Women Increasingly Drawn To Islam In U.K.

More than 5,000 people in Britain converted to Islam last year. That's an average of 14 a day, and most of them are women, including Lauren Booth, Tony Blair's sister-in-law. Academic studies in the U.K. have concluded that the idea that these conversions are driven mostly by marriage is a myth, and that most converts are simply attracted by the values of Islam. But there's a paradox here. In a controversial speech this week, Britain's first female Muslim Cabinet minister complained of growing intolerance toward Muslims in the U.K.

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Britain is often seen as a country of remarkable tolerance and diversity. There, an average of 14 people convert to Islam every day. But a senior British politician, who is herself a Muslim, says things are changing, and that British are becoming more hostile to members of her faith.

NPR's Philip Reeves has the story.

PHILIP REEVES: Sayeeda Warsi is the first Muslim woman to sit in Britain's cabinet. She co-chairs the Conservatives, the party that leads the coalition government.

This week, Warsi had this blunt message for her fellow Britons.

Baroness SAYEEDA WARSI (Co-Chair, Conservative Party): It has seeped into our society in a way where it is acceptable around dinner to have these conversations, where anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry is quite openly discussed.

REEVES: Plenty of people worry about this.

Mr. FIYAZ MUGHAL (Founder, Faith Matters): There's a growing gulf of misunderstanding within faith communities and a growing gulf of misunderstanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

REEVES: Fiyaz Mughal is founder of Faith Matters, an organization that promotes better inter-faith relations.

Mr. MUGHAL: This is worrying. This is a trend, and this is a trend that if we do not stop is going to lead to major divisions within the U.S., within Europe.

REEVES: Faith Matters commissioned the largest ever survey of Britain's converts to Islam. The survey shines a light on the contradictory attitudes that confront Muslims living here. It says most converts actually do feel British and Muslim and don't generally consider most Britons hostile to Islam.

Yet, says Mughal, the media usually takes a different view.

Mr. MUGHAL: The typical view taken of somebody converting to Islam is that they are somehow unbalanced, that they are somehow brainwashed, that they are missing or lacking something in their life.

REEVES: The report calculates just over 5,000 people in Britain converted to Islam this year. It says they often feel isolated from their families and from the men who run the mosques. About two-thirds of the converts are women. Marriage is usually not the reason, despite popular belief.

Recent converts include Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Booth remembers how she called her mother to tell her she'd been to a Muslim shrine and was deeply moved. She was encouraged by her mom's positive response.

Ms. LAUREN BOOTH (Journalist and Activist): So I said, I'm thinking of converting, and she said, that's no problem to me at all, and I was amazed.

REEVES: When she met her mother a week later, Booth wore the hijab, the traditional Islamic scarf.

Ms. BOOTH: She asked, why are you wearing that? And I said, because I've converted to Islam. And she said, Islam? I thought you said Buddhism, not those nutters.

REEVES: Booth hasn't yet told her brother-in-law Tony Blair.

Ms. BOOTH: I believe he's a war criminal, so I can't say we've had this discussion personally.

(Soundbite of chanting)

REEVES: On a windswept day at a mosque in the University of Swansea on Britain's western edge, Friday prayers begin.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The women are in a separate room. The imam's address is relayed to them by loudspeaker.

Unidentified Man: So when he was dying, he commands his people to look after women. Again, he didn't tell people: Go and fight.

REEVES: Some worshippers here are white British converts. They include a young mother, Helen Brooks-Wazwaz(ph). After prayers, she talks about her conversion, which was inspired by a visit to Egypt. She says her fellow Muslims welcomed her decision, but her father found it hard.

Ms. HELEN BROOKS-WAZWAZ: My dad's first reaction was you're going to have trouble all over the world, because his immediate instinct was, well, look at all these troubles that Muslims make, look at all these troubles that Muslims cause.

REEVES: There's a commonly held belief in secular Western societies that Islam represses women by compelling them to cover up. Brooks-Wazwaz says that's not her view of Islamic dress.

Ms. BROOKS-WAZWAZ: It makes me feel actually liberated rather than oppressed. As a woman in a Western society, you're very pressurized to try and wear something that you look your best and that people will look at you and think, oh, they look nice, they look attractive. But in Islam, your body is protected.

REEVES: Complex currents are at work here: Muslim resentment over the West's military role in the Middle East and elsewhere, Western resentment over Islamist attacks, the Muslim view of the West only as a hotbed of drinking and sex and so on.

Fiyaz Mughal of Faith Matters says everyone now needs to give a little.

Mr. MUGHAL: We need to stop just accepting the stereotypes about the other and start asking some questions about who we are and where we are going as societies.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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