Muriel Degauque has the dubious distinction of being the first white European female suicide bomber. Shocking as this is, suggestions that converts are brainwashed fanatics and their partners are comicbook villains are unfair.
The news that a Belgian convert to Islam took her own life in a suicide attack and – according to some reports – that of five Iraqi policemen sent shockwaves across Belgium. That an ordinary ‘girl next door', Muriel Degauque (38), should choose the path of death and destruction is understandably shocking in serene and safe European suburbia whose inhabitants feel a million miles away from the anarchy overtaking the streets of Baghdad.
According to one media report, a neighbour in Monceau-sur-Sambre on the outskirts of Charleroi remembered her as an “absolutely normal” little girl who liked to go for sled rides when it snowed. She converted to Islam when she married her first husband, who was a Belgian Muslim.
But it was when she married her second husband, Issam Goris – a Belgian of Moroccan origin who was apparently shot dead by US troops in Iraq on the day of her attack – that Muriel became “more Muslim than Muslims”. She veiled up completely and reportedly refused even to eat at the same table as her own father because he did not want to stop drinking beer in front of her and her husband.
That her attack should grab headlines is unsurprising. After all, ‘woman', ‘Belgian' and ‘suicide bomber' are not familiar word combinations in the lexicon of conflict. But the loud sirens sounded in the Belgian and international media, the disproportionate reaction, is a cause for concern for converts, as well as non-converts in mixed relationships.
Despite media reports of a network of recruiters preying on the likes of Muriel, to suggest that this one, isolated incident represents some sort of significant turning point is massively overstretching the evidence, particularly as there are hundreds of thousands of converts across Europe who are living quiet and peaceful lives.
Radical role models
One analyst from the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre in Brussels was quoted by UK daily The Times as suggesting that Muriel could become a “model” for other fanatical young women to follow. “She had a classic profile for a convert to radical Islam,” he said. “She had a drug problem when she was younger, she had no real job, and was not very close to her family. Maybe she thought that she had no future and she was clearly under the influence of her husband who was a radical.”
If this is such a ‘classic profile' for converts to radical Islam, then old industrial and mining towns across Europe – like Muriel's hometown of Charleroi – should, by now, have fallen to the Taliban or something. The local down-and-out young men would sport long brown beards and the women would reveal little more than their blue eyes behind their veils, as they queued outside the dole office to collect their unemployment benefit.
“Following the example of Muriel Degauque, the danger has edged a step closer [to home],” claimed Gilbert Roox in the normally measured and careful De Standaard on 3 December 2005. “A local girl, a baker's assistant, was transformed into a fanatical Jihadist.”
“The war in Iraq has acted as a catalyst for Jihadis worldwide,” the article pointed out accurately. Many critics of the US-led invasion of Iraq cautioned prior to the war that the conflict would act as a magnet for young and angry Muslim who would go there to try to evict the invader. Among these, there is undoubtedly a supply of ‘crazies' who are bursting for a fight and this conflict is a convenient outlet for their rage and aggression.
But many are disillusioned young people outraged at the random death and destruction visited on a nation which has suffered enough in recent decades. These ‘Jihadis' arrive in Iraq hoping to set right the wrongs through guerrilla violence – whether they are wrong or right is a difficult moral balancing act. Suicide attacks against civilians are easy to condemn but how about street-to-street combat with occupying soldiers?
“It is gradually becoming clear that Islamic terrorism is no ‘clash of civilisations',” Roox observed presciently. “It has become a conflict within the western world itself where its own civilians, both of foreign origin and natives, are choosing the side of the enemy.”
Jihadis are very similar to the young European radicals who fought on the side of the underground against Franco in Spain or against the Turks in Greece during the struggle for Greek independence. How different is Lord Byron's involvement in the anti-Turkish ‘insurgency' to that of the unknown combatants – both local and foreign – fighting on the streets of Fallujah?
In 1823, Byron – one of the English language's best romantic poets who penned the seductive epic Don Juan – spent an enormous £4,000 of his own money to refit the overstretched Greek fleet and increase its fighting capacity. I imagine the Turks regarded him as a ‘terrorist', perhaps even a 19th-century Osama bin Laden.
Also on 3 December, De Standaard ran a special feature entitled Converts are dangerous in which it rolled out a rogues' parade of converts who followed the path of extremism, including John Walker Lindh, the American who fought alongside the Taliban, and Richard Reid, the infamous British shoe bomber.
“Young converts are ideal targets for Jihad recruiters,” the report describes, “they are keen [and] they are desperate to prove that, with their conversion, they have cut all ties with their previous lives. Moreover, they serve an important tactical purpose: with their white appearance and European passports, they are less visible.”
One expert quoted in the article claims that: “The convert wants to prove his faith everyday – both to himself and others. He finds Muslims by birth are lukewarm [in their faith]. Converts tend towards extremism, which is something you see regularly throughout history. They can be dangerous.”
But experts and the journalists who quote them can also be dangerous to others by painting everyone in certain group with the same brush. There are converts who fit this and other ‘classic profiles', who become more fanatical than the indigenous fanatics. The fervour of the convert can be legendary, whether that conversion is to Islam, Christianity, or even sex, drugs and rock and roll.
However, most converts are not in the fanaticism game. The vast majority of converts are peaceful and sensible people struggling to reconcile their new beliefs with their ‘former' lives. A conversion, particularly in the early years, is undoubtedly a difficult and stressful time, not just for the convert, but also for his or her family who have to adjust and try to accommodate their new frames of reference.
But these ‘ordinary' converts are not exotic or dangerous enough to register on the media's radar. Whether or not one agrees with someone's adoption of a new faith, converts deserve respect. With sensational reports in the media about ‘dangerous converts', what they might well get is a harsh backlash from mainstream society that will marginalise them and retard their post-conversion social reintegration.
Exploding ‘classic' stereotypes
There are almost as many types of converts as there are converts. I believe there is no such thing as a ‘classic profile' for converts, be they fanatical or moderate. This pigeonholing reflects the need to label in society, and the reservation the mainstream has towards individuals who adopt an alternative lifestyle and all that implies in terms of questioning of societal norms.
That said, converts often share a sense of discontentment and dissatisfaction – after all, why change your belief system if you are satisfied with your current one? However, people are unique individuals with their own unique motivations for doing things.
Some are on a quest for spiritual or intellectual comfort or salvation – some find it in Islam, others in Christianity or Buddhism. Contrary to reports in the media, not all converts to Islam are ‘losers' ‘social misfits' or ‘dropouts', they include successful professionals, intellectuals, pop stars, famous sportspeople, and more. Some highly intelligent people who are not afraid to veer off the beaten track often find themselves in places they had not intended to visit.
Sisters are doing it for themselves
One famous example of a woman who blows all the comfortable stereotypes of the submissive and vulnerable female convert out of the water is Jemima Goldsmith. The only thing the glamorous and independent-minded British heiress exploded was the bombshell of her conversion to Islam after she married, in 1995, Imran Khan, ex-Pakistani cricketer and playboy turned politician and social crusader.
Only 21 at the time while her husband was 42, Goldsmith was ridiculed in the British press as a naïve girl who was seduced by the exotic oriental manipulator. “Although I must confess I have rather enjoyed the various depictions of a veiled and miserable ‘Haiqa Khan' [her reported Islamic name] incarcerated in chains, the reality is somewhat different,” she mocked in an article she wrote for the Daily Telegraph at the time defending her decision. “Contrary to current opinion, my decision to convert to Islam was entirely my own choice and in no way hurried.”
“What began as intellectual curiosity slowly ripened into a dawning realisation of the universal and eternal truth that is Islam,” she went on to explain. “My conversion was not, as so many have assumed, a pre-requisite to my marriage.”
Indeed, Islam allows Muslims to marry ‘people of the book', i.e. Jews and Christians, without them first converting. However, as most Muslim countries are patriarchal societies and Islam is passed down through the male line, the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man without conversion is frowned upon in most countries, and even outlawed in some. This has the unfortunate repercussion of breaking up many love matches or it forces the non-Muslim man to convert for entirely pragmatic reasons. Muslim societies need to learn not to let theology stand in the way of human happiness.
Her love affair with Islam was based on an abstract study of the religion and its philosophy, which rarely measures up to the social reality. In Pakistan, Goldsmith was reportedly unhappy that her husband was more interested in his political career than her marriage and she was exposed to some of the excesses of conservative Islamic societies. She had her faith constantly questioned, she was seen as not being Islamic enough by traditionalists, and, most painfully of all perhaps, her Jewish roots were used by some of her husband's less scrupulous political opponents to accuse her of being a ‘Zionist agent' on a mission to damage Pakistani politics.
Goldsmith's marriage broke up a couple of years ago and she has since dated and broken up with British actor and playboy Hugh Grant. After she and Imran parted ways, Goldsmith insisted that her faith in Islam remained unchanged. Whether or not her relationship with Islam becomes a lifelong marriage or simply a decade-long youthful fling is an open question.
Guilty by association
In a broader sense, the popular image of the ‘brainwashed' convert condemns all mixed Muslim/non-Muslim couples, even those of a moderate or secular nature. Many people seem to believe that when a Muslim and a westerner get together, their companion is surely the devil. In fact, no good can come of these matches made in hell.
In this perverse stereotype, the accepted motivations are never as simple as a straightforward story of boy meets girl. There has to be a coarse and repugnant underbelly: the predatory fanatic pouncing on the weakest in the herd, injecting poison into the victim's thoughts, not to mention body.
“Western women usually convert when they marry Muslim men – they are pressured to do so,” Phyllis Chesler and Nancy Kobrin proffered by way of ‘expert' opinion in a commentary in the neo-conservative FrontPage magazine. “Such women are often naïve and quite romantic about the ‘exotic' other. Some may have been traumatised by abusive or emotionally distant families and seek ‘new lives' in unfamiliar settings.”
Then there's the gold digger personified in the tour guide, waiter or hustler who preys on inexperienced tourists and convinces them to take him (or her) home as a souvenir. That's not to mention the material western girl or aristocrat fallen on hard times who hooks up with a super rich Arab sheikh for his lavish lifestyle and generous purse strings. Carmen bin Laden, the Swiss wife of Yeslam bin Laden, is counted by some in this group.
Base sexuality is the worst of the popular myths proffered to explain this type of fatal – or should one say, lethal – attraction. What vulnerable genteel could resist that legendary Muslim lust and sordid seductivity so ingrained in the western popular imagination?
Negative stereotypes exist on both sides of the fence. Many Muslims also have no faith in cross-faith matches. They believe, as touched upon above in the case of Jemima Goldsmith, that the non-Muslim's mission is to corrupt good Muslim youth through loose sex and alcohol, thereby tearing at the fragile moral fabric holding society together.
Nothing as mundane as love or mutual compatibility enters these equations. Yet I, to take a simple example, am in a happily married mixed couple of equals. My wife has never countenanced becoming a Muslim and no one who knows her would describe her as ‘naïve' or ‘vulnerable'. Katleen's busy NGO job takes her abroad regularly and she often visits mine-affected communities and war zones. At home, there are no obvious gender divisions, and we each try our best to pull our weight domestically.
During the Degauque affair, she was furious at the quality of the coverage and wondered why it was that the media almost never visited mixed couples who, like us, share a life of love, respect, understanding and tolerance. And we are not isolated examples.
Among our circle of friends, we count mixed couple of Muslim men and women with non-Muslim or converted partners – mostly ostensibly – all over the world. They include a teacher married to a journalist, an actor to a writer, a doctor to a linguist, a diplomat to an academic, and many more weird and wonderful pairings.
Some mixed pairings endure into contented longevity while others fall apart. But I don't believe the success rate is any worse than monocultural couples, despite the additional challenge of geography and cultural differences (at least perceived ones). But mixed couples often possess a better sense of compromise and accommodation, with a healthy ‘live and let live' attitude.