According to a recent ABC report, “As many as three dozen criminals who converted to Islam in American prisons have moved to Yemen where they could pose a ‘significant threat’ to attack the U.S., according to a report on al-Qaeda from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. … Also of concern to U.S. officials, the Senate staff found, is a group of ‘nearly 10 non-Yemeni Americans who traveled to Yemen, converted to Islam, became fundamentalists, and married Yemeni women so they could remain in the country.’ … An American official described them as ‘blond-haired, blue-eyed types’ who fit the profile of Americans who al-Qaeda has sought to recruit for terror missions.”
These, of course, are not the first Americans — black, white, or in between — to convert to Islam and join the jihad: John Walker Lindh wound up fighting fellow Americans alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan; Adam Gadahn became a major character in al-Qaeda’s propaganda machine; Gregory Patterson, Levar Washington, and Kevin James plotted terror strikes against the U.S.; Christopher Paul and Jose Padilla conspired to use weapons of mass destruction.
Then there are the countless European converts, such as the British “shoe-bomber,” Richard Reid, who attempted to achieve “martyrdom” by detonating explosives in his shoes while aboard a passenger aircraft; the late Germaine Lindsay, who did achieve “martyrdom” by killing himself and 56 of his fellow citizens and injuring over 700, in the London bombings of 2005; and Abu Abdullah, the native Briton-turned-fiery-Islamist-preacher who makes no secret of his vitriolic hatred of the West (all, of course, while enjoying that unique Western liberty, freedom of speech).
What causes such men, born and raised in the West, often from Christian backgrounds, to abandon their heritage, embrace Islam, and become radicalized to the point that they conspire to kill their fellow countrymen?
As for Islam’s intrinsic appeal, it has long been argued that, unlike Christianity, which can be “heavy” on theology, Islam is relatively simple and straightforward. Thus while Christianity may revolve around more metaphysical topics — the Trinity, Christology, etc. — Islam, in black-and-white terms, commands its adherents to do this and not do that. In fact, the Arabic word “Sharia,” that comprehensive body of laws Muslims are to obey, is etymologically related to the word for “pathway” — as in, “the pathway to paradise.”
Yet there is another, more subtle, factor that may attract men to Islam: traditional male roles are well preserved in the religion. This may appeal to Western men who find it difficult to assert their “masculinity” in what may be perceived as gender-free Western societies. Harvey Mansfield’s book, Manliness, defines that term as “a quality both bad and good, mostly male, often intolerant, irrational, and ambitious. Our gender-neutral society does not like it but cannot get rid of it.”
Indeed, with an ethical code that coalesced in the seventh century — when the Muslim prophet and “perfect example” walked the earth, enforced his will, and conquered his “infidel” neighbors — Islamic culture can hardly be deemed “gender-neutral.” Even philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who despised religion and preached the need for man to be transformed into an amoral “hyper-man,” professed some admiration for Islam, describing it as “noble and manly” (The Antichrist).
Of course, traditional masculine roles are not the sole domain of Islam; most civilizations have lived in accordance to such norms. So-called “gender-neutral societies” are, from a historical perspective, aberrant. James Bowman, author of Honor: A History, stresses that, when it comes to the West’s disregard for notions of honor and masculinity, “we are, in global terms, the odd ones out”; he further asserts that, up until the Victorian era, in the West, “honor was rather closer to the Arab and Muslim idea of it today.”
In this context, then, it seems only natural for disaffected young men, who feel they are not fitting into what they perceive to be a “gender-neutral” society, to find a religion which emphasizes “masculinity” appealing.