Historically, religious conversions in Europe have always come with a strong odor of coercion. In countries dominated by Catholics during the Middle Ages, Jews were often compelled to convert to Catholicism—or else. During the Crusades, Christian armies imposed religious conversions on Muslims and Jews during its multicentury attempts to repatriate the Holy Land from what they considered the less worthy children of Abraham.
Religious coercion is never a one-way street. Since the fall of the secular strong men who used to protect religious minorities throughout the region, Christians have seen the severity of persecution and religious coercion rise dramatically. The fundamentalist death cult Islamic State prides itself on cleansing “infidels” from territory it controls by either killing religious minorities outright or imposing upon them the option of conversion to a feudal vision of Islam.
This is the backdrop to a remarkable phenomenon taking place in a post-Christian Europe struggling with a nearly unprecedented refugee crisis. Muslim immigrants from Pakistan and refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are converting to Christianity in record numbers. As a result, it’s starting to get downright awkward at dusty baptismal fonts from Amsterdam to Berlin. New Christians with Muslim names like Farooq and Humma are beginning to outnumber the righteous old-timers whose numbers have shrunk to dozens over the years.
As men and women who once swore allegiance to Allah fill the largely abandoned churches of Europe with energy and enthusiasm they haven’t seen in decades, those who have been nominally Christian for decades for political and social reasons are asking whether these “new Christians” are simply wily opportunists trying to ensure that their asylum requests will be granted. After all, in some countries, Muslim converts to Christianity would be marked for death if returned to their hometowns. The fear of Muslims, even ex-Muslims, is so persistent that there is suspicion in some religious and political circles that the new converts to the faith are only pretending to be Christians. They suspect a plot to infiltrate and take over the empty churches of Europe and convert them to crypto-mosques.
According to this notion, it is only a matter of time before a modified version of Shariah law emerges from the pews and strangles European Christendom—or what’s left of it—from within. This fear is based on the belief in some paranoid circles that merely pretending to be a convert to another religion when it is advantageous to do so is a time-honored practice in militant Islam. Becoming a spiritual double agent, even to the point of abandoning the veil, wearing crucifixes and getting Jesus tattoos is justified as long as it eventually leads to martyrdom and the beheading of “real” infidels.
What is never explained in this theory is how Muslims back in the home country who want to enforce the death penalty against apostates are supposed to distinguish the fake converts from the real deal if they’re sent back. And if the boys back home can’t tell the difference between real and fake Christian converts, how are “super strong” Christians like Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump supposed to carry out a threatened ban against Muslims entering the United States now that some are claiming that they’re Christian? Conversions in post-Christian Europe by Muslims, even though they may only be a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of devout Muslims who have migrated there, creates a dilemma for the “Christian majority” subculture in America grown accustomed to its casual Islamaphobia. How, exactly, does one go about demonizing “the Other” when “the Other” turns out to be a newly minted brother or sister in Christ? And isn’t there something unChrist-like about claiming to love others only after they have converted to Christianity?
But I suspect there will always be something vaguely “Muslimy” about Muslim converts to Christianity as far as Americans are concerned. After all, these new Christians come to Jesus from a tradition where praying publicly or behind closed doors many times a day is no big deal. There’s something alien and un-American about that. What if these new Christians bring their former devotion and spiritual discipline to their new faith? There might be a revolution in piety and moral seriousness that could upset Christianity’s longstanding compromises with the world.
If an America presided over by either a President Clinton or a President Trump were to suddenly allow Muslim converts to Christianity to enter this country willy-nilly, how long would it take before “Brother Abdullah” and “Sister Yaani” are speaking out against such time-tested Christian cultural practices as usury, binge drinking at football games and the eating of pork? American Christianity would be in very real danger of being taken over by the kind of people who take religious devotion a little too seriously. What could be scarier than bearded men with blazing eyes quietly urging even the faithful to repent?