Why more and more Westerners are converting to Islam and, in some cases, pursuing an extremist path
By JUMANA FAROUKY / LONDON
Jamal Harwood prays five times a day. He doesn't drink, smoke or eat pork. He's active in his local Muslim community, and he's very serious about the need for an Islamic state. But if you passed him on the street, you would have no idea. Not just because Harwood, a financial consultant in London, wears a suit instead of traditional Muslim dress. Or because he keeps his beard cropped fashionably close. But because he's white.
Born in Vancouver, Harwood used to be a model Christian, studying the Bible, attending church and taking religion classes at school. "But I had certain reservations," he says, "certain question marks in my mind--some theological, some societal--that I wanted to reconcile." He went to Southeast Asia to find himself and explored Islam there. At 25 he settled in London, where friends helped him learn more about the faith. A year later, he converted and soon joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, a political party known for its radical views that is banned in many Muslim countries. Harwood, 45, is now a spokesman for the group; he says it is opposed to terrorism. Although his life choices may make him an object of scrutiny by his government--Hizb ut-Tahrir has been on Britain's watch list since the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London--he has no regrets. "I found that Islam was giving me good, solid answers to my questions," he says. "It wasn't difficult for me to embrace it."
That sentiment rings true for growing numbers of Westerners, reared on other faiths or none at all, who are converting to Islam--despite the fact that relations between the Muslim world and the West have rarely seemed so strained. Although figures on conversions to Islam in Western countries are difficult to nail down, it's safe to say that Muslim converts in the U.S. and Europe number in the hundreds of thousands, and anecdotal evidence suggests the number is on the rise. The arrest of at least three English converts in the plot to blow up passenger jets over the Atlantic has raised the troubling possibility that jihadist groups may be drawing some of their most committed operatives from the pool of new believers. "When converts are trying to find their way in their new religion, they are vulnerable to the influence of extremists," says Didier-Yacine Beyens, former president of Belgium's Muslim Executive and a convert. "They can sometimes be persuaded by radical preachers who claim to represent the 'true' voice of Islam, when in fact they represent nothing of the sort."
The vast majority of converts are, like the vast majority of Muslims, moderates who reject the extremism espoused by al-Qaeda and its ilk. But as with any religion, converts to Islam tend to be more devout than those born into the faith. And it's indisputable that some converts do, in fact, become terrorists, including shoe-bomb suspect Richard Reid; Jose Padilla, the Chicago native arrested four years ago for involvement in an alleged al-Qaeda plot to detonate a radiological bomb; and Germaine Lindsay, a Jamaican-born Briton who was one of the suicide bombers who attacked the London Underground last summer. "Originally, jihadist groups were suspicious of converts because they saw them as a way for intelligence forces to infiltrate," says Gustavo de Aristegui, a Spanish terrorism expert and the author of Jihad in Spain. "But they're realizing that ... someone with a Western last name and blue eyes is going to raise fewer suspicions. Converts can be virtually impossible to detect, especially if they have not revealed their conversion to their family."
So why do they do it? In this day and age, what kind of person is prone to explore religious conversion? And what is the attraction of Islam? The three British converts arrested two weeks ago have three things in common: all are men, all are described by people who know them as friendly, regular guys, and all are in their 20s. But the similarities pretty much end there. According to accounts from friends, Don Stewart-Whyte, who changed his name to Abdul Waheed, converted six months ago, giving up drugs and alcohol. He grew a beard, shaved his head and started wearing traditional Islamic dress. Friends say Brian Young, who is of West Indian descent, was troubled by the decadence of Western society. Oliver Savant, now called Ibrahim, has been a Muslim for some seven years and, friends say, never mentioned politics. "He just talked about soccer and general chitchat," says a friend.
The reasons converts give for making the change vary widely. But one common refrain is that in an increasingly secular world in which society's rules get looser by the day, Islam provides a detailed moral map covering everything from friendships to protecting the environment. And for Western youths, taking up Islam can also serve as an outlet for rebellion. A majority of converts, especially in Western Europe, are in their late teens or 20s. "Islam is a kind of refuge for those who are downtrodden and disenfranchised because it has become the religion of the oppressed," says Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Paris professor and the author of several books on Muslim extremism. "Previously--say, 20 years ago--they may have chosen communism or gone to leftist ideologies. Now Islam is the religion of those who fight against imperialism, who are treated unjustly by the arrogant Western societies and so on."
There's another appeal to converting to Islam: it's relatively easy. In Catholicism and Judaism, the conversion process can involve years of preparation and study. In Islam, the process is called reversion (because islam literally means "submission to God," believers hold that everyone is born Muslim), and it's mainly a matter of uttering a two-line declaration of faith, the Shahadah. Say the Shahadah aloud in Arabic, and the conversion is complete.
But being newcomers to the faith doesn't spare converts from the suspicions and pressures faced by Muslims in the West today. Ali Khan, the national director of the American Muslim Council in Chicago, says he once had to convince a recent convert's wife, who wasn't Muslim, that her husband wouldn't suddenly become a terrorist. "A lot of their families freak out at first," Khan says. He says another convert had to reassure his brother, who asked, "You're not going to kill me in my sleep, are you?" And yet there's little evidence that negative perceptions of Islam--fewer than 20% of Americans say they have a positive image of the religion, according to one poll--have had any effect on the rate of conversion. Instead, since 9/11, some mosques have seen a jump in the number of people converting to Islam. "Awareness of Islam is much greater now, whether positive or negative, than it was prior to September 11," says Khan. "People are becoming curious. Sometimes it starts when they just walk into a bookshop and start reading a Koran after hearing George Bush talking about it."
Ultimately, the path that most converts choose will be determined by the outcome of the larger struggle within Islam, between the forces of moderation and extremism. Abdula, 22, a tall, bearded Londoner of Ghanaian descent, was a devout Christian until a university friend introduced him to Islam. "I started researching more about it to try and find its faults," he says. "But I couldn't, and I was captured." Abdula (who won't give his last name) officially converted eight months ago. He supports equality for women and condemns terrorism, but he acknowledges that his perspective on the world is still taking shape. "These are my views, and you must understand they might not be correct because I'm always in need of guidance." The challenge for the West is to makes sure men like Abdula get the right kind.
With reporting by With reporting by Lisa Abend / Madrid, Geoff Pingree / Madrid, Theunis Bates / London, Jessica Carsen / London, Adam Smith / London, Jeremy Caplan / New York, Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels, Grant Rosenberg / Paris