Is it okay for an athiest to be a Muslim?
December 19, 2008 11:54 AM   Subscribe

My close friend is converting to Islam. Do you think he's doing the right thing?

This is a sticky situation. Basically it's a shotgun marriage. He got his girlfriend pregnant, and now he has to get married, which is understandable given the circumstances I suppose (although it's not really ideal because he's really a liberal Westerner who wouldn't mind bringing up the kid out of wedlock). Okay, so that's one compromise, and I have no problem with it, but he's also living in an Islamic country which has a law which says that Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men so he has also agreed to publically convert to Islam to please the inlaws.

My problem with this is that he's actually an athiest, and so it seems hypocritical of him to publically come out and say he's a Muslim, when in fact he is nothing of the sort. Aside from the ideal of standing up for what you (don't) believe in, my gut feeling is that this is a bad idea because it will have weird consequences down the road for his family, kids, etc. It seems like it's one compromise too far and he should make a stand - say to his girlfriend "okay, let's keep the baby. I'll even get married, but I'm not going to pretend to believe in anything just for the sake of appearances."

His fiance knows it's a sham but his inlaws don't.

Anyway, he asked me what I thought and I told him, but I wasn't very convincing. Obviously I'm concerned about him screwing up his life by doing something which seems to solve his short term problems and meet social obligations, but in the longterm might be a recipe for unhappiness.

Am I right to be worried about this? I feel very sorry for him, and wonder whether he's doing the right thing.
posted by dydecker to Human Relations (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This strikes me as a situation I'd feel most comfortable having no part advising about. That said; it does seem that there are a hell of a lot of ways "atheist westerner fakes conversion to Islam to marry pregnant girlfriend in hardcore Islamic country" could go badly wrong. There's trouble you can't see coming and there is trouble you can see coming; this is trouble you can see coming. Kind of like the light from a train barreling down the track straight at you.
posted by Justinian at 12:02 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can be worried, but it's really none of your business.
posted by Maisie Jay at 12:05 PM on December 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure how converting to Islam could "screw up [anyone's] life", to be honest. If he were living in a part of the world where Muslims are strongly discriminated against, I suppose it could be an issue, but that'd be sad.

Converting to a religion should generally be a serious, honest commitment - not something done for convenience's sake. In this case however, my instincts say it might be the best thing. Your friend's challenges here go beyond "convenience", and if the choice is really between a) "converting", ie acting out the cultural trappings of Islam; and b) staying with his partner and child; I'd choose (a).
posted by Marquis at 12:05 PM on December 19, 2008

do you have a right to be worried about this: sure, since you're his friend. but it doesn't mean you can do anything about it. as for it being the right thing: your friend is a much better judge of that then you are. trust him.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 12:08 PM on December 19, 2008

Allah condemns false witness.

But seriously, unless the man is vulnerable to more persecution in that land as an inobservant Muslim than he would as a heathen devil, I honestly don't see the downside here. As long as his future wife is OK with the conversion being bullshit, it seems an affordably-priced way of getting the law off his back.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:15 PM on December 19, 2008

Politics (atheist hypocrisy) and religion (conversion) in one problem. What could possibly go wrong with you inserting yourself in to this?
posted by rhizome at 12:18 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I personally would not like to hear that one of my friends was making this choice, but beyond saying that to him (if you are close enough and if he directly solicits your opinion), I don't see that there's much else you can do.

On the bright side, I'll venture this guess, although I'm no expert on Islamic cultures:

For his girlfriend, being pregnant out of wedlock with a non-Muslim might cause her a lot of social problems. If they go ahead with this plan to marry, she will probably save a lot of face for marrying the now-Muslim father of her child.

There is of course a chance the marriage and the religious conversion might not "take", and both will dissolve in a few years. But for the woman, there might be a huge difference in social status between (a) being the mother of a bastard (sorry for the ugly word) half-Muslim child, versus (b) being divorced from a man who at one time honoured her enough to marry her & convert to Islam (even if he later divorces her and reverts to public Atheism). My uneducated guess is to suspect she might prefer solution (b), and if it makes that much of a difference to her, your friend would be quite a mensch for agreeing to this shotgun wedding, which, if my conjecture is at all correct, kind of sounds like an honourable thing to do.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:21 PM on December 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

You should have read my FPP about the forced conversion of Spanish Jews and Muslims to Catholicism. Here's one of the linked articles on the duties of forcibly converted Muslims:
For the most part, conversion was merely nominal: they paid lip-service to Christianity, but continued to practise Islam in secret. ‘By God, we did not willingly assent to that profession of faith, they lie in what they say, it was from fear of slaughter and fire, and we only said what we did against our will, and the religion of God’s Messenger continued to be ours.’ [6] They were able to lead a double life with a clear conscience because certain religious authorities ruled that, under duress or threat to life, Muslims might apply the principle of taqiyyah, or precaution, that made dissimulation and hypocrisy permissible. For example, after a child was baptised, he might be taken home and washed with hot water to annul the sacrament of baptism. In response to a plea from the Spanish Moriscos, the Grand Mufti of Oran, Ahmad ibn Abû Juma‘a, issued a decree in 1504, in which he stated that Muslims may drink wine, eat pork or do any other forbidden thing if they are compelled to do so and if they do not have the intention to sin. They may even, he said, deny the Prophet Muhammad with their tongues provided, at the same time, they love him in their hearts. [7] Another North African jurist al-Wansharishî (d. 1508) decreed that Muslims who remained in Spain under Christian rule would necessarily cease to be Muslims because they would not be free to exercise their religious duties. The majority of Muslim jurists would in fact share al-Wansharishî’s opinion and would only countenance dissimulation as a temporary measure. As Pat Harvey points out, there is no parallel in Islamic history of a whole Muslim population nominally converting to another religion and continuing for several generations to practise Islam in secret.
Similar things happened in England; to avoid taxes on dissenters, or to secure government job, some Dissenters and Catholics pretended adherence to the Church of England, at times in a merely pro forma manner, and other times pretending sincere belief.

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the "Half-Way Covenant" served to allow church membership for those unable to sincerley profess a conversion experience.

Unitarianism seems a time a whole religion based on keeping doctrine and belief as fluid as possible, and so who knows what they believe, if anything.

In fact, it's so common, there's a set of phrases to describe it: "crypto-<real faith>": crypto-Catholic, crypto-Jew, crypto-Muslim, and a whole panoply of stratagems: so-called "priest's holes" in which Catholic clergy could hide, Catholic families who abjure pork and for reasons they themselves have forgotten, light candles on Friday night, "ex"-Muslims who ostentatiously eat pork in public to prove their "Catholicism".

Even today, in the US, plenty of atheists pretend some degree of religious adherence, in order to avoid persecution or to satisfy family or employers or voters.

So there's a long tradition of "when in Rome", or rubbing blue mud on your belly like everyone else, in order to escape death or civil disability (like discrimination, inability to marry, or extra taxes for non-believers). I say your friend is part of this long tradition of crypto-dissent, and that as long as he can stomach his duties as a "Muslim" and safely pretend adherence, it's for what he sees as a greater good, and it's the right thing for him.
posted by orthogonality at 12:22 PM on December 19, 2008 [14 favorites]

I don't see the downside here at all. Sure it's an untruthful thing to do, but I really don't see how lying about his faith could lead to any kind of problems later. To the government (or the girl's family), he'll be the guy who did the right thing by converting to Islam and marrying the girl he impregnated. To you and everyone else close to him, he'll still be good ol' atheist guy living in a hardcore Muslim country. If he's comfortable lying to his in-laws, let him.
posted by azarbayejani at 12:23 PM on December 19, 2008

it does seem that there are a hell of a lot of ways "atheist westerner fakes conversion to Islam to marry pregnant girlfriend in hardcore Islamic country" could go badly wrong

True. But depending on the country I'd guess there might be an equal number of ways that "atheist westerner marries pregnant muslim girlfriend" could go wrong for him, her and/or the baby. I don't know what country he is in and how tolerant it is, but I'm wondering if is doing this fake conversion for more than just the in-laws?

I also think that this is one of those situations where there's not really much you can do. He already asked you for advice, I think once you said your piece that time you should probably stay out of it.
posted by Joh at 12:31 PM on December 19, 2008

If he wants to marry her, and this is the only way he can, well... I'd be a hell of a lot more worried about the baby part than the fake religion.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:32 PM on December 19, 2008

I don't think you have a very good grasp on the situation, for one. And reading between the lines, I think this question has more to do with unrealistic comprehension of Islam than worries about conversion as such. Let me explain the reasons:

1) Screwing around with (and impregnating) an unmarried woman in many countries could have gotten him killed. Threat of physical harm doesn't seem to be an issue here.

2) Appearances count (even in the parts of America that haven't been totally hillbillified in the relatively short time I've been here!) Which is to say, her parents are probably much more concerned with the appearance of proper behavior than the underlying belief of their future son-in-law. They've already lost some stature simply by having a knocked-up, unmarried daughter. Creating a new Muslim - however artificially - helps them claw a little back. Most of the Islamic world is poor by American standards, and typically families tend to be closer to one another and to their neighborhoods than in the West. Perceived moral status is thus more important.

3) People convert to Judaism or Christianity ALL THE TIME for the sake of marriage, most of the time with no "real" adjustment of personal beliefs. They do it out of respect, or for family reasons or whatever. But, most of the time, it ends up being no big deal. Like it or not, the majority of educated and middle-class-or-better Muslims - while they are informed by their religion and its traditions, cultures, etc - are not particularly religious . . . just like in America! Presumably, the woman's family in this case would belong to this group, simply by virtue of the fact that a family member would even have contact with a liberal Westerner. So why do you think this case would be any different? Islam is not as scary as you seem to feel.

4) The future wife herself knows that the conversion isn't "true" - and clearly doesn't care. This says a lot more about how things may go down between them in raising their child than anything else. Obviously, strict adherence to Islam is not one of *her* driving ideals either. So if they get along, what's the problem? Many marriages do fail, and probably shotgun marriages have an even higher rate of failure. But this isn't relevant to conversion.

5) Your post seems to be putting the onus on Islam here. But let's face it, he's a liberal Westerner who ended up in an Islamic country . . . I'm guessing from that fact that he's probably educated and well-off, by local standards. He must also be well-aware, in some basic sense, of how the society works in the culture where he now lives. So if you have any worries about him, the first of them should be why he couldn't keep it in his pants - knowing what the end result might have been (and was.)

6) It's absolutely none of your business anyway.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:38 PM on December 19, 2008 [22 favorites]

I worry about how well he's going to be able to go through the motions successfully.
Without more detail about the location and community, it's hard to tell what the insistence on conversion is intended to accomplish.

But I don't know how "hardcore" the country could be if the parents are permitting their daughter to marry a westerner who's a recent convert.

If it's the equivalent of being a member of a church congregation and showing up on Sundays to mumble through the service, then half of my friends' parents growing up did the same thing in order to be considered Catholics/Methodists/Lutherans/wevs for such reasons as "setting an example for the kids to get them to go to Sunday School," "what would the neighbors think if I went to church alone," "my in-laws are religious."
posted by desuetude at 12:44 PM on December 19, 2008

6) It's absolutely none of your business anyway.

All that needs to be said. Any religious decision anyone makes is theirs alone to make. Period. Sure, people can be pressured into any number of situations, but putting YOUR nose into it is only making it WORSE.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:55 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

If he doesn't convert, he can't marry her.

It seems to me that he can marry her without converting to Islam: by marrying overseas. On the scale of hardcore Islamic countries, he lives somewhere pretty mild: Indonesia. (So no worries about honour killings, etc) Indonesia accepts marriages between non-Muslims and Muslim women if it happened in a non-Islamic country. Obviously that would upset the parents, but isn't it the right thing to do? I said to him: "Would you join the Republican party to please your fiance's parents?" and he said no. I just can't see the difference.

Thank you for your thoughtful answers.
posted by dydecker at 12:57 PM on December 19, 2008

This law that requires your friend to publicly convert to Islam in order to marry to mother of his child is completely unjust, so he does not have to have any moral qualms about the insincerity of his conversion.

Will he have to put a lot of effort into keeping up appearances? Does he have to attend meetings, prayer services, potlucks?

Anyway, life is an adventure.
posted by thirteenkiller at 1:04 PM on December 19, 2008

Your friend is a small-I idiot for moving to an oppressive country. While I agree with the advice given by many people above about not inserting yourself into it, please make sure he keeps perspective about the fact that he and his wife and their child can move back to civilization and work out the religion/wedlock/parenting thing on their own. I don't really think "when in Rome" goes as far as creating a moral obligation to abide by some archaic and awful standards, even if creates a legal one. Essentially, religion is a distraction here and not the main thrust of his problem even if the ever-present controversy about matters of religion obscures the fact that his fundamental problem is an oppressive government/majority.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:06 PM on December 19, 2008

Inspector.Gadget: wow, racist/imperalist much?

dydecker: people in bastions of liberalism and hedonism like the bay area and nyc convert to judaism and catholicism every single day of the year in order to smooth things over with their partner's parents. do you have a problem with that too?

if your friend is an adult, he's doing this of his own free will and his partner doesn't have an issue with it: a) there's nothing wrong with it and b) it's none of your business.
posted by lia at 1:22 PM on December 19, 2008

do you have a problem with that too?

Of course I do. My question isn't really about Islam as such - it's about whether people should bend to the will of their inlaws/the government to make everybody else happy.

Also: my question is not whether this is any of my business (i know that in the end it isn't). It's whether you think converting is the right thing to do.
posted by dydecker at 1:35 PM on December 19, 2008

It's whether you think converting is the right thing to do.

The right thing to do is for your friend to be accountable and deal with the consequences of his actions to the best of his ability. And it sounds like he is. A lot of western men would have skipped back home and left their third world girlfriend to deal with the child on her own.

For an unmarried Islamic girl in Indonesia that might be a pretty tough life. Not Saudi or Iran tough. But still not tough.

So kudos to your friend.

The best thing in the situation may be the public conversion. He can marry her according to the law. The in-laws can maintain an air of respectability while they believe (or pretend to) he's of the One True Faith and has done right be their daughter.
posted by 6550 at 1:53 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's whether you think converting is the right thing to do.

Yes, it's the right thing for him to do. Because he's decided to do it, and it's his decision alone to make.
posted by Houstonian at 1:56 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Inspector.Gadget, Indonesia is a Republic. With a secular constitution, term limits for the president, a Supreme Court, and a parliament. It's an ethnically diverse country with significant minority populations of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, whose religions are recognized by the government. Your characterization of Indonesia as oppressive, oppressive, oppressive is bizarre.

dydecker, you're right, this has nothing to do with Islam. Personally, would I make the choice to convert to a religion to make my in-laws and the greater society happy? No way. It is deception, unless he is truly interested in conversion.

Is he perhaps interested in conversion? It would be easy enough to hop over to Australia to get hitched, right? If he is devoted to this adherence to appearances, your protestations are just going to be noise to him after a certain point.
posted by desuetude at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Inspector.Gadget: wow, racist/imperalist much?

Not even close. I'm merely dismayed to see that forced marriage/religious conversion is alive and well and I don't believe that a society that incorporates those things meets the baseline for adequate protection of individual rights. If you'll re-read what I wrote, you'll notice that I focused on government more than religion and didn't mention race or colonization anywhere. I'm not sure where you think I was being unduly offensive in any way, given that I would apply the same sort of complaint to the US in the limited context of gay marriage (which isn't at issue in this question). Take your overreaction somewhere else.

I still believe that the best resolution for the present problem is bringing the interpersonal part of it to a locale where outside influences don't bear so heavily on it, because at the end of the day the conversion aspect is essentially secondary to the reproduction/marriage issue: You can always go back to being an atheist, you can't go back to not being a parent and can't undo a marriage without extensive financial and emotional problems. These problems exist without regard to venue, but there are places where the consequences differ and Indonesia is notably worse in that regard than most places a "Westerner" could return to.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:00 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Would you join the Republican party to please your fiance's parents?" and he said no. I just can't see the difference.

Clearly, he sees a difference, which is what is important.

it's about whether people should bend to the will of their inlaws/the government to make everybody else happy.

There's no "yes, always" or "no, never" answer to that question. It depends on how much people are being asked to bend, how much they desire the approval of their inlaws/the government, what the consequences are for failing to bend, etc. It really has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

In this particular case, it seems most people here believe that following the outward rituals of a religion is not too far to bend to achieve family harmony.

It's whether you think converting is the right thing to do.

It might not be the right thing for you to do, if you were in his situation. But it's the right thing for him to do. Different people place different values on their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. For some atheists it would be a impossibly huge sacrifice to outwardly renounce their atheism. For others it's not that big of a deal.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:04 PM on December 19, 2008

Plenty of atheists fake adherence to a religion for the sake of social acceptance. There's nothing unusual about what your friend is doing, and frankly, If you don't believe in god, I don't see how you can think there's anything wrong with it. I mean, who is the wronged party?

"Would you join the Republican party to please your fiance's parents?" and he said no. I just can't see the difference.

The Republican Party actually exists.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:10 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

So the alternative is getting married outside Indonesia, thus upsetting his in-laws (and potentially his wife) and creating an awkward situation in advance for his kid, for the sake of (a) some imagined principle that atheism must always be loudly and publicly witnessed, and (b) unspecified "weird consequences".

Presumably, your friend has decided that the "weird consequences" are less likely and less problematic than the results of making this a family issue. So if you really believe you are right, your job is to find instances when such unforeseen "weird consequences" have in fact occurred in Indonesia (or, less convincingly, other analogous situations) before, and give your friend this information. Otherwise you're just unproductively hassling the guy for his choices in a bad situation.
posted by No-sword at 2:12 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Of course I do. My question isn't really about Islam as such - it's about whether people should bend to the will of their inlaws/the government to make everybody else happy.

I think I speak for a lot of people when I admit I have exceeded the speed limit while driving.

However, when driving past police speed traps, I bend to the will of the government and reduce my speed to below the posted limit, to avoid a costly fine.

I haven't got into a conversation with my partner's parents about driving safety, but you can be sure that if I did I wouldn't be blabbing about me breaking the law.

Now, maybe I'm a hypocrite for not engaging in civil disobedience and accepting the consequences thereof, but I think of myself as just a regular guy who bends the law every once in a while and doesn't deserve to get punched in the dick by the courts.

Needless to say, converting to Islam to marry your pregnant girlfriend is plenty different to speeding. I'm just saying that there's more than enough grey area for your friend to do what he's doing without being a bad person. I'd even go as far as to say his actions mark him as a good person.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:29 PM on December 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Also, if it helps, I don't think the situation you describe makes him a hypocrite at all.

If he did this but also condemned other crypto-atheists for the same behavior, that would make him a hypocrite.
posted by No-sword at 2:34 PM on December 19, 2008

It's whether you think converting is the right thing to do.

Then this is chatfilter and not an actual problem to be solved. Who cares what we think? Your friend doesn't, and he's the one making the decision.
posted by desjardins at 2:35 PM on December 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

There are a few things nobody's thought about. As a Muslim in a Muslim country he'll have to study to know how to pray properly, which means learning some Arabic. He'll have to avoid pork and not touch alcohol. And if he didn't have it done as a baby, he'll have to be circumcised.

It's not just a question of pro forma change of a religious label. There are consequences.
posted by zadcat at 2:41 PM on December 19, 2008

You know, Ivanka Trump is converting to Judaism in order to become marriageable in the eyes of Jared Kushner's family, and I don't think it's accompanied by some personal revelation that she was born to be one of God's Chosen People (TM). I'm with desjardins on this one:

Then this is chatfilter and not an actual problem to be solved. Who cares what we think? Your friend doesn't, and he's the one making the decision.

(It's also none of your business.)
posted by availablelight at 2:56 PM on December 19, 2008

My understanding is that for many people in Indonesia one's religion is just a box to fill in on your ID card. You get one of five choices: Islam, Protestant, Catholic (yes, those two are separate), Buddhist, or Hindu (as on Bali). There are also religious extremists and nutbags, but they tend to be in the minority.

One historical aspect is that 'atheist' in Indonesia has often been equated with 'Communist' and therefore 'enemy of the state'. There's a story that after the 1965 attempted coup, when Communists were sent to prison or executed in great numbers, there was a massive upsurge in religious registrations by people who previously went around without a religion, so as not to be mistaken for Communists. If your friend has considered staying as a resident, picking one of the five official religions, even as a bogus cover, might have been strongly desirable anyway.

Worth noting, too, that most Islamic environments frown very severely on apostasy or conversion to another religion. Once you're in, you're in, from their point of view anyway. I don't know exactly what Indonesian regulations are on this--there's certainly not a Taliban-style death penalty, at least--but there's bound to be intense social pressure to conform. You wouldn't want to be sitting across the table from a stone-faced guy in a military uniform trying to explain why you didn't want to be a Muslim anymore and please can I have my ID back?

On the flipside, if you tick off "Islam" on a card, my guess is that nobody will check up afterwards to see if you're going to mosque or anything. And, there may be a lot more non-practicing or non-believing people walking the streets with a bogus checkmark on their personal papers than is outwardly apparent.

I'm familiar with the background, but it's been a few years since I've been there, and I can't speak for the exact situation right at this time, so discreet conversations with trusted friends or neighbors might be best to see what the word on the street is today, how regular people feel about it, exploring the situations that might come up in the future. The underlying theme behind all this is how long your friend intends to stay in Indonesia. Permanent resident? Probably should consider all sides of the decision seriously.
posted by gimonca at 2:57 PM on December 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are a few things nobody's thought about. As a Muslim in a Muslim country he'll have to study to know how to pray properly, which means learning some Arabic. He'll have to avoid pork and not touch alcohol. And if he didn't have it done as a baby, he'll have to be circumcised.

Nobody said he's have to be a particularly good Muslim.
posted by odinsdream at 3:01 PM on December 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

TThere are a few things nobody's thought about. As a Muslim in a Muslim country he'll have to study to know how to pray properly, which means learning some Arabic. He'll have to avoid pork and not touch alcohol. And if he didn't have it done as a baby, he'll have to be circumcised.

Astonishingly, I grew up a Muslim in a Muslim country and can't pray properly, don't know Arabic, loved pork sausage and bacon and sat drinking plum brandy with my grandmother, who'd been on Hajj. Be realistic - people break these rules all the time. For the record, my brother wasn't circumcised, either.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:31 PM on December 19, 2008 [7 favorites]

What No-sword said.
posted by flabdablet at 3:36 PM on December 19, 2008

Minor correction, now that I'm home: it looks like Pres. Wahid a couple of years ago added Confucianism to the list of approved religions. So you get six choices now.
posted by gimonca at 4:21 PM on December 19, 2008

posted by A189Nut at 4:42 PM on December 19, 2008

I work with a guy who converted to Islam to marry his Turkish wife. Sometimes where we're all out and he's drinking us under the table, we'll call him Akmal, his adopted Muslim name. This is in front of his wife, who demurely sips tea. Trust me, if it's a good relationship, it will work out.
posted by whitewall at 1:49 AM on December 20, 2008

Hmm... you know apostasy is severely frowned upon though, don't you? As in terminally. Even if its not in the penal code in Indonesia, people are not going to take kindly to some Westerner throwing off the faith. So if your friend ever does renounce Islam, I hope he waits until he's in a non-Muslim country to do so.
posted by meosl at 3:37 AM on December 20, 2008

Hmm... you know apostasy is severely frowned upon though, don't you? As in terminally.

In Saudi Arabia, yes. Islam is not monolithic, and Indonesia is one of the most tolerant Islamic countries in the world, at the opposite pole from hardcore Wahhabism. Dee Xtrovert's comments should be required reading for anyone with simplistic ideas about Islam.

I still believe that the best resolution for the present problem is bringing the interpersonal part of it to a locale where outside influences don't bear so heavily on it

Right, because separating the wife from her family and the place and culture she grew up in is of far less moment than preserving an atheist's right to fly his atheist flag freely. Nice set of priorities there.

I agree with everyone who says this is not really your business (though of course it's reasonable to be concerned about your friend) and that conversion for the sake of marriage is so common as to be unremarkable. A lot of people have a lot of uninformed prejudice about Islam clouding their vision; I'm not saying you're one of them, but there are sure some in this thread.
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on December 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

Returning back to the original question:

solve his short term problems and meet social obligations

Yeah, it's a bit speculative, but I'd say social obligations going forward would be the biggest part of it. People wouldn't be quizzing him on the finer points of theology, they'd be asking him "So, what are you doing for the holidays?" Holidays are now assumed to be Eid and Ramadan. They'd expect that he's not going to bring a bag lunch to work during Ramadan, and that there'll probably be treats around the home for after sundown. They might assume a roast goat or mutton dinner for Eid, or maybe a trip to see family.

Imagine if someone were in the U.S. and converting to Christianity. A likely water-cooler conversation would be like: "So, got your Christmas shopping done?"

As a belanda who has apparently converted to Islam, people would be friendly and possibly curious. They'd see it as a good thing, they might assume an interesting story behind this bit of info, and they might want to know more. Now your friend has to come up with a way out of this friendly conversation without disappointing his 'fellow Muslims'.

Not too hard to do. Consider this possible answer: "I'm not an intensely religious person, but I've always thought Islam stands for peace and justice." That's an answer people would accept and feel good about, even if it's finessing the truth a bit as to his motivations.

Or he could say "I think it's all a myth, I just did it to get married". That might be 100% true. This could get him labelled in the office, or the family, or the neighborhood as what we in Western societies call an "immense douchebag".
posted by gimonca at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

And before I let this go: just like the United States, Indonesia also has "dog whistle politics". In some contexts, "Muslim" as a label can mean things that have little to do with religious belief.

Checking a box on a form that says "Muslim" would mean throwing your lot in with a big majority, with the "good old boys", with the "real Indonesians" (and please note that those are ironic quotes around that).

"Muslim" can mean "back to basics", can mean "anti-Western", can mean "I'm not Chinese, dammit!" depending on who you're dealing with. Or it can mean you're mainstream, not rocking the boat, happy with the status quo. It could mean that you honor the grand traditions of the Javanese nobility. Or it could mean that you're tired of corruption, and are grasping for a prepackaged legal system as a way to reform government.

Out in the boondocks it can mean "I hate the government" or "I hate those Christians on the other side of the mountain"--but if your friend is out in the sticks like that, he'll probably have lots of culture shock issues in general to deal with.
posted by gimonca at 10:00 AM on December 20, 2008

Thanks again all for your interesting answers. You know, I caught a bit of flak upthread for this question being too chatty -- and I'm glad it wasn't deleted because it's been a lot of help to me. This is not an issue I've come across before so I think hearing your different perspectives is just what I needed.

It might not have been as clearcut as how to reboot a server or which Mac to buy, but I had an issue to be sorted and you helped a lot.

Now off to Indo for the wedding ;)
posted by dydecker at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2008

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