it sounds. There have been a number of reports from Europe of conversions to Christianity among Muslim refugees:
According to Austrian website Kurier, 83 adults were approved for baptism in Vienna in 2016, about half of them Muslims, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran.
The German pastor of a Evangelical-Lutheran church in Berlin claims that 1,200 Muslims have joined his congregation in the past three years.
Mohammad Eghtedarian, a refugee from Iran who converted to Christianity and was later ordained, is now a curate at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral where a weekly service in Persian attracts between 100 and 140 people.
Critics will say that these are merely opportunistic, not genuine conversions. A feature in the German magazine Der Stern records the reaction of an elderly German woman, amazed at the spectacle of a mass baptism in a river: “That’s ridiculous; who’s fooling who here?” she murmurs. Refugees may believe that they will get more benefits and permanent residency if they declare themselves Christians.
In fact, few areas can be more controversial than religious demography. Some churches exaggerate the number of conversions in mission lands in order to promote donations back home or to recruit more young missionaries. There is no clear standard of what constitutes a “conversion” – is it “a decision for Christ”, or is it just baptism; or is it attending a church regularly? Do the statistics include people who converted but reverted to Islam?
Despite all these methodological problems, a recent article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion (IJRR) estimates that 50 years ago, in 1960, there were only about 200,000 believers in Christ with a Muslim background. By 2010 this number had increased to nearly 10 million. Most of these – about 6.5 million – were Indonesian. According to the IJRR tally, there are about 450,000 Muslim converts in the United States and about 150,000 in Europe. Apart from Indonesia, the largest number of Muslim-to-Christian converts is in Africa, about 2.2 million.
These figures could be underestimates, as conversion invites persecution and even murder. Even in refugee camps in Europe, some converts fear for their lives. Kurier, the Austrian website, interviewed “Christoph”, an elderly Afghan who became a Catholic in Vienna. "This could be my death sentence,” he says. Some Christian churches exaggerate; others are far more discrete. Catholics seem to be far more reticent than evangelicals and far more concerned about educating prospective converts before receiving them into the Church.
Less well-known are Muslim anxieties about conversions to Christianity. In 2003 Sheikh Ahmad Al Katani, the president of The Companions Lighthouse for the Science of Islamic Law, a Muslim preacher-training centre in Libya told Al-Jazeera that “Every year, 6 million Muslims become Christians [in Africa alone]. What used to be a majority religion is now turning into minority.” In the light of the statistics in Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, this seems highly exaggerated, perhaps to whip up anger at Christian missionaries.
But what seems beyond dispute is the attraction of the Christian message. Here are the reflections of some Muslim converts as reported in the European press:
Christoph, the Afghan convert in Vienna: "Although I was a Muslim, I did not feel connected. Even at school I began to look for alternatives. Christianity for me is the religion of humanity. Jesus I admire his life and suffering."
Johannnes, from Tehran, told The Guardian: “I found that the history of Islam was completely different from what we were taught at school. Maybe, I thought, it was a religion that began with violence? A religion that began with violence cannot lead people to freedom and love. Jesus Christ said ‘those who use the sword will die by the sword’. This really changed my mind.”
“In Islam, we always lived in fear,” another convert told Der Stern. “Fear God, fear of sin, fear of punishment. But Christ is a God of love.”
Their responses tally with the reasons given by the sociologists in the IJRR. Because of globalisation and the increasing ease of communications, Muslims know more about the religion which is the mainspring of Western culture. What they know is dim, largely incoherent and sullied by degraded commercialism and opportunistic politics. But something of Christianity’s central message must get through.
And then the barbaric atrocities of Islamic terrorists raise questions in the minds of some Muslims. Granted, most Muslims are not terrorists, but nearly all the terrorists are Muslims. Some people are bound to ask: is my religion true if some of my co-religionists are blowing innocent people to smithereens in the name of Islam? The IJRR scholars write:
Social and political turmoil in the Muslim world has caused many Muslims to question their faith. For some Muslims, this has led to embracing of a militant form of Islam that has further exacerbated the turmoil. For others, the result has been revulsion against the perceived harshness or tyranny of such forms of Islam.
Militant Islam is a threat to the West, but, as the adage goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. The savagery and fanaticism of ISIS and other fanatics is, to slip into marketing language, a window of opportunity. This is true even in predominantly Muslim countries. The Algerian newspaper Al-Yawm reported in 2000 that many people in outlying villages were becoming Christian. And this was during a bloody civil war between the government and Islamists in which 200,000 people died.
The deterioration of the image of Islam during the crisis has played its part in this rise of conversions to Christianity and the adoption of its principles. What is happening and what has happened in Algeria, such as the massacres and killings in the name of Islam, has [sic] led many, when asked what the difference, in their view, was between Islam and Christianity, to declare: "Christianity is life, Islam is death."
There are gigantic obstacles to converting Muslims, including fear of reprisals and ostracism, centuries of hostility, and deep-seated misunderstanding. But the biggest obstacle of all is the lack of self-confident Christians who believe that love is more powerful than hatred. The Daily Beast interviewed Pastor Gerhard Scholte of the Reformed Keizersgracht Church, the head of a refugee task force for churches in Amsterdam. He said bluntly, “conversion to Christianity is not promoted in our church, so we see very little of it.” He believes that “Everyone is a child of God,” whether baptized or not. So what need is there for Christianity? Perhaps he should ask some converts about that.
What Western Christians need is more confidence in their own “product”. Christianity converted empires, built the cathedrals, built universities, built hospitals, allowed commerce to flourish, abolished slavery, fostered science, and laid the foundations for democracy. It can meet the challenge of Islam.
The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede the Venerable (672-735), whose people had been converted to Christianity only a century before, makes a very amusing comment in his Ecclesiastical History about the Celtic Christians whom they displaced and whom he despised. "Among other most wicked actions, not to be expressed, which their own historian, Gildas, mournfully takes notice of, they [the Celts] added this -- that they never preached the faith to the Saxons, or English, who dwelt amongst them."
Sometimes it seems that today's Christians are taking the Celtic option.
Were Martin Luther King Jr. alive today, no doubt he would give Christians the same advice he gave to those fighting segregation and racism in the US in 1957:
"The great military leaders of the past have gone, their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes. But the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love, is still growing. It started with a small group of dedicated men, who, through the inspiration of their Lord, were able to shake the hinges form the gates of the Roman Empire, and carry the gospel into all the world."
To the Muslim world as well.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet, from where this article is adapted.