We Muslim converts are not traitors in your midst

Yahya Birt — son of John, the former BBC director-general — says that those who choose Islam are not the modern-day equivalent of Soviet moles such as Anthony Blunt.

The Spectator, 19 August 2006

Converts to Islam are now under the microscope. Middle England is in a moral panic at the news that a white middle-class boy from High Wycombe, the son of a Conservative party constituency worker, has been arrested in connection with what might have been our own 9/11.

The explanations reached for 7/7, about social unrest or cultural clashes between Muslim elders and youth, clearly don’t apply. In the past, the temptation might have been to explain away conversion to Islam as a manifestation of social or personal discontent: an escape from personal problems, maybe, a decision to embrace the latest form of Third Worldism, a rebellion against liberal parents from the 1960s generation.

Now the thought is that people are converting not to one of the world’s great religions but to Islamofascism, to an anti-Western political cause with its very own fringe of bloodstained anarchists who are prepared to kill people on a grand scale. Converts have betrayed their country to join, like Bill Haydon in John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the other side.

The Elizabethans confronting Ottoman naval power used to think the same: that converting to Islam was ‘turning Turk’. The Muslim convert becomes an odd amalgam of Anthony Blunt and Timothy McVeigh. However, in my 16 years as a Muslim, most converts I’ve met were, like myself, only interested in searching for a spiritual path.

Sufism, the Islamic mystical path, has been popular since the 1960s when it became part of the countercultural scene, and it still has a huge appeal to many Westerners. Today the mediaeval Sufi mystic Rumi is the bestselling poet in America. The other influence, especially within the Afro-Caribbean community, has been Islamic-influenced rap and hip-hop and, further back in time, jazz.

It is part of a search for cultural roots which leads some back to the Islamic kingdoms of West Africa, and re-enacts the iconic journey of Malcolm X from black nationalism to mainstream Islam. The rise of multicultural Britain, together with foreign travel and British curiosity and open-mindedness, has led many to explore other faiths.

Probably half the Buddhists but fewer than 1 per cent of Muslims in Britain are converts. There are some 15,000 converts to Islam, about 40 per cent of them from black and Asian backgrounds. There is nothing very remarkable about this. The divine supermarket, like Tesco’s, is now better stocked and offers more choice for the customer looking for something a bit out of the ordinary.

I remember the warm welcome I had from the Muslim community — the hospitality and countless curries went down very well. It was easy to remain aloof from political debate, but during the 1990s it became clear that a series of political causes abroad were animating young British Muslims.

Although it rarely gets mentioned nowadays, Bosnia marked one such turning point. It seemed that no matter how assimilated or historically grounded they seemed to be, Muslims were not truly considered to be a part of Europe. The massacre of 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 sent a disturbing signal to Britain’s Muslims. Some young idealists went to the Balkans and fought for the Bosnians; it was not known at the time that it was a recruiting ground for more sinister causes.

The radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir had also emerged on the campuses, and its confident tabloid style of politics appealed to some impressionable young Muslims. While at university, and involved with my local Islamic society, I experienced many run-ins with them.

At our college we managed to keep them to the margins, but it was difficult and I was accused of being a turncoat and a spy. Recoiling from this angry Marxist-Leninist Islam, I spent a number of years away from the community, disillusioned and unsure. During research fieldwork for a doctorate just before 9/11, it was clear to me that radicalism had become embedded in a section of the Muslim community.

But it took the attack on the Twin Towers for me to realise that these people were more than just the Muslim Militant Tendency. All the other factors of disaffection and disadvantage were there, but these radical ideas were the critical factor. I felt, like many others, the need to get involved again, fearing the consequences of the great stigma that Osama bin Laden had laid upon Islam and British Muslims.

In these past five years the Muslim community has struggled to cope with the pressure. It is the youngest community in the country, half of it under the age of 25 — with all the energy, enthusiasm and inexperience that one might expect — and it’s one of the poorest and most socially marginalised.

There is much to be done to cut through the despair and cynicism that have taken hold. The old colonial way of dealing with migrant communities by proxy through community representatives was always likely to prove ineffectual to deal with this crisis. The government even believes that imams can be used to direct the process of integration, when they are still regarded as ill-paid employees, and have no special status.

Many cannot relate culturally to young people or speak English adequately. The mosque has a much less central role than once it had. Even if fatwas of peace from the great and learned of the Muslim world are circulated, as they have been, it won’t matter much to puritanical extremists who do not recognise the traditional religious authorities.

Imagine the conceit that a papal edict might have been thought effective to calm the IRA in the 1970s. So while there is an undoubted need to condemn dodgy theology, in the long run it won’t be enough to deal with the larger political challenges in the Muslim world.

If I had to come up with a phrase to describe why I think anyone would want to blow up those planes, it would be ‘perverted idealism’. According to this type of thinking, Muslim lives are held cheaply and are undefended. To protect Muslims, we must resort to acts of terror, the weapon of the weak. We will stand up and be counted as heroes. Converts who don’t fit the stereotypical profile are attractive targets for extremist recruiters, as we have seen in the cases of Richard Reid and Jermaine Lindsay.

It would be naive to underestimate the moral charge behind that basic appeal. The burning desire to protect the weak and defenceless against the might of modern aerial bombing blurs fine moral distinctions about collateral damage. It is a dangerous romanticism powerful enough to appeal across all sorts of cultural borders.

Extremism passes through religion like an arrow through the body, as Mohammed taught. And it is with this small hope that I look to a future in which the search for political peace takes precedence over the war on terrorism and acts of terror.

Yahya Birt is a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation, Leicestershire.

[Reproduced by permission of The Spectator magazine. The online link is here.]