Lauren Booth: I'm now a Muslim. Why all the shock and horror?
News that Lauren Booth has converted to Islam provoked a storm of negative comments. Here she explains how it came about – and why it's time to stop patronising Muslim women
The Guardian, Wednesday 3 November 2010
It is five years since my first visit to Palestine. And when I arrived in the region, to work alongside charities in Gaza and the West Bank, I took with me the swagger of condescension that all white middle-class women (secretly or outwardly) hold towards poor Muslim women, women I presumed would be little more than black-robed blobs, silent in my peripheral vision. As a western woman with all my freedoms, I expected to deal professionally with men alone. After all, that's what the Muslim world is all about, right?
This week's screams of faux horror from fellow columnists on hearing of my conversion to Islam prove that this remains the stereotypical view regarding half a billion women currently practising Islam.
On my first trip to Ramallah, and many subsequent visits to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, I did indeed deal with men in power. And, dear reader, one or two of them even had those scary beards we see on news bulletins from far-flung places we've bombed to smithereens. Surprisingly (for me) I also began to deal with a lot of women of all ages, in all manner of head coverings, who also held positions of power. Believe it or not, Muslim women can be educated, work the same deadly hours we do, and even boss their husbands about in front of his friends until he leaves the room in a huff to go and finish making the dinner.
Is this patronising enough for you? I do hope so, because my conversion to Islam has been an excuse for sarcastic commentators to heap such patronising points of view on to Muslim women everywhere. So much so, that on my way to a meeting on the subject of Islamophobia in the media this week, I seriously considered buying myself a hook and posing as Abu Hamza. After all, judging by the reaction of many women columnists, I am now to women's rights what the hooked one is to knife and fork sales.
So let's all just take a deep breath and I'll give you a glimpse into the other world of Islam in the 21st century. Of course, we cannot discount the appalling way women are mistreated by men in many cities and cultures, both with and without an Islamic population. Women who are being abused by male relatives are being abused by men, not God. Much of the practices and laws in "Islamic" countries have deviated from (or are totally unrelated) to the origins of Islam. Instead practices are based on cultural or traditional (and yes, male-orientated) customs that have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule is an invention of the Saudi monarchy, our government's close ally in the arms and oil trade. The fight for women's rights must sadly adjust to our own government's needs.
My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.
I began to wonder about the calmness exuded by so many of the "sisters" and "brothers". Not all; these are human beings we're talking about. But many. And on my visit to Iran this September, the washing, kneeling, chanting recitations of the prayers at the mosques I visited reminded me of the west's view of an entirely different religion; one that is known for eschewing violence and embracing peace and love through quiet meditation. A religion trendy with movie stars such as Richard Gere, and one that would have been much easier to admit to following in public – Buddhism. Indeed, the bending, kneeling and submission of Muslim prayers resound with words of peace and contentment. Each one begins, "Bismillahir rahmaneer Raheem" – "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" – and ends with the phrase "Assalamu Alaykhum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh" – Peace be upon you all and God's mercy and blessing.
Almost unnoticed to me, when praying for the last year or so, I had been saying "Dear Allah" instead of "Dear God". They both mean the same thing, of course, but for the convert to Islam the very alien nature of the language of the holy prayers and the holy book can be a stumbling block. I had skipped that hurdle without noticing. Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that's how it was for me, anyway.
How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can't we cry in public, hug one another more, say "I love you" to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah's law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real "fun" as we in the west do? And we do, don't we? Don't we?
Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.
The sheikh who finally converted me at a mosque in London a few weeks ago told me: "Don't hurry, Lauren. Just take it easy. Allah is waiting for you. Ignore those who tell you: you must do this, wear that, have your hair like this. Follow your instincts, follow the Holy Qur'an- and let Allah guide you."
And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey's character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.
Now, my morning starts with dawn prayers at around 6am, I pray again at 1.30pm, then finally at 10.30pm. My steady progress with the Qur'an has been mocked in some quarters (for the record, I'm now around 200 pages in). I've been seeking advice from Ayatollahs, imams and sheikhs, and every one has said that each individual's journey to Islam is their own. Some do commit the entire text to memory before conversion; for me reading the holy book will be done slowly and at my own pace.
In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can't even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I'm overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I've heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.
On a final note I'd like to offer a quick translation between Muslim culture and media culture that may help take the sting of shock out of my change of life for some of you.
When Muslims on the BBC News are shown shouting "Allahu Akhbar!" at some clear, Middle Eastern sky, we westerners have been trained to hear: "We hate you all in your British sitting rooms, and are on our way to blow ourselves up in Lidl when you are buying your weekly groceries."
In fact, what we Muslims are saying is "God is Great!", and we're taking comfort in our grief after non-Muslim nations have attacked our villages. Normally, this phrase proclaims our wish to live in peace with our neighbours, our God, our fellow humans, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Or, failing that, in the current climate, just to be left to live in peace would be nice.
In converts, authorities see threats
Muslims worry about some newcomers to the faith
By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
3:09 p.m. EST, December 11, 2010
Their evening prayers ended, a small group of Muslim men lingering in a storefront mosque in Woodlawn turned to the news of the day: A man who had knelt among them had been arrested on charges of terrorism.
Antonio Martinez, who they said converted to Islam at their mosque and returned occasionally to pray, had been arrested and was accused of plotting to bomb a military recruitment station in Catonsville. Authorities say Martinez, who now calls himself Muhammad Hussain, is the latest of the so-called "homegrown terrorists," U.S. citizens or residents who seek to kill fellow countrymen in the name of their religion.
At least 50 such cases have been prosecuted since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, experts say, ranging from the Fort Hood shootings that left 13 dead to plots that were never carried out, such as the one allegedly envisioned by "Jihad Jane," Colleen LaRosa of Pennsylvania, to kill a Swedish cartoonist for his mocking depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
Officials say terror threats are increasingly coming not from beyond U.S. borders but from within them. For whatever reason — perhaps anger over government policy or a search for a cause larger than themselves — people like Martinez are latching onto a religion that has been used by extremists as a vehicle for terrorism.
The convert is just one kind of homegrown terrorist, according to the authors of "American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat," a Congressional Research Service report issued in September. They noted that attacks have been planned both by immigrants such as would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan who attended high school in Queens, and by U.S.-born citizens such as Daniel Patrick Boyd, a convert to Islam accused of targeting the Marine base in Quantico, Va.
At Faizah-e-Madina Mosque in Woodlawn, some expressed fear that their religion has drawn those who seem to be on political or criminal rather than spiritual quests.
"That is not Islam," said Arshad Raja, who recognized Martinez from news coverage. Raja, a cabdriver who lives in Pikesville, said he now feels he has to worry about those who express a desire to join the faith. "If another one comes here, we have to be careful of that person."
Much remains unknown about Martinez, a 21-year-old U.S. citizen of Nicaraguan heritage — what led him to Islam, to turn against the United States, or to allegedly attempt to detonate what he believed to be a bomb Wednesday at the military recruiting center in Catonsville. The device was actually inert and was provided by an undercover FBI agent as part of a sting operation.
"You have some people who come in because of a grievance," said Gary LaFree, who directs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. "Others have a girlfriend, a boyfriend or someone they play soccer with. Sometimes you have a group conversion, a whole group upset at something the government has done.
"One of the things that seems to be happening is that a lot of the folks are operating more as lone wolves," LaFree said. "Sometimes they seem more similar to wannabes — you find the same thing among gang members: There's a core group and then hangers-on."
LaFree, whose consortium is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said people such as Martinez can get drawn to radical Islam through the Internet. According to federal agents, Martinez wrote on his Facebook account that "the sword is cummin the reign of oppression is about 2 cease" and "Any 1 who opposes ALLAH and HIS Prophet … Him I hate u with all my heart," posted links to apparent pro-jihadist websites, and was observed viewing videos of Osama bin Laden and men in traditional Muslim attire firing assault rifles.
Martinez does not appear to be part of an organized group, authorities say.
Steven Emerson, a researcher who founded and directs the Investigative Project on Terrorism, says Martinez's conversion to Islam seems to have followed what he considers a typical pattern of those who ultimately attempt terrorist acts. Based on the allegations against Martinez, Emerson said, he apparently converted not just to Islam but radical Islam, quickly becoming a true believer.
"Something is there to motivate him to instantly become radicalized," Emerson said. "He bought into the motif … it's a war against Islam and we have to defend it."
Emerson said some Islamist groups are making "a concerted effort" to recruit Latinos. He pointed to Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member arrested in 2002 for allegedly planning to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" but ultimately convicted of different charges. Padilla converted to Islam while in a Florida prison.
"I can only speculate," Emerson said. "Maybe they feel Hispanics are feeling inherently alienated. I guess they're looking for people more susceptible to being persuaded."
Others caution against making too much of the supposed rash of Muslim-American terrorists. While the arrest of a Martinez draws news media attention, University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman says, the actual rate of terrorist attacks planned or executed since 9/11 remains far below that of other crimes.
The congressional report counted 14 people killed in the United States by jihadists since the attacks of Sept. 11 — 13 of them in the Fort Hood shootings last fall. The other was a military recruiter shot by an American convert to Islam last year in Little Rock, Ark.
"Most converts are not radical. They're not political. They simply want to practice their religion," said Kurzman, a professor of Islamic studies. "Within this group, there is a small group that is troubled, who have grievances against foreign policies, who take this path simultaneously of political radicalization and religious zealotry."
In several cases, Kurzman said, it was concerned fellow Muslims, often relatives, who initially alerted U.S. authorities to the suspects' increasing radicalism. There have been reports, for example, that the father or other relatives of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old accused of planning to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony this month in Portland, Ore., had contacted officials after growing concerned about his increasingly radical interests.
In Martinez's case, it is unclear who reported him to authorities, triggering the sting operation. A former co-worker told The Baltimore Sun that his mother and his girlfriend at the time of his conversion did not approve of it. On his Facebook page, someone who identified himself as Martinez's brother-in-law tried repeatedly to channel the young man's religious fervor toward more constructive avenues.
Martinez's arrest follows a similar pattern of recent federal prosecutions in which officials learn of individuals or groups talking about attacking the United States and informants or agents manage to infiltrate and foil the plot.
In October, for example, three American converts and a Haitian immigrant were convicted of planting what they thought were bombs outside a synagogue and a Jewish center in the Bronx last year and plotting to fire missiles at military planes. An informant recorded their conversations and provided a fake bomb — the method used to net Mohamud in Portland and Martinez in Baltimore County.
Those who have studied such cases point to something of a perfect storm brewing: The Internet brings voices of Islamic extremists from around the globe home to the United States, where they can be received by the angry and the alienated, while heightened awareness of terrorism has law enforcement agencies and the public at large focused on preventing the next attack.
The radical websites and YouTube videos can find willing listeners among the disaffected, said Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware who has written extensively on American Muslims.
"They go on the Net, they come across very charismatic personalities, they get motivated," Khan said "Then the friendly neighborhood FBI agent will complete the transaction."
Obama's hajj grandmother 'prayed for him to be Muslim'
(AFP) – Nov 25, 2010
RIYADH — US President Barack Obama's Kenyan grandmother says she prayed during a hajj pilgrimage to Mecca for the American leader to convert to Islam, a newspaper revealed on Thursday.
"I prayed for my grandson Barack to convert to Islam," said Sarah Omar, 88, in an interview with Al-Watan Saudi daily held in Jeddah after she had performed hajj.
The paper said that Omar was in Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage along with her son, Obama's uncle Saeed Hussein Obama, and four of her grandchildren.
Omar told the newspaper that she could only discuss hajj matters and would not comment on Obama's politics.
The family appeared to have been hosted by the Saudi government for hajj. Saeed thanked King Abdullah for his "kind hospitality," the paper said.
US opinion polls in August revealed that roughly one in five Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim, a claim categorically denied by the White House which has maintained that he is a "committed Christian."
Scots nurse who converted to Islam insists she has no regrets despite being abuse over her faith
For Gillian Amin, a trip to the supermarket can often mean abuse. Last week, a passing shopper called her a "f*****g Paki" and she is regularly told to "go home to Arabia".
In fact, Gillian is a Scot and has no desire to go to Pakistan or Arabia.
It is eight years since the 29-year-old student nurse converted from Catholicism to Islam - and, although she tires of the hostility, it is a decision she doesn't regret.
Gillian said: "The white converts are stuck in the middle.
"I see us as a bridge between the Muslims and non-Muslims. You form a community in itself because you know what you are up against on both sides.
"You won't always be accepted on the Muslim side and on the non-Muslim side there can be racism, but I have never regretted becoming a Muslim."
New research has shown more women convert to Islam than men - in fact, they account for 60 per cent of conversions.
One of the most high-profile examples is Tony Blair's sister-in-law Lauren Booth, who recently announced she had adopted the faith after a trip to Iran.
For Gillian, like Lauren, there was no bolt of lightning and no vision of a deity that made her want to convert.
Instead, she had been working in a computer factory when she saw a male Muslim colleague kneeling in prayer in a side room.
She said: "I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I passed. It was something that just touched my heart.
"When I saw his forehead touching the ground, to me, it was the most humble position for any human being to be in. To do that - to pray to someone you can't even see - just stirred so much emotion in me."
A week later, she decided she wanted to convert.
She said: "It seems so absurd. I hadn't read a Koran. I knew nothing about Islam but I absolutely knew that I wanted to become a Muslim."
Gillian insisted she didn't conform to a stereotypical tale of a lost soul searching for fulfilment.
She said: "It's not as if something bad was happening in my life. I was 21 and it was a happy time.
"If there was something missing, then it was Islam. When I converted, there was an overwhelming feeling of peace and contentment."
She asked the man she had seen praying to guide her through her conversion.
He taught her one of the first important steps, reciting the oath called Shahada, which is a public declaration of faith that there is only one God, Allah.
Later, as she spent more time with him, an attraction grew between them.
Gillian said: "It wasn't as much love but more a deep care.
"Perhaps I was vulnerable and felt that it would make me more a part of the Muslim community to marry a Muslim."
They did marry and have three children together.
Her mother was no longer alive but the rest of her family were fiercely against her conversion and refused to accept her decision.
Her grandmother believed: "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic."
Gillian said: "They didn't really want to know me any more."
After a year, she adopted the headscarf, aware that it would provoke racist comments.
She said: "A lot of it was telling me to go back to Pakistan or Arabia. They called me a terrorist and Bin Laden's cousin."
The windows of their home in East Renfrewshire were smashed and graffiti was sprayed across the wall.
She said: "A lot of people just see the scarf and don't see the person. They think I am an Arab because I'm white.
"Last week in the supermarket, a man called me a 'f*****g Paki'. I told him he was wrong, actually, and he heard my accent and scurried off.
"I would never be rude back but just because we have a headscarf on doesn't mean we are little women with no voice."
Whenever there is a well-publicised terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists, the aggression intensifies.
Gillian said: "There is an expectation that all Muslims should apologise. These people are extremists. I condemn what they have done but why should I apologise? "I would never have apologised before for the actions of some crazy Catholic."
And she has never hesitated to fight sexism in the Muslim community.
Gillian said: "Women are hugely respected in Islam.
"The Prophet Mohamed cleaned the house and he swept the floors, so it is unfortunate that a lot of the men forget that and don't follow the teachings of Islam."
Her marriage didn't last but her relationship with Islam did.
When she divorced, her grandmother contacted her, assuming she was "going to dump the scarf and stop this nonsense".
Gillian said: "It hurt a lot. It is a very lonely feeling when your family departs from you.
"I felt low but I never once considered leaving my faith after my marriage broke up. A lot of Muslims and non-Muslims assumed I would.
"A lot of people do become Muslims to get married but I think it is a decision that needs to come from the heart."
Gillian maintains a bond with her ex-husband's family, even though she has got married again - to an Egyptian Muslim, a PE teacher called El Sayed.
She said: "It's ironic that they still have a relationship with me and my own family don't."
She believes the conversion of Lauren Booth will have a positive impact, despite claims that it is just attention-seeking.
Gillian said: "I don't think it will encourage people to convert, unless they idolise her, but I think that it will educate people and make them more interested in learning about Muslims."
Gillian gives talks at schools - not as a conversion exercise but to dispel some of the myths surrounding Islam.
And she has many friends, from all religions, who accept her for who she is.
Gillian said: "They don't see the scarf. They only see me. I am still me. I am still Gillian."