EVERY year, thousands of British people convert to Islam. Estimates of how many vary a lot, but in 2011 a study concluded that the total number of converts in the United Kingdom might exceed 100,000 and that about 5,000 had made that choice the previous year, with women exceeding men and the “white British” share of fresh converts amounting to around half. Whatever their own religious views, people are curious about unusual spiritual journeys: when, in 2013, Cambridge University produced a study of British women who had embraced Islam, it was downloaded more than 150,000 times.
When conversions come to public attention, it is usually for one of two reasons. Either the people involved are celebrities or closely connected to celebrities; Tony Blair’s sister-in-law is one example. Or else they are the subject of police attention as suspects in jihadi violence. But the great majority of converts are neither famous nor in any way prone to violence, they are simply products of a cosmopolitan age where all kinds of cultural experiences, whether through travel, social life or simply surfing the net, are available to all kinds of people, and the results can be surprising.
This month the University’s Centre for Islamic Studies reported on the second part of that project; this involved an 18-month investigation of the experiences of 50 male converts. Although the approach is more anecdotal than statistical, the two reports amount to a vivid picture of the range of reasons why some British people choose Islam and what happens thereafter.
Young converts have sometimes been impressed by the camaraderie they observe in Muslim student groups. To a first-year student faced with a bewildering variety of ideological and cultural choices, the quiet certainty of the Muslims can make a strong impression. Older ones often said their interest was sparked by a chance encounter, perhaps on holiday, with some aspect of Islamic culture, from architecture to calligraphy to the muezzin’s call of prayer. A local authority worker who is the only hijab-wearer in her Sussex village said she had been impressed, during post-university travels round the Middle East, by the “tranquillity and stability” of people despite the difficulty of their lives. “I started looking into other Islamic practices I’d dismissed as harsh: fasting, compulsory charity, the idea of modesty. I stopped seeing them as restrictions on personal freedom and realised they were ways of achieving self-control.”
One of the young male informants reported an unexpected problem: “his mother’s occasional wish for him to be “normal” [and] “roll in drunk” like the other boys…” Almost all reported some problem with their relatives, especially those South Asians who had previously been Sikh or Hindu and were perceived to have betrayed their families. On one hand, Islam mandates its followers to behave dutifully towards close kin, and this duty is not cancelled out when those kin are of a different religion. But some duties become impossible for a family member who has turned to Islam; he cannot oversee the Hindu cremation, or the Christian burial, of a parent.
Muslims of both genders had some disappointments. Some had been attracted to the faith, in part, because of its seemingly universalist spirit and racial egalitarianism, offering men and women of all races and classes the chance to address God directly with no priestly hierarchy in the middle. But instead they found themselves caught up in sectarian and ethnic rivalry, pitting say, Somali mosques against Pakistani ones. Many converts are drawn to Islam by Sufism, the faith’s mystical strain, and find themselves unwelcome in mosques where the stripped-down form of Islam known as Salafism prevails. Converts could find themselves in a no-man’s-land, estranged from their own families but not fully accepted by “heritage Muslims” because they were seen as untrained in the faith or even as fifth columnists.
Through all these stories, one thing stands out. In all manner of ways, from consumer products to moral values to personal styles, Western culture of the 21st century lauds variety, choice, experimentation. A Westerner who converts to Islam is making a self-conscious move in a diametrically opposite direction: accepting non-negotiable rules in respect of diet, dress, sexual and social behaviour. Perhaps the prolixity of mainstream culture makes the uncompromising strictness of Islamic rules more attractive to a significant minority. And somehow or other, Western societies will have to accommodate both impulses, without slipping into a permanent state of cultural war or as a Muslim would say, fitna.