Converts in the houses of the Lord

November 18, 2003

Islam is among NSW's fastest growing religions, with
the growth strongly driven by disenchanted Catholics
and Anglican. Linda Morris meets some of them.

Brian Leaver was a truck driver, an Aussie who loved
his footy, beer and the Saturday "arvo" barbecue - and
so did his mates. Recently he stood before a small
gathering at a former Lakemba bowling club to explain
why two years ago, after years of spiritual struggle,
he turned to Islam, a faith not only foreign to his
Christian upbringing but one which he had once
dismissed as the quackery of misogynists and

"When I told my father he said, 'You're an adult, it's
your life, I like bacon and don't you go preaching in
my house.' My mum did cry a bit but these days she's
very defensive of Muslims because I don't come home
and drink any more and I treat her with the respect
she deserves," Leaver says.

He first became convinced of the truth of Islam about
1999, before September 11 and the Bali bombings. Back
then it was difficult enough eschewing a lifestyle and
ultimately friendships which had been with him since
childhood. Now in a political climate that is often
antagonistic to Islam, being Muslim requires, if
nothing else, a thick hide. 

Yet, Islam is among NSW's fastest-growing religions,
the numbers of adherents increasing by 40 per cent
since the 1996 census when 102,288 nominated
themselves as Muslim. Its growth is not solely the
result of Sydney's status as an immigration centre and
the higher birth rates of Arabic-speaking families.

Against all expectations, Australian Christians,
including Catholics and Anglicans, and agnostics are
finding Islam an answer to their spiritual voids.

Conversion is as simple as reciting one sentence: "I
bear witness that there is no God except Allah and
that Muhammad is his messenger" in front of witnesses,
a ceremony known as Shahadah.

The faithful believe that everyone is born Muslim and
pure, and thus it is more correct to describe a new
Muslim as a revert rather than convert. In a strict
sense there is no calling in Islam for missionary work
but spreading the message is demanded by the Koran,
whether it is by leading by example or directly

"We are not in the habit of door knocking or standing
outside stations handing out literature," said a
spokesman for the Australian New Muslims Association
(ANMA), formed a year ago as a support group for
converts. "People come to us wanting to explore the
concept of God, wanting to know about the Muslim
concept of Jesus and our position on the Bible."

It was the charismatic evangelist Billy Graham, armed
with the New Testament and a tone of paternal
superiority, who triggered Denise Hussein's
decade-long quest for inner fulfilment.

Hussein grew up in a part of working class Sydney
where the "only foreigners in town were the Casaceli
family at the milk bar". The daughter of "religiously
uncommitted parents", she had an inquiring mind and in
her teens was already questioning church dogma that
declared only Christians could go to heaven. During
her search for faith and meaning, Hussein met her
husband Ameen, a Muslim student from Hong Kong. They
had five sons. "He had a strong attachment to his
religion but he did not practise it meticulously at
that time, nor did he pressure me to convert," she

"At this stage some of the born Muslims I met turned
me off because of their rigid views on women's issues
as I considered myself a feminist and I also doubted
my own ability to pray five times a day and fast at

"I couldn't see myself adopting a completely covered
style of dress which was not in accordance with my
Australian culture."

It was not until her 40s that she took the final step
and converted to Islam. By then she was a lecturer in
law at a Sydney university. "We had a series of family
crises and I felt that it would be better if I
converted to support my husband in bringing up our
children in the Islamic faith," Hussein says

Why would Christians convert? A University of New
England academic, Laurence Tamatea, says Islam is
attractive because of its universal message, its
"sense of community, sense of belonging, of a
brotherhood and sisterhood".

"There's a sense of being part of something that is
larger than yourself. I think it also provides a
source of identity in a complex world." The
familiarity of its teachings and its shared traditions
with Jewish and Christian faiths cushion the cultural
divide. There is a common belief in the existence of
one God, the honouring of Jesus Christ, the Jewish
patriarch Abraham and other Biblical figures, such as
John the Baptist as prophets.

The vast majority of converts, Tamatea says, are
lapsed Catholics and lost Protestants, often highly
educated professionals, whose curiosity was triggered
by Cat Stevens's conversion to Islam. "There was no
road to Damascus conversion," Tamatea recalls of
having decided himself to convert after several years
of introspection and research.

"It's said that people come to Islam through the head
rather than the heart. They have researched it well
and intellectualised it. At some point in time you
have to make a decision where you stand in the world."

Others come to Islam through the course of contact and
friendship with Muslims, like Cherie Soltesz, who was
among those who came to hear Brian Leaver's personal
story of conversion.

A former student at Sir Joseph Banks High School in
East Hills, she had originally been impressed by the
strong family ties of her Arabic friends. Her mother
was a Jehovah's Witness, her father a Catholic.
Neither were especially religious and when Cherie went
to Sunday school she went alone. "At first the culture
enticed me more than the religion," Soltesz says.

Lucy Kilani, 24, was introduced to Islam by a friend.
"I became curious and I started to learn about the
Muslim faith. It was not a flash of light and then I
was Muslim. It was very gradual. I converted over
months," she says.

Breaking the news to family is the single most
daunting moment for most converts. "My family was a
really big issue," Kilani recalls. "As a daughter you
don't want to disappoint your parents. I have
maintained most of my friendships and now they respect
who I am and can see the happiness the faith has
brought to my life. This is important as some converts
think they have to sever all ties, which is not at all

Just as Muslims are split in their approach to classic
Islamic law, so converts embrace Islam in different
ways. Denise Hussein took a Muslim first name, Jamila.
Lucy Kilani did not. Hussein dresses conservatively
and, except for religious functions, does not wear the
hijab and resents those who would force her to do so.
In its original form, unencumbered by the straitjacket
of cultural conservatism and patriarchy, Islam, she
says, is liberating for women, recognising their equal
standing in faith and law.

Hussein has also discovered unexpected benefits from
her faith. "I only had brothers and sons and while
I've got one really good female friend, I didn't have
a lot of mainstream friendships. The Muslim sisterhood
is very warm and very welcoming. They couldn't do
enough for you," she says. 

Among conservative academia, no one would know that
Laurence Tamatea was a Muslim. 

"As a lecturer my clothes are modest and here in
Armidale its pretty cold. When you come to a religion
it takes time to figure your place in it and when you
are new to anything you are presented with a diverse
range of options," he says.

Cherie Soltesz has not yet taken to wearing the hijab
full-time, preferring to take one step at a time: "It
feels great when you wear it. I became a lot more
kinder, calmer and at peace. But it's not yet the
right time for me."

Lucy Kilani made her first trip to Mecca this year.
"It was the best experience of my life. I've never
been more emotional ... I went to Medina where the
prophet died and Islam flourished and that's just
beautiful to visit his tomb. I can't believe I didn't
believe who the prophet was four years ago."

Brian Leaver has given up many things. Despite his
best efforts, his long-term relationship with his
girlfriend floundered, old friends started to drift
off but he has, he says, traded a hedonistic life for
a supreme lightness of being, and he has forged a new
life with new friends. 

"It was like a weight that was lifted from my
shoulders. Now I know why I am here. Islam is
compassionate, it's merciful and it's got everything I
ever wanted in a religion."


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