Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Conversations on conversion

Alexandra is incensed at Bill Maher for making light of forced conversion to Islam.

Maher isn't one of my favorites (surprise, surprise, you say), and I don't really tend to follow his shows. But in a comedy routine (video here; starts at minute two), Maher said:

New rule: If converting to Islam is all it takes to get the terrorists off our backs, then all I have to say is, “Lalalalalalala! [ulalates loudly]”...Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Bill, if we convert to Islam, doesn’t that mean the terrorists have won?” Well, sort of, but it’s a win-win, because they get to declare victory, and we get to take hair gel on the plane. Plus, we’re not really converting to Islam. We’re just telling our enemies what they want to hear, and trying to convince them we’re something we’re really not...And, it’s so simple to convert this way. You know, if you want to convert to Judaism, it’s a huge hassle. You’ve got to find a Rabbi, study the Torah, get circumcised, go to dental school. But, Mohammed made joining his team easy: two line pledge, and you’re in.

Maher loves to be controversial, and this rant is no exception. He goes on to add that conversion doesn't matter because Americans are Christians in name only and don't fulfill most of the obligations of Christianity, and that one religious fanatic is much the same as another.

To treat Maher's charges with a seriousness they perhaps don't deserve, he ignores the fact that imperfection in religious observance (charity, for example, and other kindly acts) is the rule for humanity across the board, not just in the case of Americans. He also ignores the major differences between fanatical Christians and fanatical Moslems and fanatical Jews, especially in their attitudes towards conversion, but in many other respects, as well.

Most of us can agree with Maher, however, that allowing religious fanatics of any stripe to be in charge of government would be a bad thing. The disagreement arises in the definition of "fanatic." Some, no doubt, believe that all Zionists are by definition religious fanatics. Some, no doubt, feel that the entire anti-abortion crowd--not just those who murder abortionists--are religious fanatics.

I happen to believe that not all religious fanatics are the same. And I think the evidence is clear that present-day Islamist fanatics are louder, more numerous, more powerful in their own countries, more willing to use coercion to force beliefs and practices on others, and more intent on killing very large numbers of people in their desire for religious hegemony.

That attitude towards religious hegemony--and the best means to go about achieving it, if desired--is another huge distinction between the three Abrahamic religions. Even though he's not trying to be serious, Maher touches on a very fundamental and important difference among the religions as far as conversion goes, and it's not a tangential one. The distinction goes to the heart of what each religion is in modern times--how it sees itself, its message, and its mission in the world.

Judaism makes conversion difficult for a reason. Islam makes it extremely easy for a reason. Christianity occupies a middle ground for a reason (the issues and history are far more complex than can be dealt with in this post, so the following is, quite naturally, a simplification).

Judaism has a "live and let live" attitude towards other religions. Here's a statement of the Jewish point of view:

Judaism, unlike say Christianity and Islam, is not a proselytising religion. Because it teaches that the righteous of all nations shall enter the gates of heaven, it does not have any compelling urge to rescue non-Jews from hell and damnation. There is a requirement in Jewish law to ensure the sincerity of a potential convert. Essentially, [the religious authorities] want to be sure that the convert knows what he is getting into, and that he is doing it for sincerely religious reasons.

Christianity is a proselytising religion. In modern times it does so through nonviolent means--persuasion, preaching, missionary work--although in the past coercion was sometimes involved. The idea behind both the nonviolent and the violent conversions was that Christianity was the only way to salvation, and thus it was incumbent on Christians to spread the faith.

The same is true of Islam. Islam's early tradition is one of jihad through martial conquest, giving defeated peoples "of the Book" (Christians, Jews) a choice: conversion, dhimmitude, or death. The choice for infidels was simpler: conversion or death. This was done despite verses in the Koran framing religious choice as something that should not be coerced. As in much of Islam, there are other contradictory hadiths--for example, the Verse of the Sword--that seem to prescribe forced conversion.

There is no question that Islam is a religion with a mainstream--not a fringe--belief that everyone on earth should ultimately become Moslem. In fact, it considers conversion to be a misnomer; the proper word might be reversion, since it is also believes that everyone on earth is actually born a Moslem. Islam is also the only religion of which I'm aware that considers death the punishment for renouncing the religion.

As a group that has been subjected to forced conversions for centuries--both at the hands of Christians and from Moslems--Jews have long pondered the dilemma of the reluctant potential convert. Should one resist to the death? Or is a far more serious version of Bill Maher's suggestion ("We're not really converting to Islam") acceptable: pretended conversion, allowing the convert to live and to practice Judaism in secret, hoping at some future date to become openly Jewish once again?

The great Jewish rabbi-philosopher Maimonides pondered the issue in the twelfth century, writing his "Epistle on Forced Conversion." Maimonides had an extremely personal interest in the topic, since he himself had been forced to convert to Islam in Spain in order to save his life, after which he fled that country, ending up in Egypt and returning to the practice of Judaism. His answer is that it is best to leave the area, if possible, rather than to convert, but that conversion is acceptable and forgivable in order to save one's life, especially if the intent is to practice secretly and/or to ultimately emigrate and practice the religion openly once again.

Some who are not religious may find it hard to understand what all the fuss about forced conversion is. But most probably realize that forced conversion is an affront to freedom of belief and practice, which includes the freedom to not believe and to not practice. And even Maher, in his lucid moments--and I'm sure he has a few--would agree that any religious group bent on forcibly and aggressively imposing both its belief system and its practices on others is one that must be vigorously fought against and defeated. Conversion at the point of a sword--or a gun--is the unmistakable marker of such a religious group. And such conversion seems to be the exclusive province of Islamist totalitarians these days.

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