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12/12 Religious Harassment

A friend recently asked (offline) if anyone ever attempts to convert me.

Here's my response:

I get urged to convert to Islam fairly frequently. My friends don't pressure me, though some of my Peace Corps buddies get ongoing pressure from their friends, but strangers often do. It's most commonly taxi drivers, interestingly - possibly because they know I'm trapped in their car, giving them a finite window with which to convert me?

I usually explain that I am Christian, and that's generally enough to stop the efforts. Mohammed required his followers to respect the fellow "People of The Book," the Jews and Christians. (Though the current situation in Israel/Palestine and the centuries of Crusading show that it hasn't always worked out so well.) Some keep going at that point. I explain that I follow the religion of my parents; given the respect-for-elders built into the culture here, that is sometimes enough. (Although once, that got the response, "Well then your parents are going to hell, too." I cut off the dialog at that point.)

I've tried saying, "There are many paths to God," but that usually blows up in my face - I've had people shout, "NO! There is only ONE PATH to Allah!" - so I don't use that one anymore. I'm perfectly willing to discuss religion, but if it gets angry or mean-spirited, I simply end the conversation, whether by walking away, turning away, or pretending not to understand anymore. (After the grand taxi driver told me my parents going to hell, I turned to face the window. The men crowded next to me waited a minute to see what my response would be, then turned to each other and said, "Oh, she doesn't understand Tamazight." I turned back to the man closest to me and said icily, "I understood every word. I'm done with this conversation.")

Technically, it's illegal to prosletyze in Morocco - in any direction - but that's only enforced against Christian missionaries. Also, technically, the Qur'an forbids compelling or coercing any conversion...but that doesn't seem to stop people. I can recite the sura that says, "There is no compulsion in Islam," in Classical Arabic, but that only works on the most educated people, who aren't the ones having this conversation with me. While scholars know that a compelled conversion is meaningless, the common person knows only that converting a nonbeliever wins them a guaranteed ride to heaven.

Sidenote: Even more meaningless is the inadvertent conversion. In order to become a Muslim, you have to recite, three times, in Classical Arabic, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his Prophet." Some uneducated folks believe that if they can simply trick me into saying this sentence three times, they get their ticket to heaven. I've had several people, usually children or teenagers, say, "Hey, repeat this:" expecting me not to know what it means. The first time it happened, I asked them what it meant. "It doesn't matter, just say it," I was told. This strikes me as the moral equivalent of offering someone a Communion wafer as snack food, and then telling them that they're Catholic now.

In Peace Corps, we talk about "religious harassment", in the same conversation with sexual harassment and political harassment ("Was Bush a good president? Do you think it's good to kill Iraqis? Do you support Israel?") Male PCVs tend to get more religious harassment than female PCVs, but we all get it, to varying degrees.

I think it's important to clarify that not all religious conversation is religious harassment. I like talking about religion, as long as it's in a mutually respectful way. Anyone who has had a Jehovah's Witness show up on their doorstep or got ambushed by a Hari Krishna at an airport has had an abrupt and unexpected conversation about religion. Some people hate it; others accept it as part of the human condition. "Harassment" is generally defined as unwelcome attention that makes the recipient uncomfortable. Note that it depends on the attitude of the recipient, not that of the instigator. In my opinion, when the conversation crosses the line to criticizing or belittling me, my faith, or my family, that's when it changes from talk to assault.

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