Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mass conversions from Islam to Christianity?   posted by Razib @ 4/10/2008 08:54:00 PM

Pajamas Media has a post up, Muslims Leaving Islam in Droves, which seems to be getting a bit of linkage. There's a lot of weird stuff in this post, so I figured I'd offer a little quick commentary on the assertions and data. I'm not going to do detailed citations at this point of why I believe what I believe in the interests of time, but if you dig deeper into the ethnography I think you'll see that I'm not making things up.

First, there's the assertion of mass conversions from Islam to Christianity in Africa. The link provided with an Al-Jazeerah transcript (translated) suggests that either Ahmad al-Qataani, leader of the Companions Lighthouse for the Science of Islamic Law in Libya, is stupid or mendacious. There's a lot of wacko contentions, but the big picture is this: in 1900 Africa was a predominantly pagan continent. Even regions which had long been historically dominated by Muslim elites, such as Senegal, was only lightly Islamicized at the level of the populace. In other words, institutional Islam has very shallow roots in much of Sub-Saharan Africa where it has historically been the only high religion. One can infer this from the fact that in East Africa the coastal margins were dominated by Muslim entrepots, and yet the majority of the population today is Christian in states such as Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania. Why? Because for whatever reason Muslims did not convert the interior tribes (I suspect that the fact that these peoples were a source of slaves as pagans, but would be forbidden if Muslims, might have played some role). An analogy might be Scandinavia in the late 10th century, when some warlords had converted to Christianity (e.g., Harald Bluetooth) and Christians were a presence as a minority across many regions, but paganism was still the dominant religion.

Since 1900 the proportion of Muslims has increased, but the proportion of Christians has increased far faster. Whereas the ratio of Muslims to Christians was lopsided in favor of Muslims in 1900 (with most Christians resident in Ethiopia), today there are more Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Southern and interior Central and East Africa the dominance of Christianity should be no surprise; Islam never penetrated these regions except in the form of the occasional trader, slave or otherwise. In contrast, in West Africa and in the Horn of Africa Islam arrived as an elite religion of the courts, a vector for high civilization (converting Nubia, almost conquering Ethiopia). But one needs to remember that the presence of Islam in Nigeria or the Guinea coast was never equivalent to that in Algeria or Egypt; Kambiz tells me that Muslim women in Ethiopia go topless on occasion. I think that tells you all you need to know about the penetration of Islamic values into many of these societies. The arrival of European colonialism resulted in a new avenue toward assimilation into a high culture which had nothing to do with Islam, and since 1950 the "forest zone" in much of West Africa has been Christianized. The fact that a long serving president of Benin converted from Christianity to Islam to Christianity again should illustrate the fluidity of religion in Sub-Saharan Africa (I suspect American readers might appreciate the protean & personal nature of religious affiliation in much of Sub-Saharan African better than Europeans or Asians).

The article also has out-of-control fantasies by Christian evangelists:
Although al-Qataani points to Africa, there is another phenomenon based on repulsion from Islamist dictatorship, corruption, and terrorist violence. In Iran as many as 1 million people have surreptitiously converted to Evangelical Christianity in the last five years. Pastor Hormoz Shariat claims to have converted 50,000 of them through his U.S.-based Farsi-language satellite ministry. He contrasts the upswing to the efforts of evangelical missionaries in Iran between 1830 and 1979, whose 149 years of work built a Christian community of only 3,000. One Iranian religious scholar believes youth are abandoning Islam because it is identified with the corrupt Iranian government. Now the Iranian Majlis (parliament) is debating the death penalty for conversion.

It's not impossible that there might be 1 million crypto-Christians in Iran, but do note this is a nation of 71 million. I'm sure I have enough Iranian readers to get a sense of these sorts of claims because if there really are 1 million crypto-Christians most Iranian Americans should know of them through their extended families, right? The exuberance of Christian evangelists is understandable, but the media tends to be way too credulous. Remember that some evangelical Christians claim there are over 100 million Christians in China, though surveys suggest considerably less (though more than the Chinese government admits). There are also anecdotal accounts of how hostile to Islam some Iraqis are now that Shia clericalism has somewhat of an influence. There's a problem with this though: a disproportionate number of emigrants from Iraq today are from its ancient Christian communities. It seems rather tasteless to fan flames over likely non-existent potentials to convert Iraqi Muslims to Christianity when the indigenous Christians are being driven out, and it seems that we are seeing the last generation of Christianity in Iraq (I am very skeptical that the Chaldaean Diaspora in Sweden will flock back to Iraq once it is more stable, just as the Church of the East Diaspora in the United States did not return after the expulsions of the early 20th century).

The rest of the article alludes to apostasy and conversion to Christianity in Russia, Europe and other parts of the world. I suspect the numbers for Malaysia are a bit exaggerated, especially since the source is a mufti who likely wants to justify a more aggressive role for his office, but secularization has been attested for French citizens whose families are traditionally Muslim, and Russia has a long history of converting and assimilating "Tatars" into its population. A portion of the noble Russian boyar class were derived from the elites of Turkic peoples who were brought into the fold of the expanding Empire. In places like Albania the population is predominantly secular and Christians, Hare Krishnas and Muslims are all attempting to find converts in the population.

In any case, I suspect the article was meant as a propaganda piece. I suppose it is important to rally the troops...but I'm generally not too fond of making stuff up, since that sort of behavior tends to come back and bite you. I also think some people will take it a bit too literally so I wanted to clarify a few issues....

Note: If you are interested a scholarly exposition of data, Philip Jenkins' books are pretty good. He's pro-Christian, but he is pretty good about not making stuff up or deceiving readers.