The Dilemmas of Studying Conversion to Islam in the Post 9/11 World: An Interview with Dr. Scott FlowerWritten by Chelby Daigle
Australian academic Dr. Scott Flower came to Ottawa on July 25th to discuss his current research on Canadian converts to Islam. He admits that it has been hard to find Canadian converts willing to be interviewed for his current national study of conversion to Islam in Canada, funded through Project Kaniskha, which is managed by Public Safety Canada. And yes, he gets it-“It’s the whole government anti-terrorism connection!”
In Canada, there have been several converts to Islam involved in terrorist related activities including John Stewart Nuttall and Amanda Marie Korody who were arrested for plotting to bomb the B.C. legislature and Steven Vikash Chand who was convicted for being part of the Toronto 18 terrorist group that planned extensive plots against Canadian targets. Other Canadian converts have been killed in terrorist plots outside of Canada such as William Plotnikov, killed in 2012 fighting alongside jihadists in Dagestan, and Xristos Katsiroubas who was killed in the January 2012 Algerian gas plant attack in which he attempted a suicide bombing using an improvised bomb he built himself. We then know of converts who have joined ISIS and encouraged others to join them, such as Damian Clairmont from Calgary and John Maguire from Ottawa. Due to these cases, the Canadian government and law enforcement have been interested in understanding more about conversion to Islam in Canada.
In 2014, Dr. Flower published (Mis)Understanding Muslim Converts in Canada: A Critical Discussion of Muslim Converts in the Contexts of Security and Society. The paper, funded by a grant from the Canadian Network on Terrorism, Security, and Society (TSAS), is based on 25 interviews with converts in Ontario. In the paper, Dr. Flower argues that “[u]nderstanding the causes and processes of Islamic conversion in Canada is essential to avoid demonizing an entire group of people as potential terrorists on the basis of their religious choice.” His research also sees “Islamic conversion as a normal social phenomenon to be understood rather than being some form of “outlier” or “irrational” behaviour.”
Muslim Link interviewed the academic about the dilemmas of studying conversion to Islam in the Post 9/11 world.
1. The funding for your small scale study of conversion to Islam in Ontario and your current national study of conversion to Islam in Canada are both related to national security anti-terrorism interests. Let’s face it—that creeps a lot of Muslims out.
I know. But I’ve never tried to hide that that is where the funding comes from. I’ve been studying Islam long before 9/11 and it has always been a challenge to get any kind of funding in the field of Islamic Studies because with the change in the higher education sector everyone is looking for commercialization. Post 9/11, with this whole milieu of securitization of everything, it has been easier to get funding for what I am interested in studying—which is Islamic conversion. But then it’s also a bane because no one trusts you.
We totally understand that people are concerned about the security situation and the chance for misrepresentation but that is why we got academic ethics approval—all of the people who work as researchers, and myself, have done the national ethics regime examinations. Frankly, it is in our interests as academics to protect the anonymity of those interviewed because unless we can do that the reliability of anything they share with us is rubbish anyway. If they don’t trust that we can look after them and protect them, then they are just going to lie to us and that’s not in the interest of our research. We take our data handling and our interview processes very seriously because we need reliable data. How do we secure reliable data? We need to give 100% assurance that we will protect their anonymity. We are a closed house—we don’t share our data with anyone else. We don’t even capture location information or information that we feel could make it easy for someone to trace the interview back to a particular person. We even ask people when we interview them that they do not refer to their mosque’s location, it is to protect their anonymity and really that information is totally irrelevant to us.
The questions we ask are about their religious experience. How did you discover Islam? How did you learn about it? What led you to convert? So far everyone’s stories are so different. It’s fascinating really.
I still haven’t won funding to study conversion to Islam in Australia. Can you believe that? I have funding from Canada, I even have funding from the Netherlands, but I don’t have funding to study conversion to Islam in my own country. And again, it is an understudied topic. There has been some work done on the Islamic conversion of Aboriginal peoples in Australia but that’s the tip of the iceberg.
2. Why did you begin to study Islam academically in the first place?
I have been interested in Islam since I travelled to Indonesia, because growing up in Australia, that’s our nearest neighbour. There are obviously very different forms of Islam around the world with different cultural bents, different interpretations, but my time in Indonesia made me really think about the religion.
Then my time in Pakistan in 2000 is where I really learned a lot more. I was a professional mountaineer and I was in Pakistan leading a mountaineering expedition for four months. Obviously the presence of Islam in Pakistan is very strong so you can’t ignore it even if you tried to. So, when I finally did go to university I studied Islam as a religion and the political economy of various Muslim nations.
Around 2005 and 2006 there was all of this hysteria in Australia and New Zealand around terrorism and they were talking about all of these countries in the Pacific becoming “Petrie Dishes” and “Launch Pads” for terrorism and I just thought ‘My goodness! This rhetoric is ridiculous! There is no evidence! There is not a single journal article to back this up!’ And they were moving hundreds of millions of dollars from Australian Aid to deal with counter-terrorism that could have gone to poverty alleviation, which to me is the biggest problem in the Pacific. So I thought, ‘Well, okay, if there is no research on the Muslim minorities in these countries and on converts to Islam in these countries, it is time someone went and got the evidence.’ So that is what I did. I went and lived in some of these countries for six months at a time, sometimes living at the mosques and traveling around the country talking to people. So that is when my interest really started getting really strong.
3. You are one of the few academics who have extensively studied the Tablighi Jamaat movement—a movement which frankly many Muslims don’t know much about. How did that happen?
When I was in the Pacific Islands, particularly Fiji and Papua New Guinea, I discovered that Tablighi Jamaat is very active there. I was so surprised by the impact these visiting missionaries were having converting the indigenous population in these countries. These missionaries come up from Sydney or Melbourne in Australia and they are very influential in Papua New Guinea. And I think it is because they are not like the Christian missionaries. They live in the houses of the local people, they eat local food, they walk around with no shoes because they know many of the locals are too poor to have footwear; they get right down on the locals’ level. So, I started studying Tablighi Jamaat and in 2010. I organized an international workshop because there is really only between 10 to 20 scholars in academia who study Tablighi Jamaat closely. We are now trying to write a book with each author writing a chapter about the Tablighi Jamaat’s impact on their country of study. It is a very understudied movement. I have even found that it is a contentious issue among Muslims.
4. Why do you feel there is a need for academics to study conversion to Islam?
I have spent about 10 years just studying conversion to Islam. And there are so few journal articles and books on this. Really, it just blows my mind! We need the data in order to understand this extremely diverse group of people.
I have to tell you, I get invited to speak about my research at a lot of events and people will come up to me and say ‘Oh you are studying converts to Islam. All people who convert to Islam are converting to terrorism, aren’t they?’ and I’m like ‘Are you serious?’ and I’m talking about educated people, even in government, are saying stuff like this. They tell me that ‘Well, an overwhelming number of them are very political’ and I’m telling them ‘Well, that’s not the evidence that I have’.
In many respects converts are benefits to society because what I find most compelling out of the data sets I have for different countries is that almost all converts self-report higher levels of self-esteem and higher levels of greater sociability, which means that they feel more connected and feel they are adding value to their social groups post-conversion. This is really important data which I think people don’t want to talk about because it’s very positive stuff. It needs to be talked about and it needs to be put into context.
The majority of Muslim Converts in Canada never radicalize and we need to focus on them if we are going to ever understand those who do radicalize. It is a very basic concept in social science, you need to know what the baseline is before you look at the variation and we don’t even have a baseline in Canada yet!
As long as converts aren’t prepared to talk, then people who don’t understand them will speak for them. And they will talk about things that aren’t real. It is only if converts help us record their religious experiences that we can actually go to these people and say “No! No more of this rubbish! Here is the evidence!”
5. So, you are studying conversion to Islam in several countries around the world. What has struck you about Islam in Canada?
The thing that strikes me about Islam in Canada is the ethnic diversity of Islam in Canada and the impact of that ethnic diversity on practices and beliefs. You can go to a Somali-dominated mosque and a Pakistani-dominated mosque and the differences are incredible. Then, if you go into a Turkish, more Sufi-oriented, mosque it is a whole other story. So what are we really talking about when we say Islam in Canada? Let’s get into the weeds here because you have to get into the weeds if you really want to know what you are talking about. And to be completely honest, and I know many Muslims wouldn’t appreciate me saying this, but I have observed a lot of prejudice between different Muslim ethnic groups in Canada. It’s not all sisterly and brotherly love. There are people in the Canadian Ummah who don’t understand their own Ummah.
I took a real gamble to be honest when I saw that TSAS grant (this grant funded his initial study of Muslim converts in Ontario). A $15,000 grant is nothing, and I didn’t make a cent out of it, but I thought ‘Okay, I will spend all of that money on a research assistant’, and I found a fantastic partner to do the research with, Deborah Birkett, herself a convert to Islam, and we interviewed 25 people in Ontario. It was super hard to get 25 people.
6. And the results of that TSAS funded study are quite interesting. In your paper based on that research, you discuss the “Unmosqued” phenomenon—the reality that many North American Muslims feel alienated from mosques and religious institutions, because the majority of the converts you studied would be identified as “unmosqued”. How do you feel this phenomenon may be affecting new converts to Islam?
I don’t have a body of evidence to back this statement up, but I really do feel that many converts pick up pretty quickly that there are a lot of ethnic dimensions when they go to a mosque. And you have to understand that evidence shows that converts are very self-motivated, they are on their own spiritual journey so they are reading quite a lot of material about Islam; they are not coming to Islam as sheep looking for someone to follow.
So if they go to a mosque they will pick up pretty quickly if they are welcome there or not. I would say that mosques should be looking at how welcoming they are to converts or frankly even to born Muslims. If you are Somali and you are going into a predominantly Pakistani mosque and you feel unwelcome so you don’t come back it makes no sense to assume that you are going off to blow something up! So why would you assume that if a convert doesn’t come back to a mosque where they might not have felt that welcome they are then at risk of radicalization? That’s how we need to critically analyse this stuff. If they don’t come back to your mosque maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for them and they are going to try to find somewhere else that they feel is more accepting of them.
So where are they going instead? That is the bigger question I have as an academic. If they are not going to the mosque, where are they going? Who do they connect with? Are they mostly living in virtual communities? That is definitely part of what we are trying to understand. But I definitely think you are seeing the “Unmosqued” phenomenon happening in Canada as it is in the US.
7. There are concerns about the vulnerability of new converts to Islam, whether it be to radicalization or to social exploitation. Do you think there is evidence for these concerns?
Let’s step back from just looking at Muslim converts. All religious converts are vulnerable. The literature and evidence from studies of religious converts in general, whether it be Jewish or Christian, particularly Pentecostal Christian—most of the data that we have shows that there are vulnerabilities in these individuals. They may have perceptions of personal crisis. They may have perceptions of social crisis. All of these factors make them vulnerable. That is one of the themes that runs through conversion in general—people feel dislocation or disillusionment or a lack of a sense of meaning or direction in life. They might lack social networks of value. These are all vulnerabilities and crises in their personal worldview. So, crisis is common to the narratives of all converts, regardless of religious types.
Unfortunately, these days, people are coming at the study of Islam from this narrow security angle. That’s our challenge as academics. Instead of diving in so deep that we can’t see the woods for the trees anymore, we need to step back and start looking at the wider social context. Really, how unique are these individuals? Are they really unique at all? In terms of the patterns of behaviour, their biographies, are people who convert to Islam really that unique from people who convert to other religions? I’m still not sure because I don’t have the data so I have an open mind about it. We just need more data points, which is why we are really desperate to get more converts to interview in Canada.
8. Are you seeing in your research that women marrying Muslim men as the main driver of conversion in Canada?
Historically, this aspect is clear in the literature. In the past, there were definitely more women converting to Islam because of marriage. But I don’t think that literature is any longer relevant today. What I think we are seeing more now is free independent women, non-Muslim, making an active choice to convert to Islam for their own personal reasons. I think now more than ever we are seeing conversion of women of their own free will and not under the influence of men who they are in a romantic relationship with, which I find quite refreshing and fascinating really. Hopefully, we can interview more female converts because I want to understand this phenomenon much more.
9. Do you feel that imams and Muslim institutions could learn from your research findings?
I have spoken to imams in Canada who have said that this is one of the most important things they need help with. Imam Yusuf Badat spoke to me about this when I met him in Ottawa about a year and a half ago. He said ‘We really don’t know anything about converts.’ And I said ‘I know! And academia doesn’t know much about them either and that is why I find them so fascinating.’ Imams are all nervous about what all these new converts mean because they don’t understand converts.
I think if imams in Canada want to learn how to help converts, they should ask converts. This is not the Nanny State as if someone else knows better than they do. They know what they need. Ask them how they feel in the community. Ask them how they feel when they go to the mosque. What could be done to make them feel more welcome? Just ask them. I know from my research in other countries that there are some fantastic programs to support converts, even here in Australia there’s Benevolence Australia—they are doing fantastic work. And it’s not isolating converts; it’s not like ‘Let’s put all of the converts in a special room together.’ It is about helping them engage with the broader Muslim community.
10. In your study of converts in Ontario, several converts you interviewed refused to identify with any Muslim religious denomination and insisted on being “Just Muslim”. Why do you think that is?
Unlike many born Muslims who are much more acculturated into sectarian beliefs, I see converts as coming in at a higher level. They look more holistically at things and they are probably reading a lot more widely as well.
One of the big draw cards for Muslims which seems pivotal in their choice to convert is the concept of Tawhid, the Oneness of God. In that simple philosophy alone there doesn’t leave much space for sectarian division. If you are coming in from the outside and Tawhid is one of the things you embrace Islam for then why would you bother trying to dig up dirt on other types of Muslims like ‘Oh, they are Shia so I’m not going to talk to them.’ Converts are not coming with that cultural baggage. If they see another Muslim to them they are just another brother or sister. I think it is kind of nice to see from our research that converts are less engrained in that sectarianism. That does seem to be what is coming through the data.
11. Tell us about your own religious background.
I’m a prevaricating Catholic and a nominal one at that. You go through indoctrination as a school child and through high school but I haven’t been to church since year 12 in high school because it was compulsory. For me, my intellect is a barrier because my job is to be skeptical about everything.
12. In your study of converts in Ontario you asserted that it is important to see conversion to Islam as “normal” and not an “irrational behaviour”. As such a skeptic, how can you see conversion that way?
Who am I to judge? I’m just a human being. What I observe is that most people who convert feel better about themselves and about the world around them. I’m simply the skeptic who is trying to understand why. I don’t think you need to be religious to be respectful of other people’s religious beliefs. A true skeptic has to have an open mind.
To learn more about the Canadian Convert Study, including how to participate, read this article.
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