Conversion to Islam by Britons is a centuries-old phenomenon but has only become numerically significant in recent decades. Mostly, the process passes relatively unnoticed by the public, but there have been occasional high-profile conversions, including recently that of the journalist Lauren Booth (sister-in-law of the former British prime minister, Tony Blair), which drew significant negative media coverage.
The phenomenon has attracted more attention in the academic literature, with, for example, important books by Ali Köse, Conversion to Islam: A Study of Native British Converts (London: Kegan Paul International, 1996) and Kate Zebiri, British Muslim Converts: Choosing Alternative Lives (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008).
There have also been various autobiographies and biographies of converts, some historical, like Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield: Kube Publishing, 2010), others more contemporary, such as Lucy Bushill-Matthews, Welcome to Islam: A Convert’s Tale (London: Continuum, 2008).
Yesterday’s edition of The Times (only available online to subscribers) contained a two-page feature by Ruth Gledhill, the newspaper’s religion correspondent, investigating British converts to Islam, largely through a sneak preview of an as yet unpublished report from Faith Matters, an organization which works towards conflict resolution and cohesion through partnership with faith communities in the UK and Middle East.
Entitled A Minority within a Minority: A Report on Converts to Islam in the United Kingdom, the publication is authored by Kevin Brice, a higher education administrator at Swansea University and a convert to Islam himself. He is also General Secretary of the Muslims in Britain Research Network and a member of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists. His academic profile is at http://www.mbrn.org.uk/members/bricekevin.html.
The number of converts to British Islam is estimated in the document to have almost doubled in the past decade, from 61,000 in 2001, to stand now at approximately 100,000, or 4% of the British Muslim community. Converts in the UK in 2010 alone are put at 5,200 in the light of a survey of over 250 London mosques. This annual rate is broadly on a par with conversions to Islam in France and Germany.
A separate online enquiry among 122 converts in August and September found that 38% were men and 62% women (although, surprisingly, marriage was not the key driver for conversion in at least 45% of instances).
The average age of conversion was 27.5 years. 44% had converted in 2001 or before and 56% subsequently. 56% of converts were white British, 16% other whites, and 29% non-whites. 7% were actually Pakistani by birth; they are presumed to have been brought up by lapsed Muslims.
Just 12% of converts altered their name officially following conversion, but a majority adopted a Muslim name or used a different name when with other Muslims. Three-quarters, including 90% of female converts, changed the way they dressed.
Converts did not generally regard their new faith as incompatible with Western life, although 39% did see themselves as Muslims first and British second. 84% considered that converts could act as a bridge between Muslim and non-Muslim communities and 64% rejected the notion that there is a natural conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in the UK.
According to Gledhill, Brice further discovered that the converts’ path was not entirely a smooth one. Their conversion occasioned a degree of isolation from their own families and friends, at least initially, doubtless partly reflecting latent Islamophobia in Britain.
At the same time, the new converts struggled to get the support they needed from their local mosque and were often ignored or mistrusted by birthright Muslims. They also came under pressure to comply with some practices which had more to do with culture than Islam.
POSTSCRIPT [7 January 2011]
Another two-page feature about the Faith Matters report appeared in The Independent on 4 January 2011, written by Jerome Taylor and Sarah Morrison. The article is available online at:
The full report appears to have been published by Faith Matters on the same day and can be downloaded from:
Chapters of special statistical interest comprise: chapter 3 on estimating the number of converts to Islam in the UK; chapter 4 on print media portrayals of converts in the UK between 2001 and 2010; and chapter 5 on the survey of converts.
Some minor changes to the original BRIN post have been made in the light of the availability of the full report.