Why Madeleine Albright’s Decision to Register as a Muslim Could be a Terrible Idea

Why Madeleine Albright’s Decision to Register as a Muslim Could be a Terrible Idea

On the 26th of January, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tweeted: “I was raised Catholic, became Episcopalian and found out later my family was Jewish. I stand ready to register as Muslim in #Solidarity”. Following Albright’s announcement, The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik publicly declared she would also register as Muslim in protest to Trump’s bigoted ambitions concerning Muslims in the US. The empathetic impetus behind such announcements is certainly to be commended and encouraged, yet the means of support may prove to be problematic. To argue my case, I’ll be drawing from two areas of academia – history and social psychology. Before presenting my case against this mode of expressing solidarity, I must offer the following caveat. I am unsure whether these two women would publicly convert to Islam in order to register as Muslims, or whether they would just register without converting to show support to Muslims in the US. If registering as a Muslim would require a conversion, this would be a potentially terrible idea, particularly if the conversion is made/announced in public.

 

The Social Psychology of Public Conversions

Generally speaking, the human psyche is compelled toward consistency. According to (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Schlenker, 1980): ‘After people have committed themselves to an opinion or course of action, it is difficult for them to change their minds, recant, or otherwise fail to stay the course. Commitment does not derive its power solely from the anger and disappointment that breaking of a commitment would engender in others—although this certainly counts for something—but also from a basic desire to act consistently with one’s point of view.  A commitment that is expressed publicly, whether in front of a crowd or to a single individual, is especially effective in locking in a person’s opinion or promise, making it resistant to change despite the availability of good reasons for reconsideration’. [1]

This fact of human psychology is exploited by some Christian denominations, who have new converts stand at the front of the congregation to publicly accept Jesus Christ as their lord and saviour. Public commitments to beliefs and ideologies are particularly potent, because they assist beliefs in becoming cemented by both internal psychological drives and an added social dimension, which persuades people to act in accordance with their publicly expressed pronouncements for fear of being viewed as inconsistent.  Discussing the internal mechanisms of belief that can cause otherwise rational people to fall prey to irrational beliefs, the father of the theory of cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger, wrote:

‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.  But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view’. [2]

Thus, if Albright and Bialik make a public commitment to the religion of Islam, it is quite possible they would soon begin to internalize the package of beliefs that accompany the religion, thereby making it very difficult for them to see beyond the irrational and often harmful parameters of their newly adopted belief system.  However, this would not be the worst part of the problem.

 

History as Teacher: Persecution, Empathy, and Mass Conversions

Most sane and well-adjusted human beings experience a negative emotional response to spectacles of injustice and persecution. This negative emotion can manifest in a variety of ways. For some, the focus becomes expressing anger at the perpetrators, whilst for others it can result in experiencing acute empathy for the victims. This empathy was possibly one of the driving forces behind the first wave of mass conversions to Christianity in the ante-Nicene period, when Christians occasionally (infrequently) experienced public persecution. Discussing the failure of the Decian Persecution, Woolsey professor of biblical studies at Yale, Wayne A. Meeks, writes: ‘So, the Romans bring to bear all the power they have at their disposal. They say, “All right, let’s hit the leaders. Let’s find these bishops and bring them into court and force them to recant, and if they won’t, we’ll eliminate them. “And so you have bishops fleeing to the countryside and you have others being martyred. You have ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to sacrifice, or if they can buy a forged certificate of sacrifice. There’s some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing is it fails…. The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the church, which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the empire, – those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have always been suspicious of Rome. This simply brings those into the Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires’.

Further, Christian scholar Gordan P. Robertson remarks: ‘Amazingly, Christianity not only survived, but actually thrived under the constant threat of imprisonment, enforced servitude, confiscation of property, and martyrdom. As Tertullian, a Christian apologist and former pagan, wrote to the Roman leaders in A.D. 197, the more Christians were “mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” The believers’ refusal to renounce their faith during torment actually caused more Romans to inquire into Christian doctrine. Christian behavior under persecution preached a sermon far more effective than words’.

Although early (infrequent) persecutions were probably responsible for some of the first large waves of conversions to Christianity, such waves paled in comparison to the those that occurred when Constantine enacted pro-Christian edicts and displayed favour toward Christians. To ‘steel man’ my position a little, it must be conceded that there exists a disjunct between the cultural context of Constantine’s day and our own. Constantine was a Roman emperor born into a culture that had long-standing cults surrounding emperors, so his influence over the subjects of the Roman Empire was far more potent and persuasive than public figures and celebrities in the 21st century. The Romans worshiped their emperors, literally, so anything their emperors showed favour towards became a popular target for the affections of large swarms of people. Having made this concession, there is no doubt that public figures and celebrities in our time yield significant sway over large platforms of people. Add to this reality the contagious environment created by social media and the internet in general, an environment in which trends, ideas, beliefs and memes can, and often do, spread like wildfire, and we have cause to pause and ponder the potentially troublesome implications of a trend of converting to Islam that could begin with the harmless conversion of a few public figures and celebrities and end with mass conversions across western liberal democratic countries.

To summarize, Albright’s expression of solidarity toward Muslims in the US, whilst noble in its intention, is potentially problematic for the reason that, should she and other public figures and celebrities convert publicly to Islam for simply the sake of protest, they could possibly become infected psychologically due to the mechanisms of the mind that compel consistency. That such public figures and celebrities yield influence over large portions of society gives us even greater cause for concern, for should this trend catch on and spread, the effects would be difficult to reverse in the individual and nearly impossible to remedy at the social level. There are plenty of avenues for protest which exist within liberal democratic societies, so conversion for the sake subversion is not only unnecessary, it is potentially problematic.

 

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Sources

  1. Andrzej Nowak, Robin R. Vallacher, and Mandy E. Miller, ‘Social Influence and Group Dynamics’, in: Irving B. Weiner (ed.), Theodore Millon (ed.), Melvin J. Lerner (ed.), Handbook of Psychology, Vol. 5: Personality and Social Psychology, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003, p. 395.
  2. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Harper and Row, 1964, p. 3.
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