A more promising explanation lies in the social situation of converts in the West, and their status as apostates or defectors from the non-Islamic faith or secular world into which they were born and acculturated. In an illuminating article on “court Jews and Christian renegades,” the sociologist Lewis A. Coser wrote, “The renegade is, as it were, forever on trial.” Indeed: “He must continually prove himself worthy of his new status and standing.”
Converts to Islam are perennial outsiders, fully belonging neither to the Muslim communities into which they convert nor to the communities they leave behind. They are “doubly marginalized,” as Kate Zebiri puts it in her study British Muslim Converts. This, more than any cognitive failings on their part, may explain the nature of their vulnerability to jihadist groups, which offer potential recruits not only belonging, but also seemingly irrefutable proof of commitment to the faith: self-sacrifice and ultimately death. It may also make them more lethal as jihadist talent, since their eagerness to prove their new commitment may push them to ever greater extremes.
Yet this hypothesis depends on the assumption that the converts in jihadist groups were in any meaningful sense converts to Islam prior to becoming jihadists, rather than the other way round: that they converted to jihadism before, or at the same time as, they became Muslims, so that their conversion to Islam was, as the political scientist Olivier Roy recently argued, “opportunistic” and thus a consequence of, and not an antecedent to, their conversion to jihadism.
One way of clarifying the sequencing in these situations would be to look closely at the convert’s social milieu and the circumstances in which he or she converted to Islam. According to Roy, the “second-generation Muslims and native converts” who dominate the European jihadist scene were “radicalized within a small group of ‘buddies’ who met in a particular place (neighborhood, prison, sport club)” and who “recreate a ‘family,’ a brotherhood,” often with biological ties. They are, he says, in the first instance attracted not to “moderate Islam,” but to the radicalism of violent Salafism, and correspondingly, “almost never have a history of devotion and religious practice.”
In short, Roy argues, echoing the findings of Marc Sageman and Scott Atran, radicalized European youth, disaffected from their own societies, are not seeking Islam, but “a cause, a label, a grand narrative to which they can add the bloody signature of their personal revolt.”
Hoffer reminds us how deeply personal that revolt can be. “A mass movement,” the philosopher wrote, “particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.” For today’s repentant criminals and restless converts, whose “innermost craving is for a new life—a rebirth,” the all-immersive and all-redeeming jihadist project seemingly offers the perfect solution.