Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Jamadiul-Awwal / Jamadiul-Akhir 1423 H
August 2002
Volume 15-08 No:188

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From Darkness to Light


"Allah came knocking at my heart


"Allah came knocking at my heart"!

Elizabeth, the daughter of affluent British parents climbed Mount Sinai
to watch the desert sunrise froms its summit and in one surreal moment, it all seemed to come together.
She went to Regent's Park Mosque in Central London and converted to Islam

By Giles Whittell

A year 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 to watch the desert sunrise from its summit. “It was the 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.” Early in January this year, on a Friday at 4:45 p.m., 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 learned 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 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,” she said.

It was, in other words, intensely personal. As she read the Quran and prepared for her conversion, the September 2001 attacks came and went and failed to derail her spiritual journey, despite their alleged link to a fundamentalist 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 a 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 ten-fold 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 Satanic Verses author, Salman Rushdie. Some of the newcomers 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 Taliban. 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 Muslims. They pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan and hope to go to Hajj before they die. They answer their cell phones 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 university.

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 successors have. T. E. Lawrence fell hard for the romance of Islam and came to embody those values for succeeding generations even though he never converted. Gai Eaton, a former British diplomat now in his 70s did convert. His influential work “Islam and the Destiny of Man” became required reading for bright young Anglo-Saxons turning to this 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 by converting in 1997 and starting a Ph.D 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 inquiry.

Before September 11, 2001, 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.

(Courtesy: The Times, London)

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