What does the trend of Islamic conversion tell us about modern life?

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

A recent study conducted in the UK suggests that there are as many as 100 000 Brits who have converted to Islam as of 2010. In that year alone over 5000 people chose to adopt the faith of Mohammed. The majority of them appear to be White and in their 20s. These numbers are not staggering when compared to the entire population of the United Kingdom, yet they do indicate a new trend which must be carefully observed and studied.

The majority of West Europeans have been brought up with the idea that the age they live in is the pinnacle of human development. We are materially better off than we have ever been and we enjoy more freedom to express ourselves than ever before. Despite this, it seems that thousands of predominantly young people have chosen to forfeit the gifts of modernity in favour of pre-modernity expressed in the religious doctrine of a 7th century Arabian prophet. A lot of them were attracted to the group cohesion exhibited by the followers of Islam, the feelings of brotherhood and comradery. Others are fascinated by the asceticism and the spiritual aspects of Mohammed’s teachings.

It must be admitted that modernity has very little to offer in terms of a communitarian lifestyle or a well-structured metaphysical belief system. These are, after all, precisely the things which it was built in opposition to during the age of the Enlightenment. Since then Western man has succeeded in completely atomizing himself and privatizing his life to the point where in recent years even the family unit has collapsed. The search for spiritual fulfillment has been superseded by the quest for living “the grand life” as a popular Uzbek thinker put it. Is this the final state of affairs in the Western world or is the modernist framework beginning to crack?

Reading about this trend of Islamic conversion reminded me of the 20th century French philosopher and metaphysician Rene Guenon who himself converted to Islam in 1910. He then moved to Cairo and spent the rest of his days living a humble life. Guenon’s decision to adopt the Mohammedan faith was influenced by the research in the metaphysics of the great Oriental civilizations. He was convinced that the West is an exception in the historical scene due to its progressive abandonment of metaphysical doctrines (which he unifies under the term “Tradition”) in favour of ever-increasing materialism and technological advancement. For the French thinker, these were not the sign of progress but rather of degeneration.

Guenon believed in the existence of an eternal and static metaphysical realm which, according to him, is acknowledged by all pre-modern civilizations (including Medieval Europe) as the one true source of knowledge. Since the late Middle Ages, however, and especially since the French Revolution the West has gradually broken off the connections to this realm. And so, Europeans have been left to find their own truth through ideologies such as individualism (when each person seeks truth on his own) and democracy (when a majority will decides the truth).

In either case all that men come up with is mere opinion. Guenon feared that the West is headed for a disaster unless it returns to its traditional roots. The World Wars were a taste of what pure materialism and secular science were capable of when left solely in charge of the human mind.

We must keep in mind, that the traditionalism upheld by Guenon is more strictly defined and infinitely more complex that the vague desire to adhere to a belief system and to belong to a community which is felt by the wandering man of modernity. Despite this the parallel here is too obvious to ignore: Materialism and hedonism, technology and quantity, individualism and the privatization of life are not enough for a civilization to sustain itself in the long term. And thus Europeans turn to New Age, to Buddhism, to various forms of paganism and now, apparently, to Islam.

Why Islam though? Europe is not a place which lacks spiritual traditions. Why do so many alienated Westerners reach out to the cultures of foreigners instead of embracing those of their ancestors? There are several possible answers to this. Firstly, Western spiritual institutions have become heavily corrupted ideologically. This is particularly visible in Protestant churches which, being reformist by nature, have been reduced to playing the role of wind socks for every modern or post-modern ideology which has managed to solidify its position within mainstream society. As Guenon put it, “modern man, instead of attempting to raise himself to truth, seeks to drag truth down to his own level.”

Secondly, based on my observations, it is actually easier for one to get away with holding ultra-conservative views while coming from or belonging to a different cultural background. The reason for this lies in post-modernism which is too broad a topic to cover here. In short, postmodernists view Occidental traditions and cultures through the lens of bigotry, oppression and colonialism, whereas Oriental ones are explored in the context of religious freedom, diversity and multiculturalism.

Thus, a post-modern intellectual would see no contradiction in expressing support for Islamic communities while dismissing, for example, DUP supporters as “bigots who should get with the times”. This is in spite of the fact that the positions of the two groups on social issues might be more or less the same. The latest example of this post-modern mentality was the shameful banning of the Oxford Christian Union from the university’s freshers’ fare out of fear that it might “alienate students of other religious groups” and constitute a “micro-aggression”.

To summarize, modernists and especially post-modernists have done a good job of deconstructing or delegitimizing traditional European culture to the point where confused young people of post-Christian Europe turn to foreign traditions in order to find comfort. One thing remains sure: modernism, as a worldview is fulfilled, at least in its native West. There is no way for it to go but down.

Post-modernism will carry on and probably intensify in the coming decades, however, since it is, in essence, a rejection rather than an affirmation of anything, it cannot be used as a solid foundation for a civilization. My guess is that the distant future belongs to pre-modernity in one form or another.