Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth writes why she loves Islam. These are excerpts from Daily Mail, London:
It is the most peculiar journey of my life. The carriage is warm and my fellow passengers unexpectedly welcoming. We are progressing rapidly and without delay. Rain, snow, rail unions, these things make no difference to the forward rush.
Yet I have no idea how I came to be on board nor, stranger still, quite where the train is heading, apart from this: the destination, wherever it might be, is the most important place I can imagine.
I know this all seems gloriously far-fetched, but really it is how I feel about my conversion, announced last week, to Islam.
Although the means and mechanisms that brought me to this point remain mysterious, the decision will determine every aspect of my life to come as firmly as the twin rails beneath that exhilarating express.
Asked for a simple explanation of how I, an English hack journalist, a single working mother, signed up to the Western media’s least-favourite religion, I suppose I would point to an intensely spiritual experience in an Iranian mosque just over a month ago.
But it makes more sense to go back to January 2005, when I arrived alone in the West Bank to cover the elections there for The Mail on Sunday. It is safe to say that before that visit I had never spent any time with Arabs, or Muslims.
The whole experience was a shock, but not for the reasons I might have expected. So much of what we know about this part of the world and the people who follow Mohammed the Prophet is based on disturbing – some would say biased – news bulletins.
So, as I flew towards the Middle East, my mind was full of the usual 10pm buzzwords: radical extremists, fanatics, forced marriages, suicide bombers and jihad. Not much of a travel brochure.
My very first experience, though, could hardly have been more positive. I had arrived on the West Bank without a coat, as the Israeli airport authorities had kept my suitcase.
Walking around the centre of Ramallah, I was shivering, whereupon an old lady grabbed my hand.
Talking rapidly in Arabic, she took me into a house on a side street. Was I being kidnapped by a rather elderly terrorist? For several confusing minutes I watched her going through her daughter’s wardrobe until she pulled out a coat, a hat and a scarf.
I was then taken back to the street where I had been walking, given a kiss and sent warmly on my way. There had been not a single comprehensible word exchanged between us.
It was an act of generosity I have never forgotten, and one which, in various guises, I have seen repeated a hundred times. Yet this warmth of spirit is so rarely represented in what we read and see in the news.
Over the course of the next three years I made numerous journeys to the occupied lands which were once historic Palestine. At first I went on assignments; as time went by, I started travelling in solidarity with charities and pro-Palestinian groups.
I felt challenged by the hardships suffered by Palestinians of all creeds. It is important to remember there have been Christians in the Holy Land for 2,000 years and that they too are suffering under Israel’s illegal occupation.
Gradually I found expressions such as ‘Mashallah!’ (a phrase of gratitude meaning ‘God has willed it’) and ‘Al Hamdillilah!’ (akin to ‘Hallelujah’) creeping into my everyday speech. These are exclamations of delight derived from the 100 names of God, or Allah. Far from being nervous of Muslim groups, I started looking forward to meeting them. It was an opportunity to be with people of intelligence, wit and, above all else, kindness and generosity.
I’m going to take a break here to pray for ten minutes as it’s 1.30pm. (There are five prayers each day, the times varying throughout the year depending on the rising and setting of the sun.)
I was in no doubt that I had embarked on a change of political understanding, one in which Palestinians became families rather than terror suspects, and Muslim cities communities rather than ‘collateral damage’.
But a religious journey? This would never have occurred to me. Although I have always liked to pray and, since childhood, have enjoyed the stories of Jesus and the more ancient prophets that I had picked up at school and at the Brownies, I was brought up in a very secular household.
It was probably an appreciation of Muslim culture, in particular that of Muslim women, that first drew me towards a broader appreciation of Islam.
How strange Muslim women seem to English eyes, all covered up from head to toe, sometimes walking behind their husbands (although this is far from universally the case), with their children around their long skirts.
By contrast, professional women in Europe are happy to make the most of their appearance. I, for example, have always been proud of my lovely blonde hair and,
yes, my cleavage.
It was common working practice to have this on display at all times because so much of what we sell these days has to do with our appearance.
Yet whenever I have been invited to broadcast on television, I have sat watching in wonder as the female presenters spend up to an hour on their hair and make- up, before giving the serious topics under discussion less than 15 minutes’ attention. Is this liberation? I began to wonder just how much true respect girls and women get in our ‘free’ society.
In 2007 I went to Lebanon. I spent four days with female university students, all of whom wore the full hijab: belted shirts over dark trousers or jeans, with no hair on show. They were charming, independent and outspoken company. They were not at all the timid, soon-to-be-forced-into-marriage girls I would have imagined from what we often read in the West.
At one point they accompanied me to interview a sheikh who was also a commander with the Hezbollah militia. I was pleasantly surprised by his attitude to the girls. As Sheikh Nabil, in turban and brown flowing robes, talked intriguingly of a prisoner swap, they started butting in. They felt free to talk over him, to put a hand up for him to pause while they translated.
In fact, the bossiness of Muslim women is something of a joke that rings true in so many homes in the community. You want to see men under the thumb? Look at many Muslim husbands more than other kinds.
Indeed, just yesterday, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia rang me and only half-jokingly introduced himself as ‘my wife’s husband’.
Something else was changing, too. The more time I spent in the Middle East, the more I asked to be taken into mosques. Just for touristy reasons, I told myself. In fact I found them fascinating.
Free of statues and with rugs instead of pews, I saw them rather like a big sitting room where children play, women feed their families pitta bread and milk and grandmothers sit and read the Koran in wheelchairs. They take their lives into their place of worship and bring their worship into their homes.
Then came the night in the Iranian city of Qom, beneath the golden dome of the shrine of Fatima Mesumah (the revered ‘Learned Lady’). Like the other women pilgrims, I said Allah’s name several times while holding on to the bars of Fatima’s tomb.
When I sat down, a pulse of sheer spiritual joy shot through me. Not the joy that lifts you off the ground, but the joy that gives you complete peace and contentment. I sat for a long time. Young women gathered around me talking of the ‘amazing thing happening to you’.
I knew then I was no longer a tourist in Islam but a traveller inside the Ummah, the community of Islam that links all believers.
At first I wanted the feeling to go, and for several reasons. Was I ready to convert? What on earth would friends and family think? Was I ready to moderate my behaviour in many ways?
And here’s the really strange thing. I needn’t have worried about any of these things, because somehow becoming a Muslim is really easy – although the practicalities are a very different matter, of course.
For a start, Islam demands a great deal of study, yet I am mother to two children and work full-time. You are expected to read the Koran from beginning to end, plus the thoughts and findings of imams and all manner of spiritually enlightened people. Most people would spend months, if not years of study before making their declaration.
People ask me how much of the Koran I’ve read, and my answer is that I’ve only covered 100 pages or so to date, and in translation. But before anyone sneers, the verses of the Koran should be read ten lines at a time, and they should be recited, considered and, if possible, committed to memory. It’s not like OK! magazine.
This is a serious text that I am going to know for life. It would help to learn Arabic and I would like to, but that will also take time.
I have a relationship with a couple of mosques in North London, and I am hoping to make a routine of going at least once a week. I would never say, by the way, whether I will take a Sunni or a Shia path. For me, there is one Islam and one Allah.
Adopting modest dress, however, is rather less troublesome than you might think. Wearing a headscarf means I’m ready to go out more quickly than before. I was blushing the first time I wore it loosely over my hair just a few weeks ago.
Luckily it was cold outside, so few people paid attention. Going out in the sunshine was more of a challenge, but this is a tolerant country and no one has looked askance so far.
A veil, by the way, is not for me, let alone something more substantial like a burka. I’m making no criticism of women who choose that level of modesty. But Islam has no expectation that I will adopt a more severe form of dress.
Predictably, some areas of the Press have had a field day with my conversion, unleashing a torrent of abuse that is not really aimed at me but a false idea of Islam.
But I have ignored the more negative comments. Some people don’t understand spirituality and any discussion of it makes them frightened. It raises awkward questions about the meaning of their own lives and they lash out.
One of my concerns is professional. It is easy to get pigeonholed, particularly if I continue to wear a headscarf. In fact, based on the experience of other female converts, I’m wondering if I will be treated as though I have lost my mind.
I’ve been political all my life, and that will continue. I’ve been involved in pro-Palestinian activism for a number of years, and don’t expect to stop. Yet Britain is a more tolerant country than, say, France or Germany.
I’m well aware that there are plenty of Muslim women who have great success on television and in the Press, and wear modest but decidedly Western dress.
This is hardly a choice for me, though. I am a newcomer, still getting to grips with the basic tenets. My relationship with Islam is different. I am in no position to say that some bits of my new-found faith suit me and that some bits I’ll ignore.
There is a more profound uncertainty about the future, too. I feel changes going on in me every day – that I’m becoming a different person. I wonder where that will end up. Who will I be?
I am fortunate in that my most important relationships remain strong. The reaction from my non-Muslim friends has been more curious than hostile. ‘Will it change you?’ they ask. ‘Can we still be your friend? Can we go out drinking?’
The answer to the first two of those questions is yes. The last is a big happy no.
As for my mother, I think she is happy if I’m happy. And if, coming from a background of my father’s alcoholism, I’m going to avoid the stuff, then what could be better?
Growing up in an alcoholic household with a dad who was violent, has left a great gap in my life. It is a wound that will never heal and his remarks about me are very hurtful.
We haven’t seen each other for years, so how can he know anything about me or have any valid views about my conversion? I just feel sorry for him. The rest of my family is very supportive.
My mum and I had a difficult relationship when I was growing up, but we have built bridges and she’s a great support to me and the girls.
When I told her I had converted, she did say: ‘Not to those nutters. I thought you said Buddhism!’ But she understand now and accepts it.
And, as it happens, giving up alcohol was a breeze. In fact I can’t imagine tasting alcohol ever again. I simply don’t want to.
This is not the time for me to be thinking about relationships with men, either. I’m recovering from the breakdown of my marriage and am now going through a divorce.
So I’m not looking and am under no pressure to look.
If, when the time came, I did consider remarrying, then, in accordance with my adopted faith, the husband would need to be Muslim.
I’m asked: ‘Will my daughters be Muslim?’ I don’t know, that is up to them. You can’t change someone’s heart. But they’re certainly not hostile and their reaction to my surprising conversion was perhaps the most telling of all.
I sat in the kitchen and called them in. ‘Girls, I have some news for you,’ I began. ‘I am now a Muslim.’ They went into a huddle, with the eldest, Alex, saying: ‘We have some questions, we’ll be right back.’
They made a list and returned. Alex cleared her throat. ‘Will you drink alcohol any more?’
Answer: No. The response – a rather worrying ‘Yay!’
‘Will you smoke cigarettes any more?’ Smoking isn’t haram (forbidden) but it is harmful, so I answered: ‘No.’
Again, this was met with puritanical approval. Their final question, though, took me aback. ‘Will you have your breasts out in public now you are a Muslim?’
It seems they’d both been embarrassed by my plunging shirts and tops and had cringed on the school run at my pallid cleavage. Perhaps in hindsight I should have cringed as well.
‘Now that I’m Muslim,’ I said, ‘I will never have my breasts out in public again.’
‘We love Islam!’ they cheered and went off to play. And I love Islam too.