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The New Muslims; Why are so many of us joining the most unpopular religion on earth?

1998 November 3
by Paul Vallely

Kathleen’s is a story we like to think is typical. After finishing her training as a nurse-midwife in Dublin, she found a job in a hospital in Egypt. There she met a local doctor, married him and became a Muslim. Conversion because of marriage. We can cope with that.

But hers is not a representative case. Islam is beset by stereotypes, many of them without foundation, and this is one. For the story of the small but steadily expanding number of Westerners who are converting to the religion of Mohammed has something to say to us all.

Ours is a time of collective apprehensiveness. Economic uncertainty, job instability and the dissolution of the family under the pressures of the market spread a sense of insecurity. We feel a prickling weariness with the materialism and science that have silently robbed us of our sense of meaning and mystery. And so we are becoming used to the idea that increasing numbers of people are embarked upon a spiritual search through our syncretic times. But what is it that draws so many of them to the religion which has possibly the worst press of any in our age?

Kathleen Roche-Nagi (her surname is half-Irish and half-Egyptian, reflecting her chequered history) was one of a group of white converts I met recently at the cluster of low brick buildings that house the Islamic Foundation at Markfield, near Leicester. They met under the aegis of the New Muslims’ programme, though some of them embraced Islam as much as 20 years ago.

The majority of neophytes are between 35 and 55, said Batool al-Toma, an Irishwoman who was once called Mary. With her broad features accentuated by her hijab (Islamic headscarf) she looks, in her forties, disturbingly like the nun she once intended to be. “Many have grown-up sons and daughters, or have lost a partner through death or divorce,” she said. “Or else have serious concerns about society slipping slowly down the slope. They feel there’s got to be a better way.”

There are no national figures for conversion, but at Markfield – which was founded by members of Pakistan’s militant Jamiat-i-Islami party, but which has more recently received funding from the Saudis and other Gulf states – they see around 80 converts a year. They are attracted to Islam by studying Islamic art, architecture or languages, by visiting a Muslim country, or just through meeting Muslims. “Very few come by marriage,” said Batool.

For many, Islam is the end of a spiritual odyssey. One of the younger converts, Sarah Parker, who has been a Muslim for four years, falls into that category. She was training to be a classical ballet dancer when she injured her back. All that Harley Street and extensive physiotherapy could do was to no avail, and she turned to alternative medicine. Shiatsu Japanese massage led to meditation and then to polarity therapy. But something about the world of holistic healing disturbed her.

“It was its exclusivity. It was very expensive, and reached only the moneyed white middle classes,” she said. “To me, there seemed to be a contradiction between helping people and making money. I thought there must be another way. Then it seemed that only religion took spirituality to ordinary people without charging.”

She tried Buddhism. Then she started reading books about Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. “For me, the sudden experience – the awakening that there was more to the universe than atheism offered – came while I was involved in holistic healing. The decision to become a Muslim was a gradual one.”

But Sarah’s journey from atheism to Islam is not the norm, either. Male converts have a variety of backgrounds, but what the greatest number of New Muslim women have in common is that they were previously Roman Catholics. “I was brought up a very strict Catholic and taught that every other religion was weird,” said Kathleen Roche-Nagi. “But today, the practice of my Islam is not much different from what my Catholicism was.”

There is more to this than yearning for a sure framework of fixed theology and values. Several of those with a former Catholic background, revealingly, turned to Islam because of dissatisfaction with the changes made by the Second Vatican Council, whose move from Latin to the vernacular symbolised a revolution in the Church’s interaction with the modern world.

“I felt a little betrayed by Catholicism. As I grew, the goalposts were shifting,” said Batool. “In Catholicism, it became difficult to pin anybody down on what constituted a sin. As a child I had been taught never to chew the Eucharist, and to take great care never to let it fall to the ground; now here they were sticking it in your hand. The rules kept changing. Religions shouldn’t change to suit you; if it is God’s revealed religion, you should change to suit it.”

All of which does not necessarily go down well with relatives and friends, even if they do share the same conservative religious temperament. “When I was a girl, I wanted to become a nun,” said Batool. “My mother didn’t like the idea; she told me it was premature. I think she’s probably sorry now.”

“Relatives of converts from such a background often feel let down, asking ‘why isn’t Catholicism good enough for you?’ But in my mother’s case, she can see the lifestyle we have and the way our children are brought up and she approves of that. It’s how she and my father tried to bring us up; my mum and dad, I say, are the best Muslims I know.” The reaction from outsiders can be even more problematic, particularly to women wearing the Islamic headscarf. Hostility comes from fellow whites in the form of aggressive questions such as: “Why are you wearing that old rag on your head?” But some Asian Muslims also demand who the hell the white women in a hijab think they are.

The scarf can have advantages. Batool recalls how she was once waved through a security check-point in Ireland, despite the fact that she had two Muslim men in the back of the car. The policeman, thinking she was from the local convent, cheerfully waved her through with the words: “Right you are, Sister.”

But, by and large, the vast majority of the population is still unable to take on board the notion of a white Muslim. “Once you put on the scarf people start to talk to you as if you are deaf or stupid,” said Batool. “They treat you as though you were a foreigner,” said Sarah. “Policemen ask to see your passport. If I had a shaved head and body-piercing it would be less trouble.”

At the root of the response is the standard Western view of Islam as a fount of sexism, political extremism and legal barbarism. It is a view that the white converts do not recognise. And they rebut its three main charges: on misogyny, fundamentalism, and primitivism in its law.

“It’s a media fiction that Islam represses women,” said Kathleen scornfully. “At any rate it doesn’t where I live – in Grimsby.”

She is confident the same will be true for her two daughters, who are the only Muslims at their school. She sees no contradiction in her insistence that when they marry it must be to Muslims – which Islamic law will not apply to her two sons.

The repeated defence of Islam from converts was that it was vital to separate the teaching of Islam from the cultural traditions of the Indian subcontinent, which shape the behaviour of most British Muslims. “Even in the Gulf, underneath the head-to-toe black women are not just wearing full make-up and Christian Dior in bright colours,” said Sarah. “They are also highly educated, though no one believes this back in the West.” Batool, whose first contact with Islam was through Malaysian Muslims, agreed: “The Islam I encountered was educated and active, not repressive or dogmatic. It had an integrity of spirituality; it was not following rules. It demonstrated equality between men and women.”

Those without such experience may take more persuading. There is enough in the Koran, and in the hadith – the canonical sayings of the Prophet – which rule that a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man, that her inheritance rights must be lesser, and that woman is to be seen as Satan when a man is sexually tempted – to make a prima facie case for misogyny. But when I said so, the women offered arguments of extenuation and explanation.

On the question of the zealotry of Islamic politics, Kathleen, who travels regularly back to Egypt, was just as robust. “It’s a tiny minority. Fundamentalism is not the Islam I know. Caricaturing all Muslims as extremists is like saying all Catholics are IRA bombers,” she said. But Sarah went some way to acknowledging Western concerns: “Muslim defences are up, because Muslims have lost confidence in themselves, partly because of colonisation. Many don’t know of the achievements in philosophy, mathematics and medicine in Muslim cultures during what were the Dark Ages in Europe.”

And yet the distance which even Sarah – who has only been a Muslim for four years – has travelled from the views she once shared with secular society is evident, too. Islamic law, which causes such profound distaste in the West with its traditions of beheadings and beatings, needs some revision, she concedes: “If you look back to the time when Islam was the dominant culture, you find that the sharia was very progressive. The essence of the law is to promote values to make individuals who are upstanding, and a safe, just community.

“Sharia is misunderstood. It needs to be brought up to date. If the law says two unmarried people who have sex should be banished for a year and given lashes, we have to ask, what is the equivalent of banishment in our society, and what’s the equivalent of lashes?”

Her idea of modernising seemed, to my secularised ears, gruesomely limited. Instead of the Koranic punishment of stoning to death, she suggested the alternative of the electric chair. And, ultimately, she defended the severing of limbs. “Of course, cutting off the hand is the last option,” she said. “It’s the last thing in the world an Islamic judge would want to do. A judge would try his utmost to avoid it.

“But it works. If you drop a watch on the floor in Kuwait or Saudi it will still be there when you come back two hours later. And you feel safe as a woman there in a way you can never do in London.”

This is strong stuff. Has she always felt this? Once, she responded, she was opposed to the death penalty. But, “to be anti-capital punishment at the moment is fashionable. But it is only a fashion. It’s not Islam that has changed my mind on that, but age and experience.” I asked her how old she was. She said she was 27.

The dichotomy for the West and Islam here is that the Koran is regarded as the unalterable, eternally valid Word of God, dictated to the Prophet by the Angel Gabriel. It is, therefore – unlike the Bible for mainstream Christians – not held to be open to reinterpretation. It is that, in part, which explains its attraction to women such as Kathleen, Batool and Sarah.

“It’s given me freedom,” said Sarah, “from the pressures which people say are freedom, but which are new forms of slavery.” When Plato was discussing perception and reality, she said, he used the image of a man in a cave who sees people dancing on a wall, only to realise they are shadows from the fire. “Then he rises out of the cave and realises how it has limited his vision when he sees the whole sky. That’s how Islam has changed the way I see the world.”

“Islam gives me peace,” said Kathleen. “Oh, I have a nice house and things, but I’m not trapped in them. You can’t take them into the next world. Until I became a Muslim, it was as if I was driving through life in constant rain. Islam has put the windscreen-wipers on.”

A hint of that, she hopes, came to her mother just before she died. “Mother used to look at my scarf and say: ‘Take that off.’ I thought she’d never be reconciled. But when she died last year, I was at the bedside with my sister, who was wearing a miniskirt. Mother was in pain. She turned to my sister and snapped: ‘Why don’t you dress properly, like Kathleen?'”

It was a reconciliation of sorts. Yet there is clearly a long way to go before society in general comes even to that grudging accommodation with the new religion in our midst.

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