PARIS — Pépite is still in shock. “It's hard to deal with it,” repeats this mother, whose youngest daughter converted to Islam. Pépite comes from a Catholic family, and never expected this to happen. She didn't worry when her daughter, Alexandra, became infatuated with a boy who had converted to Islam, or even when she started wearing long sleeves in summertime.

But about five years ago, the young woman began wearing a headscarf. Since then Alexandra has given birth to three children, to whom she gave Muslim names and who are learning Arabic. She gave up her studies and is now considering teaching in a Koranic school.

“She went to Mecca with her husband a month ago," says Pépite. Her fear now is that Alexandra will show up wearing a burqa. "It makes me feel ill every time I see her," she says.

Pépite, like most of the people interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous — testament to how sensitive a subject conversion still is here in France, where people are dismayed by news of young converts who leave, sometimes with their families, to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Nearly a quarter of France's estimated 1,000 jihadists, according to the Interior Ministry, are converts to Islam.

"Jihadism is the movement where we find the largest proportion of converts," says Mohamed Ali-Adraoui, the author of Du Golfe aux banlieues: le salafisme mondialisé ("From the Gulf to the Suburbs: Globalized Salafism").

At the same time, overrepresentation of converts among jihadists and their overexposure in the media produce a misleading magnifying-glass effect. Without a proper religious census, accurate figures are impossible to come by. Mohammed-Ali Adraoui, nevertheless, estimates that of the total Muslim population in France (between 2 and 5 million), some 70,000 to 120,000 are converts. The few hundred of them that become jihadists thus represent a small minority.

Spiritual nourishment

The conversion process is tied to a much more diverse and ancient reality than the one appearing in Iraq or Syria. It emerged as early as the 19th century. At the time, “Intellectuals converted due to their proximity to colonized countries,” says Mohamed-Ali Adraoui. That tradition of erudition continued throughout the second half of the 20th century, via embodied by "hip" young Westerners who traveled in Central Asia or in Afghanistan and became affiliated with the Sufi mystical tradition, the author explains.

In the 1990s, a significant evolution took place. Ways to access Islam and the profile of converts diversified because of the Muslim presence in France. The change was stimulated by a form of “re-Islamization” that mainly affected young people with a migrant background.

Samir Amghar, a researcher at the Université libre de Bruxelles, talks of a "plebeian phenomenon," that takes place in some areas and is influenced by a group spirit and a socialization process through proximity.

"In high school I hung out with a lot of Muslim people from Maghreb," Jessica Marle recalls. That sparked an interest in observing Ramadan. Later, Marle entered into a relationship, which drew her to a mosque so she could “learn how to pray.” The young woman “immediately liked the serene atmosphere” and remembers that she “never received such a warm welcome from a community.”

Today, the 28 year-old Parisian prays five times a day in Arabic and studies a translated version of the Koran, in which she annotates pages. Three years ago, she married a man she met at the French Islamic Relief, where she provides social support. Jessica does not wear a headscarf because she does not feel “ready.” If she comes to it, it would mean that she “got closer to God.”

Marle says Islam provided spiritual nourishment. “I grew up in a foster family," she says. "I've always been interested in origins. Deep inside, I felt I missed something and I really needed to pray."

"Crossing the desert of life"

For others the path is more tortuous. Didier, a karate teacher and truck driver, says he was always “attracted by transcendence,” as evidenced by his practice of Buddhism and his interest in the Bible. A few years ago, he met a Muslim who brought him to question the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and move towards the Koran. He then learned about Salafism for six months, soaking up "17th-century texts from Saudi Arabia." Finally, this 33-year-old father chose to turn to an Islam that is more mystical than literalist.

"I don't take part in collective rites," he explains. "I'm a Muslim, I believe in God and I believe that Muhammad is his prophet. The rest of it is personal development."

Photo: Belal Khan

Another convert, Anne-Sophie, was educated as a Catholic. She hesitated for a while, even exploring Evangelicalism, before choosing "progressive Islam." The 25 year-old teacher talks about a "strong relationship" with God through an intense and personal practice. She does not bother with any specific dress code and does not feel the need to go to the mosque. Still, spirituality has become a cornerstone in her life, she explains.

"Most people adopt an honest approach, are looking for new landmarks, reasons or a spiritual community to cross the desert of life," says Tareq Oubrou, imam of the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux, where 60 to 70 people convert every year. He calls this "a real and growing number."

Apart from these kinds of spiritual journeys, people also go through "diplomatic conversions that serve marriage plans," according to Mohamed-Ali Adraoui. Sociologist Loïc Le Pape calls them "formal conversions," and thinks they may even represent a majority of conversion cases.

There is also a political element to consider, according to Le Pape. "Without minimizing religious convictions, it's about taking the religion of the dominated,” he explains.

Struggling to understand

Jacques and Mylène (not their real names) sense that political conviction may have played a role in the the conversion of their only daughter, Lucie. They are a Christian leftist intellectual couple who always stressed solidarity with the poor. "In high school, she mostly had Muslim friends," Mylène recalls. Later, Lucie became a social worker, working in the suburbs, with Muslim, often single-parent families.

A few years ago, a tragic confrontation between a young man and police officer had a profound impact on Lucie. Shortly afterwards, Lucie warned her parents, “Don't be surprised if one day I tell you I converted." A few months later, it was done. "She knew nothing about it. She hadn't read the Koran. She just went to some of [Swiss philosopher] Tariq Ramadan's conferences," says Mylène. "Now, she wears only long clothes and a headscarf that hides her neck."

Relations between the daughter and her parents have improved more recently, following the birth of Lucie's son. Jacques and Mylène acknowledge that their daughter acquired "wisdom and serenity" through Islam. But they are still very much uncomfortable with her conversion.

Father Jean Courtaudière is familiar with the distress felt by families. The priest even noticed "a sense of shame" among families he meets at the diocese of Seine-Saint-Denis (in the Parisian suburbs), where he is charge of inter-faith outreach.

“For parents, conversion to Islam is never good news," he says. People have this image, he explains, of young people being drawn to radical Islam through the Internet, away from mosques.

The priest is also struck by a lack of dialogue. “Parents are flabbergasted," he says. "They often only realize that their child converted when he refuses to eat bacon or when someone rings the bell and asks to speak to Brahim."

Anne-Sophie hid her conversion to her mother for three years. It remains a “taboo” subject. "My mother didn't want me to talk about my conversion to my little sister, nor to my grand parents," she says. "They were afraid it could be contagious."

Pépite tries to be more open-minded than that. But among siblings, relations are complex. One of Alexandra's brothers invited her to his wedding in the church but asked her to come "dressed normally." As a result, Alexandra boycotted the event. “Her other brother no longer talks to her," says Pépite. "They were really close though."