‘Gujarat government received 1,838 applications for conversion in five years. 1,735 were Hindus, 57 Muslims, 42 Christians and four Parsis’
Thiruvananthapuram:Akhila Ashokan’s conversion to Islam and her subsequent marriage to Shafin Jahan has not only raised eyebrows but has reached another level with the National Investigation Agency beginning its probe into the issue.
But, before taking first step, it should try to comprehend why thousands in the West, particularly those from the white middle class, have chosen to become Muslim.
A Minority Within A Minority, a report released in 2011 by the London-based Faith Matters, an organisation of faith communities seeks to reduce conflict and fight extremism. The report was based on a survey conducted by MA Kevin Brice, of Swansea University, who specializes in studying the conversion of whites to Islam.
Brice calculated that there were 60,669 converts in the United Kingdom in 2001, 55% of whom belonged to white ethnic groups. Ten years later, the number of converts was estimated to have crossed 1,00,000. In 2010 alone, 5,200 people were said to have embraced Islam. Brice, as also others, believe women converts outnumber men by two to one.
In the United States, the Pews Research Centre estimated that 23% of 3.3 million Muslims in 2015 were converts to Islam. Among the converts, 91% were born in the US and almost 59% were African-Americans. A 2001 study of Ihsan Bagby, of the University of Kentucky, estimated that 27% of converts to Islam were white. Different studies show that women converts outnumber men in the US by four to one.
Conversion for two reasons:
While most embrace Islam for convenience because their partners are Muslim, others experience cultural engagement with Sufism, travels, and Muslim friends, thereby discover Islam which eventually leads to their conversion.
In the Faith Matters survey, 45% of conversion was not linked to marriage in any way. They converted before they were married, and their decision to choose partners from within their faith flowed naturally from their embracing Islam.
Coming to the case of Akhila, now Hadiya, conforms to this trend that she was not dating Shafin Jahan at the time of her conversion. Thereafter, she registered on a matrimony website and chose Jahan because, as she said, he met the yardsticks she had laid out.
The Faith Matters survey reported that 86% of respondents received help from friends or acquaintances to convert, 96% from books, and 64% from the internet. Only 52% received no help or advice from mosques for their proselytisation. These figures demonstrate that people wishing to convert tap several resources to do so simultaneously.
According to Hadiya, her inspiration to convert was a Muslim girl, Jaseena, with whom she lived during her college days. According to a Scroll.in report, Jaseena’s father tried to dissuade her from adopting Islam, but once he realised that she was adamant, he took her to the Therbiayyathul Islam Sabha in Kozhikode, one of two government-recognised centres of conversion to Islam in Kerala.
The attraction of Islam’s strict rules had Yasir Suleiman, the founding director of the Centre for Islamic Studies, Cambridge University, to note: “The question female converts often face is this: ‘why would a liberated/free Western woman embrace a backward faith that oppresses her?’ The fact that conversion to Islam may be a rational choice made to deal with some real philosophical and existential problems facing female converts in the modern world appears to be an embargoed idea…”
Suleiman made this observation in the preface he wrote for Cambridge University’s Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives, a study released in 2013 and downloaded 1,50,000 times. Three years later, the University published a report on male perspectives on conversion. Both reports testify to the white middle class turning to Islam to cope with the pressure of modernity.
In its commentary on Cambridge University’s reports, The Economist magazine observed: “In all manner of ways, from consumer products to moral values to personal styles, Western culture of the 21st century lauds variety, choice, experimentation. A Westerner who converts to Islam is making a self-conscious move in a diametrically opposite direction: accepting non-negotiable rules in respect of diet, dress, sexual and social behaviour. Perhaps the prolixity of mainstream culture makes the uncompromising strictness of Islamic rules more attractive to a significant minority.”
Hadiya, in her affidavit to the Kerala High Court, said ‘she was attracted to Islam by the timely prayers it prescribes, apart from the good character of her flatmate, Jaseena, and her sister, Faseena.’
Julie Bindel, a feminist writer who rejects religion on the grounds that it promotes inequality between men and women, was intrigued by educated Muslim women being attracted to Islam. Bindel met Birmingham University’s Haifaa Jawad, author of Muslim Women in the United Kingdom and Beyond. Jawad said “Islam provides a sense of belonging and a clear identity. Islam has clarity to it that some other religions or lifestyles do not. Some women in the West may feel let down by feminism. But it is for spiritual reasons that many women convert. We have to ask, why go through with it despite the negative view of Islam at present?”
This is the question to be asked of Hadiya as well. Why did she convert to Islam given Hindutva’s demonisation of Muslims, its onslaught against them in the country? Perhaps we cannot comprehend her choice as she wrote, “Perhaps it is my disdain for all religion, perhaps it is my radical feminism.”
Hadiya’s Islamic Charisma:
The trend of white middle class people converting to Islam is in contrast to the trend decades ago. At that time, conversion was a mark of protest by African-Americans raging against racism. In India too, conversion to Islam has been a form of protest against the inequalities of the caste system.
However, Hadiya did not describe her conversion as a protest. She was attracted to Islam, as she said, because of her flatmate Jaseena’s good character – shorthand perhaps for Jaseena being friendly to her after she moved in 2011 to Salem in Tamil Nadu, 400 km away from home, to attend college – and the discipline of praying five times daily. Hadiya ascribed the personal traits of Jaseena to Islam, which might have seemed a buoy to her 18-year-old self in Salem, far away from home.
Conversion in India:
Muslims constitute 14.2% of India’s population today, up from 13.4% in 2001. The rise is ascribed to an inflow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and to the community’s higher fertility rate. We have no idea how many of Muslims are first-generation converts.
A 2016 Times of India story showed that the Gujarat government in the preceding five years received 1,838 applications for conversion, mandatory under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act. Of these applicants, 1,735 were Hindus, 57 Muslims, 42 Christians and four Parsis.
Obviously, thousands of Dalits who embraced Buddhism in Junagadh in 2013 did not file applications with the government. Barring mass conversions, the Gujarat government’s figures show that the incidence of conversion is likely insignificant. Does it mean that politics drive the National Investigation Agency and its Hindutva masters to become apoplectic over cases of Hindus individuals embracing Islam?