Since the Westminster attack, apart from a desperation to psychoanalyse the killer to find some exculpating factor, there has been interest in Muslim converts.
On the BBC Sunday programme yesterday, Ed Stourton asked why someone brought up in secular Britain might embrace Islam and wondered if there were any safeguards against them doing it for the wrong reasons. He was careful not to imply that the dead terrorist had done anything for less than worthy reasons.
An English Muslim convert told him that any white man converting was considered, ‘A prize’ by other Muslims.
Sadly it doesn’t work like that for converts going the other way. I recently met a CofE theology student who is very dejected about her treatment by the church she has joined and her fellow students. Her problems have not come from her family in Turkey who are secular, or Muslims, but from her Christian fellow students and tutors. She insisted on remaining anonymous after a difficult time, and in the hope of ever getting a job in the Church.
The most striking thing about her is the way she loves her adopted country. ‘English culture, the kindness to people and animals, the politeness and tolerance, that was my entry,’ she says. She meant ‘entry’ to Christianity. ‘English culture showed me Jesus’ she said.
‘I loved England for its free speech and tolerance, so I have been shocked by what has happened to me.’
For people who do not know the modern Church of England this may seem strange. Her fellow students, ironically in a college set up in the 19th century to train missionaries, felt that her conversion was distasteful. Why would anyone leave Islam, the religion of peace? It jarred with their multicultural, interfaith beliefs.
‘Liberal elements in the church are naturally against conversion,’ she says, ‘because of their relativistic point of view. All faiths are now seen as equal. There are not many Muslim converts and most of us feel totally let down.’
She also got into trouble because of what might be called her conservative viewpoint on British politics. ‘I became unpopular with other Anglicans when I openly supported Brexit,’ she says.
‘‘But you are a migrant,’ they said, in what I felt was an insulting way. My brother used to regularly visit the UK as we have relatives here. There is now a problem with his entry visa to the UK as there is a worry that they might not return to our homeland. People in the college said to me, ‘That’s your Karma because you voted to leave the EU.’
Being an Evangelical Christian she is not the type to embrace the idea of Karma and found this attitude deeply wounding. Worse came when she attended a class on Travellers. After using the word ‘Gypsies,’ instead of the more politically correct term, ‘Roma’, her tutor reported her to the Diocese, without any discussion or consultation.
‘It didn’t happen to any other ordinands,’ she says sadly. ‘They were more certain of English nuances than me. They are always careful what they say. I am a few months away from ordination and I don’t know now if I will get a job after this.’
British students’ willingness to embrace Islam is truly remarkable. At UCL, London, in March 2013 a debate, ‘Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?’ featured Professor Lawrence Krauss, an eminent atheist, and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a lecturer on Islam. When Krauss saw people being removed from their seats, women at the back, men and couples to the front, he walked out to cheers and boos from the audience.
The story got into the press and there were demonstrations outside against Muslim law being enforced. The university would do nothing about it, and the practice was not stopped until David Cameron spoke against it in the Commons.
Dislike of ex-Muslims who challenge their former faith, even though they face great personal threat as apostates, is also not unusual on British campuses. In 2015 Maryam Namazie, an Iranian campaigner against Sharia law, was invited to speak to the Warwick University Secular Society. The student union blocked the event.
In an email to the society’s president, Benjamin David, a student union official said the decision had been taken ‘after researching both her and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised. A number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory and could incite hatred on campus.’
She was just one woman speaking about Islam but the student union’s policy says external speakers ‘must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups.’
David appealed against the decision, pointing out that Maryam, a former Muslim, had always campaigned against violence and discrimination. She was eventually asked back but by then it was obvious that the students could not see the difference between criticising Islam and the racism which they all detest so much.
‘In February this year the Islamic Society of Westminster objected to Maryam speaking. On her blog she described her recent experiences: ‘Nowadays I find that universities don’t bar me outright as Warwick initially did nor do Islamic Societies cancel and threaten my talk as at they did at Goldsmiths. Their efforts are often more covert though no less sinister.
‘Take Westminster University where I will be debating Tariq Modood on Secularism and Diversity. The Islamic Society didn’t call for an outright ban but issued a statement asking: ‘How do you feel about Maryam Namazie speaking?’ telling students to contact the university secular adviser to ‘voice their concerns.’’
It has been reported that the Westminster Islamic Society has members who refuse to speak to female staff. Their most famous alumni is Mohammed Emwazi, the Londoner dubbed ‘Jihadi John,’ who graduated from the University of Westminster before going to Syria to join Islamic State. He was pictured in videos beheading hostages, before being killed in a joint US-UK drone strike last year.
Maryam also had problems speaking at the LSE Human Rights Society. ‘The restrictions imposed were absurd,’ she says. ‘Initially I was meant to debate whether human rights is possible under Sharia Law, but those approached refused to debate me or pulled out at the last minute. One of those, Omer El Hamdoon, the president of the Muslim Association of Britain, asked to do a solo talk instead, which he did in November 2016. The stark difference in the way he and I were treated at the LSE speaks volumes. Despite speaking on the very same topic, Hamdoon came and went without any concerns being raised or any restrictions placed on his talk.’
According to Maryam, Hamdoon has defended the shunning of ex-Muslims and death by stoning in an ideal Islamic state. In contrast her talk, which was initially meant to be a public event, was restricted to LSE students and staff due to ‘security concerns.’
She accuses British universities of ‘buying into the Islamist narrative.’ That narrative, or at least a policy of not challenging it, seems to have been adopted by other institutions of the British state, in education, the police and the Church, even if converts/apostates are physically attacked.
The young theological student I met, who felt so badly let down, looked anxious as she mentioned the case of Nissan Hussain, a Bradford father of five who converted to Christianity twenty years ago, and is now in hiding after years of abuse. After becoming a Christian he and his family were threatened by mobs of Muslim youths calling them ‘traitors.’ They rammed and egged his car, smashed its windows seven times, and made an arson attack on his house.
During attacks in 2005 they were rescued by another Muslim family. Hussain claims he received little help from the local police who refused to treat the attacks as a religious hate crime and little help from the Christian church which he had joined at such cost. He told a newspaper: ‘We’ve given up on the Church of England, they have done nothing for us. Our lives have been sabotaged and this shouldn’t happen in the United Kingdom. We live in a free democratic society and what they are doing to us is abhorrent.’
Things didn’t improve for him. He had to leave his job as a nurse after being diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2008, Hussein took part in a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary about the mistreatment of Muslim converts after suffering a brutal assault by two men who smashed his kneecap and broke his hand. On November 3rd 2016, as he was finally packing up to leave Bradford, armed police arrived and moved him to a place of safety.
Much of this willingness to let Muslims do as they wish and the lack of support for converts is bound up in the ethos of ‘interfaith dialogue’, which is now central to policy in the Church of England, replacing the Ecumenical fervor of the past. Rather than dialogue, some might term this movement, ‘Dhimmitude.’
That word means non Muslims appeasing and surrendering to Islam. It was coined in 1982 by Bachir Gemayel, President of Lebanon, after attempts by the country’s Muslim leadership to subordinate a large Lebanese Christian minority.
‘We want to continue to christen, to celebrate our rites and traditions, our faith and our creed whenever we wish,’ he said. ‘Henceforth, we refuse to live in any dhimmitude!’
There have been no such cries from powerful people here.Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, sees himself leading, ‘a process of engagement within a religiously plural English society.’ In October 2015 he called for more interfaith dialogue to assuage what he called, ‘the fears of the Muslim community.’
For the Church, community relations must not be disrupted even if that means abandoning converts. In 2005, reporter Roy Kerridge, writing for The Salisbury Review, accompanied Nissan Hussain to see the the Rt Revd David James, then Bishop of Bradford.
‘As far as I can understand, the Bishop of Bradford had staked his career on ‘building a bridge with the Muslim community,’’ wrote Kerridge. Asked if he would welcome Muslim converts he replied, ‘No,’ explaining, ‘Not unless I had an infrastructure of support, which we cannot afford and do not have. We cannot at present give protection to converts from Islam, safe houses for their families and so on. Up to now we’ve only had occasional conversions, all from men whose families have already disowned them, drunkards, drug addicts and so on.’
Last year the current Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Toby Howarth, a graduate of Wycliffe Hall, who has an MA in Islamic Studies and a PhD in Muslim preaching, issued a response to violence in Germany and France and the murder of a French priest while celebrating Mass, without mentioning the word Islam once.
My disillusioned convert noted the ‘naivety’ in much of this. ‘I was on an interfaith programme,’ she says. ‘English people were talking about Islam, romanticising it. I was the only Muslim convert there but they weren’t interested in anything I said. When I questioned anything they changed the topic. I can help with my understanding, but no one in the church wants to hear my views.’
It doesn’t take an extreme cynic to suspect some of this cultural cringing in the CofE and our universities is down to funding. Forty per cent of Oxford University’s total income comes from research councils, charities, trusts and foundations. In 2015 the Rhodes Trust spent eight million on eighty nine scholars, including £40,000 to the leader of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, who led protests calling for a statue of the Trust’s founder at Oriel College to be removed. In April 2016 Oriel equivocated promising him, ‘further negotiations.’ A month later on hearing they could lose £100 million in gifts if Cecil lost his plinth, the college decided to keep the imperialist in place.
Sensitivity and fear of offending Islam is inexplicable to many British people, but some of it may be down to hard cash. Between 1986 and 2011, the University of Oxford and the £75 million Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, which offers scholarships for study, ‘of benefit to the Muslim world,’ together accepted more than £105 million in donations from the Saudi royal family. Of all the universities Oxford has been the largest British beneficiary of Saudi support. The Islamic Studies Centre is also supported by twelve other Muslim countries. Oxford has also received support from the Malaysian government, the Emirates and even the Bin Laden dynasty. Ripon theological college has a bursary from the King of Jordan.
The total sum from Islamic sources, revealed by Anthony Glees, director of Brunel University’s Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, in his paper, ‘Degrees of Influence,’ now amounts to the largest source of external funding to UK universities.
‘Islam is more complicated than Western people think,’ my young graduand said. ‘There are people coming who want to sell the Islamic way of life. I came here for the British way of life, not to find Sharia law again.’
England has also turned out to be more complicated than she realised, and very far from the bastion of free speech and tolerance she imagined.
(Image: Quinn Dombrowski)