Prostrating himself and touching his forehead to the ground, Mathieu Pawlak put his demons to rest. Once a practicing Catholic tormented by a spiritual void and the unanswerable questions of youth, Pawlak embraced Islam and, he says, found peace. “I’m the same on the outside, but inside everything has changed,” said the 25-year-old restaurant cook who converted 4 1/2 years ago. He took a Muslim name, Abderrahman, and last year married a Muslim woman who cloaks herself in a dark veil.
“I found the way that Muslims pray to be truly profound. It links the body and the heart,” said Pawlak during an interview at his home in this southern Paris suburb, where a large Muslim population resides.
Pawlak is one of about 50,000 French who have converted to the Muslim faith, like tens of thousands more across Europe and North America. Like most converts, he is a mainstream Muslim.
But intelligence services are tracking a disturbing new phenomenon: A growing number of Westerners are giving their hearts to radical Islam and some risk proving themselves through jihad, or holy war.
Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian woman who blew herself up in a suicide attack in Iraq in November embodies those fears, as does another convert, Richard Reid, the so-called shoe-bomber who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001.
“This phenomenon is in full expansion,” Pascal Mailhos, head of the French intelligence service Renseignements Generaux, told the daily Le Monde in November. Some 1,600 converted Muslims follow the rigorous Salafist brand of Islam that breeds today’s radicals — out of about 5,000 Salafists in France, he said.
Converts are seen as potentially naive, malleable and zealous in their newfound faith, easy prey for radicals. Some came to Islam for the succor that society denied them, others for revenge, experts say — stressing that such scenarios apply to a small but worrisome fringe group.
The path to Islam often starts with marriage to a Muslim or contact with the faith through Muslim friends — Pawlak’s case. Others convert as part of an existential search. But prisons inmates, and people at loggerheads with society, may also take refuge in Islam.
“Islam has become the religion of the oppressed,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist who has written books on conversions in prison and on suicide bombers.
“Nowadays, Islam is a kind of ideal means to express discontent with society and the Western world in general,” he said.
The ease with which one can convert makes Islam an accessible refuge. One need only recite the “Shahada,” a prayer that provides an attestation of faith, before two witnesses.
“It can be done in a cafe,” said Abdelhak Eddouk, a prayer leader in Grigny, south of Paris.
The ability of the converts to blend into Western society augments the potential for danger. “They can move from one country to another and have a kind of multiple identity,” Khosrokhavar said.
Pawlak and a friend, Christophe Weiss, 23, who, like him, converted to Islam, shake their heads at such notions. They ascribe any radicalization to ignorance of the Muslim faith or immaturity — or a case of mistaken identity.
“Some people will say we are extremists because we pray five times a day,” said Weiss, a nursing student.
Like other Muslims interviewed, they see fingerpointing as a new attack on their faith.
“If one is troubled from the start, he will remain troubled,” said Zuhair Mahmood, director of the European Institute of Human Sciences, a training center for imams, or prayer leaders, run by the fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France.
However, authorities say the danger is real.
The Dutch government, in a Dec. 2 letter to parliament, said that “various Dutch converts are experiencing a radicalization process.”
French intelligence is so concerned it conducted a detailed survey of 1,610 Muslim converts who were active preachers, delinquents or had ties to radicals, according to Le Monde. The June report concluded that 3 percent of the converts “belong to or are in the circle of the movement of Islamist combatants,” the newspaper wrote.
At least three Muslim converts in France have been convicted in recent years on terror-related charges, the most recent Lionel Dumont, given a 30-year prison term this month. He was co-leader of a gang of violent hoodlums in the northern city of Roubaix that provided Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, with his start in terrorism. Dumont later fought for the Muslim cause in Bosnia.
Several Muslim converts are being prosecuted in the U.S.-led war on terror. American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States.
In France, only several dozen converts are “potentially violent,” said Jean-Luc Marret of the Strategic Research Foundation, a think-tank.
But one Islamic Internet site where al-Qaida has posted claims recently carried a chilling portrait of “the future al-Qaida soldier” — a secretly converted Muslim “born in Europe of European and Christian parents. They studied in your schools, they prayed in your churches” and now swear “to take up arms after their brothers.”
For Marret, the real danger lies elsewhere: “The proselytism network across the street, in jail, in universities, in suspect mosques, in companies, this is real.”
There is no simple reason to explain why even a tiny minority of converts radicalize, Marret said.
“Why do we fall in love? It’s the same,” he said. “Why does one become a terrorist? We can cite political, historic, ethnic, family reasons and we will have simplified reality.”