Islam has been the fastest-growing religion for some time. But demographics show that the growth is all because many Moslems have large families in poor countries. Not many people join Islam through conversion to the faith.
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Is Islam in Global Flux?
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman
We tend to think of people being conservative about leaving the faith of their childhood. However, there have been times in history that a religion gained – or lost – large numbers. Apparently Islam is in such a period of growth, but at the same time experiencing an exodus of the disgruntled.
During the later years of the Roman Empire, millions of people abandoned the polytheistic state religion and converted to new competing religions: Mithraism, Judaism, and the young Jewish cult of Christianity. This free marketplace of religion ended with the accession of Emperor Constantine, who mandated Christianity as the only tolerated faith and all others to be persecuted.Islam began as a small cult that succeeded beyond all expectations because the powerful empires of the day (Persia and Byzantium) were weakened by long, expensive conflict. The Arabs unexpectedly swept over formerly Roman Christian and Jewish North Africa and forced mass conversion. The same was true for the conquest of Persia and across Central Asia, where the Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Hindus were persecuted.
After a thousand-year monopoly, the conversion of masses of people from the Catholic Church to dissenting sects (Protestants) was the consequence of political ferment in Europe and the advent of the printing press, which broke the monopoly of Catholic learning.
For the modern Western world, over a 400-year period, religion has lost the arm of state compulsion. Most of us today are free to believe, not believe, or shop around for a faith that suits us. We certainly do this in the United States; religion is a marketplace.
But what of Islam, which advertises itself as the world’s fastest-growing faith?
It may well be that it is also entering into a phase of losing followers disgusted with its current phase of militant fundamentalism and bigotry. This defection is particularly brave in countries with Muslim governments that execute defectors (apostates). The following are some numbers on this phenomenon, provided by Andrew Walden, editor of the Hawai`i Free Press in Hilo, Hawaii (
• Italian ex-Muslim Magdi Allam’s very public baptism by Pope Benedict on Easter Sunday made headlines. According to Walden, he is not an anomaly. He says that Muslims are leaving Islam in droves. The baptism of Allam was an act of defiance in the face of Islamic threats, among them threats by Osama bin Laden.
• In Africa, Islam used to represent Africa’s main religion and there were 30 African languages written in Arabic script. The number of Muslims in Africa has diminished to 316 million (out of a population of almost 1 billion), half of whom are Arabs in North Africa. (See Ahmad al-Qataani, Interviewed by al-Jazeera in 2006.)
• In Iran as many as 1 million people have surreptitiously converted to Evangelical Christianity in the last five years, according to Pastor Hormoz Shariat (Google him), who claims to have converted 50,000 of them through his U.S.-based Farsi-language satellite ministry. The Iranian parliament is debating the death penalty for conversion.
• In Iraq, a similar phenomenon is growing. The March 4th New York Timesreports: “After almost five years of war, many young people in Iraq, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.”
• In southern Russia the same pattern is emerging. According to Roman Silantyev, executive secretary of the Inter-religious Council in Russia, two million Muslims converted to Christianity and as many as 100,000 have converted to Christianity in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
• In Kashmir, victim of Islamist war, evangelicals report thousands of sub-rosa converts. An Indian newspaper headline reads: “Urban Muslim Youth Out to Junk Faith.”
• Palestinians, after decades of terrorist rule, are being quietly converted, holding in-home services to avoid detection. Says one evangelist: “I’ve been working among these people for thirty years, and I promise you I’ve never seen anything like this.”
• The London Times estimates 15% of Muslims living in Western Europe have left Islam — 200,000 in the UK alone. Those who leave often face harassment, threats, and attack, but they are leaving.
This seems to be another era of religious defections in the face of very ugly religious warfare. We have been there before.FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author. You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net. She also writes for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.