Thousands of western women each year are exchanging hedonism for the headscarf and fasting at Ramadan. Does Islam have something to offer women that Christianity does not?
Images of Muslims, white-robed and sandaled, flocking to the Hajj in recent days have been yet another reminder of the vitality of Islam, a faith that increasingly makes itself felt in the heart of Europe and the rest of the Christian – or, as some would have it, post-Christian – world. Large-scale immigration has resulted in significant populations of Muslims living in western countries. No-one knows the exact numbers but estimates suggest 4 million in France, 1.6 million in Britain, nearly 1 million in Italy and between 2 and 7 million in the United States.
Many of these are cultural Muslims rather than regular mosque-attending, Ramadan-observing faithful. In France it is estimated that about 1.5 million would be observant. But those who do practice their faith are showing their Christian or secular neighbours a way of life that some find very appealing. Even as Muslim terrorists, political hardliners and rioting youths grab the headlines and alienate many in the host countries, thousands of Europeans and Americans – and, no doubt, some Australians and New Zealanders – are turning up to mosques for prayer and donning the hijab.
Once again, numbers are hard to come by since there are no official statistics on conversions, but a couple of figures may be indicative. In 2000 the French Interior Ministry estimated that there were 40,000 French converts to Islam. The same year a large-scale survey of religious congregations in the United States (Faith Communities Today) indicated that 30 per cent of mosque participants were converts – 64 per cent of them being African Americans and 27 per cent Caucasian. British convert and promoter of Islam Sarah Joseph claims that between 10,000 and 50,000 people in the UK convert each year.
Whether the numbers are small or large they are surprising. We are constantly being informed by the western media that people are no longer interested in organized religion – although they may be interested in free-wheeling spirituality. Yet, on the face of it, nothing seems more organized and conformist than Islam, with its outward signs of membership, set times of prayer and chanting of the Qur'an.
What is more surprising is that women appear to make up the majority of converts. The head of the French domestic intelligence agency, Pascal Mailhos, told Le Monde recently that the "booming" phenomenon of converts and particularly of women converts was a worry. As one security expert put it, women "have added operational benefits in very tight security situations" where they might not attract attention. The suicide attack on US troops in Iraq in November by Belgian convert Muriel Degauque illustrates the risk.
Degauque was one convert among thousands across Europe and her case is exceptional. What makes so many other western women, brought up on a cultural diet of feminism and secularism, embrace a faith that veils its women and is evidently patriarchal?
One obvious reason is marriage. It seems no amount of patriarchy can deter a woman who has fallen in love. Perhaps it even had its attractions for the 20,000 Italian Catholic women who married Muslims last year. This growing trend, by the way, worries the Church. Both the Vatican and the Italian bishops have drawn attention to it because of the difficulties experienced by the women in such mixed marriages – especially when it comes to the faith of the children. The Church requires children of mixed marriages to be baptized and brought up as Catholics.
Those difficulties would not arise for women who were not practicing their faith, whether Catholic or otherwise, and such women are presumably the majority marrying into the Muslim community. Islam does not require that they convert, on the assumption that the husband's faith will dominate in the family. (For the same reason, a non-Muslim man must convert in order to marry Muslim woman.) Under these circumstances it is understandable that marriage has been the main path to conversion for the majority of women converts in the past.
But what of the women – an increasing number, according to Muslim academic Haifa Jawad of Birmingham University in the UK
– who embrace Islam independently, out of conviction? What attracts them?
Consider Mary Fallot, a young French woman who featured in a Christian Science Monitor story on this subject. Like more than 80 per cent of French citizens, she had a Catholic background, but when she began her own spiritual quest she found no answers in the faith of her childhood. In Islam she found a faith that "demands a closeness to God … is simpler, more rigorous", she says. "I was looking for a framework; man needs rules and behaviour to follow. Christianity did not give me the same reference points."
Or Noora Brown, an American housewife and mother in her 30s. Brought up in the Episcopal Church, she traveled briefly in the Muslim world while at college, at a time when she was searching for the meaning and purpose of life. She had shunned religion and yet she was struck by the fervour of Muslim friends and began studying Islam and the Qur'an. She converted before marrying a Muslim. Although she found the fasting, dress code and other rules of Islam difficult at first, eventually she found them liberating. She felt at home as part of a community of people from all different nations. "It gave me self-respect, dignity that I hadn't known before. … I feel happier now. I feel, actually, at peace." 
Or Caroline Bate, described as "Middle England's dream daughter or daughter-in-law" in a British newspaper article on "educated, white, middle-class English converts to Islam". A Cambridge graduate working for an investment bank in London, she began reading about Islam after a friend announced she was marrying a Muslim. She was not on any spiritual quest at the time, but she found the literature stimulating. "And Islamic teaching made perfect, logical sense. You can approach it intellectually and there are no gaps, no great leaps of faith that you have to take." As for the position of women in Islamic society, she considered it "fantastic" and not at all inferior.
These few experiences point to some of the commonly-cited attractions of Islam:
- Those searching for spiritual meaning – or even those who are not – find among Muslims a tangible religious life with clear and simple beliefs and rituals to follow.
- It is closely integrated with daily life and brings a sense of closeness to God.
- It has clear moral norms expressed in rules for dress and behaviour. These protect women's dignity by preventing them from becoming sex objects.
- Its idea of manhood and womanhood is liberating for women, allowing them to reclaim their role and power as mothers and nurturers in the family.
- It entails close family and communal bonds which give people a strong sense of belonging.
Sociological research shows that the sexual values of Islam have a strong appeal for women converts, reacting to the sexual chaos of Western society and the conflicting demands on women to be both wage workers and mothers.
Ironically, nearly everything in the above list could be found in the Christian tradition so many converts have turned their backs on.
In the area of belief, the appeal of "simplicity" cited by many converts indicates the main divergence between the traditions – absence of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation in Islam, and consequently the forms of mediation involved in Christian life. Christianity is more intellectually demanding than Islam, but this does not mean clarity of doctrine is not available to all Christians. Nor does it mean that the Christian faith lacks anything in the way of concrete expression and potential to be integrated with daily life.
Christianity most certainly has a rich tradition of prayer and public worship, clear moral norms and rules, communal life and a concept of belonging to one big family known as the communion of saints. What is more, it has a concept of feminine dignity second to none, based on the doctrine that Mary – whom Muslims honour as merely the mother of the "prophet" Jesus – is the Mother of God. Together with this goes an esteem for motherhood, a reverence for sex and a position of centrality for the family that could satisfy any woman searching for the meaning of her femininity today.
If women from Christian backgrounds are turning to Islam, therefore, it is not because there is nothing comparable in their own traditions. It must be because these traditions are not lived and taught in the way Muslims live and teach their faith. The things that the Christian churches have been hiding for fear of driving some people away turn out to be the very things that other people – and especially women – are looking for.
The European women in their hijabs have a lesson for the Church as well as secularists, though it may not be precisely the one they think they are teaching.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet
Islam 'will be dominant UK religion', Gulf Daily News, Bahrain, Mar 10, 2004
Why European women are converting to Islam, Christian Science Monitor, Dec 27, 2005
Cardinals issue marriage warning, BBC News, Dec 26, 2005; See also: Vatican Cautions Against Muslim-Catholic Marriages
Radio Free Europe, May 18, 2004 
Why European women are converting to Islam
Why European women are converting to Islam
 Muslim Converts
PBS broadcast, Oct 8, 2004 
The new face of Islam, London Evening Standard, Mar 15, 2002
 Women Embracing Islam
: Gender and Conversion in the West by Karin van Niieuwkerk. To be published by the University of Texas Press, August 2006: