Islam’s ability to empower is a magnet to black British youths

A seminar was hosted last month by Christians Together in England to consider ways to “stem the flight of black British youths to Islam and radicalisation”. In an unprecedented move, Muslims were invited to attend – and they did. Together, both faith groups discussed the reasons why a growing number of young black people are choosing Islam in preference to Christianity. According to this morning’s BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, one in nine black Christian men are converting to Islam.

The passivity that Christianity promotes is perceived as alien and disconnected to black youths growing up in often violent and challenging urban environments in Britain today. “Turning the other cheek” invites potential ridicule and abuse whereas resilience, strength and self-dignity evokes respect and, in some cases, fear from unwanted attention.

 

Islam holds there is only one God – Allah who does not share his divinity with anything. This made sense and is easy to comprehend. Islam recognises and reveres the prophets mentioned in Judaism and Christianity, therefore a natural and final progression of these earlier religions. The religious guidelines provide spiritual and behavioural codes of conduct with role models such as Malcolm X only helping to reinforce the perception that Islam enabled the empowerment of one’s masculinity coupled with righteous and virtuous conduct as a strength, not a weakness.

 

My personal experiences are supported by academic research on the same topic: Richard Reddie, who is himself a Christian, conducted research on black British converts to Islam. His studies reveal that the majority of young people interviewed converted from Christianity to Islam for similar reasons as mentioned above. Islam’s way of life and sense of brotherhood were attractive to 50% of interviewees, whereas another 30% and 10% respectively converted because of the religion’s monotheistic foundations and the fact that, holistically, the religion “made sense” and there were “no contradictions”.

 

The author’s research examined whether such converts were more susceptible to violent radicalisation or more effective at countering it. The overwhelming conclusion points to the latter – provided there are avenues to channel these individuals’ newly discovered sense of empowerment and identity towards constructive participation in society, as opposed to a destructive insularity which can be exploited by extremists. Many Muslim converts – not just black British ones – will confirm the sense of empowerment Islam provides, both spiritually and mentally. It also provides a context within which such individuals are able to rise above the social, cultural and often economic challenges that tend to thwart their progress in today’s society. Turning the other cheek therefore is never an option.

The Converts to Islam

“What I like about Islam? Certainly the concept of individual responsibility, the lack of an intermediary between the believer and God because, in Islam, there is no confession and the imam is not a priest” says Alessandro Paolantoni, a 45 year old Roman who converted to Islam in 2001. “I testify that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The ritual is simple: one time Muslim converts verify the sincerity of their intention, to pronounce the testimony of faith before a man of Muslim faith and two witnesses. And so they are converted: a minority, but growing; in recent years almost 70 thousand people have converted in our country.

The Italian convert has been brought under the spotlight by the case of the 24-year old Genovese, Giuliano Delnevo Ibrahim, who was killed in Syria while fighting alongside the rebels. Delnevo had converted to Islam in 2008. His journey of faith, is , less and less rare in our country. “According to our estimates,” converts of Italian descent “exceeds 70 thousand” explained Izzedin Elzir, imam in Florence and president UCOII (the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, bringing together over 150 organizations)  conversions to Islam are in fact becoming more frequent, especially in the recent times of economic and moral crisis. “For Elzir, the new Muslims” can be a valuable bridge for dialogue between faith and country “in short, a sort of ambassador of Islam.”

Kuwait Civil Servant Chairman at Amsterdam’s Blue Mosque

28 May 2013

 

Newspaper Het Parool has reported that Mutlaq Alqarawi, a civil servant from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Kuwait, has been appointed board chairman of the Blue Mosque in Amsterdam. He has been registered at the Chamber of Commerce as chairman of Europe Trust Nederland, the owner of the building which runs the mosque. Het Parool obtained minutes from a board meeting in August in which Alqarawi is named as mosque chairman. In the same minutes, Alqarawi pressed for the recruitment of Dutch converts to Islam.

 

Young British Muslim converts need support to prevent another Woolwich

As a Muslim convert, I set up a project to counter radicalisation among young urban men. But our funding was cut by the government and now there’s a vacuum. The former chairman of Brixton mosque in south London saw the challenges facing new converts to Islam.

 

Since 2005, there have been 148 teenage murders in London; 100 are knife related and 27 have been gun related. In 2011, the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark recorded the highest number of knife crimes in London. Add to this dynamic, youths who try to escape this lifestyle – not through education or employment (due to these avenues either failing or rejecting them) – but through religion; Islam in particular, due to its ability to transfer their focus towards personal and spiritual empowerment, no matter what adverse circumstances they face. The young urban Muslim convert feels this sense of empowerment reducing the sense of helplessness, frustration and anger towards the marginalisation he has faced throughout his young life. However, he is at a “founding” idealistic stage of his new faith and, particularly if he had a propensity for violence and criminality before he converted, his vulnerability is clearly evident for all to see – especially extremist propagandists seeking “foot soldiers”.

 

The author argues that, although psychological and social mosaics are clearly influencing factors to how we initially develop as new Muslims, there are defining catalysts that propel an individual from being radical or non-violent to violent. “Cycle of violence” theories refer to a “tipping point” – when an individual reaches a point of no return due to an incident or event which pushes them across the threshold to commit a violent or terrorist act. Richard Reid – the shoe bomber’s – tipping point was when the “war on terror” was launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after the events of 9/11.

 

As former chairman of Brixton mosque, in south London, I saw the challenges facing new converts to Islam. The mosque was able to provide the spiritual and familial support often required at the most formative “founding” stage of their lives. The over-zealousness that usually accompanied this stage led converts on a quest to learn more about the religion from various sources.

 

For this reason, youth intervention programmes such as Street UK (Strategy to Reach Empower and Educate Teenagers) were established. More than 4,500 young men participated in Street activities in 2010, the penultimate year before funding was withdrawn by the coalition government. We still operate voluntarily, but at a much reduced capacity. So there is a vacuum. Young men are no longer actively engaged or challenged ideologically by those most qualified, both socially and religiously, to do so; extremist narratives proliferate unchallenged and are no longer deconstructed to susceptible converts at the grassroots where such messages are most potent. In light of this, there is an uncomfortable realisation that those behind the Woolwich attack are unlikely to be the last to be violently radicalised.

 

Tony Blair: Woolwich attack shows there is a ‘problem within Islam’

Tony Blair has launched an attack on the “problem within Islam” in the wake of the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich at the hands of Islamist extremists.

 

The former Prime Minister said the ideology that inspired the act of terror that shocked Britain last month is “profound and dangerous”.

 

“There is not a problem with Islam,” he wrote. “For those of us who have studied it, there is no doubt about its true and peaceful nature. There is not a problem with Muslims in general. Most in Britain will be horrified at Lee Rigby’s murder.

 

“But there is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam. And we have to put it on the table and be honest about it.”

 

He said that while there are radical activists in other religions, the Islamic strain is “not the province of a few extremists”.

 

“It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies,” he said.

 

For many years there has been a spectrum of Muslim belief in this country ranging from unobtrusive Islamic observance to terrorist totalitarianism. The “problem” is that young British Muslims, some of them converts, are even now being propelled towards the terrorist end of the spectrum by preachers who embedded themselves here under the government of Tony Blair.

 

Stefano: “Why I Became Muslim and Married Bayu”

April 14, 2013

Alessia Arcolaci

Stefano, a Roman man, tells the story of his complicated love with an Indonesian woman, Bayu. In Italy, Islam is the second largest religion, with a million and a half followers. Among them, a few are Italian-born citizens: there are approximately 50,000 Italian-born converts. Among these converts is Stefano, a 39-year old photographer born and raised in Rome who is now married to 41 year old Bayu, an Indonesian woman.

Stefano in his capacity as a photographer started to work with foreign communities in Rome, the majority of which were Muslim. He says he “noticed how most of the Muslims were always calm, smiling, happy, and I began to wonder, why can’t I also be so happy? ”

Bayu and Stefano met at a party at the Indonesian embassy where Bayu’s brother worked as a diplomat. They continued to see each other in the local mosque, where Stefano was going to photograph veiled women and learn more about Islam.

Number of converts to Islam rises in France

03.01.2013

The New York Times

The New York Times reports of a rise in conversions to Islam in France. According to the paper, a virtual doubling of conversions took place within the last 25 years in the country. Of the estimated six million Muslims in France about 100,000 – 200,000 are thought to be converts. It is said to pose a challenge to both state and society’s relation to Muslim faith and community, specifically in respect to national and international anti-terrorism policies

Converts are named critical elements for the rise of terrorism in Europe by being prone to be more invisible, mobile and in need to overcompensate their novelty to faith. The article names prisons to be fertile grounds for conversions where according to reports 1/3 of the inmate population in France are Muslim. Gordard, who is responsible for religious affairs in the Office of the Secretary of State and a former intelligence office, identifies the forms of conversions to have come under change.  As such, conversions today often take place as means of “reverse integration” that aid to socially integrate  non-Muslims into predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods in the metropolitan suburbs. The population most susceptible to conversions are men beyond the age of 40 who were born in former French colonies or overseas territories.

According to scholars and converts themselves, “Islam has come to represent not only a sort of social norm but also a refuge, an alternative to the ambient misery”.

Converts face prejudices

01.02.2012

Le Monde

In its recent magazine Le Monde published selected interviews with recent converts to Islam in France. A number of male and female French Muslims recount their stories of conversion as well as the reactions of their families and immediate surroundings to their change of faith.

Hispanic immigrants increasingly finding home is Islam

A growing community of Hispanic American immigrants, as well as Hispanics in their home country, are choosing to convert from their predominantly Christian religions to Islam. It’s especially common for women.

Tucked away in a quiet rural neighborhood in Somerset, N.J., is an old brownstone that houses the New Jersey Chapter of the Islamic Center of North America’s WhyIslam Project.

Within its confines, in a second floor office decorated with rose-colored walls, sits the administrative assistant and only female employee of the department, Nahela Morales.

In a long black garment and gray headscarf, Morales sits in front of a computer entering notes and taking phone calls from the program’s hotline, 1-877-WhyIslam, a resource for individuals hoping to learn more about the religion. A Mexican immigrant and recent convert, Morales is the national Spanish-language outreach coordinator for the program, part of ICNA’s mission to disseminate information about Islam nationwide.

But Morales’ efforts go beyond U.S. borders: the 37-year-old recently led a trip to bring Islamic literature, food and clothing to her native Mexico.

Morales, who was born in Mexico City but later moved to California and then New York, is part of a growing population of immigrant Muslim converts from Latin America, many of them women, now helping to bring the religion back to their home countries.

According to WhyIslam’s 2012 annual report, 19 percent of the some 3,000 converts it assisted in 2011 were Latinos, and more than half of those (55 percent) were women. The 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country, found the number of new female converts had increased 8 percent since 2000, and that Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.

Experts attribute the phenomenon to recent migration trends.

Wilfredo Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico who converted to Islam in 2003, is an attorney and political analyst specializing in the Islamic world. In addition to working with various non-profit organizations, including the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA), he also serves as the imam at his local mosque in South Florida.

“More women than men convert, both in AMANA offices and in the mosques in Southern Florida,” Ruiz said.

Islamophobia as an Integral Part of the Political Platform

The general mood in the United States has grown increasingly intolerant towards Muslims. Charlotte Wiedemann was in New York and spoke with Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, Afro-American and President of the Islamic Leadership Council, on the mood in this election year and about his criticism of some Muslims for what he sees as opportunism

Imam, you stood on the street with a sign that said “Muslims demand equal rights!” Against what were you directing your protest?

Talib Abdur-Rashid: The surveillance of Muslim communities, mosques, meeting places, and student groups is a grave violation of the American constitution. Under the pretext of security, the New York police and their “Intelligence Division” have assumed the right to snoop around wherever they like. We will not put up with this. The matter must be decided by the courts.

Opinion polls indicate that almost every other American holds a negative view of Islam. And every third Republican supporter calls Barack Obama a Muslim, here synonymous with being un-American. Is religious tolerance in the USA a thing of the past?

Rashid: The atmosphere today is even more negative for Muslims than after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. We were all traumatized by 9/11, but back then there were efforts to support each other as Americans and not to fall into the trap of a collective guilt mindset. Today, the Republicans and, in particular, the Tea Party, have made Islamophobia an integral part of their political platform. They utilize fears, traumas, and a lack of knowledge to further their political aims. We have observed in recent times that there is a rise in anti-Islamic emotions during every election year. This was the situation at the time of Obama’s election and equally the case in local elections in New York two years ago.