French antiterrorism officials have been warning for years that [Western] converts [to Islam] represent a critical element of the terrorist threat in Europe, because they … do not stand outwrites Maïa de la Baume in a New York Times "Memo From France":
Agnes Dherbeys for The New York Times
CRÉTEIL, France — The spacious and elegant modern building, in the heart of this middle-class suburb of Paris, is known as “the mosque of the converts.”
Every year about 150 Muslim conversion ceremonies are performed in the snow-white structure of the Sahaba mosque in Créteil, with its intricate mosaics and a stunning 81-foot minaret, built in 2008 and a symbol of Islam’s growing presence in France.
Among those who come here for Friday Prayer are numerous young former Roman Catholics, wearing the traditional Muslim prayer cap and long robe.
While the number of converts remains relatively small in France, yearly conversions to Islam have doubled in the past 25 years, experts say, presenting a growing challenge for France, where government and public attitudes toward Islam are awkward and sometimes hostile.
French antiterrorism officials have been warning for years that converts represent a critical element of the terrorist threat in Europe, because they have Western passports and do not stand out.
In October, the French police conducted a series of antiterrorism raids across France, resulting in the arrests of 12 people, including at least three French citizens who had recently converted to Islam.
Converts “often need to overdo it if they want to be accepted” as Muslims, and so veer into extremism more frequently than others, said Didier Leschi, who was in charge of religious issues at the Interior Ministry under former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
There are persistent concerns that French prisons are fertile ground for conversions and for Islamic radicalism; observant Muslims are thought to make up a least a third of the inmate population, according to French news reports.
Many Muslims counter that they regularly face prejudice, and consider a 2010 law banning the full-face veil from public spaces and the growing concern with conversions as reflections of French intolerance.
Whatever the impact, there is little doubt that conversions are growing more commonplace. “The conversion phenomenon is significant and impressive, particularly since 2000,” said Bernard Godard, who is in charge of religious issues at the Interior Ministry.
Of an estimated six million Muslims in France, about 100,000 are thought to be converts, compared with about 50,000 in 1986, according to Mr. Godard. Muslim associations say the number is as high as 200,000. But France, which has a population of about 65 million, defines itself as secular and has no official statistics broken down by race or creed.
For Mr. Godard, a former intelligence officer, it is the “nature” of conversions that has changed.
Conversions to marry have long been common enough in France, but a growing number of young people are now seen as converting to be better socially integrated in neighborhoods where Islam is dominant.
“In poor districts, it has become a reverse integration,” said Gilles Kepel, an expert on Islam and the banlieues, the poor, predominantly Muslim neighborhoods that ring Paris and other major cities.
Many converts are men younger than 40, experts say, often born in France’s former African colonies or overseas territories.
… In many banlieues, Islam has come to represent not only a sort of social norm but also a refuge, an alternative to the ambient misery, researchers and converts say.
“Secularism has become antireligious,” Mr. Chalghoumi said. “Therefore, it has created an opposite phenomenon. It has allowed people to discover Islam.”
Many experts note the influence of celebrity converts, particularly soccer players. Nicolas Anelka, who played on the French national team and whose parents came from Martinique, changed his name to Abdul-Salam Bilal Anelka when he converted to Islam in 2004. Franck Ribéry, a popular player from northern France, converted to Islam in 2006 to marry a Muslim woman, Wahiba, and took the name Bilal Yusuf Mohammed.