Irony is a cruel prankster. It turned a far-right politician from the Netherlands, Joram van Klaveren, from a virulent Islamophobe, who had made it his political mission to rid his country of Islam, into an unlikely convert to the religion. Van Klaveren’s epiphany occurred while he was working on a book that started off as an anti-Islam polemic but morphed into a defense of the faith.
Worse or better still (depending on your perspective), van Klaveren had not so long ago been the right-hand man of Geert Wilders, the godfather of Dutch far-right extremism. For those unfamiliar with him, Wilders is the Dutch Donald Trump.
Or more accurately, Trump is actually the American Wilders, as the Dutch anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politician with the eccentric peroxide-blond hair who helped pioneer the brand of outrageous, publicity-seeking, substance-free “populist” far-right politics that Trump perfected. Wilders has gone from demanding the banning of the Koran, supposedly in the defense of free speech, to calling for a “head rag tax,” the complete banning of mosques, hijabs and Islamic schools, and a halt to Muslim immigration.
Wilders now lives under permanent police protection following death threats from Islamic extremists, so he was bound to view the conversion of his former “crown prince” as a betrayal. Admitting that he had “no words” to describe his dismay, Wilders colorfully likened van Klaveren’s decision to a “vegetarian working in an abattoir.”
Similarly confounded, Jan Roos, who co-founded the far-right party Voor Nederland (For the Netherlands), likened van Klaveren’s leap of faith to a “black man joining the Ku Klux Klan,” dismissing it as a “PR stunt to promote his book.”
This is nonsense. In the current political atmosphere in Europe and the United States, van Klaveren is far more likely to sell a book bashing Islam and Muslims than defending them.
And van Klaveren does run real risks. Some commentators fear that his conversion could make him the target of violence and hate crimes from neo-Nazis and the increasingly radicalized violent extremes of the far right. Moreover, his harsh criticism, now from within Islam, of how Islamist extremists twist and exploit their faith could make him a target of their violent ire, as well. And if this were an opportunistic publicity stunt and Van Klaveren were later to renounce his newfound faith, he could be the victim of death threats from fanatical Muslims who reject so-called apostasy.
But although van Klaveren’s conversion strikes his former allies as inexplicable, it is not as bizarre or surreal as it appears. He hasn’t rejected religion, after all; he’s merely changing one strain of it for another. Rather than being like a vegetarian who suddenly becomes a carnivore, van Klaveren’s change of heart is more akin to a committed soda drinker switching from Coca Cola to Pepsi.
Although Wilders describes himself as “agnostic,” he is culturally very Christian and exploits Christianity and racial identity politics to whip up fear against Muslims and immigrants. Wilders regularly refers to a supposedly tolerant set of “Christian values” that contrast with allegedly savage Islamic ideals, but in reality, Islam and Christianity, like Judaism, derive from the same Abrahamic roots and draw on similar Greek philosophical traditions. Moreover, the Reformed Protestantism in which van Klaveren was raised in the Dutch “Bible Belt” bears even greater resemblance to mainstream Islam: They share iconoclasm and attitudes toward drinking and intoxication. Even the so-called Protestant work ethic bears a striking resemblance to the traditional Islamic concept of work as a form of worship.
Ironically, Muhammad is, in some ways, more compatible with contemporary Dutch (and American) Protestantism than Jesus. Whereas Christ was a radical and outspoken anti-materialist who believed the rich were condemned to eternal damnation, the Muslim prophet was a successful merchant who traded far and wide. Now which of the two sounds more like a Republican or the famously entrepreneurial Dutch?
Van Klaveren “comes from an orthodox reformed [Protestant] background which is a lot like Islam,” posits Joke van Saane, a professor of religious psychology at the Free University of Amsterdam. “They swap one system for another, which makes it easier than for people without a religious background.”
Van Klaveren has hinted as much. “It felt a bit like a homecoming, in religious terms,” the convert explained in an interview, in which he confessed that he still loved Christianity. This sense of familiarity was probably intensified by the warped picture of Islam van Klaveren had been exposed to in the Islamophobic circles he frequented, where Muslims were seen only as an alien danger, not as fellow devout believers — although this earlier demonization probably made it much harder for him to come out with his new convictions.
In fact, the impassioned rivalry between Christianity and Islam is not due to their irreconcilable differences, as fanatics on both sides believe, but instead stems from their uncanny and unsettling similarities — rather like the narcissism of minor difference identified by Sigmund Freud.
This makes the conservative Christian idea that van Klaveren has gone over to the dark side just as ridiculous as the conviction among conservative Muslims that the Dutch convert has discovered the one and only true light.
The triumphalism and smugness among Islamists on social media has indeed been palpable, with many seeing this as a sign of the self-evidently superior truth of Islam. “Truly anyone can be guided to Islam once you look at it with an open and sincere heart to find the truth,” said one influential Twitter user. “Some of the biggest enemies of Islam can become the greatest of the believers.”
This echoes an existing narrative that Islam became the world’s fastest-growing religion by virtue of its undeniable veracity and its irresistible ideas. However, not only are their minor religions that are growing faster, the reason Islam appears to be growing so rapidly is a result of population growth in Muslim-majority countries, where people are counted as Muslims regardless of their beliefs, while conversion accounts for a pityingly small 0.3 percent of this growth.
In short, van Klaveren’s conversion tells us almost nothing about the reality of Islam. All it tells us is that one man discovered that the negative hype around the religion was exaggerated and exchanged one very similar faith for another.
What I take home from this curious case is the demystifying and humanizing power and potential of knowledge and familiarity — the importance of compassion, not of conversion. As surveys and anecdotal evidence have revealed, people who actually know Muslims are far less likely to fear or hate them. With the polarized reality in which we live, it is vital that we learn to understand and empathize with our fellow citizens, especially the marginalized — even if we disagree with them.