Samantha Lewthwaite’s story may never be fully known, but I know from experience that some converts to Islam, desperate to prove themselves, end up radicalised.
Samantha Lewthwaite, the ‘white widow’. She may be an aberration – with the Muslim community predictably reacting with shock at having unwittingly harboured her – but her story isn’t unique. Photograph: Rex
In Islamic circles it isn’t polite to call a new adherent a convert. The preferred term is a “revert”. The idea is that Islam is the natural state of man (or woman) until their parents interfere and make them one thing or another.
It has on occasion been patiently explained to me – a convert to Islam at the age of 18 – that the relative ease with which someone can convert to Islam shows just how open the community is to converts, regardless of their race, background, bank balance or life history.
It’s been an appealing selling point, drawing on the early days of Islam in the deserts of seventh century Arabia – a time when an egalitarian spirit that embraced slaves and sinners is said to have prevailed.
And the theory has found favour with some of the most famous converts to Islam – from the black consciousness leader Malcolm X to the great Leopold Weiss, known in the Muslim world as Muhammad Asad. The famous feminist Muslim scholar, Amina Wadud, is a convert to Islam, as was the historian and recorder of the Muslim pilgrimage, “Harry” St John Philby.
These are names worlds away from the likes of the so-called white widow, Samantha Lewthwaite, whose notoriety has gone up several notches following reports linking her with the attacks in Kenya. She has captured the imagination, despite there being no firm evidence of her involvement in the atrocity.
Though she may be an aberration – with the Muslim community predictably reacting with shock at having unwittingly harboured her – Lewthwaite’s story isn’t unique.
Her apparent drift to extremism, after some perfectly ordinary early years “within the fold”, though definitely exceptional in its nature and extent, partly reflects the reality found among many more converts to Islam than we might care to admit.
Frightened that the acceptance they so crave might never come, they may find themselves constantly needing to prove their bona fides to people sceptical of their ability to be “real Muslims” after a previous life presumed to have been loaded with hedonism and sin.
Biographers write of Muhammad Asad’s disbelief when his English translation of the Qur’an – instead of being hailed, was dismissed by other Islamic scholars as the work of a “mere Jew”. In a need to prove that they’re not “just a convert” – simple propagation or da’wah is seen as inadequate – some inevitably gravitate towards ideas rejected by the mainstream.
And there is, in some Muslim communities, little of the kind of pastoral care found in the Christian church, where a believer can take their problems to a sympathetic priest. Many converts, unless they have married into the community, once the initial novelty has died down, find themselves alone and alienated, “rebels in search of a cause”.
You will find them, desperate to find some meaning in the journey they have undertaken. Some find it in Sufism. Others in jihad – immersing themselves in the writings of the likes of Sayyid Qutb, Abul A’la Maududi and Ayatollah Khomeini – the godfathers of the Islamic movement. Because of their need to prove themselves, they are the impressionable types targeted by fringe groups looking for recruits.
Interviewing female converts to Islam in London as part of a film project in 2004, I chanced upon a group from Regent’s Park mosque keen to share their views on everything from bikinis to stoning for adultery. One woman, a second-time divorcee whom I shall name Aimee, did not blink as she told the camera (in a heavy Scottish brogue) she would pick up the first stone to lob at her own daughter if she was found guilty of crimes against Allah.
Her chilling words reminded me of the story of Margaret Marcus, an ordinary Jewish girl from New York, who became Maryam Jameelah, one of the most famous (or infamous) polemicists on radical Islam and jihad of the last century.
Because we have yet to hear Lewthwaite speak from the dock – or have her explain the motives behind her alleged crimes, it is conjecture to suggest she was radicalised because her initial attempts at integration were rebuffed. But it’s a reasonable assumption.
It is said that western women are converting to Islam in record numbers. A popular narrative, of a Damascene moment of some kind, is weaved by poster girls like Yvonne Ridley and Lauren Booth (and myself at one point) telling of how we turned our backs on the materialism and nihilism of the west to find our true calling beneath the hijab. In “embracing” our new faith we say we were embraced in turn.
The reality, however, is somewhat more complex. Converts seeking a bread-and-butter Muslim existence, of mosque attendance, raising children, praying and fasting, readily fit into the communities they choose to attach themselves to.
But those Muslim women seeking a more cerebral experience soon find themselves isolated in communities that are often insular and intolerant of a reinterpretation of the scriptures that might give more meaning to someone born and raised in the west.
There are those converts like Lewthwaite who will show you just how committed they really are – by embracing militant Islam. Others leave Islam altogether. Others become more devout. Then there are those like Muhammad Asad, who die disappointed, that despite his best efforts he remained “a foreign body in contemporary Islam, a transplant rejected time and again by his hosts…”
Source: The guardian