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 terrorists.
“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.t
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 proselytising.
“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 says.
“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 Ramadan.
“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 required.”
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.”