Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion by Susan Jacoby

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion by Susan Jacoby

If you, like me, grew up receiving religious education, you likely encountered conversion stories. For Muslims, an important topic of our weekend school education in the United States is the siirah (biography, "gospel") of the Messenger Muhammad . It is replete with stories of how courageous and noble individuals, beginning with his wife Khadija and cousin `Ali, recognized him as God's Messenger. Implicitly and explicitly, those who rejected him were cruel and venal.

Susan Jacoby examines how European Christians told stories about conversion, which, under the scrutiny of modern historical method, turn out to have concealed varying degrees of coercion, and how the post-fascist Catholic Church has attempted to shift blame away from itself for the most grievous period of coercion, the enslavement and murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany.

She ends the book discussing the United States's contemporary attitude towards conversion and implications for atheists like herself. While the number of practicing/professing atheists has grown rapidly in the 21st century, Jacoby is concerned that a far greater number of Americans, particularly those who self-identify as "No religious affiliation" or "Spiritual but not religious" are in fact atheists who are coerced into concealment. She hopes that more of these people will declare for atheism and educate their children about religion so that they will not, as low-information consumers, fall prey to religion later in life.

Being accused of intending to murder our non-Muslim neighbors, we Muslims often point to this passage of the Qur'an:

لا إكراه في الدين

There is no compulsion in religion.

There are other texts which also urge Muslims protect the rights of non-Muslims.

Nevertheless, I assume that a historian could follow Jacoby's methodology and write a similar history of coerced conversions to Islam from the time of the Messenger  through the era of decolonization and post-independent states. It particularly galls me that many Muslims preachers in the United States will claim that the existence of a Muslim majority in Indonesia is proof that Islam never spread by the sword. Of course, none of these preachers know anything about the history of Southeast Asia, especially East Timor and the killings targeting Chinese (largest non-Muslim minority) in 1965. Were they to learn of these atrocities, the majority of whose victims were non-Muslims, they would claim they were the result of Muslims following secular ideologies, not Islam. Sounds familiar to the Catholic Church's claims regarding the Holocaust, doesn't it?

While I don't believe Islam mandates these gross human rights violations and while I don't consider the actions of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) to be in conformity with my understanding of Islam, after reading this book I've decided not to argue the point with the proselytizers of atheism as long as they don't advocate USA militarism. A few years ago, I decided to be a voice arguing for disestablishment of religion in the United States, where I live, and if anybody from a Muslim-majority country asks me, I'd recommend it follow the path of the United States government in avoiding establishment of religion and restriction of its practice.