'Allah came knocking at my heart'
MONDAY JANUARY 07 2002
'Allah came knocking at my heart'
BY GILES WHITTELL
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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