It’s no mystery that people like Khalil Dale are drawn to the religion’s ultimate simplicity.
The discovery at the weekend in Pakistan of the body of Khalil Dale, a British aid worker, has reminded his friends of his exceptional courage and heroism. We all lived in awe of his fearlessness. Once when he was working in Afghanistan, a colleague of his was shot in the head while sitting next to him in his car; but Khalil didn’t hesitate to accept a second posting there. In countries where even journalists couldn’t operate, Khalil was eager to serve. At the time he was appointed MBE, he was reportedly the only Westerner working in all of Somalia.
For many non-Muslims, though, there’s a puzzle. Why was this saintly and fearless hero a Muslim? He defied every conventional stereotype of what a Muslim ought to be. White, highly qualified and self-evidently compassionate and caring, Khalil was a living challenge to standard Islamophobic sentiment.
For us Muslims, Khalil was a significant figure in a whole movement: the modern British turn to Islam. Perhaps because it seems so counter-intuitive, this important development in our country’s religious history is only occasionally noticed. And because of a combination of British diffidence and the fear of prejudice, many British Muslims do not publicly announce their faith. These are the so-called “submarines”. I know practising Muslims in senior academic posts, in the House of Lords and in journalism, whose Islam is a closely guarded secret. I even know a Catholic priest and theology professor who is a closet convert to Islam.
In the nature of things one cannot guess at the number of such people. But those whose conversion is known were the subject of a revealing Swansea University report last year. There have been, it seems, a hundred thousand British conversions to Islam in the past decade, compared with sixty thousand in the 1990s. Despite the shock and horror of the 9/11 atrocities, Islam is thriving.
Here’s another puzzle for the Islamophobe: the typical convert is a young white female. Women account for three quarters of new Muslims in the UK and increasingly seek a high-profile role in Muslim communities. Last year the head of America’s main Muslim organisation was a white female convert.
But this is one of the few possible generalisations. On the whole one struggles to find a pattern. When asked who converts to Islam and why, I usually have no answer. British society is so diverse that there are, as the Muslim author Michael Wolfe puts it, “a thousand and one roads to Mecca”.
Khalil’s road was, like all the others, unusual. He watched the Iranian revolution in 1979, although still outside the faith, and sympathised with what he saw as a believing people’s revolt against a cruel Western-backed autocrat. Working in northern Kenya, he became friends with the imam of a small mosque and began to feel something of the peace and serenity that so many new Muslims experience. The call to prayer from the little minaret had a unique spiritual appeal. As Liam Neeson, wrongly reported earlier this year as having converted to Islam, put it: “It just gets into your spirit, and it’s the most beautiful, beautiful thing.”
When Iran’s revolution turned sour, Khalil turned against it and never showed sympathy for fundamentalist movements, which he believed to have little moral or spiritual value.
There is a different type of convert in some deprived areas, where the problem of failed relationships, drink and drugs have reached crisis proportions for many young people. Here Islam spreads as a kind of ultimate cold-turkey treatment. In Australia, for instance, Islam is spreading fastest among Aboriginal populations, which have often been decimated by alcohol abuse.
More common, though, is the spiritual wanderer who finds his way to Islam having rejected Christianity because of the complexity of its belief system. “Ultimate truth should be ultimately simple,” a Catholic convert told me last week, and it seems that many churchgoers are bewildered by the doctrine of the Trinity. Islam’s simple monotheism, in an age with little time for theology, clearly has an appeal.
Is joining Islam a rejection of one’s previous identity? In some sense every conversion entails that. But for many it also involves a reconnection with aspects of Britishness that have been lost to globalisation. My ancestors, for instance, were Congregationalist teetotallers and, in a sense, my conversion joined me strangely to strict ancestors who “took the pledge”.
Where is our movement going? For Khalil, Islam was not a movement at all, but a private love for God that enabled him to give his life in service to others. Yet at a time when many Muslims and non-Muslims alike believe in an inexorable “clash of civilisations”, the convert occupies an overlap zone between two worlds and inevitably shoulders a political responsibility.
We need to tell the Muslim world that the West is not only interested in invasions and support for corrupt regimes, but allows a religious freedom that puts many Muslim countries to shame. No less loudly, we should be telling Westerners that we refuse to be judged by the behaviour of our fundamentalists. We have found Islam to be a path to God in an age of uncertainty and moral decline. Here we stand; we cannot do otherwise.
Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) is the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge
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