The Observer (England), Sep, 1, 2002
A year ago they feared their religion would be tarred by the atrocities that left over 3,000 dead in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But Muslims across Britain are now crediting an ’11 September factor’ for the upsurge of interest in their religion.
From Islamic bookshops and university comparative religion courses to the dusty corridors of Whitehall, non-Muslims are rushing to find out more about the beliefs of Islam and the life of the Prophet Mohammed.
Sales of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, have gone through the roof. Penguin, the publishers of the best-known English-language translation of the Koran, registered a 15-fold increase in the three months following 11 September and sales have held up well since.
Meanwhile the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been overwhelmed by the response to new Islamic Awareness courses they have set up for diplomats being posted to Muslim countries and London-based staff with an interest in the wider Islamic world.
Not since the Satanic Verses affair in 1989, when novelist Salman Rushdie was condemned to death for blasphemy by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, has Islam been such a sensitive political issue in Britain.
The rise in Islamophobia and even racist attacks has been matched, sometimes in the same geographical area, by a thirst for knowledge of a religion which many are surprised to find has common links to Christianity and Judaism. Moses and Christ are both considered prophets in Islam.
Dilowar Khan, director of the East London mosque which holds open days for non-Muslims four times a year, said that visits from schools, university students and even tourists had increased over the past year. At the same time he said there had been an average of two or three people asking to convert every month.
‘A similar thing happened during the Salman Rushdie affair. A lot of people converted to Islam as they struggled to understand what was happening. Of course, there has been the opposite effect as well, some people have become more hostile, said Mr Khan.
The East London mosque now plans to publish a magazine Discover Islam to cater for the demand for information. The first issue will contain an article on the attractions of the Muslim faith by journalist Yvonne Ridley, held captive by the Taliban last year and now considering converting to Islam.
Dr Abdulkarim Khalil, director of the Al-Manaar Cultural Heritage Centre in Kensington, West London, which opened shortly after 11 September, said: ‘In a sense it was a natural reaction to the events. People wanted to know more and we expected that, but no one expected the scale of the interest, not just here but across the world.’
Dr Khalil said that there had been some minor incidents immediately after the terror attacks, when women were verbally abused for wearing the headscarf, the hejab. ‘But we’ve been surprised that nothing serious has happened. We’ve even had non-Muslim members of the local community coming to reassure us and express their support for the centre.’ Although some experts talk of a ‘know thy enemy factor’ in the rush to find out about Islam in the aftermath of 11 September, the panic has now settled into genuine interest.
At the traditionally Arabist Foreign Office, the fascination for Islam has filtered down throughout the department over the past year. Trial Islamic Awareness Training sessions have proved so successful that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has decided to offer them to all Foreign Office staff likely to come into contact with Islamic issues. The courses consist of a lecture on the basic tenets of Islam followed by a speech by a visiting expert on contemporary Muslim issues and a visit to a mosque.
In a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies earlier this year, Straw urged a greater understanding of Islam. Last month the Foreign Office also hosted the largest reception for the Muslim community ever held by a government department, although many thought they were being softened up for a planned attack on Iraq.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘The cultural element has always been a central part of the training of diplomats, but it has usually been part of language courses. We wanted to extend the training and make it become systematic throughout the office.’