People can change, even radically. The best evidence of this truism can be found in the two chapters on conversion of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. The tearing apart of a personality is the equivalent of massive trauma to the body: horribly painful, disorienting, dangerous. The reconstituting of a personality along new axes – conversion – is experienced as bliss, and retained as a leap forward in understanding.
Radical change occurs when a person feels deeply troubled by his present state. In religious conversion, but also in some secular events such as the swearing off of drink by an alcoholic, the change tends to be away from pride and self-indulgence, and toward humility and responsibility. Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the online Times about conversions to Islam in British prisons, shows us that this pattern is not universal.
Prison conversions produced two terrorists, Richard Reid and Muktar Said-Ibrahim. According to Dalrymple, such conversions to Islam are common, much more so than to Christianity. He speculates that, in the ordinary way of conversions, prisoners as they grow older wish to change their lives away from crime, toward responsibility. Islam provides the tight structures of submission required by these men, and as an added selling point inspires fear in mainstream British society.
“By adopting Islam,” Dalrymple writes, “prisoners are killing two birds with one stone: they are giving themselves boundaries so that they can commit no more crimes – at least of the ordinary kind – and yet do not feel that they have capitulated to the demands of society.” He goes on:
There is one final factor: the match that puts the flame to the combustible mixture is a general sense of grievance and of a grave injustice that they believe has been done them. By injustice they do not mean that they did not do what they were accused of having done. On the contrary, they know perfectly well that, like most other prisoners, they have committed between five and fifteen times more crimes than they have been accused of, and indeed celebrate the fact as a great accomplishment.
No, by injustice they mean social injustice, the opposite of what is called social justice. It has nothing to do with an individual getting his deserts for his own actions. Their justice is an ideal state of affairs, as impossible of realisation as of definition, but which includes an effortlessly acquired, endless supply of women and BMWs. Much religious zealotry is, in effect, disappointed and embittered materialism.
The politico-religious fanaticism of which we are rightly afraid is thus not the product of Islam alone, but of an amalgam of Islam with sociological ideas according to which people are victims of structural injustice, of the modern equivalent of djinns such as institutionalised racism.
All this is in agreement with the thesis put forward by Olivier Roy in Globalized Islam, to the effect that the ideals and methods of Islamic theocrats are not derived from ancient traditions but quite the opposite, from contempt and loathing of such traditions by well-educated, self-glorifying males. Their approach to Islam is almost consumeristic and menu-driven. Dalrymple’s analysis also falls in with David Ignatius’ acute description of radical Islam as the “revolt of the privileged,” whose religion resembles violent cults like the Symbionese Liberation Front more than any version of Islam found in history.
UPDATE: This long NYT piece by Amy Waldman, while a tad too eager to rationalize the terrorists’ behavior, essentially draws the same profile as Dalrymple. Pakistani immigrants of the older generation worked like beasts of burden to improve their children’s lot. The younger generation looked on them with contempt.
Many were sucked into what both Waldman and Dalrymple portray as a degrading urban environment of drugs and booze. A few were “converted” to Islam, but sought to tailor their religion to match their obsession with the politics of revenge. They left the mainstream mosque because it was inauthentic, then left the stricter mosque as well because in the end traditional Islam, historical Islam, had nothing to offer them.
Religiously, the young men came at Islam like converts – questioning everything, accepting nothing. If they were going to practice, they wanted to do it in what they considered the right way. If they wanted to go to heaven, they felt, they had to find the purest form. They wanted evidence for whatever they did in the Koran.
All of the young men quickly rejected the Islam of their parents, who practice a Sufi-influenced strain of the subcontinent called Barelvi. Shaped partly by Hindu and folk customs, it believes in the power of pirs, or holy men, and their shrines. […]
For educated young European Muslims who learned nothing of their own history in school, Salafism is a natural fit, Mr. Ballard said. It provides unequivocal answers. And, he said, it is largely “do it yourself.”
In Beeston, the young men did do it themselves. After they left the mosques they gravitated to the Iqra Learning Center. There, they were free of their elders and their old ways. They held study circles, debated and produced literature and videos, all with an agenda that was political as much as religious.
One obvious lesson that leaps out these life stories is the need for Britons to articulate and take seriously the moral ideals that shape their way of life. You can’t beat something with nothing. If the alternative to radicalism is a life of revolting self-indulgence, devoid of higher meaning, there will be radicals for a long time to come.