Canadians converting to Islam: A rocky, complex road, new study finds

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SHAFAQNA - Canadian converts to Islam risk social and religious isolation because of rejection by their families and disinterest from inhospitable mosque communities, a new groundbreaking study is revealing.

“Converts are disconnected from mosque communities usually because they are from a different ethnic background,” said Australian researcher Dr. Scott Flower during a weekend Ottawa workshop on conversion.

Mosques are initially warm and welcoming to converts because conversion is one of their duties, he said.

But the welcome can quickly wear out.

“Most mosques are Pakistani, Turkish, Saudi or whatever, and converts are not being accepted into those communities,” he said. “So they are outsiders. If they are not connecting to the mosque and they lose their families, they are doubly isolated.”

Flower, a professor in political economy at the University of Melbourne, is leading the first known Canadian study into conversion to Islam.

The study, featuring a 70-question survey for participating converts across the country, and separate interviewing of imams, is being funded with a $170,000 grant from Public Safety Canada.

Flower has conducted similar studies in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Public Safety officials haven’t specifically told Flower what they hope to gain from the study when the research is complete and analyzed, likely early next year.

“They don’t know anything about Muslim converts in this country because there is still not one peer-reviewed academic journal article on the topic,” he said. “They are trying to get any general information they can to better understand converts.

“And I’m glad because in their world they see everything through this tiny pipe called classified information,” added Flower. “It’s much broader and much more complex. Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of converts never radicalize or even get political. They just practise their religion. If you want to understand those who do (radicalize), you also have to understand those who don’t.”

Flower concedes that an atmosphere of suspicion among Canadian Muslims in the “post-911 environment” could be impacting the quality of the study.

“They are living in this environment and it’s not conducive to openness,” he said. “They ask, ‘Do you work for CSIS?’ or, ‘Do you work for the government?’ Even if they don’t ask it, it has to be on their minds. It’s the reality of doing research on this very sensitive topic.”

While it’s generally accepted that conversion to Islam is a growing phenomenon, Flower says a lack of co-operation from imams he and his researchers have approached so far is making it difficult to quantify.

But there is no simple answer to why Canadians convert, he added.

“We can’t say it’s lack of education because we have people who are professors, have master’s degrees or Grade 12 educations. It’s not about income, either. We have people in our sample who are incredibly wealthy and have converted and people on welfare who have converted.”

But typically, he says, converts experience a spiritual search or personal crisis before converting — a common trait, too, in Canadians gravitating to Pentecostal Christianity, another growing branch of religion.

“They might be alcoholics or drug abusers, and seeking to solve and rectify that in some way,” said Flower. “Islam and Pentecostal converts are seeking security — Pentecostal Christianity, no drinking. Islam, no drinking. It’s black and white, and that simplicity is very powerful for someone who is confused, disoriented and unhappy.”

Converting to Islam is basically the acknowledgment that the prophet Muhammad is the messenger of Allah and Allah is the one God.

But Flower says his research is showing that it takes converts from six to 12 months between discovering Islam and that final step.

“So it’s not spontaneous, not a rash thing” he said. “Most Muslim converts think deeply about conversion. It’s a big commitment.”

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