On February 22, an article in London’s Sunday Times reported on a survey of white British converts to Islam.  The survey was conducted by Yahya (formerly Jonathan) Birt, the son of former BBC director-general Sir John Birt.  Having examined the 2001 census figures, Birt concluded that there were around 14,200 white converts to Islam in Britain, including some well-known or well-connected people.

Apart from Birt himself, well-connected converts mentioned in the Sunday Times article or subsequent articles in other journals included Emma Clark (great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith), the earl of Yarborough, and Joe Ahmed-Dobson (son of former Labour minister Frank Dobson).  Readers were also reminded of the pop star Cat Stevens, who is now known as Yusuf Islam, and other high-profile converts such as Jemima Goldsmith (daughter of Sir James Goldsmith, who married the Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan) and Yvonne Ridley, a TV journalist who, when held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, did a Patty Hearst.  “We’re all the rage,” Clark said.  “I hope it’s not a passing fashion.”  The internet has now given birth to various websites (such as geocities.com/jrhalver/famous.html) that contain “trophy lists” of white converts to Islam, including, if these lists are to be believed, Gen. Charles William Buchanan Hamilton (nephew of American President James Buchanan).

This interest in Islam had attracted little attention until the Times article appeared.  It has probably only come to public attention now because some potentially fashionable people have become involved.  The stereotypical image of the British Muslim convert is that of the working-class woman living in a northern city, who has married a Pakistani shopkeeper.  (According to the Islamic Foundation of the United Kingdom, 70 percent of British converts are women.)  Such people attract little attention, except on those rare occasions when one notices a blaze of blue eyes or hears a Yorkshire accent emanating incongruously from behind a burqa.  These women are usually regarded—when they are thought about at all—with bemusement, or maybe even with condescending pity, by their compatriots.  Now, thanks to the adherence of some gilded youths, the dereliction of Christianity in Europe, and a growing respect for Islam—borne, perhaps, of fear—this patronizing attitude may be about to change.

It is very difficult to get reliable figures for white converts to Islam.  Few of the available numbers appear to have any statistical basis—or, if they do, it is not made clear.  For example, searching on the internet throws up, inter alia, the following figures: 50,000 Italian converts (International Herald Tribune, May 11, 2000); 20,000 Spanish (Asia News, June 9, 2004); 300 Irish (Galway Islamic Society); and 100,000 French (World Tribune, November 28, 2003).  A combination of newspaper exaggeration and Muslim self-interest may have boosted these figures wildly, however.  In the wake of September 11, Muslims would like there to be many European converts to Islam, as it “legitimizes” them and makes them feel less isolated.  We cannot yet tell what effect Muslim proselytizing has had in different countries, nor which countries (or brands of Christianity) seem to be most susceptible.  So those of us who disapprove viscerally of such “lifestyle choices” for Westerners should not panic about converts—yet, at any rate.  The clear and present danger to the West comes not from a few thousand misguided enthusiasts but from the large and restive populations of cradle Muslims that “responsible” politicians have permitted to grow in the heart of all European countries.

Yet whatever the scale, this is a discomfiting phenomenon.  Why should Westerners opt to become Muslims?  Why should they don the ideals, personalities, names, and mannerisms of a people whose every tradition is at odds with those of the West?  Why, in particular, should they seek to join the ranks of that group which has, for so long, represented to the Western imagination the greatest, because closest, civilizational threat?  We must worry about, as well as be sorry for, those of our people who have become so lost to themselves that they will consider joining the ranks of this alien wedge and should make efforts to win them back by fearlessly promoting our own values.  Goethe (himself sympathetic to Islam) said that, “As to the value of conversions, God only can judge.”  True, but we can—and should—start thinking about the practical consequences of this growing and discomfiting phenomenon.

Converts to Islam may punch above their numerical weight if they feel they have to “prove themselves” to their newfound brothers and sisters—the proverbial “reformed whore” syndrome.  Examples of those who have overidentified with their new faith include the three British converts from Catholicism arrested while fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan.  More pacific converts, such as Yahya Birt, may likewise have more of an effect than many born into Islam.  Their essential insecurity encourages them to make public protestations of their beliefs, and their ability to articulate the faith with white faces and in familiar accents may help, over time, to break down Occidental suspicion.  Birt is modest about his usefulness in this regard, telling Israel Today (June 8) that mass conversions of Britons would only happen if “an inspirational figure” like Malcolm X were to emerge.  For converts are insecure, partly because they are not necessarily made to feel welcome by those who were born into the faith.  One contributor to a Muslim website told of his experiences:


I am pushed too hard.  I am expected to act and have the understanding, faith, and knowledge of a born Muslim . . . [P]eople forget that I only recently converted.  Some people look down on me, and I feel like they are pushing me away from Islam . . . I feel alone in the journey [geocities.com/uwsmuslimsinforce/co].


In Western countries, there has long been aristocratic dilettantism around the edges of Islam, with occasional high-profile converts.  Some English stately homes have “Islamic rooms” tiled in cool, abstract Moresque patterns, installed by those with Gothic tastes in the 18th and early-19th centuries, and there is a new Islamic garden at Highgrove, the prince of Wales’ house in Gloucestershire (designed by the aforementioned Emma Clark).  The British upper classes are well known for their “Arabist” tendencies—think of the explorer Sir Richard Burton, or Lawrence of Arabia, or Edward Fitzgerald, falling in love from his cool, restrained Suffolk home with the delightfully sensuous (and safely remote) Persian of Omar Khayyam.  Such interest in aesthetics and culture has sometimes spilled over into religious belief.  This romantic Arabism has even affected British foreign policy, with the Foreign Office still possessing a reputation for being pro-Arab, several Gulf wars later.  One of the most important British converts today is a former diplomat, Charles Le Gai Easton, author of Islam and the Destiny of Man (1984), who has said that “People are put off by the wishy-washy standards of contemporary Christianity and they are looking for a religion which does not compromise too much with the modern world.”

This generic interest in “the Orient” also had an effect further down the social scale.  To take an everyday example, many still-extant public buildings of the 1920’s and 30’s were made to look like mosques—even, ironically, amusement arcades and cinemas.  There is a bingo chain in the United Kingdom called Mecca; I wonder when it will feel constrained to change its name to become more “relevant” or less “offensive.”  The grimly functional Grimsby Dock Tower, near where I live, built in 1852 to open and close the lock gates of what was then the world’s busiest fishing port, has a Moorish-style minaret—a pleasingly fanciful touch on that hyperboreal coast.  The idea of Islam in Europe has also long tickled literary fancies, from Gibbon’s famous musings in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to G.K. Chesterton’s Flying Inn.

Such influences affected all Christian countries from the late-18th century onward.  There were, of course, upper-class men and women from all European countries who romanticized and toyed with “unspoilt” cultures—like their predecessors who believed in “noble savages.”  Even in the most unlikely places, however, there was an acknowledged Muslim presence.  Somewhat surprisingly, there was a mosque in déclassé Berlin all the way through World War II, where Muslim POW’s and German converts could worship.  (In April 1945, it became the eastern front, and the Volksturm dug trenches in the mosque’s grounds.  A Muslim visitor to the shattered building shortly after the eastern front had moved westward recorded that the mosque was “littered with the dead bodies of Nazi youth.”)

The present conversions are not yet for personal advantage, or to avoid sanctions, although that dreadful time may come if present trends continue, as it came once for the unlucky Albanians (and Europeans captured by corsairs).  The reasons are still very obscure and private.  Some people are always drawn to fundamentalism and love wrapping themselves in metaphysical clouds.  These will seek to identify with whichever religion seems to them to be the most self-aggrandizing and may well switch religions if one that suits them better comes along.  Yah-ya Birt graduated in comparative religion from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1996—his choice of subject providing great insight into his personality.  Another convert, Sarah Joseph, who now edits a glossy Muslim “lifestyle” magazine called Emel, recalled:

I was a practising Roman Catholic.  I was a very serious teenager into social issues, politics and religion.  My faith meant a lot to me and it impacted on my social conscience.  My mother says that I was always religious—since I was a tiny child.

Joseph’s parents were completely irreligious, so it is probably the case that her assumption of Islam was a rejection of her parents and their unsatisfactory worldview.  The same probably applies to many other converts, who want to shock their parents as much as assure themselves of salvation.

The essential reason, however, is that Christianity and Western civilization are faltering.  Some of those sensitive enough to see that our societies are sick are now turning to Islam because they feel that Christianity is beyond repair.  Such despair is understandable enough, when you consider the angst-ridden and ignorant individuals who preponderate within our political, religious, and opinion-forming classes.  Chronicles readers will probably find themselves in agreement with many Islamic criticisms of modern Western society.  Like Rene Guenon (1885-1951), the French founder of the Traditionalist School, who converted to Islam in 1912, we can all see that there is indeed a Crisis of the Modern World (the name of his famous 1927 book).

It is, perhaps, understandable that a minority of young, idealistic people—searching for greater meaning than is to be found in shopping and football—might gravitate toward Islam especially as they may never have been taught about their own culture and traditions.  If other Westerners are unwilling to countenance anti-intellectual submission to Allah, that is essentially because they have different tastes.  Some may be too “liberal” to entertain adherence to such a “judgmental” religion, but others are opposed to Westerners becoming Muslims not because Islam is contemptible—for it is not—but simply because it is not intellectually, culturally, politically, or aesthetically compatible.

If we find the idea of Sussex men or Swabians flattening themselves before an imam to be fundamentally unsettling, it is because we can see such actions in their wider historical context.  We find it unsettling because we have heard of Charles Martel and Don John of Austria.  It is because we have heard of Vlad the Impaler and the Field of Blackbirds or have fought in our boyish imaginations with Capt. John Smith against the glittering, swarthy hordes.  We are moved by the grand thought of that emperor of an empire shrunk to a few suburbs, praying fervently alone at Midnight Mass in that cavernous church on that terrible night in 1453 and going out the next day to die fighting among his men, his body swept away unnoticed in the Byzantine wrack.  We know how precious the West is because we know how close it has come to being swept away by this very same force that is now pressing at our doors.  It is because we know enough, and feel enough, about who “we” are that we can see that Islam is irreconcilable with all that constitutes the West.  Expanding that historical consciousness, and that sense of special glory, to rescue those of our people who are adrift in the multicultural ocean is the ultimate antidote to our oldest, newly confident opponent.