The Failure of Forced Conversions: Islamic Extremists Ignore Historic Lessons

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.

ISIS has shown increasing willingness to execute those not willing to convert to Islam Source: Daily Sabah
ISIS has shown increasing willingness to execute those not willing to convert to Islam
Source: Daily Sabah

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.

The Spanish justified their conquest of the Americas through converting the natives
The Spanish justified their conquest of the Americas through converting the natives

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 brutal methods employed by the Spanish Inquisition to convert 'heretics' travelled to the New World
The brutal methods employed by the Spanish Inquisition to convert ‘heretics’ travelled to the New World

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.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

2 thoughts on “The Failure of Forced Conversions: Islamic Extremists Ignore Historic Lessons”

  1. A good thing to chew on here is the similarities that Boko haram or ISIS may hold with the Spanish conquerors of old: they have little or no separation between their religion and political agenda. The same might be said about the Celtic Druids that Caesar exterminated or the Aztec priest system that the Spaniards dedicated body and soul to destroy. In all these cases it’s not so much actual religious piety or future happiness of their targets they care about, so much as outward obedience to the regime. If the State is to be an Islamic State, than those within it’s iron walls had better at least pretend to be Muslim.
    In all these grisly chapters of history, the european ‘Wars of Religion’ that could easily be renamed ‘Wars of Political Allegiances’ being another example, there is little thought for the long term. That is the trait that should frighten us. ISIS and Boko Haram are conquerors who are plotting short-term slaughter. (Don’t forget that their leaders have actually said they’re trying to usher in the end of the world) There is no reason within their rationale for either civility, or mercy, or regard for history. These thugs intend to end history.

  2. Yes, this is certainly true – ISIS and Boko Haram are only interested in the short term as, to an extent, were the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities in the New World. Their preoccupation is not with this world but with what is to come – hence the desire to end history. Even the Spaniards adopted a similar mentality – not just in destroying the native histories of the people they conquered but also their own, which was stained with heresy, Islamic infiltration and the many wrongs committed by Spanish people against their fellow men (indeed the need for swift conversion in the New World was as a means to justify the brutal invasion of the conquistadores who, of course, had little interest in advancing the doctrinal ideals of the Catholic church).
    In both instances, religious conversion (forced, temporary as it may be) is used as a means of exerting control and as a preparation for the next world, where even the most pious and zealous must account for their sins.

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