The Islamification of Britain: record numbers embrace Muslim faith
The number of Britons converting to Islam has doubled in 10 years. Why? Jerome Taylor and Sarah Morrison investigate
Tuesday, 4 January 2011
The number of Britons choosing to become Muslims has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to one of the most comprehensive attempts to estimate how many people have embraced Islam.
Following the global spread of violent Islamism, British Muslims have faced more scrutiny, criticism and analysis than any other religious community. Yet, despite the often negative portrayal of Islam, thousands of Britons are adopting the religion every year.
Estimating the number of converts living in Britain has always been difficult because census data does not differentiate between whether a religious person has adopted a new faith or was born into it. Previous estimates have placed the number of Muslim converts in the UK at between 14,000 and 25,000.
But a new study by the inter-faith think-tank Faith Matters suggests the real figure could be as high as 100,000, with as many as 5,000 new conversions nationwide each year.
By using data from the Scottish 2001 census – the only survey to ask respondents what their religion was at birth as well as at the time of the survey – researchers broke down what proportion of Muslim converts there were by ethnicity and then extrapolated the figures for Britain as a whole.
In all they estimated that there were 60,699 converts living in Britain in 2001. With no new census planned until next year, researchers polled mosques in London to try to calculate how many conversions take place a year. The results gave a figure of 1,400 conversions in the capital in the past 12 months which, when extrapolated nationwide, would mean approximately 5,200 people adopting Islam every year. The figures are comparable with studies in Germany and France which found that there were around 4,000 conversions a year.
Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, admitted that coming up with a reliable estimate of the number of converts to Islam was notoriously difficult. "This report is the best intellectual 'guestimate' using census numbers, local authority data and polling from mosques," he said. "Either way few people doubt that the number adopting Islam in the UK has risen dramatically in the past 10 years."
Asked why people were converting in such large numbers he replied: "I think there is definitely a relationship between conversions being on the increase and the prominence of Islam in the public domain. People are interested in finding out what Islam is all about and when they do that they go in different directions. Most shrug their shoulders and return to their lives but some will inevitably end up liking what they discover and will convert."
Batool al-Toma, an Irish born convert to Islam of 25 years who works at the Islamic Foundation and runs the New Muslims Project, one of the earliest groups set up specifically to help converts, said she believed the new figures were "a little on the high side".
"My guess would be the real figure is somewhere in between previous estimates, which were too low, and this latest one," she said. "I definitely think there has been a noticeable increase in the number of converts in recent years. The media often tries to pinpoint specifics but the reasons are as varied as the converts themselves."
Inayat Bunglawala, founder of Muslims4UK, which promotes active Muslim engagement in British society, said the figures were "not implausible".
"It would mean that around one in 600 Britons is a convert to the faith," he said. "Islam is a missionary religion and many Muslim organisations and particularly university students' Islamic societies have active outreach programmes designed to remove popular misconceptions about the faith."
The report by Faith Matters also studied the way converts were portrayed by the media and found that while 32 per cent of articles on Islam published since 2001 were linked to terrorism or extremism, the figure jumped to 62 per cent with converts.
Earlier this month, for example, it was reported that two converts to Islam who used the noms de guerre Abu Bakr and Mansoor Ahmed were killed in a CIA drone strike in an area of Pakistan with a strong al-Qa'ida presence.
"Converts who become extremists or terrorists are, of course, a legitimate story," said Mr Mughal. "But my worry is that the saturation of such stories risks equating all Muslim converts with being some sort of problem when the vast majority are not". Catherine Heseltine, a 31-year-old convert to Islam, made history earlier this year when she became the first female convert to be elected the head of a British Muslim organisation – the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. "Among certain sections of society, there is a deep mistrust of converts," she said. "There's a feeling that the one thing worse than a Muslim is a convert because they're perceived as going over the other side. Overall, though, I think conversions arouse more curiosity than hostility."
How to become a Muslim
Islam is one of the easiest religions to convert to. Technically, all a person needs to do is recite the Shahada, the formal declaration of faith, which states: "There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his Prophet." A single honest recitation is all that is needed to become a Muslim, but most converts choose to do so in front of at least two witnesses, one being an imam.
Converts to Islam
Hana Tajima, 23, fashion designer
Hana Tajima converted to Islam when she was 17. Frustrated by the lack of variety in Islamic clothing for converts she founded Maysaa, a fashion house that designs western-inspired clothing that conforms to hijab.
"It's true that I never decided to convert to Islam, nor was there a defining moment where I realised I wanted to be Muslim. My family aren't particularly religious. I was interested in religion, but very disinterested in how it related to my life. I grew up in rural Devon where my Japanese father was the ethnic diversity of the village. It wasn't until I studied at college that I met people who weren't of the exact same background, into Jeff Buckley, underground hip-hop, drinking, and getting high. I met and became friends with a few Muslims in college, and was slightly affronted and curious at their lack of wanting to go out to clubs or socialise in that sense. I think it was just the shock of it, like, how can you not want to go out, in this day and age.
"It was at about that time that I started to study philosophy, and without sounding too much like I dyed my hair black and wore my fringe in front of my face, I began to get confused about my life. I was pretty popular, had good friends, boyfriends, I had everything I was supposed to have, but still I felt like 'is that it?' So these things all happened simultaneously, I read more about religion, learned more about friends of other backgrounds, had a quarter life crisis. There were things that drew me to Islam in particular, it wasn't like I was reaching for whatever was there. The fact that the Qur'an is the same now as it ever was means there's always a reference point. The issues of women's rights were shockingly contemporary. The more I read, the more I found myself agreeing with the ideas behind it and I could see why Islam coloured the lives of my Muslim friends. It made sense, really, I didn't and still don't want to be Muslim, but there came
a point where I couldn't say that I wasn't Muslim.
"Telling my family was the easy part. I knew they'd be happy as long as I was happy, and they could see that it was an incredibly positive thing. My friends went one of two ways, met with a lack of any reaction and lost to the social scene, or interested and supportive. More the former, less the latter."
Denise Horsley, 26, dance teacher
Denise Horsley lives in North London. She converted to Islam last year and is planning to marry her Muslim boyfriend next year.
"I was introduced to Islam by my boyfriend Naushad. A lot of people ask whether I converted because of him but actually he had nothing to do with it. I was interested in his faith but I went on my own journey to discover more about religion.
"I bought loads of books on all the different religions but I kept coming back to Islam - there was something about it that just made sense, it seemed to answer all the questions I had.
"I would spend hours in the library at Regents Park Mosque reading up on everything from women's rights to food. Before I went to prayers for the first time I remember sitting in my car frantically looking up how to pray on my Blackberry. I was so sure people would know straight away that I wasn't a Muslim but if they did no-one seemed to care.
"During Ramadan I'd sit and listen to the Qur'anic recitations and would be filled with such happiness and warmth. One day I decided there and then to take my shahada. I walked down to the reception and said I was ready to convert, it was as simple as that.
"My friends and family were rather shocked, I think they expected there would be some sort of huge baptism ceremony but they were very supportive of my decision. I think they were just pleased to see me happy and caring about something so passionately.
"I grew up Christian and went to a Catholic school. Islam to me seemed to be a natural extension of Christianity. The Qur'an is filled with information about Jesus, Mary, the angels and the Torah. It's part of a natural transition.
"I do now wear a headscarf but it wasn't something I adopted straightaway. Hijab is such an important concept in Islam but it's not just about clothing. It's about being modest in everything you do. I started dressing more modestly - forgoing low cut tops and short skirts - but before I donned a headscarf I had to make sure I was comfortable on the inside before turning my attention to the outside. Now I feel completely protected in my headscarf. People treat you with a new level of respect, they judge you by your words and your deeds, not how you look. It's the kind of respect every dad wants for their daughter.
"There have been some problems. Immediately after converting I isolated myself a bit, which I now recognise was a mistake and not what Islam teaches. I remember a lady on a bus who got really angry and abusive when she found out I had converted. I also noticed quite a few friends stopped calling. I think they just got tired of hearing me say no - no to going clubbing, no to going down the pub.
"But my good friends embraced it. They simply found other things to do when I was around. Ultimately I'm still exactly the same person apart from the fact that I don't drink, don't eat pork and pray five times a day. Other than that I'm still Denise."
Dawud Beale, 23
Dawud Beale was a self-confirmed "racist" two years ago who knew nothing about Islam and supported the BNP. Now a Muslim, he describes himself as a Salafi - the deeply socially conservative and ultra-orthodox sect of Islam whose followers try to live exactly like the Prophet did.
"I was very ignorant to Islam for most of my life and then I went on holiday to Morocco, which was the first time I was exposed to Muslims. I was literally a racist before Morocco and by the time I was flying home on the plane a week later, I had already decided to become a Muslim."
"I realised Islam is not a foreign religion, but had a lot of similarities with what I already believed. When I came back home to Somerset, I spent three months trying to find local Muslims, but there wasn't even a mosque in my town. I eventually met Sufi Muslims who took me to Cyprus to convert.
"When I came back, I was finding out a lot of what they were saying was contradictory to what it said in the Qur'an. I wasn't finding them very authentic, to be honest. I went to London and became involved with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the political group who call for the establishment of an Islamic state.
"But while I believe in the benefits of Sharia law, I left this group as well. The problem was it was too into politics and not as concerned with practicing the religion. For me, it is about keeping an Islamic appearance and studying hard. I think we do need an Islamic state, but the way to achieve it is not through political activism or fighting. Allah doesn't change the situation of people until they see what's within themselves.
"I have a big dislike for culture in Islamic communities, when it means bringing new things into the religion, such as polytheism or encouraging music and dance. There is something pure about Salafi Muslims; we take every word of the Qur'an for truth. I have definitely found the right path. I also met my wife through the community and we are expecting our first child next year."
Paul Martin, 27
Paul Martin was just a student when he decided to convert to Islam in an ice-cream shop in Manchester four years ago. Bored of what he saw as the hedonistic lifestyle of many of his friends at university and attracted to what he calls "Islam's emphasis on seeking knowledge," he says a one-off meeting with an older Muslim changed his life.
"I liked the way the Muslims students I knew conducted themselves. It's nice to think about people having one partner for life and not doing anything harmful to their body. I just preferred the Islamic lifestyle and from there I looked into the Qur'an. I was amazed to see Islam's big emphasis on science.
"Then I was introduced by a Muslim friend to a doctor who was a few years older than me. We went for a coffee and then a few weeks later for an ice cream. It was there that I said I would like to be a Muslim. I made my shahada right there, in the ice cream shop. I know some people like to be all formal and do it in a mosque, but for me religion is not a physical thing, it is what is in your heart.
"I hadn't been to a mosque before I became a Muslim. Sometimes it can be bit daunting, I mean I don't really fit into this criteria of a Muslim person. But there is nothing to say you can't be a British Muslim who wears jeans and a shirt and a jacket. Now in my mosque in Leeds, many different languages are spoken and there are lots of converts.
"With my family, it was gradual. I didn't just come home and say I was a Muslim. There was a long process before I converted where I wouldn't eat pork and I wouldn't drink. Now, we still have Sunday dinner together, we just buy a joint of lamb that is halal.
"If someone at college had said to me 'You are going to be a Muslim', I would not in a million years have believed it. It would have been too far-fetched. But now I have just come back from Hajj - the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca."
Stuart Mee, 46
Stuart Mee is a divorced civil servant who describes himself as a "middle-of-the-road Muslim." Having converted to Islam last year after talking with Muslim colleagues at work, he says Islam offers him a sense of community he feels is missing in much of Britain today.
"Everything is so consumer-driven here, there are always adverts pushing you to buy the next thing. I knew there must be something longer term and always admired the sense of contentment within my colleagues' lives, their sense of peace and calmness. It was just one of those things that happened - we talked, I read books and I related to it.
"I emailed the Imam at London Central Mosque and effectively had a 15 minute interview with him. It was about making sure that this was the right thing for me, that I was doing it at the right time. He wanted to make sure I was committed. It is a life changing decision.
"It is surprisingly easy, the process of converting. You do your shahada, which is the declaration of your faith. You say that in front of two witnesses and then you think, 'What do I do next?' I went to an Islamic bookstore and bought a child's book on how to pray. I followed that because, in Islamic terms, I was basically one month old.
"I went to a local mosque in Reading and expected someone to stop me say, 'Are you a Muslim?' but it didn't happen. It was just automatic acceptance. You can have all the trappings of being a Muslim - the beard and the bits and pieces that go with it, but Islam spreads over such a wide area and people have different styles, clothes and approaches to life.
"Provided I am working within Islamic values, I see no need in changing my name and I don't have any intention of doing it. Islam has bought peace, stability, and comfort to my life. It has helped me identify just what is important to me. That can only be a good thing."
Khadijah Roebuck, 48
Khadijah Roebuck was born Tracey Roebuck into a Christian family. She was married for twenty five years and attended church with her children every week while they lived at home. Now, divorced and having practiced Islam for the last six months, she says she is still not sure what motivated her to make such a big change to her life.
"I know it sounds odd, but one day I was Tracey the Christian and the next day I was Khadijah the Muslim, it just seemed right. The only thing I knew about Muslims before was that they didn't drink alcohol and they didn't eat pork.
"I remember the first time I drove up to the mosque. It was so funny; I was in my sports car and had the music blaring. I wasn't sure if I was even allowed to go in but I asked to speak to the man in charge, I didn't even know he was called an Imam. Now I wear a hijab and pray five times a day.
"My son at first was horrified, he just couldn't believe it. It's been especially hard for my mum, who is Roman Catholic and doesn't accept it at all. But the main thing I feel is a sense of peace, which I never found with the Church, which is interesting. Through Ramadan, I absolutely loved every second. On the last day, I even cried.
"It is interesting because people sometimes confuse cultures with Islam. Each Muslim brings their different culture to the mosque and different takes on the religion. There are Saudi Arabians, Egyptians and Pakistanis and then of course there is me. I slot in everywhere. A lot of the other sisters say to me, 'That is why we love you, Khadijah, you are just yourself.'"
New York is experiencing a faith revival
The proposed mosque and Islamic center near Ground Zero is in the news again. Word is that differences between the project's co-founders led to the diminished role of Imam Abdul Rauf - long the public face of the project. Rauf will no longer be allowed to raise money for or publicly represent the project. New York has gotten a lot of press in recent months over the center controversy, but what's been hidden amidst all the invective is that New York is exploding with religious fervor.
I know it's hard for many folks outside the Big Apple - who write off the country's largest city as hopelessly secularized - to grasp this. But Tony Carnes, president of Values Research Institute in Manhattan and a senior writer for Christianity Today, has had a vision since 1989 to chart religion in New York. What he wanted to do was a census of who worships what in this immense city.
In 2009, he and several research associates started researching Manhattan's religious sites, going road by road down 5,000 miles of New York City streets. The local papers were offering minimal religion coverage in the five boroughs, which was "a huge gap there considering the amount of activity going on," he told me. "We've gotten these incredible discoveries. Like on West Jamaica Avenue in Queens, there's Blessed Barbershop, a group of Ecuadoran brothers who started going to church and wanted to stay accountable to each other. They are very successful." And not far away, he added, there's a Buddhist barbershop and yet a third barbershop that houses an African church.
"You can't make this stuff up," he said.
On July 9, he founded "A Journey Through New York Religions," a Web magazine that ambitiously catalogs everything done in the name of God in and around New York. The launch came at about the same time that news of the proposed 9/11 mosque and Islamic center broke nationally. Talk about timing.
The site quickly ran several articles on New York's Muslims. While other media were reporting that New York has 99 mosques, Carnes' researchers had visited at 178 mosques in person and had interviewed mosque leaders at about 40 of them.
The webzine's home page posts everything from a video of St. Patrick's Cathedral to a report on a West African Muslim group. In the last six months it has published 78 articles, 30 videos, 35 maps, 170 briefs about faith-based organizations and 76 feature photos.
"A Journey Through New York Religions" is finishing up a 12-part series on New York's evangelical churches, which are popping up all over, they report. Central Manhattan alone has 197 evangelical churches, most of them founded since 1988, and 40 percent since 2000.
Islam and evangelical Protestants are the fastest growing groups in the city, he said. He and his team have had no problems gathering this information as everyone from Buddhists to Baptists seemed anxious for coverage.
"After 60 years of extreme secularism, the city is having an unpredicted, widely hailed as unlikely, revival of religious faith," Carnes said. "Political scientists had predicted that religion would not play any future important role in city politics. Journalists and intellectuals beat the secular drum harder than any street musician. It's time to change our thinking; it's time to get a new tune."
One of the respondents who posted on the site wondered why New York is so blessed. "If this is a case of religiously starved people," he wrote, "why has nothing like this started happening in Europe?"
Maybe because starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New York benefited from a combination of factors: The appointment of a strong Catholic prelate, Cardinal John O'Connor; the migration of evangelicals into the city and the start-ups of several now-prominent evangelical churches; the high birth rates of the city's Orthodox Jewish population plus a wave of Russian Jewish immigrants.
Evangelicals were growing at 5 percent to 8 percent a year and by the 2005 Greater New York Billy Graham crusade near Shea Stadium (tellingly held in the more devout suburbs than in more liberal Manhattan), it seemed clear that New York no longer deserved to be called godless. And even the secular West Side has been infiltrated by evangelicals, whose works include everything from helping the homeless to affirming the arts.
With traditional media outlets eliminating religion reporters, Carnes' site may be the new face of religion reporting; an independent nonprofit doing quality journalism on a contract basis for the mainstream media. The site, which has gotten 390,000 page views to date, is modeled after Pro Publica, a public interest journalism site that produced a Pulitzer this year.
"I saw how ProPublica came into being because so many news organizations couldn't afford to have an investigative journalism unit," Carnes said. "I wondered if something could be done like that in the religion sector. Religion reporters are being laid off, religion reporting cut down so it seemed like there was a need."
The Islamization of Europe: the moral vacuum of abortion and the population vacuum
By Frank Maguire
December 31, 2010
Europe is headed for a big conflict over its own identity. In the last few decades, as birthrates across the continent have plummeted, Europeans began to rely more and more on immigrants to supply manpower for various industries. Most of these immigrants have come, are coming, and will continue to come from Islamic countries.
Since World War II, most Europeans have moved away from any concept of national pride, since this was seen to be the great cause of strife in the world. David Pryce-Jones, senior editor of National Review and author of The Closed Circle, recently said in an interview that the European Union "is built on this idea that wickedness comes, not from the human animal, not from Hitler or from utopian ideas that have been perverted, but from nationalism." But this move away from national and religious identity into the realm of radical pluralism across the European landscape has become the open door for Islam, as Pryce-Jones explains:
Into this land with no identity comes a whole bunch of people who know exactly who they are, what they want, and how to get it. They are a community of believers, and boy do they believe. And they've come here to show us what belief really looks like. And what do we oppose them with? Social Security and welfare and benefits, and please love us, we're really very decent people.
Current estimates, which are not easy to calculate because many immigrants remain unregistered, place the total number of Muslims currently living and working in Europe somewhere between 15 and 20 million. France alone is home to 5 million Muslims, and there are an estimated 3 million in Germany. As TownHall.com columnist Jonah Goldberg puts it, these Muslims who are coming from all over the world, "aren't buying the European model of peaceful assimilation, tolerance and another round of kumbaya."
"Writing in the first edition of the current affairs magazine, Standpoint, Dr Nazir-Ali (photo below) said the decline of Christianity produced a lack of "transcendental principles" which has left the door open for the "comprehensive" claims of radical Islam.
The bishop, who was born in Pakistan of Christian parents, said Christianity had knitted together a "rabble of mutually hostile tribes" to create British identity.
But Dr Nazir-Ali said the loss of what he called the Christian consensus had led to the breakdown of the family, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and a loss of respect for other people. He said the marginalisation of Christianity had happened just as large numbers of people of other faiths arrived in Britain." Britain left with 'moral vacuum' by Robert Pigott Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News
Islam is now the fastest growing religion in England, which is home to more than 2 million Muslims, 1,500 mosques, and 100 Islamic schools. According to The London Times, on the third anniversary of Sept. 11th, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke from the pulpit of an Egyptian mosque saying that Christianity shared with Islam the common inheritance as "children of Abraham."
Plans are in the works to have Islam taught in English schools, which is also the case in Denmark where, according to the The Copenhagen Post, legislation recently passed making it compulsory for Danish high school students to read sections from the Koran, though there is no such regulation pertaining to the Bible.
In Holland, according to the Calgary Sun, the most common name for boys is currently "Mohammed," and there are some reports that this is the case in Belgium as well. The paper also asserted that in Holland, "there are more observant Muslims than either observant Catholics or Protestants (but not yet all Christians combined)," and there are reportedly 30,000 Dutch converts to Islam.
On March 11, 2004, 192 people were killed in a train bombing in Madrid, Spain, by members of Al Qaeda, and one of the demands of the terrorists was the removal of an historic statue of Santiago Matamorros at the cathedral in Compostella, because it was seen as offensive to Muslims. Spaniard officials caved in to the terrorists's demands and removed the statue.
Italy is now home to between 700,000 and one million Muslims. As a result, Islam is the second most dominant religion in that country. The city of Bologna in recent years, according to a London Times article, experienced a controversy over a 600 year old fresco inside the town's cathedral. Painted by Giovanni da Modena in the fifteenth century, this fresco depicts Dante's Inferno, and part of this image includes a representation of the prophet Mohammed being tortured in the ninth circle of hell. Islamic extremists have been so offended by this that they have demanded that the fresco be either painted over or destroyed, or else they will blow up the cathedral.
Writing for the London Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore asks an interesting question: "Christians want the whole world to be Christian, so what is the difference?" The difference, he argues, is that Muslims are attempting not merely to convert the world by changing minds, but they are also prepared to take what they want by force, since religion and politics in their worldview are one and the same. "Mohammed did not only preach in Mecca," Moore observes, "he also ruled in Medina, and he conquered.
The Sharia is a code of law to be imposed, in all societies, by the public authorities." Historian Paul Johnson noted similarly in a National Review article that it is untrue that "Islam" means "peace." In fact, "Islam means 'submission,' a very different matter, and one of the functions of Islam, in its more militant aspect, is to obtain that submission from all, if necessary by force."
Johnson went on to suggest that if the flow of Islamic immigrants into Europe continues at its current pace, then it is conceivable that Catholic countries such as France, Italy, and Spain will be predominantly Muslim within a generation.
The ACLU vs America, by Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), Alan Sears and Craig Osten, Broadman and Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN (copyright 2005)
The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, Ramesh Ponnuru, Senior Editor, National Review Regnery Publishing Company (www.regnery.com), copyright 2006
© Frank Maguire