The new face of Islam

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,
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.'

source: www.islamawareness.net


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