By Abdul Haqq Baker
19 August 2013
A seminar was hosted last month by Christians Together in England to consider ways to "stem the flight of black British youths to Islam and radicalisation". In an unprecedented move, Muslims were invited to attend – and they did. Together, both faith groups discussed the reasons why a growing number of young black people are choosing Islam in preference to Christianity. According to this morning's BBC Radio 4's Today programme, one in nine black Christian men are converting to Islam.
'Islam's monotheistic foundation made sense to me and was easy to comprehend.' Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian
Following in my father's footsteps, I was raised as a Roman Catholic and attended Sunday mass regularly as a child. I also attended a Roman Catholic secondary school – initially a cultural shock as I found myself the only black student among a predominantly white class. The religious focus of the school was, however, a refreshing contrast to my urban, street background. Teachers and students were more serious about God than at my previous schools. A student was not considered "nerdy" or "odd" due to their religiosity. I was therefore able to excel in religious studies and was successful in my final O-level exam.
During these lessons, the more we learned about religion, the more we questioned and challenged particular concepts, particularly relating to Christianity. Questions about the concept of the trinity – the Godhead being three in one – caused many debates as some of us; myself and others did not find this logical or feasible. Our religious studies teacher became exasperated by persistent questions on this topic, and arranged for the local priest to attend and address the question. His explanations did little to remove our doubts in this very fundamental and important area of faith.
I recall one particular lesson where we were doing Bible studies and I queried why we, as Christians, failed to prostrate in the same manner that Jesus had in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. I was unable to identify any relationship between Jesus’ prayer and ours as his Christian followers. However, the Muslim prayer most closely resembled Jesus’.
After leaving school, I lost contact with most of my school friends. I also abandoned many aspects of Christianity and instead submerged myself into the urban street culture of my local friends and community – we would make our own religion based on the ethics and beliefs that made sense to us.
The passivity that Christianity promotes is perceived as alien and disconnected to black youths growing up in often violent and challenging urban environments in Britain today. "Turning the other cheek" invites potential ridicule and abuse whereas resilience, strength and self-dignity evokes respect and, in some cases, fear from unwanted attention.
I converted to Islam after learning about the religion's monotheistic foundation; there being only one God – Allah who does not share his divinity with anything. This made sense and was easy to comprehend. My conversion was further strengthened by learning that Islam recognised and revered the prophets mentioned in Judaism and Christianity. My new faith was, as its holy book the Qur'an declares, a natural and final progression of these earlier religions. Additionally, with my newfound faith, there existed religious guidelines that provided spiritual and behavioural codes of conduct. Role models such as Malcolm X only helped to reinforce the perception that Islam enabled the empowerment of one's masculinity coupled with righteous and virtuous conduct as a strength, not a weakness.
My personal experiences are supported by academic research on the same topic: Richard Reddie, who is himself a Christian, conducted research on black British converts to Islam. My own studies revealed that the majority of young people I interviewed converted from Christianity to Islam for similar reasons to me.
Islam's way of life and sense of brotherhood were attractive to 50% of interviewees, whereas another 30% and 10% respectively converted because of the religion's monotheistic foundations and the fact that, holistically, the religion "made sense" and there were "no contradictions".
My research examined whether such converts were more susceptible to violent radicalisation or more effective at countering it. The overwhelming conclusion points to the latter – provided there are avenues to channel these individuals' newly discovered sense of empowerment and identity towards constructive participation in society, as opposed to a destructive insularity which can be exploited by extremists.
Many Muslim converts – not just black British ones – will confirm the sense of empowerment Islam provides both spiritually and mentally. It also provides a context within which such individuals are able to rise above the social, cultural and often economic challenges that tend to thwart their progress in today's society. Turning the other cheek therefore is never an option.