Lauren Booth is Cherie Blair’s half-sister, and therefore Tony Blair’s half-sister-in-law. She is a journalist – and in the last few years, she has become a Muslim.
So it was fascinating to read her account of her conversion to Islam in yesterday’s Guardian.
She describes how her experience of meeting people in the Middle East punctured the ‘swagger of condescension’ of ‘a western woman with all my freedoms’. Having expected only to engage professionally with men in positions of power, she found herself surprised by the wide diversity of women in a wide diversity of roles. She had succumbed to the prevailing prejudice and Islamophobia of which she claims now to be a victim.
But at one level there is nothing remarkable about this – my experience of working in various Muslim contexts has had a similar effect on me. These are real people, with real lives – and many are lovely people who have become good friends.
Yet it is interesting how Booth found that the removal of prejudices led to being further intrigued:
My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.
One of her big concerns is in what she sees as the disparity between the media’s portrayal that obsesses with Islamic terrorism, and the experience of ordinary Muslimsgoing about their everyday lives. And she has a very reasonable point. There are a billion or so Muslims – very few are terrorists, relatively speaking. And let’s face it, out of the 2 billion or so Christians, there are going to be more than a few nutters. You can’t tar the whole with an individual brush. Booth’s article is certainly a helpful dispelling of myths (and I was struck by the last paragraph where she explains what is going on when people cry out “Allahu Akhbar!”).
So one thing that this story does illustrate is how dangerous ‘straw men’ are – for reality is seldom even remotely connected with such caricatures. Encounters with genuine articles lead people up all kinds of paths. Any effective case against something must have worked doubly hard to present an acceptable and fair description of an opponent’s position.
The Path to Conversion
But what led to her conversion? She seems to have become used to praying to Allah as opposed to God without really finding that strange (as she suggests other converts do). But the key seemed to have been her growing relationships with Muslims:
Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway.
Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.
There have been significant life changes too:
In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can’t even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I’m overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I’ve heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.
Western Culture Exposed
But what interested me most of all was her realisation of what is really going on in western culture:
How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can’t we cry in public, hug one another more, say “I love you” to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah’s law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real “fun” as we in the west do? And we do, don’t we? Don’t we?
And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.
I want to say Amen to pretty much all of that. But still, I’m not propelled towards Allah.
Perhaps, one of the prevailing myths in the Islamic world isthat the west is as it is because of, andnot despite, the influence of Christianity. I can’t remember where I discovered this, but it’s said that TS Eliot’s extraordinary modernist masterpiece The Wasteland was a major influence on Osama bin Laden, because of its brutal dissection of the lostness of the west. However, as a Christian, I would want to argue that it is by no means as simple as that. There are certainly unfortunate residues of Christian culture misapplied or twisted. But the cultural factors that leave people living the hollow lives Lauren Booth escapes from are as much the result of the Enlightenment and a de-Christianisation as anything else. This was something Eliot himself was on about.
Believing or Belonging?
All in all, there was one issue revealingly absent from this testimony: truth. Islam’s beauty, compassion, community, new perspectives, cleansing etc. But not truth. Or an apologetic. Of course many other Muslims work hard to build an apologetic. But that’s not what happened here. Lauren Booth found that reality confronted and dismantled her prejudices – which then led, in turn, to exploring being part of this faith community. Which resulted in deep spiritual experiences. She belonged and experienced, then gradually believed.
It’s not hard to see this being paralleled by countless people coming to Christ in the west too. Of course, this path is not exclusively western or modern – but Booth’s story is intriguing to me as a symptomatically western experience of religious conversion (whether Christian, Muslim or other). A need for community, a despair at the inability to change lifestyle, a sense of the hollowness of modern life, a longing to be spiritually connected.
The Christian community offers all of that. Or rather it should. Or rather it MUST. It is a scandal when it doesn’t.
But it does have one asset that is lacking anywhere else. And that is a message of grace. And grace needs to be lived out; and grace needs to be spoken. For the combination of the two is the greatest apologetic: a community of grace and truth following a Lord who is the Truth and the embodiment of grace.
Which is where, for all my profound respect and love for my Muslim friends, I must differ from them.