'Allah came knocking at my heart'
By Giles Whittell, The Times UK, 7 January 2000
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been a surge in conversions to Islam since September 11, especially among affluent young white Britons
Six months ago Elizabeth L. — a graduate in political science, the daughter of affluent white British parents, an opponent of terrorism in all its forms — climbed Mount Sinai at night to watch the desert sunrise from its summit.
“It was the stillest, most peaceful place I’ve ever been,” she says. “I could hear my feelings come up from within me, and in one surreal moment it all seemed to come together.”
Last Friday, at 4.45pm, Elizabeth went to Regent’s Park Mosque in Central London and converted to Islam.
It wasn’t hard. She didn’t even have to wear a scarf. Witnessed by two Muslim men and nine other friends squeezed into the imam’s office, she pronounced, in Arabic learnt from a tape the night before, the words she will repeat like a mantra five times a day for the rest of her life: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Afterwards there was a modest celebration at Al-Dar on the Edgware Road. Elizabeth and her well-wishers sipped mint tea and smoked apple-flavoured tobacco from a hookah. There was no booze, but she never drank much anyway.
Why has she done this? “I know it sounds clichéd, but Allah came knocking at my heart. That’s really how it feels. In many ways it is beyond articulating, rather like falling in love.”
It was, in other words, intensely personal. As she read the Koran and prepared for her conversion, the September attacks came and went and failed to derail her spiritual journey, despite their proven link to a fundamentalist Islamist terror network. In as far as they featured in her thinking, they even elicited some sympathy. All terrorism is cowardly, she says. “But I can see why people get fed up with the West. Capitalism is enormously oppressive.”
Elizabeth is not a freak, and she is certainly not alone. There is compelling anecdotal evidence of a surge in conversions to Islam since September 11, not just in Britain, but across Europe and America. One Dutch Islamic centre claims a tenfold increase, while the New Muslims Project, based in Leicester and run by a former Irish Roman Catholic housewife, reports a “steady stream” of new converts.
This fits a pattern set by recent history. Similar surges followed the outbreak of the Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict and the declaration of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Some of the newcomers doubtless do not share David Blunkett’s enthusiasm for overt espousals of Britishness. They may even have been caught on police videos flag-waving for the Taleban. But most will speak our language and support our football teams with roughly average fervour, and some — by all accounts a rapidly expanding minority — are white, more educated and more middle-class than the Home Secretary himself.
These are some of Islam’s more surprising converts. They have chosen their new creed over the world’s other great religions having had the privilege of choice, often confounding their own and their families’ prejudices in the process. They are highly articulate and tolerant to a degree. They’re People Like Us, only they’re not. They’re Muslims. They pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan and hope to go to Mecca before they die. They answer their mobiles with “salaam alaikum”.
Unlike Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber of American Airlines Flight 63, Britain’s pukka Muslim converts, as the label implies, tend to be over-privileged, not under. Unlike James McLintock, the Scots lecturer’s son being held in a Peshawar jail, the fighting in Afghanistan has dismayed rather than attracted them.
They are people like Elizabeth (who asked for her name to be changed because she has not told her parents yet); like Lucy Bushill-Matthews, a 30-year-old graduate of Newnham College, Cambridge, who flirted with Islam as a student in order to dismiss it, but found it “so simple and logical I couldn’t push it away”; like “Yahya”, whose father is a pillar of the Anglo Establishment and who feels that Islam “fits right into British tradition”; and like Joe Ahmed-Dobson, a son of the former Labour Minister Frank Dobson who believes that Islam transformed his spiritual life — and helped him to get a first at university.
If there is something familiar about these people’s startling choices, there should be. We have been here before, or at least Imperial Britain’s adventuring classes and their moneyed gap-year successors have.
T. E. Lawrence fell hard for the romance and otherness of Islam and came to embody them for succeeding generations even though he never converted. Gai Eaton, a former British diplomat now in his seventies, did convert. His influential work Islam and the Destiny of Man has become required reading for bright young Anglo-Saxons turning to his adopted faith, often as an expression of dissatisfaction with a Western culture that appeared to have offered them everything.
Matthew Wilkinson made headlines when he converted and changed his name to Tariq in 1993; he was a former Eton head boy. He and Nicholas Brandt, another Etonian and the son of an investment banker, swapped their destinies as scions of the Establishment for a Slough semi shared with four other Muslims.
Lord Birt’s son, Jonathan, forsook a fast track into the ranks of the great and the good by converting in 1997 and starting a PhD on British Islam. So did a son and a daughter of Lord Justice Scott, the scourge of Tory sleaze and the chairman of the Arms to Iraq inquiry.
And so did Jemima Khan. “My decision . . . was entirely my own choice and in no way hurried,” the 21-year-old daughter of the billionaire James Goldsmith declared angrily after suggestions that she had converted to marry Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain. She noted accurately that the Koran allowed Imran to marry any Muslim, Jew or Christian (even though it bars Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men). She pointed out that Imran’s sisters, far from being oppressed by his brothers-in-law, were all educated professionals, and she insisted that she found the tunic and trousers she would henceforth have to wear “far more elegant and feminine than anything in my wardrobe”.
Her plea seemed hard to credit in the circumstances, but it is a common one from educated British women trying to persuade baffled non-Muslims that conversion did not mean surrendering their independence or their critical faculties.
For Lucy Bushill-Matthews, it meant the reverse. “When I went to Cambridge I joined the Christian and Islamic societies and all three political parties,” she says. “I wanted to explore all the possibilities in order to dismiss them.”
She thinks of herself as pragmatic and not all that spiritual, and as such she found Islam irresistible. “It made sense of all the world’s faiths. It was a clear, simple way to believe in God.” She claims that it has even helped her to land good jobs by marking her out as a free thinker. Her husband is a Muslim of English and Iranian descent whom she married after converting.
Yahya, too, chose Islam from the broadest possible religious gamut. He was raised in a high-profile London family that, because of his father’s position, could not be seen to favour one faith over another. He then took a degree in comparative religion — the theological equivalent of a blind wine tasting — and Islam, quite simply, won.
“It’s pure monotheism,” he says. “It has a clear moral system and an intact tradition of religious scholarship. No scripture expresses its message of the oneness of God as clearly as the Koran. It also has a remarkably rich mysticism, which may be what appeals to middle-class white Brits like me.”
Yahya converted five years ago. Now 33, he is at Oxford writing a PhD on British Islam and is dismayed not just by last September’s attacks, but also by the mauling he says his religion has suffered since in the media, even — or especially — at the hands of would-be sympathisers. “It’s very painful for all of us to be associated with such sickening barbarism (of the attacks),” he says. “That’s not what we signed up for. And now we can’t portray our religion in undiluted form. It’s always mediated by someone else. It’s incredibly frustrating to have Polly Toynbee trying to save you from yourself.”
So does this wry and thoughtful soul share the credo of al-Qaeda? Of course not. But the belief system in which he and the terrorists co-exist has a serious and often lethal public relations problem. The parallel that comes to mind is with the environmental movement, boasting tens of millions of members paying dues to the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Sierra Club, and a handful bent on burning down ski lodges in the Rockies.
Well before September 11, well-heeled defectors from Anglicanism to Islam proved so unsettling to traditionalists that the Cold War author and journalist Philip Knightley branded them “the new Philbys”. They were running from privilege, he suggested, driven as much by a sense of guilt at what they had as wonder at the mysteries of Islam. The fact that Kim Philby’s father happens to have converted to Islam was taken to support the accusation. Levelled at Joe Ahmed-Dobson, it quickly seems ridiculous. The son of the former Health Secretary is a child of new Labour and the opposite of a rebel. He works on inner city regeneration, finds spiritual satisfaction in Islam’s “constant impetus to do the right thing”, and credits his first-class degree to the structure his faith has brought to his life.
All those I spoke to agreed that Christianity claims to answer the same yearnings for meaning and guidance. All had rejected it on intellectual grounds. Why grapple with mental puzzles such as the Holy Trinity and Original Sin, they asked, when the alternative, asserting neither, proved to them so much more satisfying?It was this clarity that won over Batool Al-Toma, the former Catholic who offers guidance to converts at the New Muslims Project. She tells them they need not change their names, advises women to dress modestly but not alienate their families with radical wardrobe changes and checks they have converted freely. Islam is not generally a missionary faith, she says. At one billion and counting, history shows it doesn’t need to be.
Gérard Depardieu: The 54-year-old French film star converted to Islam, but later converted back. He also experimented with Buddhism and the Russian Orthodox Church but says he has now found happiness in his vineyard in Anjou. “I work and keep quiet,” he told French Vogue.
Jemima Goldsmith: The daughter of Sir James, the late financier, she converted “of her own conviction” in preparation for her marriage to Imran Khan in 1995. “It would seem that a Western woman’s happiness hinges largely on her access to nightclubs, alcohol and revealing clothes,” she said. “However, as we all know, such superficialities have very little to do with true happiness.”
Eleasha Elphinstone: The wife of the boxing star Prince Naseem Hamed switched faiths in 1998 before marrying. The previous year the wedding plans had been abandoned when Eleasha had a change of heart and refused to convert.
Malcolm X: A former street hustler, Malcolm Little converted to Islam in jail, where he was serving time for burglary. He joined the Nation of Islam, was later expelled and assassinated by Nation members in 1965.
Muhammad Ali: The 59-year-old boxer previously known as Cassius Clay became an international role model, revered as much for his political stance over Vietnam and adherence to his faith, as for his showmanship in the ring.
Cat Stevens: Born Steven Georgiou, the singer dropped his nom-de-plume to become Yusuf Islam in 1977. His moment of enlightenment had come the previous year, when his brother gave him a copy of the Koran. From being a superstar at the age of 19 when Matthew and Son became a hit, Yusuf married a Muslim woman from central Asia called Fawzia, and became a high-profile spokesman for the British Muslim community.
Mike Tyson: The former world heavyweight champion was sentenced to three years in jail for raping a teenager. He converted to Islam before returning to the ring in 1995. He told visitors that he had spent his time studying the Koran, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Dumas “and a lot of Communist literature”.