EastEnders’ Bobby Beale character has converted to Islam, and the faith is being presented as a “positive influence” in his life. This is overdue: converts to Islam are one of the fastest growing religious communities in the UK, but they often make headlines for all the wrong reasons, whether it’s Oxford-born Jack Letts’ Isis links or a contentious tweet by newly converted singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor. Muslim converts are generally met with an air of suspicion or in many cases, open hostility.
This cynicism towards Muslim converts is not new: In the 1800s Britain was home to a generation of Victorian Muslim converts with the founder of England’s first Mosque, William Abdullah Quilliam, being branded an anti-British traitor for his connections with the global Muslim community.
While some politicians, media outlets and elements of our security services have presented Muslim converts as a potential threat, the reality is that many of the most inspiring, inclusive and transformative Muslim leaders around the world - past and present - have been converts. And in the UK, converts represent a unique bridge between the diverse communities they hail from and the “Muslim born” communities who are settled here.
Whilst complex, the story of Jack Letts represents what can happen when this journey goes frightfully wrong. But the journey of a convert - from a seeker to one integrated into a community and grounded in the balanced practice of their new faith - illustrates the role Islam can play as a crucible for the best of what both heritage Muslim cultures and Western civilisation has to offer.
Today there are an estimated 80,000 converts to Islam in Britain, with their number growing by 5,000 every year. Two thirds of them are women. Every convert brings their unique experiences, talents and gifts to the Muslim community but they also bring their own challenges. Muslim communities have generally struggled to sufficiently provide the necessary welfare, support, training and mentorship to those who have newly embraced Islam.
Converts represent the changing face of Islam in Britain, and their fusion of identities can often challenge the status quo of established Muslim communities who may be resistant to change.
Equally, their conversion can bewilder their own family and friends, who may go as far as disavowing the new Muslim, leaving them potentially vulnerable and without support.
Their journey to Islam – and through Islam – is often difficult. This is where strong Muslim civic society is needed to provide a guiding hand and safety net for those in particular need. That’s why the charity I founded ten years ago has made care for Muslim converts a priority.
We need to see beyond the famous converts like Muhammad Ali and Yusuf/Cat Stevens, as well as the infamous ones like Jack Letts and Westminster attacker Khalid Masood.
Many converts are caught between the ambivalence of their new Muslim brethren and the hostility of their old non-Muslim ones. Extremism happens when community fails, when people fall between the cracks, and are left to discover themselves in the perilous, unfettered space of the internet.
As post-colonial, pre-Brexit Britain wrestles with existential questions of what it means to be British today, we should look to learn from Muslim converts who have been able to straddle multiple identities; identities that are often presented as conflicting.
It is by no means a stretch to now call Islam a British religion and with thousands embracing Islam every year, this is becoming more and more self-evident. Just like people of all faiths and none, converts to Islam deserve to be respected, valued and have access to appropriate pastoral care and support.
As someone embedded in grassroots Muslim communities, I’m acutely aware that converts represent the future of Islam in Britain. That’s why I am less concerned with the quantity of people coming to my religion than I am with the quality of both their faith and their journey to and through Muslim communities.
Every one of these journeys is different. But none of them should end in Isis-held Syria.