CONVERTS to the faith of Mohammed are increasingly drawn from the British middle classes – often idealists or disillusioned Christians, reports Jonathan Petre.
12:01AM GMT 30 Dec 2001
The son of Frank Dobson, the former Cabinet minister, is one of a growing number of the British middle classes to convert to Islam.
Joe Ahmed-Dobson, who is 26 tomorrow, was brought up in an atmosphere which he describes as agnostic at best; now he prays to Allah five times a day “unless prevented by some act of God”, reads the Koran and is planning a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Unlike many of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Britons who have converted to Islam over the past 20 years, his decision was not greeted with horror by his family – even though his father was the Secretary of State for Health at the time.
Speaking publicly about his faith for the first time, he said his initial impressions of Islam were almost entirely negative. When he was 16, however, a friend gave him an English translation of the Koran.
“Reading through it was a revelation,” he said. “It was entirely contrary to all the perceptions I had of Islam. It praised education, for both men and women. It said that you had to treat everyone with respect.
“I had never believed that politics answered the ‘why’ question rather than the `what’ question. What Islam does is answer the ‘why’ question: why you should treat every man as your brother, every woman as your sister, why you should strive to do your best for yourself and for your fellow human beings. That’s what the Koran did for me, it gave me an answer as to why I should live in this way.”
A trip to Indonesia also impressed him, though it was another six years – January 1998 – before he formerly converted by declaring his faith in front of witnesses in a north London mosque.
“My belief that this was the truth with a big ‘T’ was a feeling that grew. I didn’t want to say I was a Muslim until I was sure that I could live by it.
“Now when I make decisions about most things in life, from small things like whether I should do the washing up to big things like career decisions, I am guided by Allah.”
His family have always been supportive, he said. “My dad buys me books about Islam every Christmas.”
Now married to a Muslim, he lives in south London, not far from the Brixton mosque once attended by Richard Reid, though his approach to his faith could not be more different.
Cleanly shaven and sporting a fashionable haircut, Joe Ahmed-Dobson is the chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s Regeneration Committee and is involved in a range of inner-city projects.
His criticism of Western capitalism and the bombing of Afghanistan derives from socialist principles rather than any extremist Muslim views, of which he is contemptuous.
“These groups are tiny, powerless organisations which live in a fantasy world. They are paper dragons,” he said.
The September 11 terrorist attacks on America, paradoxically, have swelled the numbers of Westerners converting to Islam. One Manchester mosque has reported 16 conversions in the past few weeks alone.
Mohammed Siddique Saddon, 41, a research fellow at the Muslim Institute in Leicester and a convert, said: “There is a resurgence. The constant demonisation of Islam has awakened the Western inquisitive mind to ask what is so evil.”
Given the perception in the West that Islam treats females as second-class citizens, it is surprising that most of the converts are women. In America, women converts outnumber men by about four to one, and in Britain by about two to one.
Many of Britain’s “new Muslims” are from middle-class backgrounds. They include Matthew Wilkinson, a former head boy of Eton who went on to Cambridge; a son of John Birt, the former director general of the BBC, and the son and daughter of Lord Justice Scott, the judge who headed the arms-to-Iraq inquiry.
Harfiyah Ball-Haleem, a graduate of St Anne’s College, Oxford, whose father was Jewish and mother a Roman Catholic, converted at the age of 26 in 1971. “I was a very trendy Sixties chick and now I’m a very respectable Muslim matron,” she said.
“What’s happened in the West is that feminism has robbed women of their right to be women. It has forced them out to work and fewer and fewer are getting married. This is something that Islam protects against.
“I feel that I’m more liberated now because I was terribly confused about the values that society held. Society expects women to be both men and women, to be sexy and virtuous, beautiful and clever and everything else.
“No one can sort this mix-up out, whereas in Islam you have your role shown to you. Your femininity is recognised and appreciated and valued but you are not restricted from working or doing anything else.”
Many converts are former Christians disillusioned by the uncertainty of the churches. Others are idealists who found an appeal in Sufi mysticism. A number, but far from all, come through marriage.
The formal process of conversion is simple. The would-be Muslim washes, gathers some witnesses in the mosque and says the Shahada, the testimony recognising Allah as God and Mohammed as his prophet.
Mr Saddon said Reid was part of a tiny extremist sect with a medieval vision of the world as divided into two: the place of Islam and the place of war.
“These people’s grasp and their understanding of the world is very limited and confused. Many of them are so disenfranchised before they come to Islam that at least they find themselves a new identity.
“The idea that they could then fight back at the system by becoming a sort of medieval Muslim knight has all kinds of heroic interpretations for them. The reality is, of course, quite different.”