The Right to Change One's Religion: West Vs. East

Religious conversions
The moment of truth
Economist, Jul 24th 2008

In many parts of the world, the right to change one's beliefs is under threat

AS AN intellectually gifted Jewish New Yorker who had reached manhood in the mid-1950s, Marc Schleifer was relentless in his pursuit of new cultural and spiritual experiences. He dallied with Anglo-Catholicism, intrigued by the ritual but not quite able to believe the doctrine, and went through a phase of admiration for Latin American socialism. Experimenting with lifestyles as well as creeds, he tried respectability as an advertising executive, and a more bohemian life in the raffish expatriate scene of North Africa.

Returning from Morocco to his home city, he was shocked by the harsh anonymity of life in the urban West. And one day, riding the New York subway, he opened the Koran at a passage which spoke of the mystery of God: beyond human understanding, but as close as a jugular vein. Suddenly, everything fell into place. It was only a matter of time before he embraced Islam by pronouncing before witnesses that “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Some 40 years on from that life-changing moment—not untypical of the turning points that many individuals experience—Abdallah Schleifer has won distinction as a Muslim intellectual. Last year he was one of 138 Muslim thinkers who signed an open letter to Christian leaders calling for a deeper theological dialogue. The list of signatories included (along with the muftis from Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta) several other people who had made surprising journeys. One grew up as an English nonconformist; another as a Catholic farm boy from Oregon; another in the more refined Catholic world of bourgeois Italy.

Sometimes conversion is gradual, but quite commonly things come to a head in a single instant, which can be triggered by a text, an image, a ceremony or some private realisation. A religious person would call such a moment a summons from God; a psychologist might speak of an instant when the walls between the conscious and unconscious break down, perhaps because an external stimulus—words, a picture, a rite—connects with something very deep inside. For people of an artistic bent, the catalyst is often a religious image which serves as a window into a new reality. One recurring theme in conversion stories is that cultural forms which are, on the face of it, foreign to the convert somehow feel familiar, like a homecoming. That, the convert feels, “is what I have always believed without being fully aware of it.”

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