Monday, 5 October 2015

Finding Allah: why more and more Scots are converting to Islam by Imran Azam and Karin Godwin

Published in The Herald Scotland - Sunday 4th October 2015
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

A GROWING number of Scots are converting to Islam - with the majority young women.
Glasgow Central Mosque alone is now seeing more than 200 Scots a year 'revert'. Due to the rising number of Scots finding Islam, mosques across the country are also setting up support groups for new 'reverts'. Many are fearful of abuse and intimidation.

Reversion is the preferred term within Islam for those who 'convert' - as Muslims believe everyone is born believing in Allah.

The Sunday Herald spoke to Hannah, a 25-year-old administrator from Glasgow who recently “reverted”. Hannah asked for her surname to be kept confidential. Though brought up without any particular faith, Hannah is one of a growing number of Scots who are turning to Islam despite what many see as a “demonisation” of the religion.

“I’d done a degree in comparative religion and had to analyse all the religious texts,” said Hannah. “I went away from that thinking that maybe I should be a Christian.

“But a few months later, while meditating, I found myself pulled in the direction of Islam. After that I started reading again, but this time in a more emotional way. I found I preferred the simplicity of Islam.”
After mulling it over for six months, she decided to revert. In July this year, she visited Glasgow Central Mosque to take the Shahada – a declaration of faith in front of two witnesses, in which Allah is recognised as the only God.

Her conversion was shared online by the Glasgow Central Mosque along with others including 20-year-old Jade from the Shetland Isles, and Katie, also 20 and an administration worker from Glasgow, who made her Shahada last month.

Glasgow Central Mosque says numbers of “reverts” have been gradually rising and they are now dealing with up to four conversions a week. Along with the Edinburgh Central Mosque, it has now started support groups for new Muslims. The total number of converts is not known, but according to a report by Faith Matters, 5,200 people now join the UK-wide Muslim population of three million every year. Scotland’s community is significantly smaller at 90,000 people, over one-third of whom live in Glasgow.

Rizy Mohammad, a co-ordinator at the Glasgow Central Mosque, said: “We are seeing an influx, particularly in the number of women expressing an interest in Islam. I don’t think there is one reason for it but it’s interesting that after 9/11, where Muslims were blamed for the bombing of the twin towers, a lot of people started doing their own research. Many found out more about Islam that led them to different conclusions.

“There is also the spiritual dimension. They’ve been part of the material world, done the shopping thing and now they are looking for a deeper connection.”

But for many reverts, it is not an easy transition. High-profile conversions of white Muslims such as Richard Dart, who is serving a six-year jail sentence for plotting an attack on soldiers in Royal Wootton Bassett, mean alarm bells often sound for family members.

“Because of the extent of Islamophobia in the media, my mum, who is a Pagan, thought that I was going to join IS,” said Hannah. “People see the violent, loud things. They don’t see the quiet Muslims who aren’t doing anything bad. My brother told her not to be so ridiculous and after about a week she came round. Now she makes sure that I don’t drink when I come to her house and even cooks halal for me.”

Hannah has also found some of the more conservative aspects of the religion, which still segregates men and women at places of worship, difficult to deal with. She admits she has taken off her hijab in parts of the city where she perceived the reaction to Muslim men and women wearing full traditional dress to be less than supportive. Since converting she has not been swimming due to concerns about covering up, and finds it hard cycling while wearing a hijab.

A 2013 Cambridge University study about women’s experience of conversion claimed it was “not for the faint-hearted”.

“I think in Islam men and women are equal but different,” said Hannah. “But I also think there are some cultural issues with equality.”

Jay (not his real name), who converted less than three months ago after a near-death experience with drugs, said that while some friends had asked if he was going to travel to Syria and fight for IS, most people have been positive about his decision. Before his conversion, he said, he worked and partied too hard, and lived for the weekend.

“One of my colleagues in particular was keen to know why I converted,” said Jay. “He wanted to know how I could give up the clubs, drink and girlfriends, and now spend my time praying.

“I told him that now I had inner peace. I could now go to sleep at night. A few weeks later he also became Muslim.”

However, other converts have been left disillusioned. Dawud Duncan, originally from Oban, who became Muslim nine years ago, believes the lack of support from fellow “heritage Muslims” - people born into Islam -has led some reverts to leave their newfound faith.?“When a person takes the Shahada they are treated like a superstar and everyone wants to know their story,” he said. “However, within a week they can be left to their own devices. This can make the individual feel very isolated as they are often caught between two communities.”

Duncan, who now lives in Glasgow, currently hosts an online radio programme for converts and also aims to set up a support and advocacy group. He hopes that issues raised by the group can be taken up by the leadership of the mosque to help avoid future problems.

“New Muslims have so much to offer the Muslim community and Scotland,” said Duncan. “This would include a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding of the cultural issues our society faces. Converts find it easier to explain Islam to a Scottish audience.”

His experience chimes with that of Saleem Mcgroarty, 43, from Edinburgh, a member of the Edinburgh Muslim Community Association who was raised a Catholic and converted to Islam at 26.
He no longer attends his local mosque due to concerns about its links to Saudi Arabia, a country with a very conservative approach to Islam, and has found it hard to integrate.

Mcgroarty said: “I think there should be some emotional and community support, a buddy network; the things you really need when you are moving into another world.”

In Mecca I saw little of Islam’s compassion, but a lot of Saudi Arabia’s neglect by Sabreena Razaq Hussain

Published in The Guardian - Comment is Free, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Friday 2nd October 2015


I am grateful to be alive after a distressing Hajj experience – and urge all Muslims to protest about the inhumane treatment of pilgrims. Radical change is needed  


With 2 million people gathered in one small city for the hajj, some discomfort was to be expected. And putting up with it was, I initially thought, an opportunity to exercise the patience so very valued by our faith of Islam and in the holiest of cities. So we marched on hopefully.
But with the 40-plus degree heat of Mecca, the harsh policing, the aggressive crowds, the chaotic organisation, the pressure was relentless. As the days went on, I couldn’t have felt a starker contrast between the spiritual tranquillity and contentment experienced within the confines of the Grand Mosque and sites, and the anxiety and distress caused by those policing it. Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia, accompanying my parents on pilgrimage, my ignorance had led me to believe that one of the richest Muslim countries in the world would be well organised in facilitating the rites of hajj. Now, back in the UK, I am grateful to be alive and still horrified by what I witnessed. I fully understand why hundreds of people were crushed to death and I don’t believe that “God’s will” can be used an excuse.

We’d had a pleasant and spiritual warm-up in the crowded but welcoming streets of Medina. Our group of UK pilgrims remained incredibly organised, my mother’s diabetes was stable and my father, an asthmatic, remained mercifully unaffected by the heat. As a pilgrim, daughter and a GP, I was happy and excited to be heading for Mecca. But the reality was a shock.

Even getting to and from the mosque and other sites was distressing. Accompanying wheelchair users, we had to help them on and off the wheelchairs many times as the pavements were almost knee high with no clear ramps or similar. Considering the number of people with permanent disability or debilitating conditions, this was shocking.

The heat was one of the biggest tests of all, causing many to become exhausted and dehydrated. Yet only a few of the crowded routes had supplies of water. Some of the common pilgrim routes, where the symbolic stoning of Satan takes place for example, were devoid of any water supplies other than the presence of young policemen occasionally squirting random pilgrims’ faces with water.

The manners and communication skills of the stewards and police deployed in and around the mosque were deplorable. With pilgrims from hundreds of countries, one would think that communication in at least one language other than Arabic would be available. This was not the case.

Not only that, but their manner of aggressively shouting at even the most softly spoken of pilgrims was both needless and a cause of humiliation for those on the receiving end. Nobody had ever spoken to me or my parents in this way before.

It appeared the only thing the very young policemen were authorised to do was shout the Arabic word for “no” and to barricade entry routes as and when they pleased without warning, offering no alternative: clearly a recipe for a crush or a stampede in any of the holy sites.

We were in the mosque when they barricaded an exit and said we couldn’t leave until the next prayer finished, an hour and a half later. The physical pressure of hundreds of people had started to build up behind us, causing extreme anxiety and hyperventilation. I politely asked first, then literally begged the guards to let us exit as my mum’s diabetic medication was in our hotel which was quite near the mosque. Her sugar levels were dropping, but it made no difference. When we did finally find a pilgrim to translate for us, our exit was still refused. When I almost cried and asked “What happens if she collapses and dies here?”, the response was a shrug of the shoulders: if she dies she dies.

Aisha Khan, a Manchester-based business manager who was part of the same tour group told me a few days later of her anguish after the authorities would not open the barrier to let her husband through to her when she felt very unwell. She physically collapsed. Even then the stewards remained in a small group laughing, not helping him to call for an ambulance. She recalls him running distressed from one side of the road to another pleading for help.

Actually making it into an ambulance was another problem. I saw ambulances stuck in the stopped traffic with no provision for them to manoeuvre or overtake. Having stopped with a group of fellow pilgrims and doctors to help a lady slumped on the ground looking as if she may be having a heart attack, it was infuriating to find that when the so-called paramedics arrived (they appeared to be drivers in uniforms and not medically trained), they refused to even let us tell them what had happened. I partially stepped into the back of the ambulance concerned for the poor lady, to find no medical equipment visible whatsoever. We were shooed off and some of her family were left on the street in tears with no idea as to where the ambulance had gone.

There are numerous other distressing experiences I could relate, as most pilgrims can. But the insistence of some that the deaths of hundreds of people represented God’s will and were therefore unavoidable is something I refuse to accept. I believe Islam is based on reason: unless you have done everything you can within your means to actively avoid a bad situation, you cannot use the excuse of it being God’s will.

Some people who have made the pilgrimage before describe how things are slowly getting better with time. And the Saudi authorities are denying visas to pilgrims if they have done it in the past five years, in an attempt to control the influx. Heavy construction work is being completed at the mosque at the moment (the work indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of people last month when one of the cranes fell through a roof at the Grand Mosque). But radical changes are required.

Much of the poor management of the hajj stems from the actual functioning of Saudi Arabia itself. Authorities around the holy sites are clearly not allowed to make independent decisions, while members of the royal family and their guests are treated as VIPs, and therefore have no motivation to push the authorities into creating a safe and workable system.

In Mecca I saw Muslims, but I saw little Islam. I did not see compassion from our hosts, I did not see their concern for our welfare. I urge all Muslims, pilgrims or otherwise, not to just accept the above as part of the challenge or experience of hajj, but to raise their voices. Write to your local MP, write to the Muslim Council of Britain and utilise your local community groups to express your outrage, and add to the clamour already building in the international arena.

Pilgrimage is supposed to enlighten and change lives, not endanger or end them. It is time to reclaim it.

Sabreena Razaq Hussain is a doctor, writer and activist