From "The Times", London. November 10, 1993.

 

ISLAM SHEDS ITS IMAGE AS PURELY EASTERN RELIGION MUSLIMS IN THE WEST

Islam is winning converts in the industrial world because of its ability to adapt to Western life and shed its outdated image as a purely Eastern religion. That is the conclusion of academics studying the rise of Islam in the West.

Dr Graham Speake, of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, says Islam is not an East-West issue. "That suggests an `us and them' attitude, which in these days of integrated society is no longer really applicable. Islam with Judaism and Christianity, is one of the great monotheistic faiths. They all share a great deal and have a lot to offer each other.

"Those of us who believe in any one of the three have come to realise that they are all equally valid and equally to be valued. So many of us have members of another faith living next door."

Asaf Hussein, tutor in race education at the Open University, says Islam gives westerners a rare voice about the problems in their own society: "If they want a faith which gives them a participatory and active role, the choice is Islam. It places a very strong emphasis on social justice and empowers westerners to say: `This is not correct'." Converts highlight the applicability of Islam. Nouria, 36 who converted in 1974, says: "It is always considered to be a religion of the Third World, of brown people, of Arabs. But Islam encourages the races to unite by allowing for the differences in culture: the food, the customs, the different ways of wearing Islamic dress. Malaysians are very quiet and delicate in their movements; Nigerians can be very loud and relaxed."

Islam's adaptability is most obvious in the varieties of Muslim dress. At a recent British conference for new Muslims there was only one chador in sight. A woman from rural Ireland wore a long sweater and a wool hat, the English had kept their Laura Ashley skirts and silk scarves Scots appeared in kilts and baggy tartan trousers. There was a range of accents to match.

"The idea now is for new Muslims to realise that they don't have to renounce their Englishness, or whatever they are," Maimuna, 39, a Londoner who converted in the early seventies, says.

She contrasts the new emphasis on the flexibility of Islam with the fever-pitch conformity of the previous generation. "I have never met any born Muslim women who have said, `I want to be downtrodden.' But some of the very early converts did, they wanted to be martyrs.

"Some other groups were very rigid and sincere with a strict rule book. They didn't believe in medicine or registration of marriage or putting the heating on in winter. They have mellowed now; none of them kept that pace of freneticness."

Many westerners are initially attracted by aspects of Islamic culture; they cite the design of the mosques, the call to prayer and the beauty of the Arabic languages.

"Arabic is very musical, a wonderful language for expressing spiritual things," Emira Topham says. "Saying `Praise be to God' is much nicer in Arabic than English. I don't think you can Anglicise everything." But new Muslims are selective. As far as possible they incorporate Islam into their own cultural identities, protecting the faith against the non-islamic features of established Muslim communities.

"At first for a lot of British people there is a great temptation to be pseudo-Arab or pseudo-Pakistani because the ethnic presence is so strong," Rose Kendrick, a religious education teacher and author, says. "But there's a big danger that they will interpret their culture as being Islamic." Most converts are politically non-confrontational.

"In England you get side-tracked by it all, race relations, Hezbollah, Khomeini," Maimuna says. "I used to wear my scarf in the Arab way and my colleagues found it frightening. They thought it meant hijacking and fundamentalism and `death to Rushdie'."

 

HOLIDAY WAS THE TURNING POINT THE CONVERT

"When I had my first baby people said I was tying myself down, but I didn't see it like that. For me it was liberating; one of the major life decisions was out of the way. Conversion was the same.

Emira (formerly Emma) Topham converted to Islam last month after being convinced by its emphasis on family values. Aged 26, she lives with her husband, three sons and five stepchildren in Swindon, Wiltshire. She was introduced to Islam in 1988 on a two-week trip to Morocco, at the end of the first year of a degree course in fine art.

Islamic art captivated her: "It was very strong and fresh, not just a superficial covering. She acquired some Muslim hosts and appreciated their tolerance, being bald and dressed in skimpy shorts.

The holiday was a turning point, academically and spiritually. Emira's first year at college had coincided with a personal crisis brought on by unsettled childhood, during which she was transferred between countries, parents and grandparents. She arrived at college unprepared for coping alone, consumed with anger and unable to paint.

At the end of the first year she had no money, nowhere to live and was about to be kicked off her course. "I decided my relationship with my boy friend was based purely on sex and ended it by shaving off my hair. I was quite suicidal. The only thing that kept the lid on that was a lot of hashish and alcohol. I was thinking, what is the meaning of my life, what is the point?

She returned to college from Morocco inspired by Islamic art and the following February she met her future husband, Rasjid Topham, a musician and artist. He was 41, divorced with five children and had converted to Islam in 1973. Emira became pregnant, started painting again and researched a thesis on North African pattern.

Her son Lieth was born in November and Emira took her degree the following summer. She and Rasjid married but he never suggested that she convert; his own faith had taken a battering during the breakdown of his first marriage.

Family life was the deciding factor for Emira, who welcomed the value that Islam places on motherhood. She formally converted last month at the mosque in Regents Park, London, a process that "married up the inside and outside" and also benefited her family. "It changed something very positively for me and Rasjid. It creates more of a unity and makes it easier to establish Islamic guidelines in the home."

Wearing the hijab (scarf) brought "tremendous freedom: she compares it to shaving off her hair. "When you're bald people who would have been interested in you will be interested anyway. You feel more vulnerable but more open, and nicer to people."

Emira had dabbled with Christianity. She attended a convent school---"I found its lack of warmth extraordinary"---and church with her Protestant grandparents. Neither enhanced her self-respect in the way that Islam has: "As a Muslim you stand before God rather than a priest. Everyone is equal."

 

RADICAL DECISION TO FOLLOW NEW PATH PREJUDICE

Izzat Heath, 27, was an evangelical Christian studying at Birmingham Polytechnic before she converted to Islam. "Back then I believed without questioning the sources," she said. "I once tried to convert a Muslim to Christianity and it backfired on me."

Mrs Heath, who lives in Birmingham with her Pakistani husband and one- year-old son Muhammad said she was attracted by the "expansiveness" of Islam, which radically altered her concept of religion. "Islam catered for my suspicion that existence and God were so much bigger than Christians had painted them," she said.

"There is no religion and non-religion; everyone is following a path or way of life. Muslims follow a sunna, the example of the prophet and his companions. Everybody follows a sunna. Look at people who follow pop groups. They read the fan magazines, they dress the same."

"To marginalise people by saying `You're religious and you do these funny things' is not owning up to what you do. The problem is that people and their opinions tend to be measured by the liberal democratic yardstick which claims to be the norm."

"Lots of people, including Muslims, seem to fall wide of that mark and then get labelled fundamentalist. I call some people fundamentalist liberals because they will not shift. I'm not suggesting that they should shift, just that they could recognise that they have a position as well."

Like most converts, Mrs Heath says finding Islam was less a personal revolution than a formal recognition of her natural self.

>From "The Times", London. November 9, 1993.

Lucy Berrington finds the Muslim faith is winning Western converts despite hostile media coverage.

 

SECURE IN SISTERHOOD

For many, the term "Muslim women" prompts images of beaten-up housewives chained to the stove, blinded by their veils, pregnant with sextuplets and frantic to be westernised.

To British women, whose glossy magazines recount tales of "honour killings and female circumcision, often wrongly identified with the Muslim faith, it seems inexplicable that Islam could be a rational choice. Female converts, they say, are either brainwashed, stupid or traitors to their sex.

Muslim women strongly reject such accusations. British converts are often strikingly well-educated. Dozens of the older women seem to be perpetual students, and are anxious to distinguish between genuinely Islamic behaviour and cultural diktats. The oppression of women, they say, is a political issue not a religious condition.

A recent interview in Vanity Fair quoted Fatima Mernissi, a leading Islamic scholar based in Morocco, thus: "You find in the Koran hundreds of verses to support women's rights and perhaps four or five that do not. [The fundamentalists] have seized upon those four and thrown away the rest."

Rabia Lemahieu-Evans, a Belgian convert, social anthropologist and postgraduate student at the Muslim College in London, feels Muslim law, the Sharia, should be re-examined in its modern context.

"The Prophet was a reformer of the 7th century,n she says. "It was a tribal society but he united people in a religious sense. He encouraged the emancipation of the slaves but, as in Judaism and Christianity, he did not outlaw it because perhaps society wasn't ready. He did the same for women. He set things in motion but in the 20th century we need to look carefully at the historical circumstances."

Muslim women are regularly asked to defend their faith. Many respond by questioning the alternatives.

"A woman in my office said, `At least I'm not a traitor to my sex'," says Hassana, 39, who converted in 1988. Her friend Nouria, 36, who converted in 1974 after finding some verses of the Koran in a dustbin, said: "Most of the women in this country are traitors to their sex. It's almost as if we've been defeminised." Both women are from Scottish Protestant backgrounds and live in London.

Hassana wears the hijab (the scarf) and has tried the veil: "It makes you feel very private, very safe. Your self-confidence gets boosted. You can be doing what you like under there. I've worn my personal stereo."

The attraction of Islam for many converts is its premise of separate spheres; the different biological destinies of men and women. Many Westerners feel this smacks of discrimination but Muslims say the alternatives impose impossible demands. They define Western emancipation as "women copying men, an exercise in which womanhood has no intrinsic value.

Gai Eaton, information officer at the Regent's Park Mosque, who came to Islam 40 years ago after a diplomatic career, says: "Whatever the I pattern of gender relationships in the Islamic world, women do have a dignity that on the whole they don't have in the modern world. I think it springs from the awe in which the mother figure is held." He quotes the Prophet: "Paradise is at my mother's feet," and cites a wealthy Arab living in London, exiled for life for mistreating his mother.

Many Eastern women are content with role differentiation because it ensures their status and power in their own spheres: the household, family and community. Iranian women can receive payment for breastfeeding their children. "On television recently, they were discussing why women shouldn't have the right to keep their own names on marriage," says Nouria, who has an Egyptian husband and five children. "This is a right I got 1,400 years ago. Issues such as property, children and inheritance have all been settled, and it's very finely tuned in the woman's favour." She cites arrangements for divorce, maintenance and child custody, and an Islamic `wages for housework' school. She adds that in a sense men are just guests in their own homes: "My husband has to ask my permission before another man can stay in the house. This is my kingdom, my domain."

Many Muslims contrast the status of women in Islam with what they see as the dismal plight of women in the West. They note that here women work full-time out of financial necessity, remaining lumbered with the housework and childcare. It is a puzzling version of emancipation.

Modern Muslims, they say, are not necessarily destined to be housewives. There is a demand in the community for their own social workers, lecturers, journalists and doctors. A female Muslim gynaecologist would make a good living.

Among the greatest advantages of Islam, which to many emphasises the failure of feminism, is its "sisterhood". Converts find great mutual support among Muslim women, which reflects the wider community values of Islam. "There's no such thing as a Muslim woman on her own," Nouria says, "nor a single Muslim parent on her own. Nor a mentally ill woman on her own. If anyone with a commitment to Islam sees you in hijab and you're suffering, they step in and help. That's abnormal in Britain."

According to Riffat Yusuf, 27, a London radio journalist who was born a Muslim, the community is the point. "Rather than the issue of `the Muslim woman' its really about societal progression, moving on. The thing about `the Muslim woman' is also the thing about `the Muslim family' and `the Muslim community'."

Nouria agrees. "I see no future in this country, the way its going," she says. "It comes back to women. "Scratch any `new man' and you find an old man trying to get out; men will always be the same. Women are changing much faster, but they are not trying to get what they want. Everything the feminist movement is aiming for, except abortion and lesbianism, we've got."

 

THE SPREAD OF A WORLD CREED

Unprecedented numbers of British people, nearly all of them women, are converting to Islam at a time of deep divisions within the Anglican and Catholic churches. The rate of conversions has prompted predictions that Islam will rapidly become an important religious force in this country. "Within the next 20 years, the number of British converts will equal or overtake the immigrant Muslim community that brought the faith here," says Rose Kendrick, a religious education teacher at a Hull comprehensive and the author of a textbook guide to the Koran.

She says: "Islam is as much a world faith as Roman Catholicism. No one nationality claims it as its own." Islam is also spreading fast on the Continent and in America. The surge in conversions to Islam has taken place despite the negative image of the faith in the Western press. Indeed, the pace of conversions has accelerated since publicity over the Salman Rushdie affair, the Gulf war and the plight of Muslims in Bosnia. It is even more ironic that most British converts should be women, given the widespread view in the West that Islam treats women poorly. In the United States, women converts out- number men by four to one, and in Britain they make up the bulk of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 converts, forming part of a Muslim community of 1 to 1.5 million. Many of Britain's "new Muslims" are from middle-class backgrounds. They include Matthew Wilkinson, a former head boy of Eton who went on to Cambridge, and a son and daughter of Lord Justice Scott, the judge heading the arms-to-Iraq enquiry.

A small-scale survey by the Islamic Foundation in Leicester suggests that most converts are aged 30 to 50. Younger Muslims point to many conversions among students and highlight the intellectual thrust of Islam.

"Muhammad said, `The light of Islam will rise in the West' and I think that's whats happening in our day," says Aliya Haeri, an American-born psychologist who converted 15 years ago. She is a consultant to the Zahra Trust, a charity publishing spiritual literature, and is one of Britain's prominent Islamic speakers. She adds: "Western converts are coming to Islam with fresh eyes, without all the habits of the East, avoiding much of what is culturally wrong. The purest tradition is finding itself strongest in the West."

Some say the conversions are prompted by the rise of comparative religious education. The British media, offering what Muslims describe as a relentless bad press on all things Islamic, is also said to have helped. Westerners despairing of their own society---rising crime, family breakdown, drugs and alcoholism---have come to admire the discipline and security of Islam.

Many converts are former Christians, disillusioned by the uncertainty of the church and unhappy with the concept of the Trinity and the deification of Jesus. Others are self-confessed idealists who did not go looking for religion but found an irresistible appeal in Sufi mysticism, which they describe as "the pearl within the shell of Islam".

Some come to Islam through marriage, which partly explains the imbalance in the sex ratio of converts. It is easier for British women to meet Pakistani or Bangladeshi men than vice versa.

The idealism of the new Muslims is part of the inspiration to "reverts", people born into immigrant Muslim families who are questioning the religious validity of their own lifestyles and re-examining their faith. The formal process of conversion is simple. The would-be Muslim showers, dresses in clean clothes, gathers some witnesses and says the Shahada, the testimony to God. But embracing Islam is not without problems. According to Batool Toma, 38, an Irish education officer for the Islamic Foundation who converted 14 years ago, converts often have to cope with initial isolation from their families, "who see conversion as a rejection and feel resentful. There's a lot of fear and apprehension." She also cites racist abuse which is particularly aimed at women, most of whom are marked out by the hijab (scarf). "Such a small piece of cloth can cause so much antagonism and aggression. You are immediately characterised as not British." A quarter of the calls to the Muslim Women's Helpline in London come from converts.

The new Muslims emphasise that the benefits of Islam far outweigh its drawbacks, and are at pains to address misconceptions about their faith. They say it is too often judged on its excesses, which are usually of political origin and unjustified by the Koran.

Converts are active in the Muslim Women's Institute, a central body established in 1990. Its aims include increasing women's political awareness and challenging the misconceptions of Western observers and the immigrant community about the rightful status of women in Islam. There are discussions among themselves about what form that rightful status takes, according to Rabia Lemahieu-Evans, a post-graduate mature student at the Muslim College in London, who converted when she was 18 and abandoned the hijab two years later. She says: "There is a debate going on, although some people try to deny it."

 

QUEST OF THE CONVERT WHY CHANGE?

"There is no compulsion in religion," new Muslims quote from the Koran, keen to challenge preconceptions that Islam spreads most simply by the sword. They say the only notable aspect of the pressure to convert is its absence. Most Western converts are drawn to Islam through Sufism---the contemplative, mystical aspect of the faith. Aliya Haeri, an American-born convert to Islam based in London, describes the process as "a search for God but not a religion". She says: "Sufism has a great emphasis on discovering personal freedom, a metaphysical quest. The more practices I took on, the more refined and subtle they became, the more my behaviour changed. My diet improved, I gave up occasional late hours socialising and relationships that lacked any commitment. I was starting to live like a Muslim. People who know me from the past have seen the transformation."

Other converts describe a long search for a religious identity. Many had previously been practising Christians but found intellectual satisfaction in Islam. "I was a theology student and it was the academic argument that led to my conversion," Rose Kendrick, a religious education teacher and author, said. She objected to the concept of original sin: "Under Islam, the sins of the fathers aren't visited on the sons. The idea that God is not always forgiving is almost blasphemous to Muslims."

Maimuna 39, was raised as a High Anglican and confirmed at 15 at the peak of her religious devotion. "I was entranced by the ritual of the High Church and thought about taking the veil." Her crisis came when a prayer was not answered. She slammed the door on visiting vicars but travelled to convents for discussions with nuns. "My belief came back stronger, but not for the Church, the institution or the dogma." She researched every Christian denomination, plus Judaism, Buddhism and Hare Krishna, before turning to Islam.

Many converts from Christianity reject the ecclesiastic hierarchy, emphasising Muslims' direct relationship with God. They sense a lack of leadership in the Church of England and are suspicious of its apparent flexibility. "Muslims don't keep shifting their goalposts," says Huda Khattub, 28, author of The Muslim Woman's Handbook published this year by Ta-Ha. She converted ten years ago while studying Arabic at university. "Christianity changes, like the way some have said pre-marital sex is OK if it's with the person you're going to marry. It seems so wishy-washy. Islam was constant about sex, about praying five times a day. The prayer makes you conscious of God all the time. You are continually touching base."

 

Why are women converting from Biblical based religions to Islam?