The article examines the psychological challenges of converting from one religion to another, or to no religion at all.

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Like most Afghans, Rahim was born a Muslim. Not that he cared much about religion. What he did care about was flying.  And being a bright adventurous young man, he became a pilot. With Aryana, the Afghan Airlines, that flew, among other routes, from Kabul to London. The line started operating three years before I arrived in Kabul (several years before the Russian invasion, and before the Loonies came to lunch). And the inaugural flight, as people tell it, was a piece of work.

The king was there (Afghanistan had a king at the time, in the early 60s). The stands were filled with wagon loads of ambassadors and la crème de la crème. The plane took off, circled twice around the field, and plowed right into a mountain.

Anyhow, Rahim became chief pilot on the Kabul-London route. During one of his layovers in London, he met a young lady. He saw her on the next flight and the one after that. They fell in love and decided to get married. There was only one hitch: she was Christian. Not fanatic.

But serious enough that she wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t.

So here was Rahim with this problem: the love of his life and she won’t marry him because he’s Muslim. He had two choices: give her up, or convert. Which was no big deal, since he didn’t care any more about Christianity than he did about Islam. At all events, he went through the motions and was now Rahim Ghaffar—Christian Muslim.

As things would have it, it didn’t quite work out, for whatever reason things don’t quite work out. And they went their separate ways.

About a year later, Rahim was laying over in London and he met another young lady, whose name was Sonya. Bright, pretty, and zoftick.  After a while, they fell in love and decided to get married. There was only one problem: Right, she was Jewish and she wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t.

Rahim was in a pickle. And a kosher pickle at that. What was he to do? He had two choices: Forsake the love of his life. Or convert. He was no more turned on by Judaism than he was by Islam or Christianity. But he was definitely turned on by Sonya. So he bit the bullet, and became Jewish.

He was now Rahim Ghaffar; perhaps the only one of his kind: a Jewish Christian Muslim.

As things would have it, the marriage didn’t quite work out, forwhatever reason things don’t quite work out. But at this point, Rahim was probably the most eligible bachelor in the world: being acceptable to the faithful of three major religions.

A while before I left Afghanistan, Rahim switched off the London run, and was put on the newly introduced service to Bangkok. We lost touch. But you know what they say…about those lovely…Buddhist..ladies…in Bangkok. 

Let’s play 20 questions

The following is part of an Associated Press report; dateline, September 29, 2013:

The turbaned gunmen who infiltrated Nairobi’s Westgate Mall arrived with a set of religious trivia questions: As terrified civilians hid in toilet stalls, behind mannequins, in ventilation shafts and underneath food court tables, the assailants began a high-stakes game of 20 Questions to separate the believers from the infidels.

A 14-year-old boy saved himself by jumping off the mall’s roof, after learning from friends inside that they were quizzed on names of the Prophet Muhammad’s relatives. A Jewish man scribbled a Quranic scripture on his hand to memorize, after hearing the terrorists were asking captives to recite specific verses. Numerous survivors described how the attackers from al-Shabab, a Somali cell which recently joined al-Qaida, shot people who failed to provide the correct answers.

All in all, over 60 people were murdered because they couldn’t answer questions like the name of Mohammad’s second cousin.

The Official Word

Since Islam has no central authority, no Pope, it’s harder to get the “official word” on anything. The good thing is: you don’t have one person making all the rules. The bad thing: you can get a hundred different interpretations, with people killing each other over commas and question marks. Which is even worse when you consider that Arabic doesn’t have commas and question marks.

Probably the biggest point is whether a Muslim has the right to choose another religion. In 2008, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Goma caused a huge kafuffle when he declared that yes, they could. To support his claim, he cited three verses from the Koran. The first: “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.” The second: “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.” And most famously: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

The sheikh is no flaming libertarian. He warns that those who leave the fold, are committing a sin, and will pay the price in the hereafter. But it’s one thing damning someone in the hereafter. It’s another, buying their ticket.      

Unfortunately, political leaders in Muslim countries accept the rulings of some Muslim clerics who decree that apostasy is punishable by death.

Unfortunately, political leaders in Muslim countries accept the rulings of some Muslim clerics who decree that apostasy is punishable by death. This results in horrors like the massacre in the Nairobi mall.

Converting the crusaders

Maalula is one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The true believers arrived in town, wearing headbands (to cover up the holes) “They arrived in our town at dawn… and shouted We are from the Al-Nusra Front; we have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders.

Author’s Comment: Welcome to the 12th century. It’s a glorious deed, converting the crusaders. You’re just a thousand years too late.

“I saw people wearing Al-Nusra headbands, who started shooting at crosses,” said Nasrallah, a Christian.

One of them “put a pistol to the head of my neighbor and forced him to convert to Islam by obliging him to repeat ‘there is no God but God’.” “Afterwards they joked: ‘He’s one of ours now’.”

Not long afterwards, a spaceship arrived from the planet Uranus, and rounded up all the humanoids, kosher, hallal, uncircumcised and othersized. And at the point of a deathray, forced them to convert to their god, saying: “Raise your middle finger, and repeat: There is no anus like Uranus.

Through the looking glass

As anthropologist Andrew Bukser put it: “To change one’s religion is to change one’s world.”

Or this insight from journalist Susan Jacoby, who interviewed a wide range of people for her book on the topic: “When one is raised in a religion that issues orders about the most trivial as well as the most important activities of daily life, leaving for any other faith…is an earthquake where the ground never stops shaking.”

From Karl to Christ

Many Americans who had followed the secular ideology of communism in the 1930s and 40s, converted to Catholicism, since like Marx’s mambo, it also provided “a structure for daily

living and instructions from the top down about what to believe.”

From Allah to atheist

Jacoby reports interviewing a young woman who became an atheist in college after being raised in a devout Muslim family:

“The truth was that, for a long time, I had no idea of how to construct a new life…I was a hijab-wearing atheist for quite a while, because I couldn’t figure out how I wanted to dress. It had all been laid out for me in the past.”

You’d think fashions would change in 1500 years. Imagine a world without synthetic fabrics.

Converting the monkeys

When they run out of people, they’ll start converting the monkeys:

Proselytizer:  Do you confess that you were created by God?

Monkey:          I do…squeak, squeak…I do.

Proselytizer:    Do you abjure Darwin? Do you abjure the Devil? 

Monkey:          I do…squeak squeak…I do.

Proselytizer:    That monkeys were created by God, and people were created by God?

Monkey:          Yes, yes, that god is a monkey.

Proselytizer:  What! You little devil.

Monkey:          That devils were created by god.

Proselytizer:    You will go straight to hell.

Theologian:     Forgive me, brother. But, I’m afraid he’s right. The devil was created by god.

Steven Darian

"Steven Darian is a Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. He has also taught at the U. of Penn & Columbia. He has lived and worked and studied in 9-10 countries; 3 of them, on Fulbrights He...