'My father was an alcoholic so if I'm going to avoid the stuff what could be better?'
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 buzz¬words: 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 Hamd¬illilah!’ (akin to ‘Halle¬lujah’) 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’.
Tony Booth with the only daughter he is said he is proud of, Cherie Blair
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 partic¬ular 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 liber¬ation? 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.
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 Iran¬ian 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 prac¬ticalities 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 (for¬bidden) 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.
(Source: Daily Mail, November 1, 2010)
Lauren Booth: I'm now a Muslim. Why all the shock and horror?
By Lauren Booth
Lauen Booth (Photograph Sarah Lee/Guardian)
It is five years since my first visit to Palestine. And when I arrived in the region, to work alongside charities in Gaza and the West Bank, I took with me the swagger of condescension that all white middle-class women (secretly or outwardly) hold towards poor Muslim women, women I presumed would be little more than black-robed blobs, silent in my peripheral vision. As a western woman with all my freedoms, I expected to deal professionally with men alone. After all, that's what the Muslim world is all about, right?
This week's screams of faux horror from fellow columnists on hearing of my conversion to Islam prove that this remains the stereotypical view regarding half a billion women currently practising Islam.
On my first trip to Ramallah, and many subsequent visits to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, I did indeed deal with men in power. And, dear reader, one or two of them even had those scary beards we see on news bulletins from far-flung places we've bombed to smithereens. Surprisingly (for me) I also began to deal with a lot of women of all ages, in all manner of head coverings, who also held positions of power. Believe it or not, Muslim women can be educated, work the same deadly hours we do, and even boss their husbands about in front of his friends until he leaves the room in a huff to go and finish making the dinner.
Is this patronising enough for you? I do hope so, because my conversion to Islam has been an excuse for sarcastic commentators to heap such patronising points of view on to Muslim women everywhere. So much so, that on my way to a meeting on the subject of Islamophobia in the media this week, I seriously considered buying myself a hook and posing as Abu Hamza. After all, judging by the reaction of many women columnists, I am now to women's rights what the hooked one is to knife and fork sales.
So let's all just take a deep breath and I'll give you a glimpse into the other world of Islam in the 21st century. Of course, we cannot discount the appalling way women are mistreated by men in many cities and cultures, both with and without an Islamic population. Women who are being abused by male relatives are being abused by men, not God. Much of the practices and laws in "Islamic" countries have deviated from (or are totally unrelated) to the origins of Islam. Instead practices are based on cultural or traditional (and yes, male-orientated) customs that have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule is an invention of the Saudi monarchy, our government's close ally in the arms and oil trade. The fight for women's rights must sadly adjust to our own government's needs.
My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.
I began to wonder about the calmness exuded by so many of the "sisters" and "brothers". Not all; these are human beings we're talking about. But many. And on my visit to Iran this September, the washing, kneeling, chanting recitations of the prayers at the mosques I visited reminded me of the west's view of an entirely different religion; one that is known for eschewing violence and embracing peace and love through quiet meditation. A religion trendy with movie stars such as Richard Gere, and one that would have been much easier to admit to following in public – Buddhism. Indeed, the bending, kneeling and submission of Muslim prayers resound with words of peace and contentment. Each one begins, "Bismillahir rahmaneer Raheem" – "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" – and ends with the phrase "Assalamu Alaykhum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh" – Peace be upon you all and God's mercy and blessing.
Almost unnoticed to me, when praying for the last year or so, I had been saying "Dear Allah" instead of "Dear God". They both mean the same thing, of course, but for the convert to Islam the very alien nature of the language of the holy prayers and the holy book can be a stumbling block. I had skipped that hurdle without noticing. Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that's how it was for me, anyway.
How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can't we cry in public, hug one another more, say "I love you" to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah's law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real "fun" as we in the west do? And we do, don't we? Don't we?
Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.
The sheikh who finally converted me at a mosque in London a few weeks ago told me: "Don't hurry, Lauren. Just take it easy. Allah is waiting for you. Ignore those who tell you: you must do this, wear that, have your hair like this. Follow your instincts, follow the Holy Qur'an- and let Allah guide you."
And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey's character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.
Now, my morning starts with dawn prayers at around 6am, I pray again at 1.30pm, then finally at 10.30pm. My steady progress with the Qur'an has been mocked in some quarters (for the record, I'm now around 200 pages in). I've been seeking advice from Ayatollahs, imams and sheikhs, and every one has said that each individual's journey to Islam is their own. Some do commit the entire text to memory before conversion; for me reading the holy book will be done slowly and at my own pace.
In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can't even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I'm overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I've heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.
On a final note I'd like to offer a quick translation between Muslim culture and media culture that may help take the sting of shock out of my change of life for some of you.
When Muslims on the BBC News are shown shouting "Allahu Akhbar!" at some clear, Middle Eastern sky, we westerners have been trained to hear: "We hate you all in your British sitting rooms, and are on our way to blow ourselves up in Lidl when you are buying your weekly groceries."
In fact, what we Muslims are saying is "God is Great!", and we're taking comfort in our grief after non-Muslim nations have attacked our villages. Normally, this phrase proclaims our wish to live in peace with our neighbours, our God, our fellow humans, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Or, failing that, in the current climate, just to be left to live in peace would be nice.
(Source: Guardian, November 3, 2010)