"Allah Came Knocking at My
By Giles Whittell
Reprinted from the Times
Monday, January 7, 2002
"It All Seemed to Come Together"
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 Ive ever
been, she says. I could hear my feelings come up
from within me, and in one surreal moment it all seemed to come
Last Friday, at 4.45pm, Elizabeth went to Regents Park
Mosque in Central London and converted to Islam.
It wasnt hard. She didnt even have to wear a scarf.
Witnessed by two Muslim men and nine other friends squeezed into
the imams 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
Why has she done this? I know it sounds clichéd,
but Allah came knocking at my heart. Thats really how it
feels. In many ways it is beyond articulating, rather like falling
It was, in other words, intensely personal. As she read the
Qur'an 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
A Surge of Conversions
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 Blunketts 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 Islams more surprising converts. They
have chosen their new creed over the worlds 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. Theyre
People Like Us, only theyre not. Theyre 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
Unlike Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber of American
Airlines Flight 63, Britains pukka Muslim converts, as
the label implies, tend to be over-privileged, not under. Unlike
James McLintock, the Scots lecturers 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 couldnt
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 peoples startling
choices, there should be. We have been here before, or at least
Imperial Britains 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 Birts 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 inquiry.
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
Imrans 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 worlds 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 fathers 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.
Its 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 Septembers
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. Its very painful for all
of us to be associated with such sickening barbarism (of the
attacks), he says. Thats not what we signed
up for. And now we cant portray our religion in undiluted
form. Its always mediated by someone else. Its 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 Rockies.
"Constant Impetus to do the Right
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 Philbys 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 Islams 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 doesnt need to be.
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 womans 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."