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Muslim Converts: Why Do They Choose Extremism? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Khalid Kelly, the former leader of al Muhajiroun in Ireland with son Osama (Asharq Al-Awsat Photo)

Khalid Kelly, the former leader of al Muhajiroun in Ireland with son Osama (Asharq Al-Awsat Photo)

Khalid Kelly, the former leader of al Muhajiroun in Ireland with son Osama (Asharq Al-Awsat Photo)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The discovery of an alleged plot to bomb ten UK transatlantic flights last week and the revelation that three recent converts to Islam planned to use liquid explosives has once again placed British Muslims under the spotlight.

Twenty-three suspects have been arrested so far, including five who live in Buckinghamshire, three of whom recently converted to Islam.

Abdul Waheed, 21, was arrested at a house in High Wycombe. He changed his name from Don Stewart-Whyte six months ago, after converting to Islam, through two of his friends, who have also been arrested.

Scotland Yard is currently analyzing what drove these British citizens to espouse terrorism and join a Pakistani cell, whose members are, for the majority, originally from Kashmir. Britain’s police fears that new converts joining extremist Islamist groups are difficult to apprehend, as they are British-born and can travel freely in Europe and North America.

Among those who have embraced a radical form of Islam is Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan origin, who was the only person in US custody convicted of taking part in the September 11 attacks, currently serving a life sentence in a Colorado high security prison.

The police in Britain fear that new converts might seek to follow in the footsteps of Richard Reid, a British citizen and the so-called “shoe-bomber”, who converted to Islam whilst in prison, and David Hicks “the Australian Taliban”, currently detained in Guantanamo Bay. Reid planned to bomb a transatlantic flight using an explosive device hidden in his shoes in December 2001. He is serving a life sentence.

Security sources believe that Moussaoui and Reid were introduced to radical Islam whilst attending mosques in London, notably Finsbury Park mosque in north London.

Nicholas Luke, 24, who converted to Islam in 2006, said his father, a university professor, looked at him with contempt after he was given the news of his son’s conversion and said, “There is a Muslim now in our house.’

In an article published in the New York Times, Nicholas, who changed his name to Mahdi, said extremist organizations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun were active amongst new converts at Leeds University and sought to recruit them.

After becoming Abdul Waheed, Stewart-Whyte’s life changed drastically. The son of a Conservative politician made new friends, grew a beard and married a Moroccan woman, all in the space of six months.

One of the leading recent converts to Islam is Yahya Burt, a researcher at the Center for Islamic Studies at the University of Leicester, the son of Lord John Burt, a former Director-General of the BBC. He told Asharq Al Awsat, “Many converts are landowners, famous personalities and rich people.”

For many British, Burt is a Malcolm X figure. He told Asharq Al Awsat on Thursday that the number of converts to Islam is estimated at 16,000, 40% of whom are black.

Considered one of the faces of moderate British Islam, Yahya said, “There are many stars in British society who have converted to Islam but fear discussing the changes that occurred in their lives because this might have a negative impact on their work or relationship to society.”

Other Muslims converts include Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist who was held captive by the Taliban and converted upon her release in 2001. The internationally renowned singer Cat Stevens also converted to Islam in 1977 after a near-death experience and changed his name to Yusuf Islam.

On the other hand, Asharq Al Awsat met Abu Abdullah al Turki, who converted to Islam and espoused fundamentalist ideology, becoming Abu Hamza’s successor at the helm of “Ansar al Shariaa” group in Britain. He remains faithful to his Egyptian teacher, the former Imam at Finsbury Park mosque who is now in Belmarsh prison. Ten years ago, Islam transported him “from darkness to light,” he told Asharq Al Awsat.

The British national refused to reveal his name at birth. Despite living in Britain for many years, he described the country as “the Land of war” or “the Land of Kufr,”(disbelief).

The 42-year-old of Turkish-Cypriot origin was born in Peckham, in southeast London. A former gold trader and shop owner, he now spends his time spreading fundamentalist ideas. He first started attending religious classes under a prominent convert to Islam, a Jamaican called Sheikh Faisal, the first imam to be detained by the police in Britain and sentenced to seven years behind bars for inciting to kill Jews, Hindus and American citizens. However, it was not until he met Abu Hamza al Masri that his ideas crystallized. “I was attracted by his courage and audacity and his fluent Arabic and English,” he said of the Finsbury Park Mosque imam.

Abu Abdullah firmly believes that Shariaa law will be applied in Britain, even if it takes two hundred years. He denied being arrested by the police adding that he advises new converts to Islam to be rational and not to give anyone a chance to exploit them in matters they might be condemned for. He said that clashes with the police were about to become rivers of blood when the Finsbury Park Mosque was raided, but he asked his followers to be rational and to entrust their matters to the authorities. He emphasized that he has nothing to hide from the police “but God has given me the acumen and experience so that I do not fall into the hands of the police.”

He expressed his regret that that his group had lost control of the mosque in north London which used to be considered the epicenter of fundamentalist Muslims across Britain, in favor of a more moderate Muslim group. “Ansar al Shariaa does not have an exclusive mosque or pulpit from which to preach in Britain but salvation is coming.”

“We are not a group in the common sense of the term as we do not have an emir, in the Shariaa sense, and we have not declared our support to anyone. We do not have military or political wings. We are solely a peaceful preaching group that calls on people to correct Islam and to disprove the suspicions cast against it.”

Wearing a long tunic and a turban, Abu Abdullah said, “I only have regard for God and I don’t care about the stares of the non-believers.”

Before becoming a practicing Muslim, Abu Abdullah used to listen to famous Turkish singers and pop music, which he now shuns, choosing instead to listen only to recitations of the Quran and Islamic songs, which remind Muslims of their glorious history.

“It hurts me what is happening to Muslims around the world from massacres, tragedies and oppression in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. I feel that Muslims are the victims in conflict zones across the world.”

As for the Irish fundamentalist Khalid Kelly, the former leader of al Muhajiroun in Ireland, he converted to Islam during a spell in a Saudi jail, in 2000, charged with producing and selling alcoholic drinks, which are illegal in the kingdom. “It’s unbelievable to think that someone can change from Islam to extremism in six months,” he told Asharq Al Awsat.

Commenting on the transformation of Stewart-Whyte into Abdul Waheed in six months and his alleged role in the plot to bomb transatlantic jetliners, Kelly said, “Six months is not enough to teach him the five basic tenants of Islam and prayer. How can one person become, 6 months after converting to Islam, an alleged terrorist, as the media is claiming? This is closer to a ready-made scenario by the British police.” “Extremists and terrorists don’t trust us white people who convert to Islam until six years have passed, at least.”

He told Asharq Al Awsat of his own experience traveling to Pakistan after huge parts of the country suffered terrible destruction following a deadly earthquake in October 2005. He then planned to travel to Afghanistan but many in Peshawar warned him that, because of the color of his skin and appearance, the Taliban might detain him and ask for a ransom or kill him if they believe he is an American spy.

Born Terence Edward Kelly, he told Asharq Al Awsat how he lost his job at one of London’s major hospitals, St Thomas’, after rumors were circulated about him being “the Taliban nurse”.

He also said he was still in touch with his sheikh and former teacher, Omar Bakri Mohammed, the firebrand preacher who left London for Beirut, following the July 7 attacks on the subway system.

Describing his journey from skepticism to belief, or as he called it “from darkness to light,” Kelly said, “the journey started with the illegal production of alcoholic drinks in Saudi Arabia whilst I was working as a nurse at the King Faisal hospital.” He converted to Islam whilst in jail in Riyadh.

Speaking to Asharq Al Awsat on Wednesday, he said he used to hate Islam and especially the sound of the call to prayer. Nowadays, after his life changed radically, he prays at an east London mosque and enjoys spending time with his five-month old son Osama, from his marriage to a Pakistani Muslim.

“Before Islam, I didn’t know the meaning of love. I used to be like other British young men, drinking and going out, but when I read the Quran in 2000, whilst in jail, I felt a huge surge of compassion and sympathy. I feel now that what led me to Islam was God’s mercy and sympathy. It’s something bigger than myself and I can’t explain it with words.”

Some people believe that converts to Islam whose former lives were extreme are more likely to become fundamentalists after espousing the new religion. However, experts in European Islam note that a tumultuous life does not necessary lead people to become extremists and indicate that several complex elements are at play, perhaps most importantly the presence of extremist preachers who prey on recent converts and lead them astray.