'Allah came knocking at my heart'



'Allah came knocking at my heart' 





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

critical faculties. 

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

dismiss them.? 

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. 

Famous converts

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

French Vogue. 

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

the ring. 

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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