Women & Islam: Rise of the Convert

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Richard Peppiatt

16-Women-Islam-1-SUTCLIFFE

Record numbers of young, white British women are converting to Islam, yet many are reporting a lack of help as they get used to their new religion, according to several surveys.

As Muslims celebrate the start of the religious holiday of ‘Eid today and hundreds of thousands from around the world converge on Mecca for the haj, it emerged that of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam last year, more than half are white and 75 per cent of them women.

In the past 10 years some 100,000 British people have converted to Islam, of whom some three-quarters are women, according to the latest statistics. This is a significant increase on the 60,000 Britons in the previous decade, according to researchers based at Swansea University.

While the number of UK converts accelerates, many of the British women who adopt Islam say they have a daily struggle to assimilate their new beliefs within a wider culture that both implicitly and explicitly positions them as outsiders, regardless of their Western upbringing.

More than three-quarters told researchers they had experienced high levels of confusion after conversion, due to the conflicting ways Islam was presented to them. While other major religions have established programs for guiding new believers through the rigors of their faith, Islam still lacks any such network, especially outside the Muslim hubs of major cities.

Many mosques still bar women from worship or provide scant resources for their needs, forcing them to rely on competing cultural and ideological interpretations within books or the internet for religious support.

A recent study of converts in Leicester, for example, found that 93 per cent of mosques in the region recognized they lacked services for new Muslims, yet only 7 per cent said they were making efforts to address the shortfall.

Many of the young women – the average age of conversion is 27 – are also coming to terms with experiences of discrimination for the first time, despite the only visible difference being a headscarf. Yet few find easy sanctuary within the established Muslim population, with the majority forming their closest bonds with fellow converts rather than born Muslims.

Kevin Brice, author of the Swansea study A Minority Within a Minority, said to be the most comprehensive study of British Muslim converts, added: “White Muslim converts are caught between two increasingly distant camps. Their best relationships remain with other converts, because of their shared experiences, while there is very little difference between the quality of their relationship with other Muslims or non-Muslims.

“My research also found converts came in two types: some are converts of convenience, who adopt the religion because of a life situation such as meeting a Muslim man, although the religion has little discernible impact on their day-to-day lives. For others it is a conversion of conviction where they feel a calling and embrace the religion robustly.

“That’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive – sometimes converts start out on their religious path through convenience and become converts of conviction later on.”

Another finding revealed by the Leicester study was that despite Western portraits of Islam casting it as oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to the religion precisely because of the status it affords them.

Some analysts have argued that dizzying social and cultural upheavals in Britain over the past decades have meant that far from adopting an alien way of life, some female Muslim converts are re-embracing certain aspects of mid-20th-century Britain, such as rigid gender demarcation, rather than feeling expected to juggle career and family.

The first established Muslim communities started in Britain in the 1860s, when Yemeni sailors and Somali laborers settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and Hull. Many married local women who converted to Islam, often suffering widespread discrimination as a result.

They also acted as a bridge between the two cultures, encouraging understanding among indigenous dwellers and helping to integrate the Muslim community they had joined. Today, there is growing recognition among community leaders that the latest generation of female converts has an equally vital role to play in fostering dialogue between an increasingly secular British majority and a minority religion, as misunderstood as it is vilified.

Kristiane Backer, 45

Television presenter and author, London

I converted to Islam in 1995 after Imran Khan introduced me to the faith. At the time I was a presenter for MTV. I used to have all the trappings of success, yet I felt an inner emptiness and somewhat dissatisfied in my life.

The entertainment industry is very much about “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”, which is the exact opposite to the more inward-oriented spiritual attitude of my new faith. My value system changed and God became the center point of my life and what I was striving towards.

I recognize some new converts feel isolated but, despite there being even fewer resources when I converted than there are now, it isn’t so much an issue I’ve faced. I’ve always felt welcomed and embraced by the Muslims I met and developed a circle of friends and teachers. It helps living in London, because there is so much to engage in as part of the Muslim community. Yet, even in the capital you can be stared at on the Tube for wearing a headscarf. I usually don’t wear one in the West except when praying. I wear the scarf in front of my heart though!

I always try to explain to people that I’ve converted to Islam, not to any culture. Suppression of women, honor killings or forced marriages are all cultural aberrations, not Islamic ones. Islam is also about dignity and respect for yourself and your femininity. Even in the dating game, Muslim men are very respectful. Women are cherished as mothers, too – as a Muslim woman you are not expected to do it all.”

Amy Sall, 28

Retail assistant, Middlesbrough

I’d say I’m still a bit of a party animal – but I’m also a Muslim. I do go out on the town with the girls and I don’t normally wear my headscarf – I know I should do, but I like to do my hair and look nice! I know there are certain clothes I shouldn’t wear either, even things that just show off your arms, but I still do. My husband would like me to be a better Muslim – he thinks drinking is evil – so it does cause rows.

I haven’t worshipped in a mosque since I got married, I find it intimidating. I worry about doing something wrong; people whispering because they see my blonde hair and blue eyes. Middlesbrough is a difficult place to be a Muslim who isn’t Asian – you tend to be treated like an outsider. Once, I was out wearing my headscarf and a local man shouted abuse. It was weird because I’m white and he was white, but all he saw was the scarf, I suppose. It did make me angry. My family were surprisingly fine with me converting, probably because they thought it would rein me in from being a bit wild.

Nicola Penty-Alvarez, 26

Full-time mother, Uxbridge

I was always interested in philosophy and the meaning of life and when I came across Islam it all just clicked. In the space of four or five months I went from going to raves to wearing a headscarf, praying five times a day and generally being quite pious – I did occasionally smoke though.

I felt very welcomed into the Muslim community, but it was a mainly white convert community. My impression of the Asian community in west London was that women felt sidelined and were encouraged to stay at home and look after the men rather than attend mosque. I think this was more a cultural than religious thing, though.

Non-Muslims certainly treat you differently when you’re wearing a headscarf – they’re less friendly and as a smiley person I found that hard. After a year-and-a-half of being a Muslim I stopped. I remember the moment perfectly. I was in a beautiful mosque in Morocco praying beside an old lady and something just came over me. I thought: ‘What the hell am I doing? How have I got into this?’ It just suddenly didn’t feel right. Needless to say my husband, who was a fellow convert, wasn’t impressed. He remained devout and it put a lot of strain on our relationship. We split up, but are on amicable terms now. I’m not really in contact with the Muslim friends I made – we drifted apart.

I don’t regret the experience. There is so much that I learnt spiritually that I’ve kept and I haven’t gone back to my hard partying ways.

Donna Tunkara

Warehouse operative, Middlesbrough

I was a bit of a tearaway growing up – drinking, smoking, running away from home and being disrespectful to my parents. I converted 10 years ago because I met a Muslim man but I’ve probably become more devout than him.

Sometimes, I miss going shopping for clothes to hit the town and then going home and getting ready with my mates, having a laugh. The thing is no one is forcing me not to – it’s my choice.

It did come as a shock to my family, who are Christian. They’ve not rejected me, but they find it difficult to understand. I feel bad because I don’t now attend weddings, funerals or christenings because they’re often at pubs and clubs and I won’t step inside.

There needs to be more resources for women who convert. I know some mosques that won’t allow women in. But in the Koran there is an emphasis on women being educated. I’ve learnt about the religion through my husband’s family and books – if you want support you have to look for it. It’s taken time to regain an identity I’m comfortable with. Because I’m mixed race and a Muslim ,people don’t see me as British – but what’s important is that I know who I am.

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Tariq Mehanna’s Prosecution a Larger Community Issue

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Karin Friedemann, TMO

Yet another “library terrorist” is being prosecuted in Boston, and as usual the typical Zionist lobbyists including the David Project aka “Citizens for Peace and Tolerance,” are suspect in a conspiracy against the Constitutional rights of this individual.

The Feds zeroed in on Tariq Mehanna, pointing to English translations of ancient Arabic Islamic texts on his website, aimed at new Muslims. The authorities said the pharmacist had conspired to attack civilians at a shopping mall, American soldiers abroad and two members of the executive branch of the federal government. The conspiracy occurred from 2001 to 2008, the acting United States attorney, Michael K. Loucks, said.

Mehanna comes from Sudbury, Massachussetts, an affluent suburb. He became acquainted with Daniel Maldonado, a Muslim convert who was arrested in Somalia, through his local mosque. According to the details from the Boston Globe, Tariq Mehanna was arrested for allegedly lying to the FBI in December 2006 regarding the whereabouts and activities of Daniel Maldonado. Mehanna is said to have spoken on the phone to Maldonado back in 2006 and then lied about doing so to the FBI which was investigating Maldonado for the “crime” of going to Somalia and receiving “terrorist training”.

Maldonado is said to have traveled to Africa where he joined up with the popular Islamic Courts Union and received military training and planned to fight with them against US backed warlords. He never even got a chance to fight as he contracted malaria. During this time his wife also contracted malaria, and by the grace of God some strangers brought his children back to Massachusetts in a tragic drama of epic proportions. Maldonado’s terrified children watched their mother die in a vehicle attempting to flee the war-torn country. Meanwhile, they await the release of their father from a CMU prison.

Mehanna was accused of many alarming things, but his only confirmed action was to travel to Yemen for religious study, and some other travel on the African continent. The FBI asked Mehanna to become an informant. When he refused, his troubles began. He accepted a job in Saudi Arabia as a pharmacist, and was arrested while trying to board the airplane. Agents from the NYPD traveled to Boston in an attempt to entrap him but Mehanna refused to partake in the “terrorist act” he was presented with. He has not been charged with any act of terrorism.

Tariq is described by those who know him well as humble, reserved, warm, compassionate, intelligent, charismatic, well-read, and dedicated. He has spent time delivering Friday sermons and directing youth study circles, speaking out against injustice and advocating for Muslim prisoners, teaching grade school students and helping those in need. Tarek is described as a man who is always giving.

“I have known him to be one of the most gracious, kind, caring, thoughtful, and respectable people I have ever known. For the two years that I knew him in Boston, I have seen him go above and beyond what most others would do to help others in need,” writes Ahmad AlFarsi in Tariq’s defense.

“Tariq was very involved in the Muslim community, masha’Allah; I remember many times that he would be giving halaqaat (Islamic lectures) in the local masjid on an Islamic text he was studying. And he helped many many other Muslims in the community come to the straight path.”

Mehanna has since been detained in pre-trial solitary confinement at Plymouth County Correction Facility in 23-hour isolation and denied bail twice. He now awaits trial, facing charges of “false statements,” “conspiracy” and “material support for terrorism” and a life sentence if wrongfully convicted. The trial has been set to begin next week. Supporters plan a protest march to the courthouse on Thursday.

Mehanna wrote in a letter to his supporters: “I cannot speak in detail about the charges and accusations against me, but suffice to say that nobody who truly knows me would for a second believe the utter lies and sensationalist garbage that has been peddled around in the media since my arrest. I am not the first person the government has played this game with, and I certainly won’t be the last. Regardless, that’s OK because, ‘Indeed, Allah defends those who believe…’ [Surat al-Hajj; v. 38]. And the Prophets themselves were targets of slander and lies by their opponents. So, who am I to be spared?”

While in prison, Mehanna has done his best to keep a positive attitude and to support fellow prisoners, while keeping his prayers. “No matter how bad things may be going for a given person, there is always someone worse off. There is always that one person you meet who gives you a reality check that reminds you that even though you are in prison going through hardship, etc., there are still things that you can take for granted.” He was referring to the unconditional support of his mother and family.

Pro-Israel lobbyists are connecting Mehanna to the Roxbury Mosque, which was not his regular prayer venue, in an attempt to connect their efforts to smear the Roxbury Mosque with this man’s plight. It would be wise for those defending Mehanna to uncover the conspiracy between extremist Jewish groups and the FBI in targeting this individual. If the David Project is not stopped, unlawful prosecutions will continue.

In a letter to supporters, Mehanna wrote about something a fellow prisoner said:

“‘When I was free, I saw your story on TV. However, it meant nothing to me, because I never thought it could happen to me. So, I did nothing for you. Now that I am in prison and it has happened to me, there are people who heard about my story and will think nothing of it, thinking it will never happen to them. Once it happens to them, others will think nothing of it and do nothing, etc…’ So, if you feel that you can just sit back and read about all these cases and do nothing to repel this injustice and that it can never happen to you, think again.”

Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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