Patrick Henry College
David Aikman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History and Writer in Residence at Patrick Henry College, has penned another story for a national publication. The article, entitled "A Change of Faith," appeared in the September 1, 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal and chronicled the forced conversion to Islam of two Fox News employees by Palestinian terrorists.
Aikman, a former Time magazine senior correspondent who travels widely throughout the Middle East and Asia, is frequently called upon by major media to provide expert commentary and analysis of late-breaking events in those regions. The Wall Street Journal commissioned Aikman’s story on the upswing of forced religious conversions throughout the Muslim world following his recent trip to Israel to cover the war between Israel and Lebanon. Aikman teaches upper-level courses in the modern history of China, of the Middle East, as well as a course on global international relations for the College. The multilingual professor is an acknowledged expert on the cultures and political histories of Russia, China and the Middle East.
A Change of Faith
By DAVID AIKMAN
September 1, 2006; Page W11
One of the prices paid for the release of Fox News correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig from their captivity at the hands of Palestinian terrorists last week -- aside from a six-figure cash delivery reportedly slipped under the table to the group who kidnapped them -- was a video of both men supposedly announcing their conversion to Islam. The scene on the tape was distasteful in the extreme, with the two reporters announcing their name change -- Mr. Centanni became "Khaled" and Mr. Wiig became "Yaaqob" -- and reading an obligatory denunciation of U.S. policy in the region. A tag-line on the screen said the conversion to Islam had been "without pressure." Mr. Centanni shot this assertion down almost instantly. "We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint," he told Fox News within minutes of his release.
The notion of forced conversions is extremely distasteful to Americans, though Islamic history is replete with instances of entire communities conquered by Muslims being coerced to convert, either forced to pay a special tax, or face execution. The Quran itself (Sura 2:256) says "there shall be no compulsion in religion," but in many Islamic societies the murder of someone who leaves Islam for another faith, and thus becomes an "apostate," is not a crime. Christianity, to be sure, had its own periods of enforced conversion, notably in Spain in the second half of the 15th century, when many Jews, on pain of death, had to convert to Catholicism. But in Christian history forced conversion is the historical exception and has been disavowed for centuries. In the 16th century, after the wars of religion quieted down, the notion of an inviolable individual conscience took hold within Christendom. Nowhere did it do so more firmly than in the U.S.
Since soon after the Pilgrim Fathers (who were not, at first, especially tolerant of non-Puritans), successive generations of immigrants have viewed America as a place where they could not only practice their faith freely but, if they chose to, change it. You still find Americans who say, for instance, "I'm a Catholic because my father was a Catholic," but with increasing rarity.
Under the sheltering wing of the First Amendment and a core civic belief that religious faith is a private matter and a private choice, religious Americans have overwhelmingly made the selection of their private faith as normal as choosing a breakfast cereal. Sometimes the selection seems to be as inconsequential as well. Discouragingly, large numbers of church-going Christians have no idea what their churches claim to believe.
The rest of the world is decidedly different. Even in Europe, where the right to a free choice of faith has been accepted in most countries for several generations (at least on paper), there are complications. There is a strong prejudice against Christian groups that do not conform to the general understanding of Protestant and Catholic, and especially against those with any Pentecostal tendencies, like speaking in tongues. This attitude derives from highly publicized bad experiences of some Europeans with aggressive cult-group recruiting. Both Jews and Muslims have complained of discrimination in some countries, and the annual U.S. State Department report on International Religious Freedom gives barely a passing grade to parts of Europe. Belgium and Germany were countries specifically mentioned as having problems with discrimination.
In the Hindu and Islamic worlds, the conscious choice by someone of a new religious conviction is very serious business. There are family pressures to overcome, community prejudices and, often enough, threats of violence if a conversion is actually made. Even in India, where there is a strong legal tradition since British times of religious freedom, advocates of Hindutva ("Hinduness") do everything possible to prevent people defecting from Hinduism to join other faiths. In much of the Islamic world it is technically a capital offense under Sharia, or Muslim religious law, to change one's faith. But even if it weren't, the prevailing response to a suggestion to alter one's religion would be: "Why would I want to?"
For Americans, on the other hand, variety of choice in any domain of life is seen as an inherent virtue, the greater it is, the greater the virtue. Americans like to experiment, to "mix and match," and in religion it's no different than in the department store. A friend who attended Yale divinity school a few years ago had a classmate who signed herself in as a "Catholic Buddhist." That eclecticism was not offered to Messrs. Centanni or Wiig when they faced a choice between death and conversion at the end of a gun barrel. In Islam, the supermarket of religious choice hasn't opened yet.
Mr. Aikman, a former senior correspondent with Time, is a writer in residence at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.