It didn’t come as a utter surprise to the British public when Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, decided to convert to Islam. The journalist, activist and all-around political gadfly demonstrated against the war in Iraq, and in 2008, she was on one of the first boats headed to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade. She made headlines when she declared Gaza “the largest concentration camp in the world.”
And now, just after starting her new job as a newscaster for Iran’s English-language Press TV, Booth says that she has become Muslim, after experiencing a “religious awakening” in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
But if her conversion wasn’t all that stunning, seeing the outspoken blonde, wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf has sparked spirited conversation as to why modern Western career women would be attracted to Islam.
Sardonic British columnist (and philo-Semite) Julie Burchill threw several poison darts at Booth: “What sort of woman freely converts to a religion which supports the oppression, torment and murder of thousands of Christians, homosexuals and spirited women, worldwide, every year?”
Booth addresses those perplexed about her conversion here, writing:
This week’s screams of faux horror from fellow columnists on hearing of my conversion to Islam prove that this remains the stereotypical view regarding half a billion women currently practising Islam. …So let’s all just take a deep breath and I’ll give you a glimpse into the other world of Islam in the 21st century. Of course, we cannot discount the appalling way women are mistreated by men in many cities and cultures, both with and without an Islamic population. Women who are being abused by male relatives are being abused by men, not God. Much of the practices and laws in “Islamic” countries have deviated from (or are totally unrelated) to the origins of Islam. Instead practices are based on cultural or traditional (and yes, male-orientated) customs that have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule is an invention of the Saudi monarchy, our government’s close ally in the arms and oil trade. The fight for women’s rights must sadly adjust to our own government’s needs.
Eve Ahmed, a journalist who left Islam at the age 18, pondered that Booth’s conversion is emblematic of a growing number of European women becoming Muslims-by-choice. In the article, one expert, Kevin Price of Swansea University, said it appears that the ratio of Western women converts to male could be as high as 2:1.
Certainly, many of the women converts are doing so in order to please Muslim men in their lives and placate their in-laws. But Ahmed’s interviews with the converts indicate that as European life has become increasingly secular and individualistic, women are drawn to the spirituality, they crave the feeling of being part of a warm, tight-knit community, and participating in a culture that values the family and the woman’s role as wife and mother.
The longing for a structured religious life rings familiar — it resembles the attraction to Orthodox Judaism — only the threshold to converting to Islam is much lower than the lengthy process of Jewish conversion: In Islam, the main requirement for conversion is a declaration of allegiance to Allah and Muhammad.
Booth’s conversion comes three years after her brother-in-law — the former prime minister — converted to Catholicism, from Protestantism. As the British press has noted, it all must make for interesting family dinners.
Watch Booth discuss her conversion: