By Paul Lampathakis
Source: The Sunday Times
With defined rules for life and a strong sense of community, Islam is attracting many Perth converts.
Axel Cremer used to turn heads when he'd roar up to prayer time at the Rivervale mosque on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"When I first turned up, I freaked them out," the 50-year-old reticulation company director said.
"They'd see someone in black leather flying down the road, who stopped, then all of a sudden took all the leather off and walked into the mosque in Islamic clothing. Now they know me and miss me when they don't hear the bike."
Mr Cremer, whose Muslim name is Mohammed, is one of hundreds of West Australians who have converted to Islam in recent years, despite the stigma surrounding the religion that has grown since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Local converts say they number about 200, among about 20,000 Muslims in WA from more than 70 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. Nationwide, numbers increased about 40 per cent between 1996 and 2001, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, mainly because of migration.
Converts say that in Islam they have found clearer answers to questions of spirituality than in Christianity, a stronger sense of community and rules to live by.
"There are guidelines for everything. It shows you how to do the right thing, to be nice to people," said Mr Cremer, a former Catholic. "The Bible does this as well, but it has been translated too much, it has been tampered with too much.
"And one major difference with Islam is there is no hierarchy above me, no priests, no bishops, no Vatican.
"Imams (holy men) lead you in prayer. But beyond that it's just you and Allah. You're talking directly to God, that simplifies things."
Mr Cremer was also attracted to rules such as Muslims donating a percentage of their annual income to the poor.
The fact that Islam was a lifestyle rather than a weekend event was appealing too, because it advocated morality in all areas, including politics and work, where he believed morality was sorely needed.
The southern suburbs father of four, who migrated to Australia from Germany 22 years ago, said his Indonesian wife triggered his "reversion" in Jakarta seven years ago. Muslims believe people revert, not convert, because they say everyone is born Muslim.
But Mr Cremer said he became enthusiastic about Islam while researching the religion before his marriage – after years of questioning other faiths.
Mother-of-two Nicole Banks, 36, said non-Muslim women were not compelled by the religion to switch to Islam if they married a Muslim and were allowed to keep their maiden names.
But the former Church of England follower chose to convert in 1999, two years after marrying her now-estranged Egyptian husband. She had admired aspects of the religion, such as its focus on family and respect for elders, which she saw while travelling in the Middle East in 1996.
"For instance, you wouldn't send your parents off to a nursing home. They're looked after in the home by their kids," she said. "(In Muslim homes) wives are doing the chores, while grandmothers are looking after the younger children. Whereas here, you might not see your family from one week to the next.
"If someone's sick within the community, the other girls will bring food to the house. If somebody has a baby, people will bring food and help clean the house.
"That feeling of closeness is very much missing in Australian society."
The former optician/retail manager said the religion taught her not to be so materialistic and to be thankful for God's blessings, such as good health.
"Before, I was a workaholic, six days a week, 10 hours a day," she said. "I drank alcohol . . . smoked cigarettes, about a pack-plus a day, partied very hard. Now my days are spent looking after my kids, helping the community, still taking Arabic, Koran and religion classes twice a week."
Ms Banks's family was apprehensive about her conversion, but she had subsequently grown closer to her parents.
Comments on the street about her hijab (head scarf) had sometimes been a problem, but most people were just curious.
She said people should not connect Islam with terror because suicide and hurting innocents, particularly women, children and the elderly, were forbidden by the Koran.
Perth banker Maariyah, 62, converted from Catholicism last February after reading books presenting evidence against the claim that Jesus was the son of God.
She preferred Islam's belief that Jesus was a prophet.
"And I like the feeling of one big family. We call each other brother and sister and we mean it," she said. "I also like the idea of kneeling five times a day and talking to God rather than once a week or once a year – we see praying as a privilege, not a duty."
Her husband was not a Muslim and neither he nor other family members understood her move to Islam.
Carlisle trainee English teacher Jeremy Meredith, 33, became a Muslim in Jakarta in 2003 because he also liked the sense of community and the guidelines.
"People say they want freedom, they want liberty," he said. "But the bottom line is people want to know what they can and can't do. They want rules, they want guidelines, something to believe in, something to follow.
"In Islam, there's a rule for absolutely everything – how I eat my food, how I go to the toilet, how I get married, how I lend money."
He said Muslims should not be lumped with extremists because that was as stupid as saying that because Hitler was a Christian, all Christians were genocidal maniacs.
Eliza-Aisha, 26, switched from Catholicism about four years ago before marrying her Pakistani husband, whom she met in university.
In the northern suburbs home she shares with her Catholic mother and Muslim husband, she said she had researched different faiths from the age of 13 and had never been content with Catholicism. She liked the clarity of Islam; that you prayed just to God, not saints or others.
Eliza-Aisha said she had met converts from areas including Walpole and Bunbury, and they shared common reasons for changing.
"They want to know the purpose of their life. They don't just want an empty life filled with material things, a great house and a car. They want to know more," she said.
"Every week you hear about converts, people in the country, in the local area. A university professor, I heard, recently became a Muslim."
She disagreed with the assumption that women were repressed under the religion. If so, why did so many change, because she had heard about 80 per cent of converts were female.
Other converts said they disliked Christianity's hypocrisy in preaching peace and love while being responsible for many atrocities, including the Crusades and Inquisition, and playing a big role in Northern Ireland's bloody conflict. They also believed the Bible had been edited so much it was no longer the true word of God, while the Koran had not changed.
But Father Brian O'Loughlin, Vicar-General for Perth's Catholic Archdiocese, said he did not accept that Islam offered a "simpler" way to God. There were imams and ayatollahs (religious leaders), and in most Islamic countries it was a state religion with a structure that went much further than Christianity.
He said tolerance was lacking in Islam because it wanted to be the one and only religion. For instance, Saudi Arabia had built mosques worldwide, including in Rome, but would not allow churches in its boundaries.
He said many of the admired aspects of community in Islam were also present in southern European culture. But he conceded that such values might have been eroded in Western culture.
Regarding charity, he said Christians had been outstanding for living the commandment of love that Jesus had taught, to include not just Christians.
"And let's go back to the Boxing Day tsunami. Wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia had to be embarrassed into contributing some substantial amount," he said.
Father O'Loughlin said a worrying aspect was Islam's concept of education, which in many cases was breeding fanaticism.
Peter Rosengren, editor of Catholic newspaper The Record, said it was not surprising that ordinary Australians were attracted to Islam.
A major phenomena of the past 40 years in developed areas such as the US, Australia and Europe had been an intensifying secularisation.
"But human beings are fundamentally religious. When you reject belief in God as a society . . . people still search for the meaning of their lives. Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my life all about?" he said.
While he was a convinced Christian, he admired the fact that converts to Islam were going against the general trend and trying to put God first and he felt the same about Christians who were doing the same.