Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Male Perspectives

Narratives of Conversion to Islam: Male Perspectives brought together forty-six male Muslim converts to discuss aspects of their conversions to Islam, to reflect on their journeys
and experiences and to produce a report to inform Muslims and non-Muslims about the topic. The preliminary meeting (December 2014) commented on the widespread misrepresentations of male converts and shed new light on issues that have received little attention in the literature, such as how converts ‘learn Islam’, conversion in prison and radicalisation, the relations between converts and heritage Muslims, struggle with faith and exiting Islam. The voices of male converts are often unheard in contemporary debates about Muslims and Islam in the UK. Based on an extended set of conversations held at the University of Cambridge in 2014/5 with male converts to Islam, this project provides a platform for male converts from diverse socio-economic, geographical and denominational backgrounds to articulate their experiences and perspectives on matters they have identified as significant.

The project follows on from the huge success of the first report in the series, Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives (2013) and aims to go some way to fill the current gap in accessible, high-quality research on issues around male converts and conversion to Islam in the UK. The research will be available to the public through a final report that will be published in February 2016 and will be free to download from the Centre of Islamic Studies’ website.

Download the Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain – Male Perspectives report.

Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Male Perspectives Video


News and Media Coverage

The landmark report, produced by Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies, captures the isolation and dislocation felt by many new converts, and the sense of being a ‘minority within a minority’ as they adjust to life as a follower of one of the most maligned and misunderstood faiths in the UK‘ (Cambridge Research News, 3 February 2016)

  • University of Cambridge Research News, February 2016: Male converts to Islam: landmark report examines conversion experience of British Muslims” Read the article here.
  • London Launch of the report, 3 February 2016: 5-7pm at Kamran Djam Lecture Theatre, The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). Speakers: Professor Yasir Suleiman, University of Cambridge, Professor Muhammad Abdel Haleem, SOAS, Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison, Rapper: Tommy Evans, Chair: Dr Paul Anderson, University of Cambridge.
  • Cambridge Launch of the report, 5 February 2016: 6.30-8.30pm, Mill Lane Lecture Theatre, University of Cambridge. Speakers: Professor Yasir Suleiman, University of Cambridge, Adam Kelwick Muslim Chaplain, Embrace Foundation,  Dr Jeremy Henzell-Thomas University of Cambridge, Rapper: Tommy Evans, Chair: Dr Paul Anderson, University of Cambridge.
  • The Independent, 3 February 2016: “MI5’s attempts to recruit informants blamed for making British Muslim converts objects of suspicion”. Read the article here.
  • The Telegraph, 3 February 2016: “British Muslim converts targeted for recruitment as possible informants, a study says”. Read the article here.
  • ITV News, 3 February 2016: “Muslim converts face discrimination says new report”. Read the article here.
  • Asian Image, 3 February 2016: “British Muslim converts feel isolated from society”. Read the article here.
  • The Australian, 3 February 2016: “Tough road for those that convert to Islam”. read the article here.
  • The Daily Telegraph Australia, 3 February 2016: “Tough road for those that convert to Islam”. Read the article here.
  • World Bulletin,3 February 2016: “UK’s MI5 targets Muslim converts for recruitment”. Read the article here.
  • LBC, 3 February 2016, Podcast discussing Experiences of Religious Conversion available here (86th minute).
  • Republika Online (Indonesia), 4 February 2016, “Mualaf Inggris: Menjadi Minoritas dalam Minoritas”. Read the article (in Indonesian) here.
  • Cambridge TV News, 4 February 2016, “Muslim Convert Study”. Watch the TV interview here.
  • Church Times, 5 February 2016, “Muslim converts find they are ‘suspect'”. Read the article here or download the Church Times February 2016 Article.
  • The Independent, 9 February 2016, “I’m a middle-aged, white Scottish man who converted to Islam without ever meeting a Muslim. This is how”. Read the article here.
  • The Economist, 12 February 2016, “Why some Brits choose Islamic prayer over partying”. Read the article here.
  • BBC Scotland, 15 February 2016, The Kay Adams Programme discusses ‘The Muslim Convert’ available here (122th minute). Please note availability to this programme expires on 31 March 2016.

The questions for the participants at the three symposia are set out below.

Symposium I (21-22 February 2015)

First Interest and Taking the Shahadah

  • When did participants first become interested in Islam and what were their initial impressions?
  • What guidance and information is available from individuals (‘mentors’), institutions or other sources to develop an initial curiosity about Islam?
  • What is the role of Islamic art, poetry and music in generating an interest in Islam?
  • Is the decision to convert sudden or part of a much longer process of change? Did converts change anything about their lifestyle or identity prior to taking the shahadah?
  • What is the significance of taking the shahadah in participants’ narratives of conversion?
  • How far are the experiences of children and teenagers converting to Islam different to adults?
  • How do the experiences of individuals who are born Muslim but ‘convert’ later in life differ to converts from a non-Muslim background?

 Learning Islam

  • What knowledge(s) are converts looking for when they begin to learn about Islam? Are there differences between learning before and after conversion?
  • Which sources of knowledge do converts approach to learn Islam?
  • How able are converts to distinguish between information from different dominations of Islam and is this significant?
  • Do participants learn Islam without a ‘cultural inflection’? Is this unique among Muslims?
  • How far do the core values learnt by converts sustain or disrupt values from pre-conversion?

‘Becoming Muslim’ and the Responses of Friends and Family 

  • What changes does conversion lead to in a convert’s lifestyle? How does this change over time? What was most easy and difficult to change?
  • How do converts present their identity as Muslims? Do outward changes in appearance reflect inward changes?
  • Is there pressure on converts to shed aspects of their non-Muslim identity?
  • Is conversion to Islam a process of change or continuity?
  • What is the impact of conversion on the work of artists?
  • At what stage do converts present their conversion to family and friends? How do family and friends react? What is the impact of changes in identity and behaviour on their reaction?
  • How do converts respond to the reactions of family and friends?

Spirituality

  • What is the significance of spirituality in the decision to convert?
  • Is conversion to Islam a result of a ‘spiritual journey’?
  • What are the different conceptions of spirituality and how are these conceptions shaped by denomination of Islam, location and the time since conversion?

Symposium II (21-22 March 2015)

Relations with Heritage Muslims

  • How important is being among heritage Muslims for maintaining an interest in, and practice of, Islam?
  • What are common conceptions of converts held among heritage Muslims? How is this dynamic shaped by converts’ class, ethnicity and cultural background?
  • What do converts owe heritage Muslims for shaping the environment of Islam in the UK today?
  • Do converts play a unique role as an interface between heritage Muslim communities and wider British society? What role do converts play in interfaith relations?
  • What is the significance of the ummah? When is the ummah ‘realised’? Does the notion of the ummah create an interest in what is going in the ‘Muslim world’?

Mosques and Muslim Associations

  • Do converts join mosques, community centres or Islamic societies? How far do converts ‘believe without belonging’ (Davie, 1994)?
  • Do these spaces reflect the concerns and priorities of converts to Islam? Are converts empowered to influence decisions and take leadership positions?
  • How far do Muslim spokespersons or institutions in the UK and Europe articulate values and practices that are suited to the British environment?

Convert Community/ties and Support Organisations

  • What is a community? Do converts in the UK constitute a community, or communities, or no community at all? Are conceptions of community shaped by the location of converts?
  • Is it correct, or even an obligation, to create a ‘convert community’? What advantages and disadvantages would this bring converts?
  • What is the ‘phenomenon of [a well-established Muslim community in England]’ and how far does this present a model for converts in other parts of the UK to replicate?
  • Do convert support organisations help to foster a sense of community among converts to Islam?

Relations with wider British Society

  • What is the heritage of converts to Islam in the UK and how important is this heritage for converts’ conception of their place in British society today?
  • Are having a British cultural identity and being Muslim compatible? Is the act of conversion a critique of aspects of mainstream British culture and society?
  • How has the context for conversion to Islam in the UK changed over time?
  • Do aspects of converts’ identity and practices change in relation to non-Muslims in wider British society? Which aspects?

Civic Engagement

  • How far does conversion to Islam lead to a reassessment of interactions with the state and civic responsibilities?
  • Does being Muslim raise any difficulties in taking positions of leadership in local community affairs or national politics?

Media & Representation

  • What is the representation of converts and conversion in the media in the UK? What effect does this have on converts’ self-perception?
  • Is Islamophobia widespread in the UK?
  • What was the impact of the Woolwich murder in May 2013 in influencing perceptions of converts to Islam?
  • Do converts suffer prejudice from wider British society and is this similar or different to the experiences of heritage Muslims in the UK?
  • What is the impact of the increasing visibility and outspokenness of far-right political parties on converts in the UK?

Symposium III (2-3 May 2015)

Marriage and the Second Generation

  • Do male converts face different challenges and opportunities in organising marriage compared to male heritage Muslims?
  • What are the experiences of converts getting married to heritage Muslims? Do converts have positive or negative experiences with their family-in-law? How are these marriages viewed by heritage Muslim communities and wider British society?
  • Does marriage play a role in stimulating better understanding and communication between converts to Islam and heritage Muslims?
  • What effect does conversion have on an existing relationship or marriage to a non-Muslim?
  • Do the children of converts have a different experience of ‘belonging’ and ‘unbelonging’ among heritage Muslims and wider British society? How do children’s identities as Muslims and practices differ from their parents?
  • What difference does it make having one or two parents who are converts to Islam?

Gender and Sexuality

  • How do conceptions of masculinity change as a result of conversion to Islam? Are converts physically and psychologically circumcised when they convert to Islam? How is this shaped by the ethnic, class and cultural background of converts?
  • Is there a difference between theory and reality in the experience of being a Muslim man?
  • How far do the attitudes of converts about the roles and responsibilities of men and women differ from normative conceptions of gender in the UK and among heritage Muslims?
  • What role do, or should, male converts play in challenging assumptions about gender norms in mainstream society in the UK and among heritage Muslims?
  • How does conversion change attitudes towards sex: both pre-marital and within marriage?
  • What discourses about sexuality are common among heritage Muslims and how do these affect male converts to Islam?
  • How does conversion to Islam impact views on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender and queer individuals?

Conversion in Prison and Radicalisation

  • Why do prisoners convert at proportionally higher rates compared to mainstream British society?
  • What effect does the prison environment have on converts’ identities as Muslims and their practice of Islam?
  • Does conversion in prison and learning Islam within the prison environment make it more likely for converts to become radicalised?
  • What can lead some converts to become radicalised? Are these individuals radical before they convert to Islam?
  • What resources and actors exist to help radicalised converts?

Struggles with the Faith and Exiting Islam

  • What aspects of Muslim faith and practice can prove to be especially challenging for converts? How does this differ according to individuals’ pre-conversion faith background, location or marital status?
  • What resources and organisations exist to support converts who are struggling with the faith?
  • What are the consequences converts face when they exit Islam? Should more be done to support converts after they have exited Islam?
  • Has sectarianism of the Muslim community in Britain in recent years made converts the subject of the attention of the security services?
  • How do converts deal with death, burial and inheritance issues?