Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. Although much of the spread has been driven by immigration and higher birth rates among Muslims living in Europe, conversion of native Europeans also figures in this growth. A convert is defined as one who has changed membership from one religious group (for example, Christianity) to another religious group (for example, Islam). One can only speculate about the exact number of Muslim converts in Europe since most European population surveys do not include a question on religion. In total, there are likely 200,000-320,000 converts in Europe, making up less than two percent of Europe’s Muslim population.
Generally speaking, most European converts tend to follow liberal interpretations of Islam. Since they grew up in modern and secular societies, converts naturally adjust Islam to fit their own needs. Moreover, the social environment in which converts live compels them to behave in a certain way to maintain an “acceptable” professional and social image. Suspicion and often discrimination against European Muslims means that many converts maintain a low profile to avoid harassment and exclusion.
While European converts to Islam represent only a tiny percentage of Europe’s Muslim population, members of that group have been increasingly vocal and active about Islamic issues. More importantly, European converts have participated in most terrorist plots and actual attacks that have taken place on European soil since 9/11. The shoe bomb plot in 2001, the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005 respectively, the transatlantic aircraft plot in 2006, the 2007 bomb plot in Germany, and the 2010 Moscow metro bombings all shared one common feature: European converts to Islam were involved at various levels and stages.
In total, at least 40 converts had a confirmed role in the plotting and/or execution of terrorist attacks in European countries in the last 20 years. Although in absolute numbers jihadist converts are a small group, they represent a significant subgroup of Europe’s terrorists. Their significance also stems from the fact that in many European societies converts tend to be less physically visible than Muslims of immigrant origin. Indeed, jihadist converts have taken advantage of the Schengen Treaty and U.S. visa-waiver programs to travel without much scrutiny. European governments must carefully choose strategies and policies for dealing with converts, if they are to avoid a threat to European security.
This article first analyzes the factors leading some Europeans to embrace Islam before examining the phenomenon of activism among converts, focusing on certain individuals and organizations. Islamic activism does not necessarily lead to radicalization, but it can reveal political trends within the community of converts. Therefore, it is important to understand the social world of European converts and how it is organized.
Factors Leading Europeans to Conversion
Conversions of native Europeans to Islam took place in West European countries from the 1960s onward and were the result of two important developments: post-war Muslim immigration and the rise of protest and counterculture movements in the 1960s. The first generation of Muslim immigrants remained rather isolated from the rest of society; the second and third generations of Europe’s Muslims, however, have increasingly married outside their religious group. Although circumstances differ from country to country, many non-Muslim partners typically convert to Islam to receive approval from their in-laws. Additionally, individuals involved in Hippie and other counterculture movements embraced Sufism as a spiritual alternative. The fact that Sufism is a mystical and spiritual movement within the Muslim faith, in search of communication with God through ascetic practices, was appealing to those who rejected Christianity for being too “materialistic.”
Following the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, there is currently another wave of conversions. In the post-Cold War era, Islam is often viewed as a religion of rebels. Interestingly, many former Marxists have been involved in a renewed quest for identity, which partly shows itself in an interest in Islam. A growing number of former Marxists have converted to Islam, including prominent French philosopher Roger Garaudy.
In addition, individuals have embraced Islam for more personal reasons. It is common for many new Muslims to mention an event that changed their lives forever and eventually led to their conversion. For example, and strictly anecdotally, a young Dutch man thought that it was a love disappointment; an English woman believed that it was the death of her brother from drug abuse that convinced her to “search for the truth”; an English man mentioned “troubles with the law.”
Converts are keen to demonstrate to their circles their allegiance to the (proper) Muslim way of life. Therefore, they often quit habits such as drinking alcohol and eating pork. Many converts have mentioned difficult times they had with parents and siblings when they announced to them their decision to embrace Islam. As a Greek-Canadian female explained, “her parents believed at first that she betrayed her culture.” Female converts have faced strong criticism for their decision to wear a hijab which, from the Western point of view, has largely symbolized oppression. In the words of a Dutch woman, “people felt sorry for me and almost treated me as a victim. To them, I was a woman who had been coerced by her husband into giving up her rights.”
According to a 2007 New York Police Department report entitled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, “converts have played a prominent role in the majority of terrorist case studies and tend to be the most zealous members of groups. Their need to prove their religious convictions to their companions often makes them the most aggressive.” Indeed, there have been a few cases of European converts, like the French brothers Jerome and David Courtailler, whose conversion zeal led them to “prove” their commitment to the new faith by joining jihadist groups.
Islamic Activism and Converts
The phenomenon of Islamic activism first appeared in Europe in the late 1980s, when the Salman Rushdie affair erupted in the United Kingdom. Thousands of Muslims protested against the British author and burned copies of his book, The Satanic Verses. Quintan Wiktorowicz has defined Islamic activism as “the mobilization of contention to support Muslim causes.” In recent years, there has been a growing number of converts who have taken a public stance on Islam-related issues. They often feel more confident than Muslims of immigrant origin to criticize government policies and defend Islamic agendas. Non-Muslims are usually suspicious of converts because they “abandoned the religion of their forefathers.” On the contrary, many Muslim activists view these converts as mediators between authorities and the Muslim community.
One of the most famous Islamic activists in the United Kingdom is Yvonne Ridley, a journalist of leftist background who converted to Islam after being freed from Taliban captivity in October 2001. In 2004, Ridley entered British politics as a candidate European MP for the Respect coalition party. The party had been established by former Labour MP George Galloway together with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain, and prominent members of the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain. According to its manifesto, the party condemns ”Islamophobia and the demonization of Muslim communities.” Ridley herself has turned into a vocal and controversial figure, referring to Shamil Basayev as a rebel leader who “led an admirable fight to bring independence to Chechnya” and defending Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi for his 2005 Amman bombings in Jordan. Her inflammatory rhetoric about Israel and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has made her a popular figure within Europe’s Islamist circles.
Pierre Vogel represents another interesting case of a convert who turned into an Islamic activist. He was born in Germany and converted to Islam at the age of 23 while he was a professional boxer. After studying for two years in Mecca, Vogel returned to Germany and started preaching Salafism. Vogel has used the internet to reach out to young German Muslims. In December 2009, Swiss authorities barred him from attending a demonstration against the minaret ban in Bern. Due to his anti-integration messages, the 32-year-old self-appointed imam has also been monitored by German authorities who worry about radicalism among the country’s large Muslim community.
The Dutchman Abdul-Jabbar van de Ven is another leading Islamic convert. He converted to Islam at the age of 14. He studied in Amman and Medina before returning to the Netherlands. He has preached Salafism in the notorious al-Fourqaan mosque in Eindhoven. Like Pierre Vogel, Van de Ven has used the internet extensively to propagate his Islamist messages. He has also been known for his controversial statements regarding the assassination of Theo van Gogh. Van de Ven was under investigation for his relationship with Jason Walters, a radical Dutch-American convert, who turned into a terrorist.
For years, Europe’s Islamist groups have recruited converts and promoted them to senior positions. In particular, Hizb al-Tahrir has recruited an increased number of converts who tend to be middle class and highly educated. The Canadian Jamal Harwood is a well-known convert in the British branch of Hizb al-Tahrir. Al-Muhajiroun, an offshoot of Hizb al-Tahrir in the United Kingdom that was supposedly dissolved in 2004, also recruited a number of converts; indeed, some of them like Simon (or Suleiman) Keeler, the former spokesman, managed to climb the organizational pyramid.
Despite this, and as a result of their small numbers, there are only a limited number of Islamic groups and organizations in Europe run and controlled by converts. The most important such organizations are the following.
The Islamic Party of Britain
The Sunni-oriented Islamic Party of Britain (IPB) was established at the time of the Rushdie affair in September 1989. The party was dissolved in 2003 because it never managed to gain much support from Muslims in constituencies where the party stood. In the November 1990 by-election, for example, held in the constituency of Bradford North, an area with a large Muslim population, the IPB won only 2.2% of the votes. In reality, the huge majority of British Muslims, who are of South Asian origin, could not identify with a party run mostly by white converts. The party was founded and led by David Musa Pidcock, who is English, and Sahib Mustaqim Bleher, who is German. Another reason for its limited electoral appeal was probably its Islamist ideology. The party argued that “Islam is the solution to the world’s problems. No other religion, way of life or culture can possibly succeed, because only truth can satisfy the soul of humankind, and only the guidance, laws, and concepts taught to us by God are capable of achieving just balance.” In other words, the IPB believed in the superiority of Islam and advocated the imposition of Shari`a, which automatically limited its appeal among non-religious and secular British Muslims.
The Association for British Muslims
The Association for British Muslims (AOBM) was established in 1974 and claims to represent the interests of British converts. The AOBM has promoted a “British Islam,” arguing that British traditions are “compatible with Islam.” The AOBM has portrayed itself as a rather apolitical organization that advocates integration and avoids controversial issues. It has focused on public activities such as conferences, public lectures, community and charitable services. Some of its members were involved in the humanitarian missions for the Bosnian Muslims in the early to mid-1990s. For instance, Neil (Ibrahim) Golightly, a 34-year-old convert from Glasgow, was killed while trying to bring food and supplies to besieged Sarajevo in August 1995. The AOBM has celebrated him as a shahid (martyr) who fell for a just cause. The group remains active today.
The Finish Islamic Party (Suomen islamilainen puolue)
The Finish Islamic Party was established in 2007 by Finnish converts Abdullah Tammi and Abdullah Rintala. Its membership is unknown but estimated to be only a few hundred people. The party, which has limited influence among Finland’s 40,000-50,000 Muslims (most of whom have Tatar origin), supports a ban on alcohol sales and gender segregation for Muslims. It has also favored Finland’s withdrawal from the European Union. The FIS has increasingly taken a stand in many pan-Islamic issues (such as the war in Iraq and the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy). Due to Tammi’s past as a KGB agent, the FIS has followed a pro-Russian line. For example, the party has been highly critical of Estonia for its “apartheid policies” under which the “educational system discriminates against Russian-speakers.”
Islamic Board of Spain (Junta Islámica de España)
The Islamic Board of Spain (IBS) has been one of the most active and vocal Islamic organizations in Europe. Although the IBS is open to all Muslims, its leadership consists mainly of Spanish converts. IBS has promoted a moderate and more “Westernized” Islam, with the encouragement of the Zapatero government. Moreover, the organization has denounced terrorism by jihadist groups. In March 2005, the IBS grabbed international media attention when it issued a fatwa against Usama bin Ladin, which stated that “as long as Usama bin Ladin and his organization defend the legality of terrorism and try to base it on the Sacred Qur’an and the Sunna, they are committing the crime of istihlal (i.e. distortion of the Islamic law) and they have become ipso facto apostates (kafir murtadd), who should not be considered Muslim nor be treated as such.”
Yet the IBS has sparked some controversy in regard to the “al-Andalus issue.” From 711 to 1492, a great part of the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslim kingdoms. For many centuries, the Andalusian city of Cordoba in southern Spain was one of the most important centers of Islamic culture. After the fall of Grenada in 1491, most of the Muslims left for North Africa. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, the symbol of Muslim Spain for centuries, was converted to a Roman Catholic Church. Since then, Muslims have not been allowed to pray in the building. For several years, Juma Islamica has petitioned unsuccessfully both the local church authorities and the Vatican to open the building to Muslims.
The repatriation of Moriscos is another issue raised by the IBS. Following the Reconquista of Andalusia, the remaining Muslim population converted under the threat of exile to Christianity and came to be known as Moriscos. One hundred years later, however, the Spanish throne expelled them to North Africa. In 2006, Junta Islamica endorsed a proposal made by the Andalusian branch of United Left (a Spanish left-wing party) to enable descendants of the expelled Muslim population to gain Spanish citizenship.
The persecution of Muslims by the Christian medieval armies and the loss of Spain have been often mentioned by Islamist groups as proof of Western intolerance. Therefore, several Islamist groups, including al-Qa`ida, have openly called for the reconquest of al-Andalus. At the beginning, the issue was taken lightly. Following the Madrid bombings in March 2004, however, the IBS’ interest in al-Andalus has only reinforced suspicion among the conservative segments of society that Spanish converts have a secret agenda to “re-Islamize” Spain.
The Association of Muslims in Greece (Enosi Mousoulmanon Elladas)
The Association of Muslims in Greece (AMG) was established in 2003 to “defend the Muslims’ rights in several fields.” Although the current president, Naim el-Ghandour, is a naturalized Greek citizen of Egyptian origin, the AMG is run mostly by Greek converts. Greece’s Muslim population is estimated at around 250,000-300,000 people, excluding the indigenous, largely Turkish-speaking Muslim community of northeastern Greece and the large Albanian immigrant community whose members are either secular or Christian. Despite constituting only a small percentage of the Muslim community in Greece, the AMG’s converts have been vocal on Muslim issues. At the beginning, the AMG focused on symbolic topics such as the construction of a mosque and a Muslim cemetery in Athens, where the majority of the Muslim population currently resides. Following the wars in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2008 respectively, however, the AMG has increasingly taken part in protests and sit-ins against the United States and Israel.
Despite being negatively presented in the media and elsewhere, Islam has won thousands of new followers in many European countries. Although many would stereotypically associate jihadist terrorists as Arabs or South Asians, European converts have actually participated in most terrorist plots and actual attacks that have taken place on European soil since 9/11.
While at least 40 European converts have turned into jihadist terrorists, a much larger number of them have been mobilized around Islamic issues. Being familiar with the political culture and system of government of their own countries, many converts have been involved in Islamic activism, defending Muslim rights and in some cases propagating Islamist messages. Having diverse agendas, organizations which are run by converts cannot be treated as a monolithic world. The IPB and the FIS have been outright Islamist groups, whereas AOBM, IBS, and AMG have mostly focused on social, religious and cultural issues.
The converts working for these organizations come from different backgrounds and certainly follow different interpretations of Islam. What they have in common is a deep sense of personal commitment to the “defense” of Islam from external criticism. They act as cultural intermediaries because they belong both to their native society and to the umma. Therefore, they seek to promote a less Arab-looking and more Europeanized Islam that dares to confront its “enemies.” These converts largely perceive themselves as an Islamic vanguard that practices “jihad by tongue”: educating non-Muslims about Islam, and to strive with one’s tongue to “support good and fight wrong.” In practice, this is done through speeches, debates and other public activities.
Emmanuel Karagiannis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Macedonia’s Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies in Thessaloniki, Greece and an Investigator at the University of Maryland’s START Center.
 In France, estimates suggest approximately 50,000 to 100,000 converts out of a population of three to four million Muslims. For details, see Mapping the Global Muslim Population (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2009). In 2006, there were 850,000 Muslims in the Netherlands, including 12,000 converts. For details, see “More than 850 Thousand Muslims in the Netherlands,” Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, October 27, 2007. In Germany, the estimated number of converts ranges from 12,000 to 100,000, with the total Muslim population set at around three million. For details, see Johannes Kandel, “Organisierter Islam in Deutschland und gesellschaftliche Integration,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, September 2004. In Great Britain, there were about 63,000 native converts out of a population of 1.6 million Muslims in the early 2000s. For details, see the 2001 Census completed by the Office for National Statistics. Their numbers, however, must have increased because the Muslim population as a whole reached 2.4 million in 2009. For details, see Richard Kerbaj, “Muslim Population Rising 10 Times Faster Than Rest of Society,” The Times, January 30, 2009. Spain has an estimated 800,000 Muslims, roughly 20,000 of whom are converts. For details, see Geoff Pingree and Lisa Abend, “In Spain, Dismay at Muslim Converts Holding Sway,” Christian Science Monitor, November 7, 2006.
 Kate Zebiri, British Muslim Converts: Choosing Alternative Lives (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008), p. 249.
 Anne Sofie Roald, New Muslims in the European Context: The Experience of Scandinavian Converts (Boston: Brill, 2004), p. 344.
 Personal interview, “Mark,” a Dutch male convert, Amsterdam, Netherlands, December 2008.
 Personal interview, “Sarah,” an English female convert, London, January 2009.
 Personal interview, “John,” an English male convert, London, January 2009.
 Personal interview, “Maria,” a Greek-Canadian female convert, Athens, Greece, December 2009.
 Personal interview, “Edith,” a Dutch female convert, Amsterdam, Netherlands, December 2008.
 Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (New York: New York Police Department, 2007), p. 29.
 Quintan Wiktorowicz ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 2.
 Personal interview, imam, London, January 2009.
 “Civil Liberties,” Respect Party, 2010.
 Yvonne Ridley, “The Passing of a Chechen,” YvonneRidley.org, July 10, 2006.
 Her exact words were, “What Queen Noor failed to explain on her CNN broadcast was that the three [targeted] hotels, Hyatt, Days Inn and Radisson, are all US-owned and are seen as dens of iniquity by Jordan’s reserved Muslim community.” She also proceeded to call some of those killed in the blasts “collaborators” with “America.” For details, see Yvonne Ridley, “Something Rather Repugnant,” Tajdeed, November 23, 2005, available at www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1529185/posts.
 Ehrhardt Von Christoph, “Ick Bin Ein Muslim Jeworden,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 6, 2007.
 Andrea Brandt and Maximilian Popp, “Will Efforts to Train Homegrown Muslim Leaders Fail?” Der Spiegel, September 16, 2010.
 During a television interview in November 2004, Van de Ven mentioned that he “felt a certain joy” when Dutch film director Theo van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim.
 “Politici walgen van doodsverwensing; Donner: Weinig kans op strafzaak imam Van de Ven,” De Telegraaf, November 25, 2004.
 “Our Policies,” Islamic Party of Britain, undated, available at www.islamicparty.com/policies/policies.pdf.
 Personal interview, two members of AOBM, London, November 2010.
 Panu Hietaneva, “Leader of Finnish Islamic Party Says he was a Soviet Spy,” Helsingin Sanomat, November 4, 2008.
 “Suomen Islamilaisen Puolueen Kannanotto Viron Rasismia Ja Fasismia Vastaan,” Finish Islamic Party, March 3, 2009.
 Mansur Escudero Bedate, “La Comisión Islámica de España emite una fatua condenando el terrorismo y al grupo Al Qaida,” La Comisión Islámica de España, March 11, 2005.
 Naim el-Ghandour, “Mosque and Cemetary: Too Much to Ask?” Greeks Rethink, February 13, 2009.
 “International Religious Freedom Report 2006,” U.S. State Department, 2006.