(Warning: long post)
Recently, two Fox News journalists, while doing their work in Gaza, were kidnapped. They were released two days ago, but only after saying on video that they had converted to Islam. They later said they were forced to "convert" at gunpoint. There is talk that ransom has also been paid for their release. For details, see e.g. http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=24104.
The other thing which inspired me to write this post was Non-blogging's opinion about whether conversion to Islam, required for a non-Muslim man if he wants to marry a Muslim woman, is acceptable: "Converting because it's demanded should perhaps be between acceptable and unacceptable... Unacceptable because that would mean lying to an imam, maybe lots of genuinely believing relatives and last but not least to all honest Muslims who have said their creed believing every word of it." (http://lonehighlander.blogspot.com/2006/08/mr.html#comments). Reading this, I was amazed how a non-Muslim, pressed by Muslims to convert, still would think he does wrong to these Muslims because his conversion is not sincere! So I'll write a post about conversions to Islam in Bulgarian history and we'll see whether the sincerety of conversion mattered.
When Ottoman Turks defeated the divided Bulgarian ministates in 1393-1396 and included them in the Ottoman Empire, they didn't impose Turkish feudals everywhere. Some of the Bulgarian feudals were offered and agreed to convert to Islam. Having fulfilled this condition, they were allowed to continue to rule over their land, or at least part of it. Among them was the son of Ivan Shishman, the last pre-Ottoman Bulgarian king.
Throughout the nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule, ambitious individuals were voluntarily converting to Islam in order to make a career in the Ottoman society. However, there were many more Bulgarians who were forced to convert. The first among them were women who were made invaders' wives against their will. There is a saying that "not a single Turkish woman ever crossed from Asia to Europe". It's an exaggeration, but contains much truth. It is also consistent with the logic of the Islamic family model. In a monogamous society, any massive conquest could easily lead to demographic collapse at home, because many women would either remain without husbands or have to follow their husbands to the newly conquered land, depopulating the old territory. Poligamy solves the problem. Any Ottoman or other Muslim ruler could send as many as three quarters of his men to conquer new lands and there would still be partners for all women. The remaining quarter of men could take 4 wives each and children would continue to be born in the old territory. In the new territories, the soldiers turning into settlers could take local wives. Of course, this model can work only if the woman is kept in subhuman position, otherwise the wife coming from a hostile population could bring up children with dubious loyalty. This was the case - women were "letters without voice". Who cared whether they really believed that Mohammed was God's prophet? Turks continued to take Bulgarian wives up to the very liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 and never had any problems with pro-Bulgarian sentiments of the children of such marriages.
Another important group of converts were the Janissaries; you can read about them in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissary, although this article seems to me rather inaccurate. Like other Christian nations of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarians were forced to pay "blood tax" - a proportion of the boys aged around 10 (the strongest were selected) were taken from their parents, converted to Islam and brought up to be Sultan's elite soldiers. This practice changed the life of one of my great-grandparents. The Turkish authorities of his town, Bansko, once announced that landowners were hiring young boys as farm hands. Many families sent one or more of their sons to earn some money. Several adults, including that my ancestor, were sent to accompany the boys. However, when the group reached the destination, it was encircled by soldiers who said that the boys were in fact needed to be recruited as Janissaries. The adult Bulgarians were left to go home. When they arrived and brought the catastrophic news, the public turned against them with anger. The parents were of course shocked by the loss of their sons and needed to blame somebody. It was unsafe to speak against the Turks, so the returning adult companions were blamed, as if they could have done anything in this situation. My great-grandfather left the town and moved to the village of Shipka, hundreds of kilometers away.
There were also many "casual" conversions. Here I'll cite again the experience of my great-grandfather (descendant of the above mentioned man who moved from Bansko to Shipka). His closest friend once committed an offense (I've forgotten what exactly, but it was a minor one). He was caught by the authorities and threatened with death, unless he converted to Islam. So he became a Muslim. At first, the two men continued to be friends. It was logical, the convert was in fact the same person, wasn't he? What happened to him wasn't his fault and could have happened to anybody. But, as time passed, my great-grandfather severed the ties with the convert, telling to his family that his ex-friend had "begun to smell like a Turk". I can speculate that if the story had happened not to that friend but to the other, I could be a Muslim now.
All types of conversion described above were confined to individuals taken from communities which continued to be Christian. However, there were also mass conversions. They were done in strategic regions - the Rhodopa mountain (today in Southern Bulgaria) and the Dobrudja plain which formed the north-east border of the Ottoman Empire (today - the corresponding border of Bulgaria). In rare cases, the authorities awaited a suitable moment to push for a quasi-voluntary conversion. So in the Chepinsko area of the Rhodopa mountain, the population agreed to convert to Islam in exchange for food aid during famine. However, the typical scenario was as follows: Ottoman troops encircling the village, giving the residents the choice of conversion or death, then leaving an imam and several officials to spy on the converts and help them become real pious Muslims.
There was no way out. In theory, the converts could emigrate and revert to Christianity, but those villagers didn't have the resources and knowledge needed to reach an immigrant-friendly land. So they became ancestors of today's Bulgarian Muslims. They often proceeded further to become Turkish-speaking. Sources differ about whether this change was also forced by the Ottoman authorities. I tend to think that in most cases it's likely to have been voluntary. Religion was used by Bulgarians as a national identifier. The terms "Christianity" and "Islam" were rarely used; instead, people were talking about "the Bulgarian faith" and "the Turkish faith". So those who were Muslims but Bulgarian-speaking were in the inconvenient position of people belonging nowhere; for many of them, it was logical to switch to Turkish.
The Bulgarian population was never able to mount effective resistance. If only they had wanted, the Turks could easily convert (or exterminate) the entire Bulgarian nation. However, this wouldn't be good for the economy. In the Ottoman empire, agriculture, crafts and other productive activities were largely reserved for non-Muslims who paid almost all taxes. The Muslims, especially the Turks, were soldiers, administrators and judges. It is clear that excessive conversion would destabilize this host-parasite relationship, although many converts retained their old lifestyle. So the partition between trusted "citizens" and productive second-class subjects saved the national identity of Bulgarians and other subjugated Christian nations. In the same time, it prevented the Ottoman Empire from becoming a modern state.
The relationship between Christian Bulgarians and the converts were uneasy. The latter were included in the Basibozuk - irregular troops responsible for the worst atrocities after quashing Christian Bulgarian uprisings. When Bulgarian statehood was restored by the Russia's 1877-78 war, the rich and powerful Turks fled to the territories remaining in the Ottoman Empire while the Bulgarian Muslims and the poorer Turks (presumably the converts) remained where they were. I guess there were many acts of revenge against them, but my sources say little about this.
One could expect that many Bulgarian Muslims and ethnic Turks after 1878 would convert (revert) to Christianity. After all, the Muslim faith had been imposed in most cases by force. Besides, as any cynic would mention, once Christians were in a favourable position, you should expect that many Muslims would remember their Christian roots... Some Muslim individuals indeed became Christians, but they were surprisingly few. Mass conversions in Rhodopa and Dobrudja had largely ended by the beginning of the 19th century, so three or more generations separated that event from the 1878 liberation. The memory of the original Christian faith had faded. The brutal force had paid, as usually in history.
Therefore, I think that Highlander is a little irrelevant when she writes (about the Fox News journalists), "I have to stress that I strongly condemn kidnappings of this sort. I was especially appalled that they were forced to convert to Islam on TV while in captivity.Those two moves are so stupid and if the perpetrators are hoping to be garnering sympathy to the Palestinian cause - or any cause for that matter- then they are failing miserably and further disfiguring the image of Islam." (http://lonehighlander.blogspot.com/2006/08/unreachable-just-cause-i-had-one-of.html) I don't think that the Islamist captors were so stupid. Islam has always been promoted this way and so it has not only survived but become No. 2 (now possibly No. 1) religion in the world.