Conversion stories usually are interesting if the converter converts to your faith. Derya Little’s conversion story, documented in her wonderful book, From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God, is perhaps a more extraordinary than most, and so perhaps might interest more than just Catholics. First off she was born and raised to Muslim parents in a country that claims to be 99.8% Islamic, the Republic of Turkey. Perhaps that claim might be exaggerated, but nonetheless the Muslim religion is probably near universal in the country. That she went from Muslim to atheist to Protestant Christian to Roman Catholic is also rather extraordinary, especially when you consider how few Christians are even in Turkey. Also interesting is the passionate adherence to each of her shifts. So when she became an atheist, she was of the virulent variety; when a Protestant Christian, a staunch one; and when a Roman Catholic, a convicted one. That Derya Little is incredibly intelligent (if I read correctly she has a Ph.D in international politics) means that her transitions took place with intellectual examination, and in this, her confessional memoir, she walks us through the intellectual transitions, filtered through her life experiences, in much the way of St. Augustine in his Confessions. This is an extraordinary book.
The only way to do this book justice is try to capture the key transitional moments. She grew up in what I take to be a relatively typical Turkish household. Turkey is not the strict Islamic country as its Islamic neighbors, so the faith was not adhered to with a fundamentalist discipline, but still she went through Islamic education and learned the rudiments as any child in a western country goes through catechesis. It was a nuclear family in that there was a mother, father, son, and daughter, with the only somewhat atypical element being that the mother worked, somewhat unusual, but more common in the large city Derya grew up. The problem began in her pre-teen years when her father decided he was happier with other women, and ultimately wanted an open relationship with a mistress. This was not acceptable to the mother, and so they divorced, which left the mother and the children in some financial difficulty.
The divorce was shattering to the pre-teen child, and the disillusionment spread out into other parts of her life. If the father she had put so much faith in could dissolve her family just like that, what other things she had put faith in were questionable. She had not lost her faith, but her faith became nominal, if not perfunctory. She turned to reading, a rather intellectual sort of reading for a teenager. Through a friend, who had similar reading interests, though she was raised atheist, she was introduced to Turan Dursun, a Muslim scholar who had spent years understanding religion, only to come to the conclusion that it was false. Ultimately Darsun was murdered by the fundamentalists, but he had written a number of books which Derya devoured. Here’s an excerpt:
In the first book…God and the Quran, Dursun laid out the shortcomings and contradictions of Allah and Muhammed. By that time, I had not read the Quran in Turkish, nor did I have the desire to read the numerous hadith, or traditions left behind by Muhammed. In contrast, Dursun had devoted his formative years and a significant part of his adult life to the study of Islam…
[The book] begins by explaining Muhammed’s sexual deviancy and how new verses supposedly sent by Allah happened to accommodate his sexual whims. For instance, at first Muhammed was supposed to sleep with as many wives in an orderly fashion so as to not skip anyone. But then he received a revelation from Allah that he could sleep with whichever wife he wanted. Allah so accommodated Muhammed’s carnal desires that if the prophet wanted a woman, her husband was required to divorce his wife so that she could be Muhammed’s. This
One of the many other examples of Muhammed's sexual life that Dursun dwelled on, which had disturbed me even before I came to know Dursun's writings, was the prophet's betrothal to a six-year old child, Aisha. Even though Muhammad did not have intercourse with her until she was nine years old and he was fifty-two, in the Sunnah Aisha recounts the day she was taken to his bed chamber, a day she had to leave her friends behind while they played on the swing and the teeter-totter. I felt sick as I read the account of Aisha. I thought of my sweet little neighbor who was almost nine and pictured her being married to a middle-aged man. Instead of finding Muhammed's behavior disturbing, Islamist theologians have reasoned that since a girl of nine could cause lust in man, nine years old must be a marriageable age. Hence the child brides in Muslim countries. To this day this abhorrent practice steals the childhood of many girls, and it was started and sanctioned by Muhammed.
Muhammed's sexual conduct had many more elements that are repulsive. Muhammed's legitimization of polygamy, child brides, domestic rape, and rape of women captured during battle were enough for me to take another step away from a religion founded by this kind of man.
So the first disillusionment with Islam had to do with the realization that Muhammed was far from the "perfect man" as claimed when it came to his private life. Derya doesn't say but one wonders if the disillusionment with her father's behavior had made her more sensitive to seeing these ugly warts. The second disillusionment had to do with what Islam itself stood for, and perhaps this was much more damaging.
Alongside Ottoman history, the history of Islam is taught in Turkish elementary, middle, and high schools. Textbooks chronicle the conquests of Muhammed and those of Islamic countries. They claim that the holy prophet was trying to save stubborn and sinful people by bringing them under the rule of Islam, the only true religion. Islam's expansion was good not only for the new territories that "willingly" came under its rule but also for Muhammed and for the glory of Allah. I do not remember ever questioning whether the people of these strange lands wanted to become Muslims, or in what manner they agreed to come under Islamic rule. Since there was no mention of bloody conquests or forced conversions, we assumed in our childhood innocence that all went smoothly as people joined the Islamic ranks with chants of bliss.
To me that sounds like the communist indoctrination of their people as they distort the facts and gloss over the details to make the immoral sound moral. Derya went on to learn in excruciating detail of cutthroat strategies, the mercilessness of the warriors, and the viciousness with those that surrendered.
In book after book I read about Muhammed's life. Since the naiveté and the submission of my previous years had left me long ago, I understood that not all who converted to Islam had the option to refuse. For many, it was a choice between life and death. If people were convicted enough to hold on to their own beliefs, such as the Jews of Mecca, available options under Islam were exile, alienation, and many times the bloody edge of the sword. Muhammed could never claim that the killing he did and the wars he waged were for self-defense. He became a warrior through and through, craving power over men and women alike.
It was hard to believe that I had been so blinded to the truth that Muhammed was yet another power-hungry man who was willing to do whatever it took to expand his empire…The veil was lifted. After having read these accounts with fresh eyes, I was appalled at how so many people, including myself, could blindly follow this man. He was not much worse than many kings, emperors, and sultans as far as his military affairs were concerned, but his claim to having been entrusted with bringing the one and only religion to the people was reprehensible. How could I follow a man who had no conscience? Muhammed not only wielded the sword, but also approved and encouraged the use of force to expand the kingdom of Allah. The verses the Angel Gabriel supposedly brought him varied according to his political agenda. As the Islamic state grew, Muhammed's power, wealth, and influence reached new heights. He claimed what he wanted for himself.
Now does that sound like a "perfect man?” Sex and power and wealth are not attributes that come with spiritual people, or with those that desire spirituality. Derya's characterization as "the veil was lifted" is a perfect metaphor. Derya goes on to summarize her complete loss of faith.
In Muhammed's life, I saw blood, destruction, and selfishness, not the acts of a sinless man, as the Muslims claim him to be. I realized that the exalted founder of Islam was only a sinful man who used his influence to further himself. I could not even respect him for his accomplishments. Thus I completely turned my back on Islam. I could not possibly follow a man so violent and selfish. If there were someone I would be willing to lay my life down for, he would have to be willing to sacrifice himself for me and to promote selflessness and peace instead of chasing after the pleasures of this world. As far as I knew, there was no such man.
After Muhammed's time, the reign of bloodshed did not diminish. Muslim leaders continued to wage wars and to subjugate other peoples in the name of Allah. By reading the history of Islam from the seventh century until the present day, one can see that Islam is not a religion of peace but of submission. Thus, I came to the conclusion that religion was nothing more than an effective way for power-hungry men to manipulate people. There was no authenticity or genuineness to be found in any religion, I decided. I wholeheartedly believed that all religions started in the same way that Islam did and likewise evolved into a means to control the masses. I therefore wanted nothing to do with any of them.
It would probably be an understatement to say Derya was a preconscious teenager. While going from faith to atheism is actually an easy transition—young adults seem to do it all the time—Derya’s transition required the absorption of quite a lot of theology and history and a real look in at the core of her culture to find her faith on its face value didn’t pass an inner, moral test. That is quite a leap for a teen, but especially so for a teen coming from a religion where social pressures are especially controlling. She rebelled, and with the rebellion came a certain freedom, and alongside the dissolution of her family led to troublesome early teen and young adulthood years.
There I was, barely a teenager, with little parental supervision and even less moral guidance. Needless to say, things went downhill for a while. Since I had surrounded myself with similarly minded and misguided friends, as I drifted away from Islam, I started to embrace forbidden practices. First in line was alcohol.
It didn’t stop with alcohol. She went on to pills and smoking, but through it all she kept reading. She read Freud and Marx and Nietzsche, which hardened her heart in atheism. But she built up an impressive basis of knowledge, learned French and English, and scored in the top one percent in the academic tests of whole country and was accepted in the University of Istanbul. Now free completely of her household she lived with boyfriends and got pregnant and twice had an abortion.
This already got long, so stay tuned for Part 2.