Tony Blair’s sister-in-law announced her conversion to Islam last weekend. Journalist Lauren Booth embraced the faith after what she describes as a ‘holy experience’ in Iran.
She is just one of a growing number of modern British career women to do so. Here, writer EVE AHMED, who was raised as a Muslim before rejecting the faith, explores the reasons why.
Rejecting her faith: Writer Eve Ahmed was raised a Muslim
Much of my childhood was spent trying to escape Islam.
Born in London to an English mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, I was brought up to follow my father’s faith without question.
But, privately, I hated it. The minute I left home for university at the age of 18, I abandoned it altogether.
As far as I was concerned, being a Muslim meant hearing the word ‘No’ over and over again.
Girls from my background were barred from so many of the things my English friends took for granted. Indeed, it seemed to me that almost anything fun was haram, or forbidden, to girls like me.
There were so many random, petty rules. No whistling. No chewing of gum. No riding bikes. No watching Top Of The Pops. No wearing make-up or clothes which revealed the shape of the body.
No eating in the street or putting my hands in my pockets. No cutting my hair or painting my nails. No asking questions or answering back. No keeping dogs as pets, (they were unclean).
And, of course, no sitting next to men, shaking their hands or even making eye contact with them.
These ground rules were imposed by my father and I, therefore, assumed they must be an integral part of being a good Muslim.
Small wonder, then, that as soon as I was old enough to exert my independence, I rejected the whole package and turned my back on Islam. After all, what modern, liberated British woman would choose to live such a life?
Well, quite a lot, it turns out, including Islam’s latest surprise convert, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth. And after my own break with my past, I’ve followed with fascination the growing trend of Western women choosing to convert to Islam.
Broadcaster and journalist Booth, 43, says she now wears a hijab head covering whenever she leaves home, prays five times a day and visits her local mosque ‘when I can’.
She decided to become a Muslim six weeks ago after visiting the shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh in the city of Qom, and says: ‘It was a Tuesday evening, and I sat down and felt this shot of spiritual morphine, just absolute bliss and joy.’
Before her awakening in Iran, she had been ‘sympathetic’ to Islam and has spent considerable time working in Palestine. ‘I was always impressed with the strength and comfort it gave,’ she says.
How, I wondered, could women be drawn to a religion which I felt had kept me in such a lowly, submissive place? How could their experiences of Islam be so very different to mine?
Convert: Lauren Booth, who is Cherie Blair¿s half sister, decided to convert to Islam after what she described as a holy experience in Iran
According to Kevin Brice from Swansea University, who has specialised in studying white conversion to Islam, these women are part of an intriguing trend.
He explains: ‘They seek spirituality, a higher meaning, and tend to be deep thinkers. The other type of women who turn to Islam are what I call “converts of convenience”. They’ll assume the trappings of the religion to please their Muslim husband and his family, but won’t necessarily attend mosque, pray or fast.’
I spoke to a diverse selection of white Western converts in a bid to re-examine the faith I had rejected.
Women like Kristiane Backer, 43, a London-based former MTV presenter who had led the kind of liberal Western-style life that I yearned for as a teenager, yet who turned her back on it and embraced Islam instead. Her reason? The ‘anything goes’ permissive society that I coveted had proved to be a superficial void.
Changing values: Camilla Leyland, 32, pictured in Western and Muslim dress, converted to Islam in her mid-20s for 'intellectual and feminist reasons'
The turning point for Kristiane came when she met and briefly dated the former Pakistani cricketer and Muslim Imran Khan in 1992 during the height of her career. He took her to Pakistan where she says she was immediately touched by spirtuality and the warmth of the people.
Kristiane says: ‘Though our relationship didn’t last, I began to study the Muslim faith and eventually converted. Because of the nature of my job, I’d been out interviewing rock stars, travelling all over the world and following every trend, yet I’d felt empty inside. Now, at last, I had contentment because Islam had given me a purpose in life.’
‘In the West, we are stressed for superficial reasons, like what clothes to wear. In Islam, everyone looks to a higher goal. Everything is done to please God. It was a completely different value system.
'In the West, we are stressed for superficial reasons, like what clothes to wear. In Islam, everyone looks to a higher goal. Everything is done to please God'
'Despite my lifestyle, I felt empty inside and realised how liberating it was to be a Muslim. To follow only one god makes life purer. You are not chasing every fad.
‘I grew up in Germany in a not very religious Protestant family. I drank and I partied, but I realised that we need to behave well now so we have a good after-life. We are responsible for our own actions.’
For a significant amount of women, their first contact with Islam comes from dating a Muslim boyfriend. Lynne Ali, 31, from Dagenham in Essex, freely admits to having been ‘a typical white hard-partying teenager’.
She says: ‘I would go out and get drunk with friends, wear tight and revealing clothing and date boys.
‘I also worked part-time as a DJ, so I was really into the club scene. I used to pray a bit as a Christian, but I used God as a sort of doctor, to fix things in my life. If anyone asked, I would’ve said that, generally, I was happy living life in the fast lane.’
But when she met her boyfriend, Zahid, at university, something dramatic happened.
She says: ‘His sister started talking to me about Islam, and it was as if everything in my life fitted into place. I think, underneath it all, I must have been searching for something, and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled by my hard-drinking party lifestyle.’
Liberating: Kristiane Backer says being a Muslim makes her life purer
Lynne converted aged 19. ‘From that day, I started wearing the hijab,’ she explains, ‘and I now never show my hair in public. At home, I’ll dress in normal Western clothes in front of my husband, but never out of the house.’
With a recent YouGov survey concluding that more than half the British public believe Islam to be a negative influence that encourages extremism, the repression of women and inequality, one might ask why any of them would choose such a direction for themselves.
Yet statistics suggest Islamic conversion is not a mere flash in the pan but a significant development. Islam is, after all, the world’s fastest growing religion, and white adopters are an important part of that story.
‘Evidence suggests that the ratio of Western women converts to male could be as high as 2:1,’ says Kevin Brice.
Moreover, he says, often these female converts are eager to display the visible signs of their faith — in particular the hijab — whereas many Muslim girls brought up in the faith choose not to.
‘Perhaps as a result of these actions, which tend to draw attention, white Muslims often report greater amounts of discrimination against them than do born Muslims,’ adds Brice, which is what happened to Kristiane Backer.
She says: ‘In Germany, there is Islamophobia. I lost my job when I converted. There was a Press campaign against me with insinuations about all Muslims supporting terrorists — I was vilified. Now, I am a presenter on NBC Europe.
‘I call myself a European Muslim, which is different to the ‘born’ Muslim. I was married to one, a Moroccan, but it didn’t work because he placed restrictions on me because of how he’d been brought up. As a European Muslim, I question everything — I don’t accept blindly.
‘But what I love is the hospitality and the warmth of the Muslim community. London is the best place in Europe for Muslims, there is wonderful Islamic culture here and I am very happy.’
For some converts, Islam represents a celebration of old-fashioned family values.
Ex-MTV Presenter Kristiane Backer with Mick Jagger in the late Eighties
‘Some are drawn to the sense of belonging and of community — values which have eroded in the West,’ says Haifaa Jawad, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, who has studied the white conversion phenomenon.
‘Many people, from all walks of life, mourn the loss in today’s society of traditional respect for the elderly and for women, for example. These are values which are enshrined in the Koran, which Muslims have to live by,’ adds Brice.
It is values like these which drew Camilla Leyland, 32, a yoga teacher who lives in Cornwall, to Islam. A single mother to daughter, Inaya, two, she converted in her mid-20s for ‘intellectual and feminist reasons’.
She explains: ‘I know people will be surprised to hear the words “feminism” and “Islam” in the same breath, but in fact, the teachings of the Koran give equality to women, and at the time the religion was born, the teachings went against the grain of a misogynistic society.
Escape route: Former DJ Lynne Ali is happy to pray five times a day
‘The big mistake people make is by confusing culture with religion. Yes, there are Muslim cultures which do not allow women individual freedom, yet when I was growing up, I felt more oppressed by Western society.’
She talks of the pressure on women to act like men by drinking and having casual sex. ‘There was no real meaning to it all. In Islam, if you begin a relationship, that is a commitment of intent.’
Growing up in Southampton — her father was the director of Southampton Institute of Education and her mother a home economics teacher — Camilla’s interest in Islam began at school.
She went to university and later took a Masters degree in Middle East Studies. But it was while living and working in Syria that she had a spiritual epiphany. Reflecting on what she’d read in the Koran, she realised she wanted to convert.
Her decision was met with bemusement by friends and family.
‘People found it so hard to believe that an educated, middle-class white woman would choose to become Muslim,’ she says.
While Camilla’s faith remains strong, she no longer wears the hijab in public. But several of the women I spoke to said strict Islamic dress was something they found empowering and liberating.
Lynne Ali remembers the night this hit home for her. ‘I went to an old friend’s 21st birthday party in a bar,’ she reveals. ‘I walked in, wearing my hijab and modest clothing, and saw how everyone else had so much flesh on display. They were drunk, slurring their words and dancing provocatively.
‘For the first time, I could see my former life with an outsider’s eyes, and I knew I could never go back to that.
‘I am so grateful I found my escape route. This is the real me — I am happy to pray five times a day and take classes at the mosque. I am no longer a slave to a broken society and its expectations.’
Kristiane Backer, who has written a book on her own spiritual journey, called From MTV To Mecca, believes the new breed of modern, independent Muslims can band together to show the world that Islam is not the faith I grew up in — one that stamps on the rights of women.
She says: ‘I know women born Muslims who became disillusioned an d rebelled against it. When you dig deeper, it’s not the faith they turned against, but the culture.
'Rules like marrying within the same sect or caste and education being less important for girls, as they should get married anyway —– where does it say that in the Koran? It doesn’t.
‘Many young Muslims have abandoned the “fire and brimstone” version they were born into have re-discovered a more spiritual and intellectual approach, that’s free from the cultural dogmas of the older generation. That’s how I intend to spend my life, showing the world the beauty of the true Islam.’
While I don’t agree with their sentiments, I admire and respect the women I interviewed for this piece.
They were all bright and educated, and have thought long and hard before choosing to convert to Islam — and now feel passionately about their adopted religion. Good luck to them. And good luck to Lauren Booth. But it’s that word that sums up the difference between their experience and mine — choice.
Perhaps if I’d felt in control rather than controlled, if I’d felt empowered rather than stifled, I would still be practising the religion I was born into, and would not carry the burden of guilt that I do about rejecting my father’s faith.
For most Americans it is hard to understand the level of brutality consuming many regions in Mexico now.
Vicious drug-trafficking cartels fight with each other and the authorities over smuggling routes to the United States and distribution rights in Mexican neighbourhoods.
The bulk of this murderous conflict occurs just south of the 2,000-mile-long U.S. border, so close-by that bullets from gunfire in Mexico have struck buildings on the American side of the fence.
In the nearly four years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon, firmly supported by the U.S. government, launched an unprecedented attack on Mexico's drug kingpins, nearly 30,000 people have been killed.
That averages at more than 20 a day.
Party massacre: Mexican federal police officers stand outside a home after 13 people were killed and 15 wounded in a drug-related attack in Ciudad Juarez
Human toll: Forensic workers carry a body away from the crime scene. It was the second such massacre in a week as rival cartels fight for supremacy
The victims include thousands of police officers, soldiers, public officials, judges and journalists - as the traffickers fight back with powerful weapons, many of them purchased in the U.S.
Often Mexican police find themselves outmanned and outgunned by the criminals.
Terrified Mexican officials have fled across the border seeking political asylum and some Mexican villages have become ghost towns after traffickers killed or pushed out the residents to clear the way for their smuggling operations.
The Mexican trafficking organisations have also crossed deeply into the United States, peddling tons of marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine to American drug users, who reward the cartels with an estimated $19bn to $39bn a year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Federal authorities say Mexican traffickers are now entrenched in at least 270 American cities, running sophisticated and disciplined networks that not only bring the drugs in, but also ship truckloads of cash back to Mexico.
Bloodbath: Nearly 30,000 people have died in the four years since President Felipe Calderon declared a U.S.-backed war on druglords in the country
Unspeakable suffering: the brutal inhumanity of drug gangs have made countless thousands mourn. Shootings, beheadings and torture are commonplace
David Gaddis, the DEA's chief for global enforcement operations, said: 'Mexico and its government are looking as transnational drug trafficking as a national security threat. We, too, have to look at it seriously in our country. It is our country's number one organised crime threat.'
A distinguishing feature of the Mexican drug war is the unspeakable violence played out daily on the streets and posted in graphic detail by newspapers and media websites.
Large-scale gun battles, mass executions, corpses strewn in public, beheadings, torture and grenade attacks have become commonplace.
As of this time, at least a dozen Mexican mayors have been killed in 2010 alone.
A gubernatorial candidate was shot dead on a highway. After a Mexican marine was killed during a raid against a drug kingpin, gunmen massacred the young man's family after his funeral.
He said: 'It's getting worse. I've never seen it at this level before.'
Of particular concern is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's fourth largest city with a population of 1.3 million people sitting right across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Two major drug cartels and local gangs have been engaged in a vicious battle there over turf and smuggling routes.
Last year alone, 2,800 people were killed there and the death toll this year could be higher.
In two separate incidents within one week this October, gunmen stormed private parties in Juarez homes and opened fire.
In the first massacre, nine were killed. In the second, thirteen - ranging in age from 16 to 25 years old - died when gunmen stormed a birthday party and opened fire.
Mass graves: This is not Iraq of Afghanistan, but Ciudad Juarez - Mexico's fourth largest city and literally a stone's throw away from the U.S.
Lethal force: Evidence markers show multiple bullet casings where a plain-clothed policeman was killed - again in Ciudad Juarez
The attackers escaped, but authorities suspect the rampage is somehow connected to the ongoing turf war over drugs.
Several other mass killings have occurred in drug rehabilitation facilities. Adding to the terror in Juarez, a remote-controlled car bomb aimed at police was detonated in the downtown area, killing three people and raising concerns over a heightened level of violence.
To lure police to the scene, the bombers shot a man, dressed him in a police uniform, laid him on a street corner and then made an emergency call reporting an officer down. When responders arrived, the bomb hidden in a brief case exploded.
And all this is in one border town alone.
Limited success: Police present Fernando Contreras Meraz, right, along with other alleged drug cartel members and their terrifying arsenal
Unwinnable war: Mexican policemen often find themselves outmanned and outgunned. More than 2,000 people have died in Ciudad Juarez this year alone
Political and law enforcement leaders in both countries agree that American drug users fuel the Mexican trafficking cartels by purchasing their illicit products.
They insist that demand reduction is an important component for calming the violence.
There are also arguments about whether drug legalisation would help, although the predominant view in both countries is that such measures would unlikely be implemented on a national scale.
Another debate is over who is actually winning the fight between the Mexican government and the drug traffickers.
Determined to win: Mexican president Felipe Calderon, who started his campaign four years ago
Tony Payan, a drug cartel expert who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso, said: 'I don't think it's a winnable war. The reason I don't think it's winnable is that the United States is not addressing the consumption part. It's not doing its part to reduce the market itself.'
David Gaddis, of the DEA, agreed than demand reduction was crucial, but he also pointed to recent arrests of major traffickers, large drug seizures and increased cooperation and intelligence sharing between Mexican and U.S. authorities.
He argued that the extreme violence was the result of traffickers being threatened and cut off from their normal smuggling activities by the Mexican police and military.
He added: 'I see it as very positive, despite the violence that's ongoing throughout Mexico. Desperation results in desperate acts, such as the brutality and the massacres that are ongoing. So we would expect to see continued violence for some time. But at some point, it will yield.'
Others fear that Mexico is now in a long-term spiral toward more bloodshed as the brazen traffickers lash out and fight for control.
Mexico's next presidential election in 2012, they say, is critical, because it will determine whether the current level of pressure on the cartels will continue past President Calderon's administration.
Jose Reyes Ferriz, who just completed a term as mayor of Juarez, insists the United States must fully understand that the current drug war deeply affects both sides of the border and should do more to help.
He said: 'The same gangs that are in Mexico are the same gangs that distribute drugs in the United States. It is a joint problem, and [solving] the problems of Mexico prevents the problem from jumping to the United States."
After Blair's conversion to Catholicism, his sister in law says: I'm a Muslim
By David Wilkes
Last updated at 10:11 PM on 24th October 2010
Conversion: Lauren booth chose to become a Muslim after a holy experience at a shrine in Iran
It could certainly make family get-togethers interesting.
Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth has converted to Islam.
The former prime minister is also a religious convert – he became a Roman Catholic after leaving office in 2007.
Miss Booth, who is Cherie Blair’s half sister, decided to adopt her new faith after what she described as a holy experience in Iran.
She now covers her head with a hijab when she leaves home, has given up alcohol and visits a mosque ‘when she can’.
The 43-year-old mother of two, who has long sympathised with the Muslim cause, described how she had a religious awakening six weeks ago on a visit to a shrine in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
‘I sat down and felt this shot of spiritual morphine, just absolute bliss and joy,’ she said. The former reality TV contestant decided to convert immediately on her return to Britain.
‘I always felt that the ummah [Muslim community] is a very loving, peaceful place and I am proud to be a member of it,’ she said.
Miss Booth, also a journalist and human rights campaigner, has stopped eating pork, reads the Koran every day and has not ruled out wearing a burka in the future.
‘I also haven’t had a drink in 45 days, the longest period in 25 years,’ she said. ‘The strange thing is that since I decided to convert I haven’t wanted to touch alcohol, and I was someone who craved a glass of wine or two at the end of a day.’
Miss Booth works for Press TV, the English-language Iranian news channel, and has worn a head scarf on screen.
She announced her conversion at the Global Peace and Unity Event in London on Saturday. To cheers, she said: ‘What I wanted to share with you today is that I am Lauren Booth and I am a Muslim.’
Critical: Miss Booth was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war and recently attacked Tony Blair accusing him of a bias towards Israel
Miss Booth’s conversion follows a turbulent time in her personal life, during which her marriage to actor Craig Darby hit the rocks. She described publicly how she had fallen on hard times and was being forced to return to Britain after six years in rural France with her family.
Miss Booth was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war and recently criticised Mr Blair, accusing him of bias towards Israel.
She said: ‘Your world view is that Muslims, are mad, bad, dangerous to know. A contagion to be contained.’
Her conversion was welcomed on Muslim internet forums. One post read: ‘Now a war criminal has an innocent sister in law! God bless her!’
But not all the comments were so favourable. Another read: ‘Lauren Booth craves attention, that’s all.’
Pictured: The moment an Israeli motorist runs down a Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 5:19 PM on 8th October 2010 Dramatic images have emerged of the moment an Israeli motorist drove straight into a young Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem today. The child had been part of a group throwing stones at Israeli cars following news the country's military had killed two Hamas militants in the West Bank city of Hebron earlier on Friday. Amazingly the boy only sustained 'light injuries' after being thrown into the air by the vehicle and twisting over its roof.
Hit and run: The incident occurred in the mostly Arab east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan while the group of Palestinian boys were throwing rocks at Israeli cars
These pictures show the Subaru coming down a steep bend in East Jerusalem before being pelted by the youngsters.
The majority of the boys, with their t-shirts wrapped round their heads to disguise their identity, were lined up on either side of the road near a zebra crossing ready to attack the vehicle. Two members of the group were positioned in the centre of the road - leading to the collision, with the motorist apparently driving straight into one of the boys.
Collision: The young boy was thrown up over the car's bonnet after the driver drove into him on Friday
The second boy (right) was pushed into the side of the road. Both amazingly escaped with only minor injuries
The incident occurred after news spread that the Israeli military had killed two senior Hamas militants
The young boys, with their t-shirts wrapped round the heads, were pelting Israeli cars in the neighborhood of Silwan
One of the children was smashed over the car's bonnet, with the other knocked to the side of the road. The accident occurred in the mostly Arab east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Earlier on Friday it was confirmed Israeli troops killed two senior Hamas militants as tensions between both sides continue to be severely strained with the peace process stalling once again over Israel's decision to re-start its settlement building. The two gunmen were said to have been wanted in connection with the killing of four Israelis near Hebron in August. A Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group, confirmed that both of the men killed were members of its armed wing.
Lucky escape: The boy was thrown into the air by the car but escaped with only cuts, grazes and bruises
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also released a statement praising the military for killing the militants and promising that Israel would 'continue pursuing terrorists anytime and anywhere'. The peace talks resumed at the White House on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus. The talks again appeared to reach deadlock three weeks later when Mr Netanyahu refused to extend a ten-month halt to construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, prompting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to call for negotiations to be suspended.
The real Iron Man: Robotic suit that gives wearer 17 times more strength to be used by military 'within 5 years'
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 2:32 PM on 30th September 2010 It’s a robotic suit that would give even Robert Downey Jnr in Iron Man pause for thought. For just like in the hit Hollywood blockbuster this amazing exoskeleton fits over the body and gives the wearer super-human strength. The suit gives the wearer up to 17 times more strength both for lifting and pushing. Weighing 195lbs, the XOS 2 Exoskeleton is made by defence systems firm Raytheon which believes it could be used in military operations within the next five years.
Power: The new exo-skeleton gives the wearer 17 times the strength of a normal man
As these pictures show a test engineer was easily able to lift a 200-pound weight, a 50-pound model and punched his way through four one-inch thick wooden boards bound together. The XOS 2 works by pumping warmed hydraulic fluid through the metal frame which 'takes over' the weight from the human body. Following tests the suit could have trials with the military within five years. Fraser Smith, vice president of operations for Raytheon-Sarcos, said: ‘Rather than using machinery to pick up, haul and place materials, having the human element involved can make work more precise and cut down on time to bring in cranes or other devices. ‘Or the computerised suit can be worn, say, by Air Force and Navy aviation workers to load bombs onto the undercarriage of aircraft or place munitions into storage or onto trucks for shipment. ‘The full exoskeleton gives a worker the strength to pick up in each hand and handle, all day long with little fatigue, 50-pound munitions. ‘Whatever the human wants to do, the XOS makes him stronger.
The extra power lets the human user lift heavy bombs and equipment as well a degree of flexibility
A video produced by Raytheon shows an engineer smashing through layers of wooden boards
The entire system is powered by an internal combustion engine as Raytheon decided not to use Lithium-ion batteries close to the wearer’s body for safety reasons. The suit is also connected to a power source by a cable.
Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man wearing the suit that gave him extra powers
Mr Smith said: ‘Some jobs allow for the tethering, say workers are storing or loading munitions in a small area. They can be hooked up to the power source. ‘When donned, the suit seems to support itself, making its weight barely perceptible. It feels relatively lightweight, similar to a winter coat being draped across shoulders.’ Suit wearer Rex Jameson said: ‘Wearing the suit makes the 50-pound weight feel like three pounds, raising the 200-pound weight felt like 12 pounds.’ ‘What is nice for me, in lifting all these weights, is I don’t feel it in my back.’ The U.S. Government, through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded work on XOS-1 at the rate of $4 million to $8 million a year during eight years. Despite high interest in the project, especially by the military, government funding on XOS-2 has not yet been approved. Dr Smith, Raytheon Sarcos Vice President of Operations said: 'Getting exoskeletons deployed is inevitable. They are desperately needed, and I believe the military looks at them as viable solutions to a number of current issues they are trying to address. 'With a sustained commitment, they could be in place within five years.' '