The number of Britons converting to Islam has doubled in 10 years. Why? Jerome Taylor and Sarah Morrison investigate
The number of Britons choosing to become Muslims has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to one of the most comprehensive attempts to estimate how many people have embraced Islam.
Following the global spread of violent Islamism, British Muslims have faced more scrutiny, criticism and analysis than any other religious community. Yet, despite the often negative portrayal of Islam, thousands of Britons are adopting the religion every year.
Estimating the number of converts living in Britain has always been difficult because census data does not differentiate between whether a religious person has adopted a new faith or was born into it. Previous estimates have placed the number of Muslim converts in the UK at between 14,000 and 25,000.
But a new study by the inter-faith think-tank Faith Matters suggests the real figure could be as high as 100,000, with as many as 5,000 new conversions nationwide each year.
By using data from the Scottish 2001 census – the only survey to ask respondents what their religion was at birth as well as at the time of the survey – researchers broke down what proportion of Muslim converts there were and then extrapolated the figures for Britain as a whole.
In all they estimated that there were 60,699 converts living in Britain in 2001. With no new census planned until next year, researchers polled mosques in London to try to calculate how many conversions take place a year. The results gave a figure of 1,400 conversions in the capital in the past 12 months which, when extrapolated nationwide, would mean approximately 5,200 people adopting Islam every year. The figures are comparable with studies in Germany and France which found that there were around 4,000 conversions a year.
Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, admitted that coming up with a reliable estimate of the number of converts to Islam was notoriously difficult. "This report is the best intellectual 'guestimate' using census numbers, local authority data and polling from mosques," he said. "Either way few people doubt that the number adopting Islam in the UK has risen dramatically in the past 10 years."
Asked why people were converting in such large numbers he replied: "I think there is definitely a relationship between conversions being on the increase and the prominence of Islam in the public domain. People are interested in finding out what Islam is all about and when they do that they go in different directions. Most shrug their shoulders and return to their lives but some will inevitably end up liking what they discover and will convert."
Batool al-Toma, an Irish born convert to Islam of 25 years who works at the Islamic Foundation and runs the New Muslims Project, one of the earliest groups set up specifically to help converts, said she believed the new figures were "a little on the high side".
"My guess would be the real figure is somewhere in between previous estimates, which were too low, and this latest one," she said. "I definitely think there has been a noticeable increase in the number of converts in recent years. The media often tries to pinpoint specifics but the reasons are as varied as the converts themselves."
Inayat Bunglawala, founder of Muslims4UK, which promotes active Muslim engagement in British society, said the figures were "not implausible".
"It would mean that around one in 600 Britons is a convert to the faith," he said. "Islam is a missionary religion and many Muslim organisations and particularly university students' Islamic societies have active outreach programmes designed to remove popular misconceptions about the faith."
The report by Faith Matters also studied the way converts were portrayed by the media and found that while 32 per cent of articles on Islam published since 2001 were linked to terrorism or extremism, the figure jumped to 62 per cent with converts.
Earlier this month, for example, it was reported that two converts to Islam who used the noms de guerre Abu Bakr and Mansoor Ahmed were killed in a CIA drone strike in an area of Pakistan with a strong al-Qa'ida presence.
"Converts who become extremists or terrorists are, of course, a legitimate story," said Mr Mughal. "But my worry is that the saturation of such stories risks equating all Muslim converts with being some sort of problem when the vast majority are not". Catherine Heseltine, a 31-year-old convert to Islam, made history earlier this year when she became the first female convert to be elected the head of a British Muslim organisation – the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. "Among certain sections of society, there is a deep mistrust of converts," she said. "There's a feeling that the one thing worse than a Muslim is a convert because they're perceived as going over the other side. Overall, though, I think conversions arouse more curiosity than hostility."
How to become a Muslim
Islam is one of the easiest religions to convert to. Technically, all a person needs to do is recite the Shahada, the formal declaration of faith, which states: "There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his Prophet." A single honest recitation is all that is needed to become a Muslim, but most converts choose to do so in front of at least two witnesses, one being an imam.
Converts to Islam
Hana Tajima, 23, fashion designer
"I became friends with a few Muslims in college, and was slightly affronted and curious at their lack of wanting to go out to clubs or socialise.
"At about that time I started to study philosophy, and I began to get confused about my life. I was pretty popular, had everything I was supposed to have, but still I felt like 'Is that it?' The issues of women's rights were shockingly contemporary. The more I read, the more I found myself agreeing with the ideas. I didn't and still don't want to be Muslim, but there came a point where I couldn't say that I wasn't one."
Denise Horsley, 26, dance teacher
"I was introduced to Islam by my boyfriend. A lot of people ask whether I converted because of him but he had nothing to do with it; I went on my own journey to discover more about religion. I grew up Christian and Islam seemed to be a natural extension of Christianity.
"I now wear a headscarf but it wasn't something I adopted straightaway. Hijab is an important concept in Islam but it's not just about clothing. It's about being modest in everything you do. Ultimately I'm still the same person as before, except that I don't drink, don't eat pork and I pray five times a day."
Dawud Beale, 23
"I was ignorant about Islam and then I went on holiday to Morocco, which was the first time I'd been exposed to Muslims. I was a racist before Morocco and by the time I flew home a week later, I'd decided to become a Muslim.
"When I came back home to Somerset, I spent three months trying to find local Muslims, but there wasn't even a mosque in my town. I eventually met Sufi Muslims who took me to Cyprus to convert. When I came back, I was finding that a lot of what they were saying contradicted what it said in the Koran. I became involved with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a political group which calls for the establishment of an Islamic state. But it was too into politics and not as concerned with practising the religion.
"There is something pure about Salafi Muslims. I have definitely found the right path. I met my wife through the community and we are expecting our first child next year."
Paul Martin, 27
"I liked the way the Muslim students I knew conducted themselves. It's nice to think about people having one partner for life and not doing anything harmful to their body. I just preferred the Islamic lifestyle and from there I looked into the Koran.
"Then I was introduced by a Muslim friend to a doctor who was a few years older than me. We went for a coffee and then a few weeks later for an ice cream. I made my shahadah [declaration of faith] right there. I know some people like to do it in a mosque, but for me religion is not a physical thing – it is what is in your heart.
"I hadn't been to a mosque before I became a Muslim. Sometimes it can be bit daunting. I don't really fit into this criteria of a Muslim person. But there is nothing to say you can't be a British Muslim who wears jeans and a jacket. Now in my mosque many different languages are spoken and there are lots of converts."
January 04, 2010, The Independent