In addition to slaughtering those that do not subscribe to their warped religious vision, Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have attempted to forcibly convert populations on mass. It is true that the Prophet Muhammad was an advocate of converting the ‘heathens’ by force, if necessary, but what such endeavours are expected to achieve is unclear. The extremists certainly do not seem to have learnt from history.
The desire to convert groups of people to a particular religious or belief system is as old as time. Since the general move away from polytheism centuries ago, a religious competition has been fought between disparate groups in an attempt to elevate their own god above any other.
From the Christian military orders attempting to convert the pagans of Europe, to the Islamic armies’ prosletyzing marches across the Middle East, there has existed an obsession with overhauling the belief systems of alien peoples. Perhaps the most noticeable example of this is the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to convert the indigenous populations of the New World after Columbus’ voyage of 1492.
As soon as the first Franciscan friars arrived in the Caribbean after Columbus’ voyage, in Mesoamerica after the conquests of the Aztec and Mayan empires, and in South America after the overthrow of the Inca, the process of eradicating heresy began. Mass baptisms took place simultaneously with the destruction of temples and pre-contact icons, Christian churches were built and instruction in the scriptures took place.
Of course this was not a process that could take place overnight. Language barriers and the refusal of the Amerindians to discard their traditional beliefs led to severe problems for the ruling Spanish. Many of the indigenous people simply interpreted Christianity in their own way, making deities out of saints and relating Bible stories to their own banished religions.
Others converted simply out of fear. Whilst they attended mass and placed crosses above their doors, in private they continued to worship the same gods of their childhood, carrying small sacred objects (Illas) that defied the zealous friars. Christian burials were introduced and yet the natives would often sneak back at night and retrieve the bodies of their loved ones for a traditional funeral practices.
The corruption of some priests – who engaged in secular activities aimed at material gain – further restricted the ‘spiritual conquest’ of Spanish America, preventing the Europeans from ever really exerting a complete hold on the population. With approximately one priest to every 10,000 natives the task of conversion was hard enough and cutting corners as a means of justifying their conquest in the eyes of god had a limited effect.
Ironically, the Spaniards had already encountered such problems at home during the infamous early days of the Inquisition. The Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, expelled all those Jews and Muslims from their country who were unwilling to convert. Those that stayed and adopted Christianity (conversos), however, often continued to pursue their own forms of worship in private. The occasional brutality of the Inquisition only bred resentment and resistance.
The terror tactics of ISIS, Boko Haram and others are likely to be similarly ineffective. Whilst in theory they might increase the number of converts to extreme Islam, in reality their murderous and dictatorial methods are likely to strengthen the resolve of their opponents, even creating alliances between opposing religious and ethnic groups that would otherwise steer clear of one another.
In the New World, the Spanish failure to achieve the spiritual conquest of the continent was not terminal, thanks to their overwhelming military superiority and the influx of European diseases that ravaged the native population.
Today’s brutal converters do not have the same power on their side; rather, they are gradually encouraging a coalition of enemies whose mutual desire to destroy such evil outweighs their own quarrels and disagreements.