Remember Sinéad O'Connor, the Irish singer-songwriter with an ethereal voice and a penchant for troublemaking? Well, Sinéad O'Connor no longer exists. After her recent conversion to Islam, she became “Shuhada’ Davitt.” That’s right, the radical lesbian-female Catholic “priest”-Rastafarian is now a hijab-wearing Muslim.
Like many famous people, poor Sinéad O’Connor has led a hard life. But unlike most celebrities, who experience their breakdowns in public and only examine the causes on the therapist’s couch, she has been open with the public about the pitfalls of fame and fortune. Googling her name produces a laundry list of music industry excess. O’Connor wears her pain on her sleeve—and gives us all a glimpse into the sordid aspects of the glitterati lifestyle.
Many chalk O’Connor up as crazy. She regularly talks about her struggles with mental health. And her penchant for radical self-reinvention suggests an unstable personality. But, as a friend of mine noted months before Sinéad became Shuhada’, she is a bellwether of sorts—the culture always seems to follow her lead after a few years.
O’Connor’s first public stunt involved tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live back in 1992. Afterward, she stared straight into the camera and said: “Fight the real enemy.” At the time, the act was controversial. Even the tiresomely antinomian Madonna criticized O’Connor.
These days O’Connor’s views are mainstream and fashionable. Just last week, I watched a drunken passer-by chide the American priest who was accompanying me through Dublin. While an Irish Times journalist or a sterile Irish politician would not be as rude as the drunk, their personal sentiments are not much different.
O’Connor’s next stunt came in 2000, when she “came out” as lesbian. It soon emerged that she was not, in fact, gay—although she conceded she had dabbled. Rather, she said she was trying to make people who identified as lesbian feel better about themselves. While this sort of posturing is commonplace in celebrity-land today, 20 years ago it was uncommon. Once again, history bent in O’Connor’s direction.
In 2005 O’Connor announced she was converting to Rastafarianism. For many, this reinforced the notion that she was simply crazy. But years later we found out what she was actually trying to communicate: In 2016 she checked herself into rehab for a marijuana addiction she claimed was destroying her life and wreaking havoc on her mental health.
Today, pot legalization is all the rage. Promoters claim it is safer than alcohol and cigarettes—and it is certainly not extremely addictive. But if the walking pack of tarot cards that is Sinéad O'Connor is anything to go by, we’re likely to reach different conclusions after a decade or two of legalization.
So what does O’Connor’s Muslim conversion tell us? We should first note that it is far more radical than her other self-reinventions. All the others were cheap and throwaway. While some required an amount of bravery, none required much actual commitment—unlike Islam. This seems more likely to be the end of O’Connor’s identity-flux than another step on the road to nowhere.
O’Connor’s conversion reminded me of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. After his characters experience the vices of the modern world, submission to Islam looks like the only route to relief. When vacuous political causes go nowhere and the pleasures of the self bring only pain, death begins to look more and more like a release.
In the past this self-mortification would require that one turn to the bosom of the Church. Sinéad would not become Shuhada’ but Sister O’Connor. Unfortunately, that path is closed because it already contains something of our past. For many today, the only credible death of the self requires jumping into the complete unknown—into the culture of the Muslim Other.
Today O’Connor’s conversion strikes us as freakish, but not nearly as freakish as it would have 15 years ago. Perhaps in another 15 years it will not strike us as freakish at all. A physical vacuum desires to be filled. A cultural vacuum is no different.
John William Sullivan writes from Dublin, Ireland.