The new face of Islam by Nick Compton

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I am not plagiarising  or something. I recieved it in mail and liked it. Just thought of keeping a record of it 🙂

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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. 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 Prophet Mohammad (Sall
Allaho alaihe wasallam) — a two-line pledge called the Shahadah or
testimony of faith — she considers herself a Muslim [but in order to
actually embrace Islam, one must recite out aloud the Shahadah or the
testimony of faith whose meaning is ‘there is no God but Allah and
Muhammad is the prophet and messenger of Allah]. 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 colorful characters that 11 September has thrown up.

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 anyone else.

Talking to recent Muslim converts, it is striking how similar the
descriptions of their embrace of Islam are. Most were introduced to
Islam, Islamic history and teachings by their 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 and 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. 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 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 generations 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 organized 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
(Qur’aan), 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. And, as Dobson
points out, ArRum and its new converts do not represent some kind of
liberal IslamLite, a media-friendly dilution of the real thing.–The
Evening Standard

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