ISLAM AND THE WESTERN WORLD: ISLAMOPHOBIA AND THE RISING NUMBER OF WHITES CONVERSION TO ISLAM (2)
by Syarif Hidayat
Study indicates more Britons are converting to Islam
Despite there are Islamophobia, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam bigotry in the western world, a new study found that the number of Britons converting to Islam is growing, a London-based newspaper. The Independent newspaper said that the estimated number of British converts has always been difficult to count because “census data does not differentiate between a religious person that has adopted a new faith or was born into it.” According to a new study by the inter-faith think tank Faith Matters, the real figure could be as high as 100,000, with as many as 5,000 new conversions nationwide each year. Previous estimates have placed the number of Muslim converts in the UK at between 14,000 and 25,000.
The study used data from the Scottish 2001 census, the only survey to ask respondents what their religion was at birth as well as at the time of the survey; researchers broke down what proportion of Muslim converts there were by ethnicity and then extrapolated the figures for Britain as a whole, the newspaper said. In all they estimated that there were 60,699 converts living in Britain in 2001. The researchers polled mosques in London to try to calculate how many conversions take place a year. The results gave a figure of 1,400 conversions in the capital in the past 12 months, which, when extrapolated nationwide, would mean approximately 5,200 people converting to Islam every year.
Meanwhile, the figures are comparable with studies in Germany and France, which found that there were around 4,000 conversions a year in each country. “This report is the best intellectual ‘guestimate’ using census numbers, local authority data and polling from mosques,” Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, told the newspaper. “Either way, few people doubt that the number adopting Islam in the UK has risen dramatically in the past 10 years.”
Asked why people were converting in such large numbers, he replied: “I think there is definitely a relationship between conversions being on the increase and the prominence of Islam in the public domain. People are interested in finding out what Islam is all about, and when they do that they go in different directions. Most shrug their shoulders and return to their lives, but some will inevitably end up liking what they discover and will convert.”
Why are so many British career women converting to Islam?
Eve Ahmed in her article titled “Why are so many British career women converting to Islam?” published in Daily Mail Reporter, writes Tony Blair’s sister-in-law announced her conversion to Islam recently. Journalist Lauren Booth embraced the faith after what she describes as a ‘holy experience’ in Iran. She is just one of a growing number of modern British career women to do so. Here, writer EVE AHMED, who was raised as a Muslim before rejecting the faith, explores the reasons why. Rejecting her faith: Writer Eve Ahmed was raised a Muslim. Much of my childhood was spent trying to escape Islam. Born in London to an English mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, I was brought up to follow my father’s faith without question.
But, privately, I hated it. The minute I left home for university at the age of 18, I abandoned it altogether. As far as I was concerned, being a Muslim meant hearing the word ‘No’ over and over again. Girls from my background were barred from so many of the things my English friends took for granted. Indeed, it seemed to me that almost anything fun was haram, or forbidden, to girls like me. There were so many random, petty rules. No whistling. No chewing of gum. No riding bikes. No watching Top Of The Pops. No wearing make-up or clothes which revealed the shape of the body.
No eating in the street or putting my hands in my pockets. No cutting my hair or painting my nails. No asking questions or answering back. No keeping dogs as pets, (they were unclean). And, of course, no sitting next to men, shaking their hands or even making eye contact with them. These ground rules were imposed by my father and I, therefore, assumed they must be an integral part of being a good Muslim. Small wonder, then, that as soon as I was old enough to exert my independence, I rejected the whole package and turned my back on Islam. After all, what modern, liberated British woman would choose to live such a life?
Well, quite a lot, it turns out, including Islam’s latest surprise convert, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth. And after my own break with my past, I’ve followed with fascination the growing trend of Western women choosing to convert to Islam. Broadcaster and journalist Booth, 43, says she now wears a hijab head covering whenever she leaves home, prays five times a day and visits her local mosque ‘when I can’. She decided to become a Muslim six weeks ago after visiting the shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh in the city of Qom, and says: ‘It was a Tuesday evening, and I sat down and felt this shot of spiritual morphine, just absolute bliss and joy.’
Before her awakening in Iran, she had been ‘sympathetic’ to Islam and has spent considerable time working in Palestine. ‘I was always impressed with the strength and comfort it gave,’ she says. How, I wondered, could women be drawn to a religion which I felt had kept me in such a lowly, submissive place? How could their experiences of Islam be so very different to mine? Convert: Lauren Booth, who is Cherie Blair’s half-sister, decided to convert to Islam after what she described as a holy experience in Iran. According to Kevin Brice from Swansea University, who has specialised in studying white conversion to Islam, these women are part of an intriguing trend.
He explains: ‘They seek spirituality, a higher meaning, and tend to be deep thinkers. The other type of women who turn to Islam are what I call “converts of convenience”. They’ll assume the trappings of the religion to please their Muslim husband and his family, but won’t necessarily attend mosque, pray or fast.’ I spoke to a diverse selection of white Western converts in a bid to re-examine the faith I had rejected. Women like Kristiane Backer, 43, a London-based former MTV presenter who had led the kind of liberal Western-style life that I yearned for as a teenager, yet who turned her back on it and embraced Islam instead. Her reason? The ‘anything goes’ permissive society that I coveted had proved to be a superficial void.
Changing values: Camilla Leyland, 32, pictured in Western and Muslim dress, converted to Islam in her mid-20s for ‘intellectual and feminist reasons’. The turning point for Kristiane came when she met and briefly dated the former Pakistani cricketer and Muslim Imran Khan in 1992 during the height of her career. He took her to Pakistan where she says she was immediately touched by spirituality and the warmth of the people. Kristiane says: ‘Though our relationship didn’t last, I began to study the Muslim faith and eventually converted. Because of the nature of my job, I’d been out interviewing rock stars, travelling all over the world and following every trend, yet I’d felt empty inside. Now, at last, I had contentment because Islam had given me a purpose in life.’
‘In the West, we are stressed for superficial reasons, like what clothes to wear. In Islam, everyone looks to a higher goal. Everything is done to please God. It was a completely different value system. ‘In the West, we are stressed for superficial reasons, like what clothes to wear. In Islam, everyone looks to a higher goal. Everything is done to please God’. ‘Despite my lifestyle, I felt empty inside and realised how liberating it was to be a Muslim. To follow only one god makes life purer. You are not chasing every fad. ‘I grew up in Germany in a not very religious Protestant family. I drank and I partied, but I realised that we need to behave well now so we have a good after-life. We are responsible for our own actions.’
For a significant amount of women, their first contact with Islam comes from dating a Muslim boyfriend. Lynne Ali, 31, from Dagenham in Essex, freely admits to having been ‘a typical white hard-partying teenager’. She says: ‘I would go out and get drunk with friends, wear tight and revealing clothing and date boys. ‘I also worked part-time as a DJ, so I was really into the club scene. I used to pray a bit as a Christian, but I used God as a sort of doctor, to fix things in my life. If anyone asked, I would’ve said that, generally, I was happy living life in the fast lane.’ But when she met her boyfriend, Zahid, at university, something dramatic happened.
She says: ‘His sister started talking to me about Islam, and it was as if everything in my life fitted into place. I think, underneath it all, I must have been searching for something, and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled by my hard-drinking party lifestyle.’ Lynne converted aged 19. ‘From that day, I started wearing the hijab,’ she explains, ‘and I now never show my hair in public. At home, I’ll dress in normal Western clothes in front of my husband, but never out of the house.’ With a recent YouGov survey concluding that more than half the British public believe Islam to be a negative influence that encourages extremism, the repression of women and inequality, one might ask why any of them would choose such a direction for themselves.
Yet statistics suggest Islamic conversion is not a mere flash in the pan but a significant development. Islam is, after all, the world’s fastest growing religion, and white adopters are an important part of that story. ‘Evidence suggests that the ratio of Western women converts to male could be as high as 2:1,’ says Kevin Brice. Moreover, he says, often these female converts are eager to display the visible signs of their faith — in particular the hijab — whereas many Muslim girls brought up in the faith choose not to. ‘Perhaps as a result of these actions, which tend to draw attention, white Muslims often report greater amounts of discrimination against them than do born Muslims,’ adds Brice, which is what happened to Kristiane Backer.
She says: ‘In Germany, there is Islamophobia. I lost my job when I converted. There was a Press campaign against me with insinuations about all Muslims supporting terrorists — I was vilified. Now, I am a presenter on NBC Europe. ‘I call myself a European Muslim, which is different to the ‘born’ Muslim. I was married to one, a Moroccan, but it didn’t work because he placed restrictions on me because of how he’d been brought up. As a European Muslim, I question everything — I don’t accept blindly. ‘But what I love is the hospitality and the warmth of the Muslim community. London is the best place in Europe for Muslims, there is wonderful Islamic culture here and I am very happy.’
For some converts, Islam represents a celebration of old-fashioned family values. ‘Some are drawn to the sense of belonging and of community — values which have eroded in the West,’ says Haifaa Jawad, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, who has studied the white conversion phenomenon. ‘Many people, from all walks of life, mourn the loss in today’s society of traditional respect for the elderly and for women, for example. These are values which are enshrined in the Koran, which Muslims have to live by,’ adds Brice.
It is values like these which drew Camilla Leyland, 32, a yoga teacher who lives in Cornwall, to Islam. A single mother to daughter, Inaya, two, she converted in her mid-20s for ‘intellectual and feminist reasons’. She explains: ‘I know people will be surprised to hear the words “feminism” and “Islam” in the same breath, but in fact, the teachings of the Koran give equality to women, and at the time the religion was born, the teachings went against the grain of a misogynistic society. ‘The big mistake people make is by confusing culture with religion. Yes, there are Muslim cultures which do not allow women individual freedom, yet when I was growing up, I felt more oppressed by Western society.’
She talks of the pressure on women to act like men by drinking and having casual sex. ‘There was no real meaning to it all. In Islam, if you begin a relationship, that is a commitment of intent.’ Growing up in Southampton — her father was the director of Southampton Institute of Education and her mother a home economics teacher — Camilla’s interest in Islam began at school. She went to university and later took a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies. But it was while living and working in Syria that she had a spiritual epiphany. Reflecting on what she’d read in the Koran, she realised she wanted to convert.
Her decision was met with bemusement by friends and family. ‘People found it so hard to believe that an educated, middle-class white woman would choose to become Muslim,’ she says. While Camilla’s faith remains strong, she no longer wears the hijab in public. But several of the women I spoke to said strict Islamic dress was something they found empowering and liberating. Lynne Ali remembers the night this hit home for her. ‘I went to an old friend’s 21st birthday party in a bar,’ she reveals. ‘I walked in, wearing my hijab and modest clothing, and saw how everyone else had so much flesh on display. They were drunk, slurring their words and dancing provocatively.
‘For the first time, I could see my former life with an outsider’s eyes, and I knew I could never go back to that. ‘I am so grateful I found my escape route. This is the real me — I am happy to pray five times a day and take classes at the mosque. I am no longer a slave to a broken society and its expectations.’ Kristiane Backer, who has written a book on her own spiritual journey, called From MTV To Mecca, believes the new breed of modern, independent Muslims can band together to show the world that Islam is not the faith I grew up in — one that stamps on the rights of women. She says: ‘I know women born Muslims who became disillusioned and rebelled against it. When you dig deeper, it’s not the faith they turned against, but the culture.
‘Rules like marrying within the same sect or caste and education being less important for girls, as they should get married anyway —– where does it say that in the Koran? It doesn’t. ‘Many young Muslims have abandoned the “fire and brimstone” version they were born into have re-discovered a more spiritual and intellectual approach, that’s free from the cultural dogmas of the older generation. That’s how I intend to spend my life, showing the world the beauty of the true Islam.’ While I don’t agree with their sentiments, I admire and respect the women I interviewed for this piece.
They were all bright and educated, and have thought long and hard before choosing to convert to Islam — and now feel passionately about their adopted religion. Good luck to them. And good luck to Lauren Booth. Perhaps if I’d felt in control rather than controlled, if I’d felt empowered rather than stifled, I would still be practising the religion I was born into, and would not carry the burden of guilt that I do about rejecting my father’s faith.
Women & Islam: The rise and rise of the convert
Richard Peppiatt in his article titled “Women & Islam: The rise and rise of the convert” published in The Independent, writes record numbers of young, white British women are converting to Islam, yet many are reporting a lack of help as they get used to their new religion, according to several surveys. As Muslims celebrated Eid last week and hundreds of thousands from around the world converged on Mecca for the Haj, it emerged that of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam last year, more than half are white and 75 per cent of them women.
In the past 10 years some 100,000 British people have converted to Islam, of whom some three-quarters are women, according to the latest statistics. This is a significant increase on the 60,000 Britons in the previous decade, according to researchers based at Swansea University. While the number of UK converts accelerates, many of the British women who adopt Islam say they have a daily struggle to assimilate their new beliefs within a wider culture that both implicitly and explicitly positions them as outsiders, regardless of their Western upbringing.
More than three-quarters told researchers they had experienced high levels of confusion after conversion, due to the conflicting ways Islam was presented to them. While other major religions have established programmes for guiding new believers through the rigours of their faith, Islam still lacks any such network, especially outside the Muslim hubs of major cities. Many mosques still bar women from worship or provide scant resources for their needs, forcing them to rely on competing cultural and ideological interpretations within books or the internet for religious support. A recent study of converts in Leicester, for example, found that 93 per cent of mosques in the region recognised they lacked services for new Muslims, yet only 7 per cent said they were making efforts to address the shortfall.
Many of the young women – the average age of conversion is 27 – are also coming to terms with experiences of discrimination for the first time, despite the only visible difference being a headscarf. Yet few find easy sanctuary within the established Muslim population, with the majority forming their closest bonds with fellow converts rather than born Muslims. Kevin Brice, author of the Swansea study A Minority Within a Minority, said to be the most comprehensive study of British Muslim converts, added: “White Muslim converts are caught between two increasingly distant camps. Their best relationships remain with other converts, because of their shared experiences, while there is very little difference between the quality of their relationship with other Muslims or non-Muslims.
“My research also found converts came in two types: some are converts of convenience, who adopt the religion because of a life situation such as meeting a Muslim man, although the religion has little discernible impact on their day-to-day lives. For others it is a conversion of conviction where they feel a calling and embrace the religion robustly. “That’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive – sometimes converts start out on their religious path through convenience and become converts of conviction later on.” Another finding revealed by the Leicester study was that despite Western portraits of Islam casting it as oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to the religion precisely because of thestatus it affords them.
Some analysts have argued that dizzying social and cultural upheavals in Britain over the past decades have meant that far from adopting an alien way of life, some female Muslim converts are re-embracing certain aspects of mid-20th-century Britain, such as rigid gender demarcation, rather than feeling expected to juggle career and family. The first established Muslim communities started in Britain in the 1860s, when Yemani sailors and Somali labourers settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and Hull. Many married local women who converted to Islam, often suffering widespread discrimination as a result.
They also acted as a bridge between the two cultures, encouraging understanding among indigenous dwellers and helping to integrate the Muslim community they had joined. Today, there is growing recognition among community leaders that the latest generation of female converts has an equally vital role to play in fostering dialogue between an increasingly secular British majority and a minority religion, as misunderstood as it is vilified.
Kristiane Backer, 45 (Television presenter and author, London)
I converted to Islam in 1995 after Imran Khan introduced me to the faith. At the time I was a presenter for MTV. I used to have all the trappings of success, yet I felt an inner emptiness and somewhat dissatisfied in my life. The entertainment industry is very much about “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”, which is the exact opposite to the more inward-oriented spiritual attitude of my new faith. My value system changed and God became the centre point of my life and what I was striving towards.
I recognise some new converts feel isolated but, despite there being even fewer resources when I converted than there are now, it isn’t so much an issue I’ve faced. I’ve always felt welcomed and embraced by the Muslims I met and developed a circle of friends and teachers. It helps living in London, because there is so much to engage in as part of the Muslim community. Yet, even in the capital you can be stared at on the Tube for wearing a headscarf. I usually don’t wear one in the West except when praying. I wear the scarf in front of my heart though!
I always try to explain to people that I’ve converted to Islam, not to any culture. Suppression of women, honour killings or forced marriages are all cultural aberrations, not Islamic ones. Islam is also about dignity and respect for yourself and your femininity. Even in the dating game, Muslim men are very respectful. Women are cherished as mothers, too – as a Muslim woman you are not expected to do it all.”
Amy Sall, 28 (Retail assistant, Middlesbrough).
I’d say I’m still a bit of a party animal – but I’m also a Muslim. I do go out on the town with the girls and I don’t normally wear my headscarf – I know I should do, but I like to do my hair and look nice! I know there are certain clothes I shouldn’t wear either, even things that just show off your arms, but I still do. My husband would like me to be a better Muslim – he thinks drinking is evil – so it does cause rows.
I haven’t worshipped in a mosque since I got married, I find it intimidating. I worry about doing something wrong; people whispering because they see my blonde hair and blue eyes. Middlesbrough is a difficult place to be a Muslim who isn’t Asian – you tend to be treated like an outsider. Once, I was out wearing my headscarf and a local man shouted abuse. It was weird because I’m white and he was white, but all he saw was the scarf, I suppose. It did make me angry. My family were surprisingly fine with me converting, probably because they thought it would rein me in from being a bit wild.
Nicola Penty-Alvarez, 26 (Full-time mother, Uxbridge)
I was always interested in philosophy and the meaning of life and when I came across Islam it all just clicked. In the space of four or five months I went from going to raves to wearing a headscarf, praying five times a day and generally being quite pious – I did occasionally smoke though. I felt very welcomed into the Muslim community, but it was a mainly white convert community. My impression of the Asian community in west London was that women felt sidelined and were encouraged to stay at home and look after the men rather than attend mosque. I think this was more a cultural than religious thing, though.
Non-Muslims certainly treat you differently when you’re wearing a headscarf – they’re less friendly and as a smiley person I found that hard. After a year-and-a-half of being a Muslim I stopped. I remember the moment perfectly. I was in a beautiful mosque in Morocco praying beside an old lady and something just came over me. I thought: ‘What the hell am I doing? How have I got into this?’ It just suddenly didn’t feel right. Needless to say my husband, who was a fellow convert, wasn’t impressed. He remained devout and it put a lot of strain on our relationship. We split up, but are on amicable terms now. I’m not really in contact with the Muslim friends I made – we drifted apart.
I don’t regret the experience. There is so much that I learnt spiritually that I’ve kept and I haven’t gone back to my hard partying ways.
Donna Tunkara (Warehouse operative, Middlesbrough)
I was a bit of a tearaway growing up – drinking, smoking, running away from home and being disrespectful to my parents. I converted 10 years ago because I met a Muslim man but I’ve probably become more devout than him. Sometimes, I miss going shopping for clothes to hit the town and then going home and getting ready with my mates, having a laugh. The thing is no one is forcing me not to – it’s my choice. It did come as a shock to my family, who are Christian. They’ve not rejected me, but they find it difficult to understand. I feel bad because I don’t now attend weddings, funerals or christenings because they’re often at pubs and clubs and I won’t step inside.
There needs to be more resources for women who convert. I know some mosques that won’t allow women in. But in the Koran there is an emphasis on women being educated. I’ve learnt about the religion through my husband’s family and books – if you want support you have to look for it. It’s taken time to regain an identity I’m comfortable with. Because I’m mixed race and a Muslim ,people don’t see me as British – but what’s important is that I know who I am, concludes Donna. (HSH)
2. AL ARABIYA
4. The guardian
5. Sydney Morning Herald(SMH)