There is a long tradition of crypto-Muslims who escaped from Christian persecution by following their faith in secret. At one time, people also faced persecution if they were suspected of being secret Catholics, Jews, communists, heathens, or Satanists.
In the modern West, however, influential people may be accused of converting to Islam as part of a wider conspiracy theory in which they are painted as cultural outsiders or even traitors.
10 The Dalai Lama
Dorje Shugden, a Tibetan trickster spirit, has been at the center of a cult in Tibet since the 17th century. In the last several decades, Shugden followers have spread throughout the world based on the teachings of rogue monk Kelsang Gyatso.
These followers claim that the Dalai Lama is not actually a Buddhist but rather a Muslim in disguise who is a theocratic dictator obsessed with the Nazis. Among other reasons, Shugden followers believe that the Dalai Lama must be Muslim because he has never expressly admitted to being a Buddhist.
According to the long Shugden polemic entitled The False Dalai Lama: The Worst Dictator In The World, the boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama was found in the Muslim village of Taktser. Although he came from a non-Buddhist background, he was deemed good enough. Soon, his parents were informed that he had been recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.
Despite some political tension, he assumed the role, although he was jokingly referred to as the “The Saffron-Robed Muslim.” However, the truthfulness of this account is doubtful because the author has chosen to remain anonymous and only cites other anonymous sources and lost texts to confirm his claims. As it currently stands, nothing can be independently verified.
The anti–Dalai Lama faction is a somewhat dubious lobby group. They are linked to an ideology called Geluk supremacy, which seeks the domination of the Geluk Tibetan Buddhist sect over the other four sects—the Sakya, Nyingma, Kagyu, and Jhonang. This ideology has caused sectarian strife in Tibet for centuries.
Although the Geluk sect claims that the Dalai Lama is a dictator, their leader bans Geluk members from reading books that aren’t written by him. Their front group, the Western Shugden Society, has been referred to as a Buddhist version of the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Geluk sect is tacitly supported by the Chinese government, and their ranks are made up primarily of white American and European men. Their claim that the Dalai Lama is a secret Muslim is an attempted insult that draws from the cultural influence of global Islamophobia.
9 Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson’s religious views often offended Protestants in the late 18th century. When he and James Madison proposed the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom in 1779, the preamble began: “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free.”
Christian delegates tried to have “Almighty God” replaced with “Jesus Christ” but were overwhelmingly voted down. Jefferson saw this as the representatives declaring that the law would “comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Although Jefferson probably had a skeptical view of Islam, he insisted that “neither pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Many Protestant Christians resented this notion, fearing infiltration by enemy aliens. Comparisons were often drawn between the deism of Jefferson and Islam, which both held to the notion of one God.
The Connecticut Courant complained that they couldn’t determine “whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology or in the alcoran [Quran]; whether he is a Jew or a Christian; whether he believes in one God, or in many; or in none at all.”
According to historian Denise Spellberg, this made Jefferson “the first in the history of American politics to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the 18th century.”
8 Prince Charles
In 1997, an article in the Middle East Quarterly entitled “Prince Charles of Arabia” explored the idea of whether the Prince of Wales was a secret convert to Islam. Much of this was linked to Prince Charles’s public statements praising Islamic institutions, the role of women in Islamic society, and the role that Islamic values could play in solving British problems.
The authors also pointed to positive links between the British royal family and many Islamic governments as well as the prince setting up a committee of wise men to advise him on Islamic culture. The article concluded with a dark warning that the prince’s infatuation with Islam could usher in a “different kind of monarchy” in Great Britain.
Other supposed evidence came from the prince’s 2003 visit to Oman, where he spent two hours exploring the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and toured an exhibition on Islamic calligraphy. He also “broke fast with a large congregation of people from different nationalities as he sat with folded legs on the floor in the open. He ate date and drank juice at the call of Iftar.” All this pro-Islam behavior was even said to have caused tensions with the archbishop of Canterbury.
Anti-Islamic writers see the prince’s interest in Islam and Islamic culture as rooted in an attraction to its authoritarian, reactionary, and antifemale attitudes. However, the Catholic Herald pointed out that Queen Victoria had presented a Quran to the first purpose-built mosque in Woking in 1889.
The Religion News Service thinks that the whole business is much ado about nothing and that the prince just has an interest. Besides, there is some evidence that the British royal family may be descendants of Muhammad through the complicated web of marriages among European and Mediterranean royalty.
7 Neil Armstrong
According to a popular urban legend in the Islamic world, Apollo astronauts on the Moon heard the strange sounds of an unfamiliar language. Years later, Neil Armstrong heard the sounds again while in Egypt, which he supposedly described as a “spacey something similar [to what] I heard while I was on the Moon.” After he was told that it was the Islamic call to prayer, the legend says that he immediately converted to Islam.
Armstrong denied these claims. Also, the audio of the Moon landing does not contain any references to a strange language or unknown sounds. The US State Department even issued a statement: “While stressing his strong desire not to offend anyone or show disrespect for any religion, Armstrong has advised department that reports of his conversion to Islam are inaccurate.”
A fatwa published on the Islam Q&A website by Shaykh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid categorically stated:
If the story of such a famous person becoming Muslim was really true, you would see him calling people to Islam, and you would see the scholars and daa’iyahs and the Islamic media meeting him and talking to him, none of which happened in this case. If you compare the story of Armstrong supposedly becoming Muslim with the story of Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens, the famous British singer), you will see the difference between lies and truth, imagination and reality.
6 Paul Ryan And Anthony Weiner
Although President Barack Obama has been falsely accused for years of being a Muslim (as well as an atheist, communist, black supremacist, and Nazi), Republicans have also faced such accusations. In 2015, Republican presidential candidate Paul Ryan decided to grow a beard, which Twitter users and some in the right-wing press referred to as his “Muslim beard.” They also suggested that he had secretly converted to Islam.
Ryan mentioned it in a conversation with President Obama and was rewarded with a knowing chuckle. According to Twitter user Joe Cunningham: “It’s a late entrant, but the ‘Paul Ryan Is A Muslim Sleeper Agent Because Look At That Beard’ theory is the best conspiracy theory of 2015.”
Another US political figure who was accused of converting to Islam was Anthony Weiner. His wife, Huma Abedin, was born in Saudi Arabia and is rumored to have links with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. Supposedly, Weiner had to convert to Islam from Judaism to convince her to marry him.
According to Fox News, the real scandal is not “Weiner’s weiner.” It’s the fact that Abedin had these Islamic links while possessing a high security clearance and being close to presumed presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
These claims are ultimately unfounded. They originate in Islamophobic conspiracy theories but have been adopted by fringe elements of the right-wing press as well as iconoclastic politicians like Michele Bachmann.
5 Michael Jackson
In 2008, UK tabloid The Sun claimed that Michael Jackson had converted to Islam while wearing Arab garb in a ceremony at a friend’s house. Supposedly, this occurred under the guidance of an imam with Canadian songwriter Dawud Wharnsby (formerly David Wharnsby) and British singer Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) in attendance. Jackson was said to have changed his name to Mikaeel (after rejecting the suggestion of “Mustafa”).
However, the article was not based on verifiable evidence. Also, the information about the so-called conversion ritual didn’t match anything in actual Islamic tradition. Both Wharnsby and Islam denied involvement in any such ritual.
Still, rumors flourished on the Internet as YouTube videos of Islamic nasheed prayer songs allegedly composed by Jackson were uploaded and shared. These were usually songs performed by nasheed singers Zain Bhikha and Irfan Makki, who may have sounded similar to Jackson.
More video proof was offered with an edited clip of Jackson saying “inshallah” (“Allah willing”). This was taken out of context from a 1996 promo that Jackson recorded for his fans in Tunisia, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians all use the expression “inshallah.”
Other supposed evidence was that several members of his family are adherents of the Nation of Islam, which is distinct from mainstream Islam, and that he dressed in an abaya (a dress for Muslim women) while in Bahrain. Some who believe that Jackson converted to Islam have offered even more ludicrous examples of proof, such as claims that Jackson’s brain was checked during his autopsy and memories of becoming Muslim were discovered inside.
4 Jacques Cousteau
Rumors swirled that famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau converted to Islam after his discovery of two distinct water layers in the Strait of Gibraltar. Supposedly, this discovery could not be explained by modern science but was prophesied in the Quran 1,400 years earlier. A similar situation occurred with the Bab el Mandeb when German scientists noted two separate water layers corresponding with the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
According to an article on the Arab News website, Cousteau was guided to the Quran by an Islamic friend and was quoted as saying, “I swear, that this Quran, which 1,400 years ago lagged behind modern science, cannot be the speech of a person. It is true speech of Almighty. [ . . . ] I am indefinitely grateful that He opened my eyes for Truth.”
Apparently, the relevant lines in the Quran are:
It is He (Allah) Who has let free the two bodies of flowing water: One palatable and sweet, and the other salty and bitter; yet has He (Allah) made a barrier between them, a portion that is forbidden to be passed. (Surah 25 Al-Furqan: verse 53)
And He (Allah) made a separating bar between the two bodies of flowing waters. (Surah 27 An-Naml: verse 61)
He (Allah) let free the two bodies of flowing water, meeting together: between them is a barrier which they do not transgress. (Surah 55 Al-Rahman: verse 19–20).
The Cousteau Foundation and his family rejected all claims that Cousteau had converted to Islam. He was given a Roman Catholic funeral when he died in 1997. The supposed quotes can be traced solely to a series of Turkish books called The Reasons Why They Become Muslims, which are published by the Islamic Waqf Ikhlas Publications. There are no verifiable or reliable sources that confirm these quotes.
3 John Brennan
When President Obama nominated John Brennan as the new head of the CIA, there were initial objections due to Brennan’s role in the expanding use of drones. But a bizarre conspiracy theory also emerged that Brennan had secretly converted to Islam while stationed in Saudi Arabia in an official US posting.
The accusations were first made by former FBI agent John Guandolo, who had been dismissed from the bureau for allegedly having a sexual relationship with an informant in a corruption investigation. Since then, he has made a career out of identifying Islamist threats to national security, despite his dubious history.
Guandolo had no real evidence for his claims aside from a vague reference to Brennan once marveling in a speech at the “majesty of the hajj.” Still, the accusations were quickly picked up by far-right websites. Glenn Beck referred to it as “plausible.”
However, Muslim groups, which tended to oppose Brennan’s nomination due to his role in the deaths of civilians in bomb strikes, rejected Guandolo’s claims and said that they had no information about Brennan ever converting to Islam.
Brennan caused more upset when he insisted on being sworn in by placing his hand on a copy of the US Constitution rather than the Holy Bible. However, Snopes pointed out that it is unlikely that Brennan could have hidden a secret conversion from the vast US intelligence network. Snopes also suggested that swearing on the Constitution seemed more likely to suggest that Brennan had no religious affiliation at all.
2 Princess Diana
According to The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown, Princess Diana had considered converting to Islam after falling for Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. Brown wrote that Diana’s Kensington Palace apartment was soon “fragrant with the scent of burning joss sticks.” The relationship was apparently going swimmingly until Khan’s mother intervened, shocked at the idea of her son marrying someone who wasn’t a Pakistani Muslim woman.
The veracity of Brown’s claims is unknown. But they closely resembled ideas that had already been floating around in the world of conspiracy theorists. Diana’s later relationship with Egyptian Emad Mohamed al-Fayed (aka Dodi) only exacerbated the rumors.
Her 1997 death in a car crash led to lurid speculation in Egypt that she had been killed by British intelligence to prevent her from marrying al-Fayed and making a Muslim the stepfather to the heir of the British throne. Books with titles like Did She Die a Muslim? and Diana’s Conversion to Islam were soon flying off the shelves.
Some news headlines appeared to convey the same sentiments, such as “Recite the fatiha [the opening chapter of the Quran] for the soul of Diana” and “Murder was the easiest solution for the British government to deal with a Muslim princess.”
Mohamed al-Fayed, Dodi’s father, was a major proponent of this particular theory. He claimed that Diana was pregnant at the time of her death and that the royal establishment was horrified at the idea of Prince William having a half-Muslim sibling. Supposedly, the hit was organized by Prince Philip. Fayed later named Tony Blair, the CIA, and Diana’s older sister as having possible involvement in Diana’s death.
1 Adolf Hitler
According to the memoirs of architect Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler believed that the German people practiced the wrong religion. He preferred Islam, which he viewed as a “religion of men” with better standards of hygiene and a doctrine of a “warrior’s heaven.” He compared this with the “Jewish filth and priestly twaddle” of Christianity with its “meekness and flabbiness.”
Supposedly, Speer once mused at a dinner: “Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers . . . then we should in all probability have been converted to Islam, that cult which glorifies the heroism which opens up the seventh heaven to the bold warrior alone.”
There is evidence that the Third Reich tried to recruit Muslims as Aryan soldiers. Early Islamists shared with the Nazis an opposition to liberal democracy, communism, and the Jewish people. However, there is little evidence that Hitler converted to Islam, although the notion has become popular among the anti-Semitic Islamist fringe and the Islamophobic right-wing fringe.
In reality, the issue of Hitler’s faith is heavily contested. In a 2012 debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell, they argued that Hitler was a Catholic and an atheist, respectively. Hitler never renounced his Roman Catholicism, but his policies reflected the influence of social Darwinism.
He largely manipulated the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic Church for his own benefit while replacing traditional religion with a secular nationalistic cult. Converting to Islam during all of this would have been rather out of character for Hitler, and there isn’t any real evidence that he ever considered such a thing.
David Tormsen is not a secretly practicing Sufi dervish. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.