London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Nobody can argue that there has been an unprecedented boom in the number of people converting to Islam in Europe and the US, and Islam today is reportedly the fastest growing religion in the world. Asharq Al-Awsat decided to speak with a number of western converts to Islam to find out more about this phenomenon, especially in this day and age when news of Islam in the media is more likely to be negative than positive.
There is a long history of western converts to Islam, from intellectual figures like Marmaduke Pickthall who went on to translate the Holy Quran, to military figures like Ottoman admiral Uluj Ali [born Giovanni Dionigi Galeni] and French-born Egyptian army commander Suleiman Pasha [born Joseph Anthelme Seve] whose great-granddaughter was Queen Nazil of Egypt, mother of King Farouk, to more recent figures like American boxer Muhammad Ali [born Cassius Clay], and British musician Yusuf Islam [Cat Stevens].
Islam is widely considered to be the Europe’s fastest growing religion, thanks to immigration and above average birth rates. According to statistics, the UK reportedly has a Muslim population of 2.4 million, which is equivalent to around 3.8 percent of the population. The 2001 UK census showed that one third of the Muslim population of the UK were under 16, which was the highest proportion of any group. The Muslim population of the UK has multiplied 10 times faster than the rest of society, according to research by the Office for National Statistics, while in the same period the number of Christians in the UK fell by more than 2 million. There are large Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Arab and Pakistani Muslim communities within the UK.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with four western converts to Islam, looking at the reasons behind their conversion, their views of Islam prior to conversion and today, as well as how their families and society in general reacted to this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was your first experience with Islam and Muslims? At what point did you begin to consider becoming a Muslim?
[Eric Munson] The first time I heard about Islam was in school, it was mentioned only in passing as a faith that was dominant in the Middle East and nothing else was said. My first interaction with Muslims was in University; specifically, I met my wife in a Mathematics class and she made me challenge the way I looked at people of faith. Prior to meeting her I had believed that you had to be stupid at worst or willfully ignorant at best, to have a religion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What attracted you the most to the religion?
[Eric Munson] The Quran was the first religious book I had read that required the reader to consider and to think about its arguments before believing. I found the Quran’s reliance on reason and logic a refreshing change from being required to suspend your reason and accept large portions of the faith because they could not be justified.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was there anyone in particular who influenced your decision to become a Muslim or encouraged you to convert?
[Eric Munson] I was never encouraged to convert, and I truly appreciated the fact that none of the Muslim community I met in University was at all evangelical. They were always happy to answer questions, but they never applied pressure which was a refreshing change from the University Christian community. My wife’s father was the best resource I had for questions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of literature if any did you read to learn about Islam?
[Eric Munson] I started with the Quran and I am grateful for it. I found much of the literature available online to be scary, either because it was culture wrapped as religion or extra-Quranic practice without justification.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were your thoughts on Muslims and Islam before converting?
[Eric Munson] I didn’t have specific thoughts on Muslims before converting, but as people of faith I believed that they had to be stupid or willfully ignorant. I had heard about Islam from the media (after 9/11) but I knew that I was getting only the parts that made sensational news.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could you describe the day you became a Muslim? Do you remember the day and time?
[Eric Munson] I said my shahada in early January, 2003. I don’t remember the actual day because the shahada was just the final step in a long process of me reading the Quran, learning the practice, and trying to understand as much theology I could.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the general reaction from your family and friends to your conversion? Were they supportive or non-supportive?
[Eric Munson] My friends have become fairly distant since I converted, not so much because they dislike Islam, but because I no longer did the things I used to do with them. My family was much more supportive. They did not understand the decision (or Islam itself) before but they have spent a lot of time and effort to educate themselves about Islam.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As an American convert, have you ever felt that you were subjected to any kind of discrimination from other Muslims or non-Muslims?
[Eric Munson] As an American convert in England I would say yes to both. I have found that people change their reaction to me when they find out that I am Muslim, they become more distant and less willing to do things with me. I notice that the level of service I receive at a restaurant is significantly higher when I am on my own and dressed as a typical American than when I am with my wife. The Muslim community here has been welcoming but unwilling to discuss finer points of theology with me because “I am just a convert, how much could I know?”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since becoming a Muslim what has been your view of the Muslim Ummah in general?
[Eric Munson] The individual people I meet run the spectrum of the people I met before converting. I know some wonderful Muslims, and some that I don’t want to meet again. The Ummah as a whole needs a little work. I accepted Islam because the religious teaching was open, accepting, and thoughtful. But I find that the Ummah have incorporated significant pieces of local culture (be that Arab, Pakistani, Indian, Malaysian, etc) into the faith and either don’t see or won’t admit that this is a problem. I adopted Islam as a way of life, but I never agreed to adopt Arab or Pakistani culture.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Which Quranic verse attracted you the most to Islam? Is there one that is particularly close to your heart?
[Eric Munson] The most insightful verse I found is still my favorite. It is Surah 2, verse 256, There is no compulsion in matters of religion. This was the most powerful idea I came across in the Quran, God instructs us that we cannot compel belief. This isn’t an idea I had ever encountered in religion before and it led me to take the Quran much more seriously.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What advice do you have for the young generation of Muslims in the UK?
[Eric Munson] You don’t need to compromise your faith to integrate into society. It is acceptable to be both British (or in my case American) and Muslim. The wonderful part of Islam is there is no set Muslim culture. There is a set of rules for living, but you can apply these rules within the context of any culture. So keep to your faith, and separate it from your culture or cultures. Take only the pieces you want or like from the cultures you experience because, as Muslims born in a multicultural society, you have the unique ability to forge your own idea of culture and identity without being forced into the local culture or that of your parents.