This explains why people like Wagner, van Doorn, and Buttey ended up in the constellation of far-right European parties. One might expect that the brand of Islam they would take up would also be radical—and perhaps even tip over into violent jihadism. As my colleague Julia Ioffe wrote in the aftermath of the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, the forces that draw people (and especially young men) to extreme movements are almost identical, even though political discourse separates them. “The process and structure of radicalization and extremism are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists),” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, told Ioffe.
But it doesn’t necessarily happen that way. Hogg and Adelman note that extreme groups present various disadvantages for joiners as well. “People are unlikely to be strongly attracted to them unless uncertainty is relatively chronic, pervasive, or acute, or they have few other viable identity options (see below),” they write.
Mainstream, non-violent Islam can provide many of the same benefits without the social disadvantages. In general, Hogg and Adelman argue that the best venues for reducing uncertainty are “distinctive and well-structured groups that have clear boundaries and membership criteria, and consensual and prescriptive attitudinal and behavioral attributes grounded in a relatively homogeneous world view.” Hence associating oneself with Islam—especially in the context of Western Europe, where Christian cultural identity has suffused society for centuries, and where Islam is relatively marginalized—offers just such a group. Islam is distinctive, it has clear membership criteria and boundaries (one either is or is not a Muslim), and prescribes attitudes and behaviors. (Compared to a political party or to mainstream Christianity, Islam is relatively non-hierarchical.) Importantly, however, taking up fundamentalist Christianity would present a similar payoff for the “convert.”
The idea of far-right critics of Islam converting seems to be new in history, in part because far-right, anti-Islam parties are a new phenomenon. In earlier ages, all of European politics would have been fairly anti-Islam, while there would have been little proximity to actual Muslims or opportunities to mix with them. The rise of the internet, which can facilitate radicalization, also gives joiners easier ways to learn about new identities. There are older cases of Quran skeptics, like the French surgeon Maurice Bucaille, who have converted. (Bucaille became an advocate of the idea that the Quran is scientifically perfect.)
For the recent crop of converts, trying on a new identity does not necessarily mean a new personality. Van Doorn, for example, has since his conversion transferred his vitriol toward Jews, making anti-Semitic comments that he passed off as jokes. He was also convicted in 2014 of selling drugs to minors and other offenses; he claimed he was conducting a sting, but a court rejected the excuse. Van Doorn, in other words, seems to have traded one form of charlatanism for another. This should not come as a surprise, though. His change of religion, and those of Wagner and Buttey, say more about the men themselves than they do about either far-right politics or Islam.