Friday, November 5, 2010

Strange Bedfellows: Ex-Muslims and the Christian Right

Just as Christianity has its defectors, so too does Islam. Ex-Muslims such as Ibn Warraq, Taslima Nasreen, and Salman Rushdie have embraced secularism and delivered hard-hitting criticism of Islam, often at great personal risk. Other ex-Muslims have converted to Christianity, finding Jesus' teachings more palatable than those of their former faith. Some, however, have found right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity to their liking.

The Religous Right, never one to pass up an opportunity, has deployed several prominent ex-Muslims in its ideological fight against Islam, including Ergun Caner and Rifqa Bary. While Ayaan Hirsi Ali (an atheist) is not a voice for the Religious Right, I fear that her comments about Christianity and Islam could all too easily play into the Religious Right's hands someday.

Personally, I can't imagine stranger bedfellows than ex-Muslims and the Religious Right. Many ex-Muslims have expressed disgust at the theocratic ambitions and misogyny they observed in Islam, so why would any of them seek refuge in fundamentalist Christianity, which is guilty of these as well? What draws them to a conservative religious framework?

(I want to be clear that I am not scoffing at healthy spiritual growth. If someone converts to Christianity with an earnest heart, that is their right. I grow concerned, however, when someone converts to fundamentalist Christianity and/or acts as a mouthpiece for the Religious Right. )

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Ergun Caner, professor at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary, stated that he was raised Sunni Muslim but converted to Christianity as a teenager. He has appeared on conservative Christian television and radio shows such as the 700 Club, Listen America with Jerry Falwell, and Focus on the Family Radio, according to his website. When I saw him speak at this year's Values Voters Summit in Washington D.C., his rhetoric was peppered with subtle homophobia and support for conservative politics. In 2010, controversy erupted when inconsistencies in Caner's statements were discovered, as Walid Zafar points out in his Huffington Post commentary.

In the video below, Caner discusses his conversion to the Christian faith. (Click here if you're having trouble viewing the video.)

Rifqa Bary, a U.S. resident of Sri Lankan ancestry, drew media attention in 2009 when she ran away from home, claiming that her Muslim parents would kill her for converting to Christianity. Her parents, however, claimed that they simply wanted her back. After an investigation, Florida law enforcement found no credible threats against her. Brian Williams, the man who baptized Bary and drove her to a bus station when she ran away, has ties to New Apostolic Reformation leader Lou Engle, as does Bary herself. Right Wing Watch has documented Lou Engle's ties to Bary here and here, as has Talk to Action here. Whether Bary was a pious girl fleeing a dangerous situation, or a vulnerable girl manipulated by fundamentalist Christians, it cannot be denied that her case became a cause celebre for several Religious Right figures.

The most baffling ex-Muslim of all may be Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad: From Islam to America. While not a Christian herself, Ali's views on religion deserve attention.

Somali by birth, Ali was raised as a Muslim and subjected to FGM as a child. As a young adult, she fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage, where she received an education and eventually earned a position in Dutch parliament. In 2004, she and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh collaborated on a short film called Submission, which shed light on the subjugation of women under Islam. That same year, van Gogh was brutally murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, and Ali went into hiding after receiving death threats. After a controversy surrounding the validity of her Dutch citizenship, Ali traveled to the U.S. and accepted a position with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Ali's first two books, The Caged Virgin and Infidel, are eloquently written and contain sensitive, intelligent social commentary. However, her most recent book, Nomad: From Islam to America, was a departure from previous works in that it suggested replacing Islam with Christianity. In chapter 16, "Seeking God but Finding Allah", Ali encourages Christians to convert Muslims to Christianity, arguing that Christianity is more peaceful than Islam and better equipped to help immigrants assimilate into Western culture. (Spencer Drew at Talking Points Memo critiques Ali's views on religion in his review of Nomad.)

In an interview with Stephen Colbert in June 2010, however, Ali did not demonstrate much knowledge of Christianity:

ALI: If you really look into the hell of Islam, the hell in the hereafter that is promised by the Muslims, it's all about being boiled and broiled and all of that.

COLBERT: Ours too.

ALI: Well, I don't know. Christians just say, "Come over, we'll tell you about Jesus Christ." I've been to church with some Christians, and I got the little thing-thing, the waffle.

COLBERT: The Eucharist, the body of Christ, God incarnate, yes.

ALI: I had no idea that it was that, so I put it in my pocket.

COLBERT: You know what? For later, when you're hungry for Jesus.

Ali's assumptions about Christianity might be true with regard to progressive and moderate denominations, but they would not be true with regard to more right-wing denominations. In my opinion, Ali does not understand (or refuses to take seriously) the very real presence that fundamentalist Christianity has in the West. In creating an idealized vision of what lived Christianity looks like, she ignores the problems that would result if fundamentalist Muslims became fundamentalist Christians. To boot, she does not demonstrate deep knowledge about the Christian faith in Nomad or her interview. Does she realize that the values of gender equality, secularism, and freedom of religion that she prizes so much are at odds with the fundamentalist Christian worldview? She may have spoken out of naivety, or she may have been encouraged to promote proselytization by conservative allies. I have no way of knowing, but Ali's ideological shift troubles me.

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What leads ex-Muslims like Caner and Bary to embrace fundamentalism of another flavor? Are they trying to replace the spiritual structure they left behind? Is the content of conservative faith familiar and thus comforting to them? I don't know the answer, but the question deserves attention.

What leads an ex-Muslim like Ali to promote religion, even after she herself has abandoned it? Perhaps she recognizes the utility of the Christian religion (but not the potential dangers)? Will her attitudes change once she sees the problems caused by fundamentalist Christianity in her new land? I certainly hope so.

There is no mystery surrounding why the Religious Right welcomes people like Caner and Bary with open arms. Defectors from an opposing religion make excellent marketing tools. I hope the Religious Right does not try to do the same with Ali's words someday, since she has far more potential than that.


  1. Was just preparing to write about Ayaan Hirsi Ali... and appreciate what you've said here. I love what she has done as an exBeliever/Fundamentalist/Woman... but I worry that she doesn't have a full understanding of how ridiculous and potentially dangerous Christian Fundamentalism can be.

    1. Christine -- Thanks. There is much to like and much to criticize about Ali's statements. I look forward to reading what you write about her.


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