Every year, my friend and I put up flyers before Ramadan, inviting others in our college in California to join us for Iftar. We hoped and expected to be contacted by Muslim girls excited at the opportunity of breaking their fasts with other Muslims. Instead, who we found were perhaps far more special – a Japanese student who decided it was crucial for her to learn Arabic in order to understand the Quran better (she later transferred to Al-Azhar to follow her aspirations), and a young seventeen–year-old Mexican girl, who had been hiding her desire to convert to Islam from her parents for three years and wanted to keep her first fast with us.
At a time post 9/11, when Islam was under intense scrutiny throughout the world and especially in the West, it was heart-warming yet mind-boggling how it still attracted young women with such vigour. Adding to the paradox, as political Islamophobia radically increased in Europe, Islam continued to be the fastest growing religion in the same region. Racist nationalistic governments or political parties in countries like France, Norway and Switzerland initiated steps to remove Islamic “symbols”. Niqab was officially banned in France and they wanted to eliminate Halal food options in school canteens. But these steps across a range of countries have not been able to halt the interest towards Islam. In fact, it keeps bouncing back with more intensity. It was no less than a miracle that Daniel Streich, the man responsible for initiating the successful campaign for banning minarets in Switzerland, not only converted to Islam but vowed to make the biggest, most beautiful mosque in Europe to counter his past hatred for the religion.
However, the most interesting aspect of the conversions to Islam is that although the West accuses Islam of suppressing women’s liberties, a large proportion of those embracing Islam happen to be Western women. Camilla Leyland, a 32-year-old single mother embraced Islam in her mid-20s for ‘intellectual and feminist reasons’. She explains: “I know people will be surprised to hear the words ‘feminism’ and ‘Islam’ in the same breath, but, in fact, the teachings of the Quran give equality to women, and at the time the religion was born, the teachings went against the grain of a misogynistic society.”
A new study by the inter-faith think-tank Faith Matters suggests that the real figure of conversions to Islam in the UK alone could be as high as 100,000 with as many as 5000 conversions in one year alone. The same study suggested that the conversion rate was more in females, and that the average age of converts was twenty-seven. Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, admitted that this report was the best intellectual “guesstimate” but added that “either way few people doubt that the number adopting Islam in the UK has risen dramatically in the past 10 years.”
Mughal attributed this increase in converts to the prominence of Islam in the public domain and the subsequent public curiosity it provoked. Batool Al-Toma, a 25-year-old Irish born convert to Islam, agrees: “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.” Islam’s latest convert that surprised the UK was Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth. Broadcaster and journalist Booth, 43, recalls the day she decided to become a Muslim: “It was a Tuesday evening, and I sat down and felt this shot of spiritual morphine, just absolute bliss and joy.”
Another celebrity convert, London-based Kristiane Backer, is a former MTV presenter. Kristiane says: “In the West, we are stressed for superficial reasons, like what clothes to wear. In Islam, everyone looks to a higher goal. Everything is done to please God. It was a completely different value system. Despite my lifestyle, I felt empty inside and realized how liberating it was to be a Muslim. To follow only one God makes life purer. You are not chasing every fad.”
According to Kevin Brice from Swansea University, who carried this research out for Faith Matters, the female converts to Islam, “seek spirituality, a higher meaning and tend to be deep thinkers.” The depth of their thought rings true to me. Yuki had told me that when her sister committed suicide for no apparent reason in Japan, it provoked her family to seek the meaning of life, which is what led her to Islam. Her parents were ecstatic that she had found an answer. My much younger Mexican friend bewildered me with her very deep paintings, depicting souls in trouble seeking peace and light in the midst of trouble.
Kristiane Backer, who has written a book on her own spiritual journey (“From MTV to Mecca”), believes that women who were born Muslims became disillusioned and rebelled against it. When you dig deeper, it’s not the faith they turned against but the culture. The treasures of the true Islam lead so many to embrace it, despite the steps taken to demoralize its followers and mar the faith. It’s a jewel that those born in Islam perhaps take for granted. The image that can never leave my mind is when my young friend in California took out a beautiful wooden box from her drawer to show me, where she cherishingly saved her most price-less possessions: “Her book on how to pray Salah, her silk scarf and her Quran.”