Why converting to Islam didn't save Peter Kassig
Over the last few years, we've seen a dozen Western hostages convert to Islam in order to appease their captors, or in the hopes of getting better treatment.
It never works, of course. The hostages are still beaten, or killed, regardless of their profession of faith.
It would seem intuitive for Islamic State hostages to convert to Islam in order to win some modicum of mercy from captives who proclaim profound religiosity. But it clearly doesn’t work, according to accounts and stories from Somalia to Syria. And why should it, since the Islamic State has proven itself willing to execute people of all faiths by the thousand? The only out for a hostage seems to be ransom or escape.
Conversion to Islam appears fairly common among jihadists’ hostages. Executed journalist James Foley, who until his capture was a devout Christian and spent a prior captivity stint in prayer, converted to Islam and took the name Abu Hamza, according to a harrowing New York Times report. “I recited the Quran with him,” fellow hostage Jejoen Bontinick, 19, told the Times. “Most people would say, ‘Let’s convert so that we can get better treatment.’ But in his case I think it was sincere.” Fellow hostages Kassig and reportedly John Cantlie also converted, as well as a “majority of Western prisoners,” the Times said.
It’s impossible to determine whether someone in captivity and threatened with death converts willingly or is capable of doing so. Sometimes, such conversions are clearly forced, as was the case for Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and photographer Ola Wiig, who were captured in Gaza. (In a video declaring fealty to Islam, both men stumbled on their recitations.)
For Foley, it might have been different. “Mr. Foley had been captivated by Islam,” the Times reported. “When the guards brought an English version of the Quran, those who were just pretending to be Muslims paged through it.” But Foley, who endured perhaps the harshest torture, was consumed by it.
There are a couple of motivations for Islamic State captors to force conversion on the hostages. The first is that it shows how truly weak Christianity is compared to Islam.
But in a political context, it shows their enemy the inevitability of Islam's triumph.
One thing for sure: it doesn't improve the conditions under which the hostages are held.
American Theo Padnos, taken by an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria, saw similar depravity during his captivity. He declined to convert to Islam, a stance that in his telling appeared to slowly win the respect of the jihadists. A fellow hostage, American Matt Schrier, converted to Islam. At first, the jihadists were elated at their success.
“The younger fighters would point at him and, ‘You, good!’” Padnos wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece. “Then they would point at me and say, ‘You, bad!’ But the conversion did not get Matt better food, and it certainly did not get him home.” At one point, one of the guards hit him while he was heading to the bathroom. “‘You, bad!’ he said to Matt. ‘You lie about religion.’ The guard nodded at me. ‘You, you Christian,’ he said. ‘You, good.’”
But even that token of respect was fleeting. Padnos only got out much later after the Qataris helped engineer his release, following several escape attempts. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies of any hostage crisis is the oscillating hope — hope conversion will help, hope they’ll take mercy on you. And then, as in the Kassig’s case, for that hope to disappear.
President Obama used Kassig's Muslim name in confirming his death. To those who would criticize the president for recognizing Kassig's fake conversion, we should remember that there are at least two other American hostages being held by the Islamic State. Using his Christian name might have angered the terorists, and the American hostages could have endured the consequences. It's just common sense not to take that kind of chance when innocent lives are in peril.