When I arrived alone in the West Bank in January 2005 to cover the elections for The Mail, my mind was full of the usual 10 pm buzzwords: radical extremists, fanatics, forced marriages, suicide bombers and jihad.
But my first experience could not have been more positive. I had arrived without a coat, as the Israeli airport authorities had kept my suitcase. Walking around the centre of Ramallah, I was shivering, whereupon an old woman grabbed my hand.
Talking rapidly in Arabic, she took me into a house on a side street. Was an elderly terrorist kidnapping me? For several confusing minutes, I watched her going through her daughter’s wardrobe until she pulled out a coat, a hat and a scarf.
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 next three years, I made numerous journeys to the occupied lands, which were once historic Palestine. Gradually I found expressions such as ‘Mashallah’ (God has willed’) and Alhamdulillah (‘Praise to God’), creeping into my everyday speech.
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 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.’
It was appreciation of Muslim culture, in particular 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, 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.
Transfer of Faith
Then came the night in the Iranian 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.
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 would friends and family think? Was I ready to moderate my behaviour in many ways?
I need not have worried about any of these things, because becoming a Muslim is really easy, although the practicalities are different.
I am fortunate that my most important relationships remain strong. The reaction from my non-Muslim friends has been more curious than hostile.
“Will it change you? Can we still be your friend? Can we go out drinking?” were among the questions my friends asked.
The answer to the first two of those questions was ‘Yes.’
The last was a big happy ‘No.’
Coming from a background of my father’s alcoholism, I was going to avoid the stuff, so what could be better?
When I told my mother that I had converted to Islam, she said, “Not to those nutters, I thought you said Buddhism!” But she understands now and accepts it.
Will my daughters be Muslims? I do not know, it is up to them. But they are certainly not hostile and their reaction to my surprising conversion was perhaps the most telling of all.
I sat in the kitchen, called them, and said, “Girls, I have some news for you. I am now a Muslim.”
They went into a huddle, with the eldest, Alex, saying, “We have some questions, we will be right back.”
They returned with a list.
“Will you drink alcohol anymore?”
“No,” I said.
“Will you smoke cigarettes anymore?”
Smoking is not haram (forbidden) but it is harmful, so I answered, “No.”
Their final question took me aback. “How will you dress in public, now that you are a Muslim?”
It seems they had 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 am Muslim, I will never wear any of those dresses again,” I said.
They cheered, “We love Islam!”
Lauren Booth is an English broadcaster, journalist and Human Rights activist. She now works for Iran’s English-language news channel, Press TV. She is a half-sister of Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She converted to Islam in September 2010. In December, she filed for bankruptcy and Ms Blair was among her creditors. The above article, which we have edited, was sent by our Christchurch reader Abdullah Drury.