Thursday, June 21, 2007

'Allah came knocking at my heart'



Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been asurge in conversions to Islam since September 11,especially among affluent young white Britons Six months ago Elizabeth L. ? a graduate in politicalscience, the daughter of affluent white Britishparents, an opponent of terrorism in all its forms ?climbed Mount Sinai at night to watch the desertsunrise from its summit. ?It was the stillest, most peaceful place I?ve everbeen,? she says. ?I could hear my feelings come upfrom within me, and in one surreal moment it allseemed to come together.? Last Friday, at 4.45pm, Elizabeth went to Regent?sPark 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 friendssqueezed into the imam?s office, she pronounced, inArabic learnt from a tape the night before, the wordsshe will repeat like a mantra five times a day for therest of her life: ?There is no God but Allah andMuhammad is his messenger.? Afterwards there was amodest celebration at Al-Dar on the Edgware Road.Elizabeth and her well-wishers sipped mint tea andsmoked apple-flavoured tobacco from a hookah. Therewas no booze, but she never drank much anyway. Why has she done this? ?I know it sounds clichéd, butAllah came knocking at my heart. That?s really how itfeels. In many ways it is beyond articulating, ratherlike falling in love.? It was, in other words, intensely personal. As sheread the Koran and prepared for her conversion, theSeptember attacks came and went and failed to derailher spiritual journey, despite their proven link to afundamentalist Islamist terror network. In as far asthey featured in her thinking, they even elicited somesympathy. All terrorism is cowardly, she says. ?But Ican see why people get fed up with the West.Capitalism is enormously oppressive.? Elizabeth is not a freak, and she is certainly notalone. There is compelling anecdotal evidence of asurge in conversions to Islam since September 11, notjust in Britain, but across Europe and America. OneDutch Islamic centre claims a tenfold increase, whilethe New Muslims Project, based in Leicester and run bya former Irish Roman Catholic housewife, reports a?steady stream? of new converts. This fits a pattern set by recent history. Similarsurges followed the outbreak of the Gulf War, theBosnian conflict and the declaration of a fatwaagainst Salman Rushdie. Some of the newcomersdoubtless do not share David Blunkett?s enthusiasm forovert espousals of Britishness. They may even havebeen caught on police videos flag-waving for theTaleban. But most will speak our language and supportour football teams with roughly average fervour, andsome ? by all accounts a rapidly expanding minority ?are white, more educated and more middle-class thanthe Home Secretary himself. These are some of Islam?s more surprising converts.They have chosen their new creed over the world?sother great religions having had the privilege ofchoice, often confounding their own and theirfamilies? prejudices in the process. They are highlyarticulate and tolerant to a degree. They?re PeopleLike Us, only they?re not. They?re Muslims. They prayfive times a day, fast during Ramadan and hope to goto Mecca before they die. They answer their mobileswith ?salaam alaikum?. Unlike Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber ofAmerican Airlines Flight 63, Britain?s pukka Muslimconverts, as the label implies, tend to beover-privileged, not under. Unlike James McLintock,the Scots lecturer?s son being held in a Peshawarjail, the fighting in Afghanistan has dismayed ratherthan attracted them. They are people like Elizabeth (who asked for her nameto be changed because she has not told her parentsyet); like Lucy Bushill-Matthews, a 30-year-oldgraduate of Newnham College, Cambridge, who flirtedwith Islam as a student in order to dismiss it, butfound it ?so simple and logical I couldn?t push itaway?; like ?Yahya?, whose father is a pillar of theAnglo Establishment and who feels that Islam ?fitsright into British tradition?; and like JoeAhmed-Dobson, a son of the former Labour MinisterFrank Dobson who believes that Islam transformed hisspiritual life ? and helped him to get a first atuniversity. If there is something familiar about these people?sstartling choices, there should be. We have been herebefore, or at least Imperial Britain?s adventuringclasses and their moneyed gap-year successors have. T. E. Lawrence fell hard for the romance and othernessof Islam and came to embody them for succeedinggenerations even though he never converted. Gai Eaton,a former British diplomat now in his seventies, didconvert. His influential work Islam and the Destiny ofMan has become required reading for bright youngAnglo-Saxons turning to his adopted faith, often as anexpression of dissatisfaction with a Western culturethat appeared to have offered them everything. Matthew Wilkinson made headlines when he converted andchanged his name to Tariq in 1993; he was a formerEton head boy. He and Nicholas Brandt, another Etonianand the son of an investment banker, swapped theirdestinies as scions of the Establishment for a Sloughsemi shared with four other Muslims. Lord Birt?s son, Jonathan, forsook a fast track intothe ranks of the great and the good by converting in1997 and starting a PhD on British Islam. So did a sonand a daughter of Lord Justice Scott, the scourge ofTory sleaze and the chairman of the Arms to Iraqinquiry. And so did Jemima Khan. ?My decision . . . wasentirely my own choice and in no way hurried,? the21-year-old daughter of the billionaire JamesGoldsmith declared angrily after suggestions that shehad converted to marry Imran Khan, the former Pakistancricket captain. She noted accurately that the Koranallowed Imran to marry any Muslim, Jew or Christian(even though it bars Muslim women from marryingnon-Muslim men). She pointed out that Imran?s sisters,far from being oppressed by his brothers-in-law, wereall educated professionals, and she insisted that shefound the tunic and trousers she would henceforth haveto wear ?far more elegant and feminine than anythingin my wardrobe?. Her plea seemed hard to credit in the circumstances,but it is a common one from educated British womentrying to persuade baffled non-Muslims that conversiondid not mean surrendering their independence or theircritical faculties. For Lucy Bushill-Matthews, it meant the reverse. ?WhenI went to Cambridge I joined the Christian and Islamicsocieties and all three political parties,? she says.?I wanted to explore all the possibilities in order todismiss them.? She thinks of herself as pragmatic and not all thatspiritual, and as such she found Islam irresistible.?It made sense of all the world?s faiths. It was aclear, simple way to believe in God.? She claims thatit has even helped her to land good jobs by markingher out as a free thinker. Her husband is a Muslim ofEnglish and Iranian descent whom she married afterconverting. Yahya, too, chose Islam from the broadest possiblereligious gamut. He was raised in a high-profileLondon family that, because of his father?s position,could not be seen to favour one faith over another. Hethen took a degree in comparative religion ? thetheological equivalent of a blind wine tasting ? andIslam, quite simply, won. ?It?s pure monotheism,? he says. ?It has a clear moralsystem and an intact tradition of religiousscholarship. No scripture expresses its message of theoneness of God as clearly as the Koran. It also has aremarkably rich mysticism, which may be what appealsto middle-class white Brits like me.? Yahya converted five years ago. Now 33, he is atOxford writing a PhD on British Islam and is dismayednot just by last September?s attacks, but also by themauling he says his religion has suffered since in themedia, even ? or especially ? at the hands of would-besympathisers. ?It?s very painful for all of us to beassociated with such sickening barbarism (of theattacks),? he says. ?That?s not what we signed up for.And now we can?t portray our religion in undilutedform. It?s always mediated by someone else. It?sincredibly frustrating to have Polly Toynbee trying tosave you from yourself.? So does this wry and thoughtful soul share the credoof al-Qaeda? Of course not. But the belief system inwhich he and the terrorists co-exist has a serious andoften lethal public relations problem. The parallelthat comes to mind is with the environmental movement,boasting tens of millions of members paying dues tothe World Wide Fund for Nature and the Sierra Club,and a handful bent on burning down ski lodges in theRockies. Well before September 11, well-heeled defectors fromAnglicanism to Islam proved so unsettling totraditionalists that the Cold War author andjournalist Philip Knightley branded them ?the newPhilbys?. They were running from privilege, hesuggested, driven as much by a sense of guilt at whatthey had as wonder at the mysteries of Islam. The factthat Kim Philby?s father happens to have converted toIslam was taken to support the accusation. Levelled atJoe Ahmed-Dobson, it quickly seems ridiculous. The sonof the former Health Secretary is a child of newLabour and the opposite of a rebel. He works on innercity regeneration, finds spiritual satisfaction inIslam?s ?constant impetus to do the right thing?, andcredits his first-class degree to the structure hisfaith has brought to his life. All those I spoke to agreed that Christianity claimsto answer the same yearnings for meaning and guidance.All had rejected it on intellectual grounds. Whygrapple with mental puzzles such as the Holy Trinityand Original Sin, they asked, when the alternative,asserting neither, proved to them so much moresatisfying?It was this clarity that won over BatoolAl-Toma, the former Catholic who offers guidance toconverts at the New Muslims Project. She tells themthey need not change their names, advises women todress modestly but not alienate their families withradical wardrobe changes and checks they haveconverted freely. Islam is not generally a missionaryfaith, she says. At one billion and counting, historyshows it doesn?t need to be. Famous convertsGérard Depardieu: The 54-year-old French film starconverted to Islam, but later converted back. He alsoexperimented with Buddhism and the Russian OrthodoxChurch but says he has now found happiness in hisvineyard in Anjou. ?I work and keep quiet,? he toldFrench Vogue. Jemima Goldsmith: The daughter of Sir James, the latefinancier, she converted ?of her own conviction? inpreparation for her marriage to Imran Khan in 1995.?It would seem that a Western woman?s happiness hingeslargely on her access to nightclubs, alcohol andrevealing clothes,? she said. ?However, as we allknow, such superficialities have very little to dowith true happiness.? Eleasha Elphinstone: The wife of the boxing starPrince Naseem Hamed switched faiths in 1998 beforemarrying. The previous year the wedding plans had beenabandoned when Eleasha had a change of heart andrefused to convert. Malcolm X: A former street hustler, Malcolm Littleconverted to Islam in jail, where he was serving timefor burglary. He joined the Nation of Islam, was laterexpelled and assassinated by Nation members in 1965. Muhammad Ali: The 59-year-old boxer previously knownas Cassius Clay became an international role model,revered as much for his political stance over Vietnamand adherence to his faith, as for his showmanship inthe ring. Cat Stevens: Born Steven Georgiou, the singer droppedhis nom-de-plume to become Yusuf Islam in 1977. Hismoment of enlightenment had come the previous year,when his brother gave him a copy of the Koran. Frombeing a superstar at the age of 19 when Matthew andSon became a hit, Yusuf married a Muslim woman fromcentral Asia called Fawzia, and became a high-profilespokesman for the British Muslim community. Mike Tyson: The former world heavyweight champion wassentenced to three years in jail for raping ateenager. He converted to Islam before returning tothe ring in 1995. He told visitors that he had spenthis time studying the Koran, Machiavelli, Voltaire,Dumas ?and a lot of Communist literature?.

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