A girlfriend who was about to get married was telling me about her wedding plans recently when she said, almost as an aside: ‘Oh, and I’ve converted to Islam.’
Her fiancé was a Muslim but she thought it no more than a minor detail — like ordering the corsages, or finalising the table plan — to arrange a private ceremony before the big day in which she took on his faith. I think she expected me to say ‘How lovely. And have you decided on the centre-pieces?’ But instead I blurted out: ‘You’ve done what?’
‘It’s fine. I really don’t mind,’ she continued, whilst puffing on a Marlboro Light. ‘It was easy. I just had to say a few words and it was done. I don’t have to wear a veil or go to mosque or anything. It doesn’t seem to make any difference at all.’ Apart from the fact that her children, when they come along, will be brought up Muslims. ‘Well, it will be nice for them to have a faith, and a set of rules to live by,’ she said.
‘But you have a faith and a set of rules to live by,’ I argued, feeling more and more offended. ‘You’re a Christian.’ I wanted to add, ‘You go to nightclubs, drink alcohol, wear skinny jeans, tight tops and make-up. Why on earth are you converting to a faith which thinks you are the infidel?’ But I didn’t say that, of course.
‘I’m really not that bothered,’ she assured me. ‘I’m not a practising Christian. It doesn’t make any difference to me either way.’
‘But, hang on. If all Christians took that view, wouldn’t we disappear? There would be no such thing as Christianity.’ My friend shrugged. She could not see what I was making a fuss about. And maybe I did have to ask myself why I was so deeply insulted. I think it was the casualness of the thing that struck me as disturbing. My friend maintained that reciting the shahada, the profession of Islamic belief, in front of an imam did not matter.
It may not matter to her, but I wager it mattered a lot to the imam, to her new husband and to his Turkish family. And it will matter to millions of Christians who, like me, are worried about their community selling out.
It seems everyone has a story to tell these days about a friend becoming a Muslim. There’s a growing trend for mixed marriage and conversions to Islam in particular on the rise. Asking around my immediate social circle produced a tale from almost everyone about a woman they knew, or knew of, who had recently converted. Those stories are borne out by fledging statistics, which are only just beginning to give us a picture of the change that may be happening.
The growth of Islam in Britain is often still put down to immigration, but a study last year estimated that the number of Islamic converts in Britain has risen by two-thirds from 60,000 in 2001 to about 100,000. Around 5,200 people in the UK become Muslims each year. And while there are no figures on marriages specifically, we do know that 62 per cent of conversions are women and that the average age at conversion is 27, which is pretty much the age most women get married now.
This doesn’t seem to bother the Church of England much. After all, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who thinks the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in British communities ‘seems unavoidable’ and might even help social cohesion. And perhaps it shouldn’t bother me. But something about the speed and ease of these apparent epiphanies makes me uneasy.
Islam is a special case, when it comes to conversion. To convert to Judaism is incredibly complicated, in some traditions involving a rabbi rejecting you three times before allowing you to embark on a lengthy and painstaking process. Catholics are notoriously picky and arguably spend more time and energy than recruiting in deselecting large numbers of their existing members for infringements such as divorce and remarriage. They demand that converts undergo weeks, sometimes months of preparation which is to end in their saying they believe the entire Catholic doctrine: a hurdle many cradle Catholics could not clear. Many Hindus still believe that theirs is an identity that can only be had from birth and as such there is no formal process for conversion to -Hinduism.
By contrast, Islam allows anyone to recite a single short sentence and sign a piece of paper. An internet search turns up dozens of sites instructing on the quickest way to convert — including doing it in your own living room, on your own — and there are any number of forums with Muslims giving pre-conversion Christians helpful advice on how to pronounce the shahada in Arabic.
But notwithstanding the eagerness of her new faith to welcome her, why should my friend, an Anglican Christian by birth, so meekly submit to this faith-swap? Could it be that when it comes to relationships, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, the party without much grounding in their own religion invariably gives way to the one with a strong sense of religious identity?
I also fear that we Christians are just too polite. The notion that we must put others before ourselves is admirable, but it is also what makes us rather ineffectual at faith-preservation. Middle-class Christians may be the worst in this respect, and middle-class female Christians even flakier still. When my friend bends over backwards to accommodate her Muslim husband, she is displaying the ultimate trait of a nicely-brought-up English girl: ‘No, no, you first! After your religion. I insist!’
Of course, the business of one belief system trouncing another through marriage is not new. As the child of a Catholic-Anglican partnership, I can testify to how dominant Roman Catholicism can be in the game of religious scissors-paper-stone. When I was young, I remember my mother sitting me down and offering me either her faith or my father’s, which to be fair, was woefully agnostic. ‘You can be a Protestant and go to Sunday school — yes, school on a Sunday. Or you can be a Catholic and have a special ceremony where you wear a white dress.’
That’s to paraphrase, but it wasn’t far off. Unsurprisingly, I chose the pretty dress option. I have never regretted my choice either. I like Catholicism, with all its unyielding eccentricities. I like the pomp and ceremony, the incense, confessional, the Latin mass, the feeling that wherever I am in the world there will be a church where, no matter what language is being spoken, I will feel at home.
But above all, I like the moral certainties. I don’t mind the dogma one bit. I would rather dogma and impossible ideals than confusion and compromise. In that sense, I do identify with those who choose Islam over the way of no faith, or a seemingly uncertain faith, like the woolly old C of E.
In uncertain times, and in the face of an aggressive atheist movement, people who suddenly decide that they want religion are choosing strong religions with hard and fast rules, strict boundaries and moral certainties. They don’t want a church that tells them everything goes. And they don’t want the wishy-washy non-religious faith of Ed Miliband either. What is ‘a person of faith, not a religious faith but a faith nonetheless’, as the Labour leader described himself in his conference speech?
Ironically, Mr Miliband went on to say that his mother had been sheltered by nuns during the war. Even so, he didn’t like -organised religion. You can’t please some people, least of all those who still observe the joyless stricture, enshrined by Alastair Campbell, that ‘we don’t do God’, in public at least.
Incidentally, it seems that Roman Catholicism vs Islam might make for a more interesting contest than one with Anglicanism. A Catholic friend who married an Albanian Muslim tells me that she made it an absolute condition of the marriage that they raise their kids Catholic and he agreed, and even attends Mass with her on Sundays.
You may knock us Papists for being bigots, but at least we stand up for what we believe. Call me narrow-minded, but I would not convert to someone else’s religion for all the tea in China. I wouldn’t dare risk the fire and brimstone that my old convent school teacher Sister Mary Kevin told me was waiting for me if I strayed.
And before you pity me, I’m happy that way. I never cease to be delighted that having inherited a strong faith, I don’t have to worry about changing it for another one. I would compare the satisfaction I get from belonging to a resilient church to being content with your energy provider. It is, after all, such a lot of bother to switch to a rival firm and whatever largesse they promise at the point of signing you up invariably vanishes the moment they have you.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, however, the Vatican is so worried about the possibility of Catholic women converting to Islam through marriage that it has issued an edict. A papal instruction, amusingly entitled ‘The Love Of Christ Towards Migrants’, warns women not to even think of loving migrants themselves — well, not in that way. As I say, you’ve got to hand it to them for chutzpah.
The Church of England, meanwhile, looks down its nose at such dogma, preferring instead to issue edicts that are ecumenical to the point of absurdity, in the interests of social cohesion. As my friend embarks on her new life as a Muslim convert, she will no doubt discover more about what sort of social cohesion Islam is prepared to offer her.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012