Preaching from the converted

She Wanted to Save the Planet, Now She Says 11 September Was a Good Thing. He Liked to Party, Now He Prays for Democracy’s Destruction. What is It That Draws Middle-Class Westerners to Allah? Peter Stanford Meets Five British Converts to Militant Islam and Hears Why, By `Word and Sword’, They Hope to Make This Country a Muslim State.

Khalid is trying his best to be the image of hospitality but the police officers outside the hall are not helping his meeter-and-greeter routine. They watch from their car as a crowd of about 80 gathers inside to hear a talk by Sheikh Omar Bakri, the founder of the small, radical Muslim group Al-Muhajiroun.

Khalid circulates, handing out photocopied leaflets to help focus minds. There is one entitled “The Enlightened Advice: To the Disbelievers (Kuffar) and Hypocrites (Munafiqeen)”, which summarises what Bakri is going to say tonight on his theme of the Muslim psyche. There is another on Osama bin Laden’s latest message telling Europe to break with the US or face the consequences. “The message was so polite,” the analysis begins. You begin to understand why the police are here.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

We are in an old school building just off Brick Lane in the East End of London, the heart of the capital’s Bangladeshi community. Bakri has been accused by mainstream Muslim community leaders of targeting disaffected young men with inflammatory rhetoric and the promise of Sharia law being established in the UK. He has certainly described the 11 September hijackers as “the magnificent 19”. And among those his organisation has provided with spiritual advice are several of the men arrested in recent anti-terrorist operations and the two British suicide bombers who, in 2003, attacked Israelis in Tel Aviv.

Women and children are in a segregated area at the back of the hall. I’m told bluntly not to go near them. The young men at the front are mostly of Asian background. There is a group of teenagers – whose Burberry caps and designer trainers set them apart – who leave as one about 15 minutes after Bakri starts talking.

Khalid also stands out from the crowd. His school-teacher-style beard doesn’t obliterate his pale skin; and his clothes, despite no doubt having been chosen specifically to be bland and grey, fail to look either. Khalid is a convert. Or more to the point, a double convert.

There’s nothing new about Westerners converting to Islam – Cat Stevens, or rather Yusuf Islam, being the most famous – but recently many of those switching faith are choosing an uncompromising form of Islam as represented by groups such as Al-Muhajiroun.

Khalid may be the most obvious convert in the audience but as soon as everyone is seated more become apparent, either by their skin colour, their dress or their zeal, the traditional attribute of the convert. Once Bakri – his white robe trimmed with gold and his face as benign as Father Christmas’s – gets into his stride, damning governments, other Muslims and anything else that springs to mind (Bill Clinton is “Mr Pinocchio”), the converts are the most diligent note-takers.

Why does Bakri appeal to them? Why do converts such as Khalid embrace this particular approach to Islam – followed by less than 1 per cent of British Muslims?

After the lecture, I meet with Khalid and two other converts who are also part of Al-Muhajiroun. The three men come to talk in a photographic studio where they have also agreed to have their pictures taken. They are as happy to spare their time as Jehovah’s Witnesses are to go out knocking on doors. They are all sure they have found the truth and nothing will stop them sharing it.

But there are limits to the missionary spirit. Only Khalid will tell me what his name was before he converted. Their pasts, you sense, are something they wish to forget.

The women converts I speak to will not come to the studio. It isn’t their way, I’m told. So I meet them in a jumbled Islamic bookshop in London’s Walthamstow where we talk in an upstairs room, always with a chaperone, and for most of the time with their own gazes averted. The photographs are a problem, even though they have been agreed in advance. There is much debate behind the counter and husbands have to be phoned to be consulted before the women finally cover their faces and allow a few snatched shots. But read their words, because these provide the clearest portraits.

Uum Ayob

Ayob, 36, is from Northern Ireland. After art school, she travelled to Morocco where she met her husband. She converted and married him in 1991 and now educates their four children at home in Highbury, north London

When I graduated from university in Sheffield, my heart wanted certain things and my heart was turning away from certain things. I was turning away from rulers and governments. I was going to Friends of the Earth and it was enlightening me that governments might pretend to be concerned but they sell arms and deal with terrorists and start wars and exploit the aftermath of wars with their banks and systems.

That was the first stage of my wanting something for the whole planet that eventually led me to Islam. Another thing my heart turned away from was opinions. In my four years at art college, I had listened to too many opinions and too many people saying what they thought life was about and what made art good. I had become really sick of opinions. I’d go into the library at college and look at books and feel physically sick because they were so many opinions.

At this time I went to Morocco and liked what I saw in society there – people using their time to do purer things, such as praying and talking about constructive things. There was a happiness and tranquillity there. As I looked around everything spoke to me of the power of God. I felt under God’s protection and guided by him.

I met my husband in Morocco. He introduced me to the Koran and Mohammad as the final prophet, the final sorting out of the detail that Christianity had started. The Prophet perfected the divine way of life. When my husband said that, I knew that was what I wanted. I converted and married him simultaneously.

I didn’t tell my family for a while. When I did, they kept asking why. I try to explain but my mum wants me to go back to Christianity. I think everyone knows that Islam is the truth, but maybe they are too old to change. They’ve been very supportive. At first they resisted – like when I started to wear the khimar (scarf) and jilbab (coat) – but now my mum irons them for me.

I think being brought up hearing about murders in Northern Ireland made me feel sick of killing. But at the same time, the Koran says that sometimes you hate a thing and it’s good for you. I can see a lot of good from the terrorism going on today – terrorism that is approved by God. There have been so many people converted to Islam since 9/11. It has brought to the forefront how we are being hoodwinked by leaders.

Khalid Kelly

Kelly, 37, was born in Dublin. He trained as a nurse and went to work in Saudi Arabia. While there, in 2000, he embraced Islam. He now lives in London and has an 11-year-old daughter who lives with her non-Muslim mother

I was brought up as a Catholic. My baptismal name was Terence. As an adolescent, I asked a priest to explain the Holy Trinity to me. He’d studied for seven years and couldn’t. I just thought, “Forget it.” Christianity has put people off religion.

I came to London to study to be a nurse, qualified in intensive care and got a job in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in 1996. I wanted the tax-free salary. My life was all drinking and partying – the capitalist ideology. I spent four and a half years over there. For the first three and a half, I lived downtown in a Saudi villa, not in one of the Western compounds. When I’d hear the call to prayer, I’d open the window and turn up the stereo in opposition to what I saw as an imposition.

I got really good at making drink. I had three stills in my house and then I got arrested one day with five cases of Johnny Walker in the back of my car. I was sent to prison for eight months. I lost everything. It was all confiscated. The prison was 150 people in a dormitory with a mosque at the end. I’d been inside for four weeks and was at my lowest point when I was given the Koran in English. Someone explained it to me. And then it was very quick. I saw that God was the creator, the provider, the commander, and the legislator for mankind. It was all suddenly very clear. I felt freer than I had ever been – even though I was in prison.

When I was deported back to Britain in 2002, I started attending lectures, and I keyed in on someone who I felt was giving the best understanding of Islam: Sheikh Omar Bakri. He doesn’t try to change or adapt Islam. He’s uncompromising and sticks to the Islamic standard – set by the Prophet and his companions.

I no longer work as a nurse. I was at St Thomas’s Hospital in central London but after the invasion of Afghanistan the management asked me what my views were. I said I have the opinion that is in the Koran. Allah says I have to stand with my Muslim brothers. They didn’t like it and so I left.

I believe that Islam should be dominant throughout the world. We can do it by the word and by the sword. We do not believe in freedom and democracy, these are not Islamic things. Our job is not to integrate. It is to call people to Islam and expose the false belief that they are under at the moment. I want everyone to have what I have, but I have learnt to be patient. `

Omar Brooks

Brooks, 28, grew up in Hackney. He embraced Islam in 1994 and lives in east London with his wife and two small children

I became a Muslim at 17. My older brother had become a Muslim four years before me. My initial reaction to his conversion was the same as many people’s – that Islam was something to do with Asians. He faced a lot of opposition in the household and verbal abuse outside. But we spoke, we discussed, we argued, we shouted. I was coming from a secular point of view. I was interested in partying. But he persevered. We’d talk about what was going on in the world in Palestine or Kashmir. I started to catch a different slant on the news beyond the sloganisation of Western governments. They talk about freedom and democracy but it’s all about their own interests – economical and political. It all seemed so bogus. I’d discuss it with my mum and dad and, one day, they said, “You sound like a Muslim already.” And I realised that I did.

Gradually, I stopped shouting and began asking my brother questions – what about prayer, women, life, living? Eventually I couldn’t find any holes in what he was saying. It sounded correct to me. My brother was always asking when I would become a Muslim and one day he asked and I said, “Today.” So I took my shahada – declaration of faith – on the day before my birthday.

At the time of my conversion I was at college studying electrical installation. I went straight back there and said, “I’ve become a Muslim.” There were some negative reactions, but I am a strong person. I dealt with it. The obligation of the Muslim is to speak out, not to remain silent or integrate. There are British Muslims whose allegiances are to the government and the Queen. Islam for them is some mere spiritual matter that covers celebrations, kebabs, curries and a loose moral code. But in following Allah on how to live your life, how to behave, how to think, how even to feel, I’m not a British Muslim. I’m a Muslim in the UK.

Assimilation is not an option for Muslims. It means becoming a non-Muslim. Many of those who appear on the TV, speaking as Muslims, aren’t at all. They are speaking on behalf of the government. The British government wants Muslims to see themselves as British.

When I converted I spent all my time reading and thirsting for knowledge. I came across a video of Sheikh Omar Bakri. It was amazing. Through studying with him, I see that Islam is a complete way of life with an answer for every circumstance.

Islam believes all are equal. Man-made societies in the West and East are racist. They are not based on God’s teaching. They are based on the interests of one group over another. Multicultural society is nothing more than a melting pot where the dominant culture is the government’s. And that is imposed on all the others. So my culture, Islam, says we should support the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, but if I said that in Britain I could be arrested. That’s a multicultural society for you.

Umm Rashid

Rashid, 32, is from the West Country. She worked as a teacher in Hong Kong, where she embraced Islam in 1995. She is married with three children and lives in east London

I was lodging in Hong Kong with a Pakistani family. I became friends with the mother of the family. It wasn’t that she used to talk about Islam in any organized way. She just lived it. At that stage it wasn’t a question of it making sense to me, because it wasn’t explained. I just observed.

My own family were very normal middle-class, not religious, but traditionally minded, and that had always appealed to me. I had seen society in Britain moving away from those values. At university, life had not matched so much with what I’d known at home.

With the family in Hong Kong, there was the same order and respect. I didn’t have specific questions in my mind at the time, but there was an instinctive feeling that what they had was right, that there was a spark of good in it, and that I must go towards it. I was at a crossroads. I took the road to become a Muslim without really knowing what it entailed.

The family told me that in order to become a Muslim you say the shahada – which translates as, “I bear witness that there is no deity worthy of worship, obedience and following other than Allah and that Mohammad is his messenger.” You need witnesses, but it is no big ceremony.

I knew it wasn’t enough, but there was not much going on in Hong Kong in terms of talks and study. That came when I returned to Britain, in 1997, with my husband. He is the brother of the woman whose family I was living with in Hong Kong. They introduced us. And now we go to see Sheikh Omar Bakri, he is an expert and he is trustworthy in helping us to understand the Koran.

with islam, there is not this burden of weighing things up. there are obligations and you do them. it is very liberating. especially for women. there are no longer questions such as should i wear this or that. it was a whole daily hassle in my former life.

Life is so much better now. Before, I never felt quite right. Now it all works. It all makes sense.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Independent, UK
May 16, 2004
Peter Stanford

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 17, 2004.
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