The new face of Islam
By Nick Compton
At first she tried to resist. She did not want this to happen. She was not that sort of person. After all, there were no gaps in her life, no spiritual ache, she did not need support or direction. But she kept reading and it kept making sense.
‘I had absolutely no expectation or desire to end up where I am,’ she says. ‘It was almost with trepidation that I kept turning the pages and the trepidation just increased. I kept thinking: “OK, where’s the flaw? Where’s the bit that doesn’t make sense?” But it never came. And then it was like: “Oh no, I can see where this is leading. This is disastrous. I don’t want to be a Muslim!”
Caroline Bate is 30 years old, blonde, blue-eyed and pretty, with a soft Home Counties accent. She has a degree from Cambridge (she studied Russian and German before switching to management studies) and works for an investment bank in the City. She is Middle England’s dream daughter or daughter-in-law. And though she has yet to make her formal declaration of faith in Allah and the prophet Mohammed – a two-line pledge called the Shahada – she considers herself Muslim. She ticked the box on a form recently. It felt good, she says.
Caroline is not alone. Though data is hard to come by, several London mosques have been reporting an increase in the number of converts to Islam, especially since 11 September. Like Caroline, many of these converts are from solid middle-class backgrounds, have successful careers, enjoy active social lives and are fundamentally happy with their lot.
This is not a new trend, however. Matthew Wilkinson, a former head boy of Eton, became Tariq, when he converted to Islam in 1993. Jonathan Birt, son of Lord Birt, late of the BBC and now the government’s transport guru, converted in 1997. The son and daughter of Lord Justice Scott also converted and Joe Ahmed Dobson, the 26-year-old son of the former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, has recently and, somewhat reluctantly, emerged as the voice of new Muslim converts in Britain. But it is a trend that has been pushed along by recent events. So far it has gone largely unnoticed, as the press concentrates on some of the more colourful characters that 11 September has thrown up.
Since 11 September, the luridly painted poster boys of British Islam have been radical clerics such as Abu Hamza al-Masri, the steel-clawed, milky-eyed so-called ‘mad mullah’ of Finsbury Park mosque. Here are Victorian villains, fiendish emissaries of some ancient and foreign evil, straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Their followers are blank-eyed drones like Richard Reid, packing his high-tops with high explosives. Or James McLintock, the ‘Tartan Taliban’. There are lost boys, dislocated and dysfunctional, petty thieves preyed on in South London prisons and young offenders’ institutions by fakir Fagins who forge an untempered anger into a righteous ire and provide it with a target. (Three imams working in British prisons have been suspended since 11 September for making ‘inappropriate remarks’ about the terrorist attacks.)
But that is a sideshow, a compelling melodrama played out beyond the fringes of Islamic culture in this country. And while it might be stretching a point – and answering caricature with caricature – to insist that a demure English rose is the exemplar of the modern British convert to Islam, Caroline Bate is certainly more representative than Richard Reid.
Talking to recent Muslim converts, it is striking how similar the descriptions of their embrace of Islam are. Most were introduced to Islam, and Islamic history and teaching, by friends. And, given that Islam is not generally a missionary faith, these were gentle introductions. For most, conversion was born of curiosity, an attempt to better understand the people around them.
Caroline first started reading about Islam last April. A school friend she has known since she was 11 was marrying a Tunisian, a Muslim. ‘My best friend was marrying into a different culture so I wanted to know more about it,’ she explains. ‘I came at it from more of a cultural perspective than a religious one. But the literature that I picked up just stimulated me. And Islamic teaching made perfect, logical sense. You can approach it intellectually and there are no gaps, no great leaps of faith that you have to make.’
Roger (not his real name) is a doctor in his mid-thirties. About a year and a half ago, he started talking about Islam to Muslim colleagues at work. ‘All I had ever heard about Islam in the media was Hezbollah and guerrillas and all of that. And here were these really decent people whom I was beginning to get to know. So I started to ask a few questions and I was amazed at my own ignorance.’ He became a Muslim a couple of months ago.
For these new converts, embracing Islam is usually a covert operation. They quietly read, talk, listen, learn. The hard part is coming out, declaring your newly acquired faith to friends and family, and, in some cases at least, facing up to fear, scepticism and even loathing.
Caroline insists that the coming-out process has not been too painful. ‘The reaction has been pretty much what I expected. I’ve had everything from “Do you know how they treat women?” to “Wow, great timing!” But your friends are your friends and I expect them to deal with it.’
Others have had a harder time. Eleanor Martin, now Asya Ali (or some other combination of these names, depending on the circumstance), was a 24-year-old TV actress when she met Mo Sesay. She had a regular role as WPC Georgie Cudworth in BBC’s Dangerfield during the mid-Nineties and Sesay, who later starred in Bhaji on the Beach, was also a Dangerfield regular. Sesay is a Muslim.
‘Mo was such a kind man, just a good person. He wanted to know me as a person, there was nothing else going on. And I thought, well, here is this really decent guy and he is a Muslim. And the image I had of Islam was of men beating up women and going round in tanks killing people.
‘The thing is we both had regular parts on the show, but they weren’t very big parts, so we had a lot of time to sit in the caravan and talk. He really opened my eyes.’
Eleanor finally converted in 1996. ‘I wasn’t sure I was going to until the last minute and then it just felt as if everything had fallen into place and there was no other option.’
At first she kept her conversion secret. ‘I was afraid of an adverse reaction from friends and family. I was really worried about what my father would say.’ Her father was a devout Christian. A former radiotherapist, he had taken early retirement to go into the priesthood. But circumstances forced Eleanor’s hand. A few months after she converted she met a Muslim African-American actor, Luqman Ali, and they decided to get married. ‘I went home and said: “I’ve got some news. I’m getting married and I’m a Muslim.” My mum was great. My dad said: “I think I’m going to get a drink now.”
‘It took Dad time. He went to see his spiritual adviser, a nun, whose brother happened to be a convert to Islam, and that helped. And he’s great now, too. He’s just happy that I’m following a path to God.’
Roger, meanwhile, has yet to tell family or work colleagues of his conversion. ‘I worry it will affect my career prospects,’ he admits. ‘I know first-hand how little people understand Islam. I know there is prejudice based on ignorance. A couple of years ago, if someone had told me they had converted, I would have thought they were odd. I don’t want people to think I am an oddity or a curiosity because I don’t think of myself like that.’
Most converts acknowledge that living in an ethnically diverse city has made conversion easier than it might have been elsewhere. Stefania Marchetti was born and raised in Milan but came to London to study in 1997. She converted to Islam from Catholicism in April last year. ‘It would have been far more difficult for me to convert in Italy,’ she admits. ‘The Italian media is very anti-Islam and generally Italians think that Muslim men are all terrorists and all Muslim women are slaves.’
Certainly Karen Allen, a 28-year-old scheduler for Sky TV from Stoke Newington, has enjoyed a relatively smooth transition period. She converted to Islam last June and soon started wearing the traditional headscarf or hijab. ‘When I first started wearing the hijab to work, there were a few jibes about Afghanistan and stuff, but people are fine now. They say things like: “That’s a nice one you’re wearing today.”
‘I think it might be more difficult outside London, but here there are a lot weirder things to look at than me.’
What is especially striking about this stream of converts to Islam is that the majority seem to be women. Some suggest that twice as many women as men are turning to Islam.
Batool Al Toma, who heads the New Muslim Project at the Leicester-based Islamic Foundation, which offers advice and support to recent converts, suggests this might be exaggeration, but admits that female converts are in the majority. ‘A lot of people seem to think that women are more susceptible to Islam. I think it’s largely because a lot of people are obsessed with the idea of an educated, liberated British woman converting to Islam which they feel subjugates and represses them in some way. We just get a lot more attention I suppose and that sparks people’s interest.’
The lure of Islam for women is surprising, given that the conversion process may be even more problematic for them than for men. There is the commonly held belief that Islam represses women and female converts often have to deal with recrimination from female friends who view their adoption of Islam as some sort of betrayal. The wearing of a headscarf or hijab (a sartorial option, it should be noted, not a requirement) also makes Muslim women more visible than their male counterparts.
Certainly, all the women I spoke to were quick to refute the idea that Islam imposes a women-know-thy-place ideology.
‘The perception of how women are treated is completely incorrect,’ insists Caroline. ‘Women have a fantastic position in Islamic society.’
Indeed, many women converts talk about the adoption of the Islamic dress code as a liberation. They see it not as a denial of sex and sexuality but rather as an acknowledgement that these are treasures to be shared with a loved one and them alone. They are not hidden but rather freed from objectification.
Asya insists that the trick is to turn preconceptions on their head. She wears a scarf to show she is a Muslim and a smile to prove she is happy being one.
One problem for converts is that they are caught between two cultures. ‘Young Muslims are very accepting,’ says Caroline. ‘They are really happy that you have chosen to become Muslim. The older generation are not so accepting. For them, Islam is part of their cultural background, it’s about the country they came from and it’s what binds their communities together.’
One step towards greater acceptance came last October when Reedah Nijabat opened ArRum, an Islamic restaurant/members’ bar/ cultural centre/social club in Clerkenwell. Nijabat, a 31-year-old former barrister and management consultant from Walthamstow, originally conceived ArRum as a meeting place and networking venue for professional first- and second-generation London Muslims. But it has also become a focal point for many of London’s Muslim converts.
It is easy to see why. On any work evening, a mixed bag of middle-aged Pakistani men, young couples (some Muslim, some curious non-Muslim), kids and white British converts chat and tuck into halal ‘fusion’ food. While the club promotes Islamic culture, the vibe is a Hempel temple of inner calm. Sufi wailing calms the nerves, while the bar specialises in healthy juices.
For the new converts I spoke to, ArRum is a place to meet other Muslims and somewhere to bring non-Muslim friends and introduce them to Islam in a way that doesn’t scare them.
ArRum accents Islam’s USP among the major faiths: its openness and lack of hierarchy. And Nijabat has realised that if there is an endemic suspicion of stuffy organised religion among the British (and increasingly, one suspects, second-generation British Muslims) there is great interest in ’spirituality’, whatever that might mean.
‘I think that the problem has not been with the substance of the major faiths, whatever they are, but a marketing defect,’ argues Nijabat. ‘Everything we do here is about remembrance of God and Islam, but you can get that across in a cool way. I’m not saying anything that isn’t in the Koran, but you have to talk to people on their level.
‘I’m beginning to see that there is a huge misunderstanding and a bridge that needs to be crossed between ethnic communities, host communities and spiritual communities, and I think we are making a contribution to that. You can get so hung up on the divisions and how different we are, but it is the same God for all of us. And we still feel that loss whether it is an American life or a Palestinian life. A lot of people are going through a period of soul-searching and that can only be a good thing.’
For many, that soul-searching has led them to Islam, not the Islam of the suicide bombers but mainstream Islam. And, as Joe Ahmed Dobson points out, ArRum and its new converts do not represent some kind of liberal IslamLite, a media-friendly dilution of the real thing. Dobson and the other new converts are orthodox, in the truest sense, and proud.
They are also part of a project that may help all parties see Islam in new ways. As Nijabat admits: ‘You can end up being quite defensive about it. And you can either get hung up about it or be proactive. Opening ArRum has helped me recognise that I can be British and Pakistani and a Muslim and a woman. And I’m not going to be a victim in any of this.’