London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Chief Inspector Richard Varley, a member of Scotland Yard’s Counter-Terrorism Command and the founder of the Association of Muslim Police is able to recall the day that he embraced Islam perfectly. Richard, or Rashid, as some Arabs and Muslims call him, conducted an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in which he talked about his conversion to Islam, his experiences abroad in Arab and Muslim countries and life as a British Muslim Police Officer. Richard Varley is a Geology graduate from the University of Exeter, and he converted to Islam in 1993 after visiting the Islamic Center of Regents Park Mosque in London for a number of years. Varley made the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief, in the presence of a number of the mosque’s sheikhs, and fellow Muslim convert Yusuf Islam.
The text of the interview is as follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you convert to Islam?
[Chief Inspector Varley] Well I remember the exact date, it was in August 1993.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What attracted you to the Islamic faith?
[Chief Inspector Varley] I became interested in religion after reading and reflection. I am a Geology graduate from the University of Exeter, and one of my colleagues at university was BBC correspondent Frank Gardner, who was studying Arabic language and Middle East studies. I was also a fan of science and studying this, and I found verses that came down 14 centuries ago speaking in depth about the Big Bang, and others on the expansion of the universe, and three verses that describe the task of mountains in protecting the earth. There are three Quranic verses that turned my life upside down and opened my heart to the guidance and light and depth of faith. And these three verses are: “With power and skill did We construct the Firmament: for it is We Who create the vastness of pace. [Surat Adh-Dhariyat; Verse 47]” and another verse in Surat Al-Anbiya says “Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? [Surat Al-Anbiya; Verse 30] and another blessed verse in Surat An-Naba that says “Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse, and the mountains as pegs? [Surat An-Naba; Verse 6-7]. These verses cannot pass unnoticed. No holy book could have discovered these facts 1400 years ago unless a divine power was behind it. The discovery of these facts led me to investigate the holy Quran, and I would read a complete section of the Quran every night, until I discovered a series of facts that lighted the path in front of me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you begin reading the Quran?
[Chief Inspector Varley] After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses.” I read the Quran as part of my job as a police officer who wants to learn something about Islam, and the reasons behind the Muslim’s anger and their demonstrations against the book.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you take an Arabic name?
[Chief Inspector Varley] No I didn’t, although a lot of Arabs did ask me to. When I went to the centre of London Mosque a lot of people like to call me Rashid because it sounds like Richard, and it was a bit of a joke because it means ‘rightly guided’.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And you became the Chairman of the Association of Muslim Police?
[Chief Inspector Varley] I was head. I actually founded it in 2000.When I became a Muslim in 1993 there wasn’t many Muslims in the Metropolitan police, there were a few Pakistanis, but it was less than 100 people, whereas now it’s about 400 in the Metropolitan police, and about 2000 nationwide. There wasn’t any support available for us. There was a Christian Police Association, and there was a new Sikhs Police Association, but there was nothing for Muslims. I got by for a few years until I ran into a chap called Mohamed Maaruf at a conference in 1999 who was working for the Metropolitan Police’s Positive Action Team; and like me he was serious about being a Muslim and we decided that it was about time to create a Muslim Association even though there was only very few members to start with. We hoped that as people outside of the police begin to learn that there was a Muslim Association within the police, more Muslims would join. So in 2000 we launched the Association of Muslim Police (AMP), and I was the Chairman and he was the Secretary.
There is also a website for the Association of Muslim Police, although some people do call us the Muslim Police Association, but we can’t call ourselves that as it abbreviates into MPA, which also stands for the Metropolitan Police Authority; so we had to call ourselves the AMP.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you visited any region of the Islamic world, and do you intend to perform the Hajj?
[Chief Inspector Varley] I do plan to go on Hajj. Now that I’ve seen what it’s all like [after performing Umrah in January] I would very much, inshallah, like to perform Hajj this year. After 17 years of praying 5 times a day towards Mecca, I found myself face to face with this glorious light, and this light was spreading everywhere throughout this holy site in Mecca, and I prayed that I wished to spend the rest of my life there, and I prayed to God to help me to perform the fifth pillar of Islam [the Hajj]. [When I performed the Umrah] I do not know what happened to me; I am an experienced and well-trained officer but I found myself weeping, with tears streaming from my eyes, and until now I do not know the reason for the splendor that surrounds this place [the Kaaba], and it was as if time stopped in front of my. I finished my tawaf [circumambulation of the Kaaba] at 2.30 am one night last January, and [afterwards] I took off my ihram [special pilgrimage robe] and cut my hair and I felt very close to God.
The only other place in the Muslim world that I’ve been to is Cairo; where we spent three days. I also spent three days in Medina before I travelled to Mecca [for Umrah]. And in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina [Masjid al-Nabawi] there are many signs that this religion is true and that its book came down from heaven, and even if you are not a Muslim once you have seen the Prophet’s Mosque you feel and believe that [Islam] is a divine religion that has come to guide all of mankind.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you feel safe in Saudi Arabia as a European? Did you experience any problems?
[Chief Inspector Varley] No, there were no problems at all. The only time that I’ve had any problems in Saudi Arabia was two years ago. When I was in Riyadh I went into a shop wearing this suit and asked the man to serve me, and he sent me out of the shop; he obviously didn’t like Europeans, but he didn’t know that I was a Muslim; it’s not like I was wearing a big badge that said ‘Hello, I am a Muslim’. That was the only problem I’ve ever had. Having gone there in January when very few Umrah visas were being given out there were very few white people there at all. The [AMP] chairman Rob Richie and I were the only two white guys that I saw; apart from white Arabs of course
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Saudi Arabia previously experienced problems at the hands of the Al Qaeda organization, but the country has been successful in dealing with this and ridding themselves of this threat. What is your opinion of this as a police officer?
[Chief Inspector Varley] They have a very good system for de-radicalising people in Saudi Arabia. It is very good, but I’m not sure that it would work here because of the peer pressure that a family can bring on the family member that has been radicalised. The problem in this country is that a lot of the strays that have been radicalised are outside the family; so I don’t know if it would work as well, although I would like to try it. I think it is an excellent system and it has shown results, and it has also shown how Saudis understand their own society and some of the tensions that younger people feel in that society.
There was a very good article written by a Saudi specialist on this topic in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute in December. They have done some good scholarly work and have challenged the ideas of the radicalised people using proper scholars who have brought them back onto the straight path. I have been impressed with what I have seen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you are interrogating a Muslim suspect do you try to forget that you are a Muslim and focus upon your job in a strictly professional manner?
[Chief Inspector Varley] Yes. We are very civil in providing for prisoners who claim to be Muslim. One of the chaps that came back from Guantanamo was saying how well he was treated by the Metropolitan Police because we made sure that he had a prayer mat, and because if a Muslim prisoner wants a Quran we provide them with one. It’s because we understand all of these things, especially with providing Halal food for them. It is these types of things that we are very good at now whereas perhaps ten years ago we weren’t so still. So we still treat people as Muslims even if the interrogation deals with them as criminals.