First appeared at The American Muslim- http://www.theamericanmuslim.org.
Many of us speak of Lauren Booth, a recent Muslim convert, as the sister-in-law of Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain. They do her injustice. She has carved out a career as a fearless broadcaster and journalist on behalf of the oppressed. In fact, it would be more appropriate to identify Mr. Blair as the brother-in-law of Lauren Booth. Given his role in the Iraq war, such identification could even help Mr. Blair recover part of his dwindling reputation.
Islamic Circle of North America (http://www.icna.org) recently honored Lauren Booth for her humanitarian work in Palestine. Held in Santa Clara, California, the theme of ICNA’s Annual Supporters’ Dinner was: “Living Islam, Serving Humanity.”
As the keynote speaker, Booth spoke of her acceptance of Islam in words that were stirring and inspiring. I have listened to her story on YouTube but hearing it in person was an unforgettable experience.
I am a new arrival to Islam,” she began. “I became a Muslim a year ago. Tonight I will tell you about my spiritual journey.”
Lauren was a Western journalist at odds with her values. With her willing servitude to God, she found in Islam a peace she had not known before. “This peace has not left me since, and Insha Allah, it never will.”
She grew up in East London, a child of the ‘70s. The family was poor. Sometimes even basic necessities were scarce. Her father was a lapsed Catholic. Secularism overtook his faith. He was a good man who found solace in drinks. Her mother was a superstitious Christian. Not a churchgoer, she surrounded herself with religious icons to keep evil at bay.
When she was about seven, Lauren would pray every night, “Please God, let mummy and daddy be nice to me tomorrow!” Kids understand early that there is someone larger than parents. “Instinctively, I used to turn to this transcendent being for comfort.”
As a teen, however, she lost it. “I stopped praying. I exulted in the cult of the self. I acted like I had won the lottery of life. My dad tried to instill some good values in me. When I felt particularly full of myself, he would try to steer me in the right direction by asking: ‘What will you do with the rest of your life?’”
By the time she was in her ‘20s, she felt like the mistress of the universe. “I was drinking. I was taking drama lessons. I felt lucky and proud. I didn’t need religion. I believed what Nietzsche said: God is dead and we killed him.”
In her school, there were only three Muslim girls. She noticed two things about them: They were terrific at math and science, and they did not date boys.
After 9/11, Lauren was convinced that Muslims were out to slit the throats of every non-Muslim. She grew afraid of them. She believed everything the media said about them.
In 2004, she had a bit of an awakening. She became concerned about her lifestyle and the materialistic lives of Westerners. It dawned on her that perhaps the West “enjoyed wars because wars distracted us from the emptiness inside us.”
She noted that the sale of the Quran had shot up in the U.S.A. and U.K. after 9/11. People were curious. They wanted to know more about Islam. Was it really true that Muslims were waiting to silently kill them, motivated by commands in their holy book? They wanted to find out the truth on their own.
Somehow, I became interested in the Palestinian issue. In 2005, I went to Ramallah in the West Bank to interview of Mahmoud Abbas. I got cold feet on my flight to Tel Aviv. I was scared of Arabs. When the plane landed, I secretly hoped that the Israelis would send me back so I wouldn’t have to do the interview.”
It didn’t work out that way. From the airport she took a taxi to Ramallah, still gripped by fear. Next day, as she rode the elevator to Abbas’ office with fierce-looking, bearded bodyguards toting guns, she wondered if she, a white lady, was destined for a beheading!
I spent five days in the West Bank. I never experienced such hospitality! This instant and unquestioning generosity toward a stranger was something new to me. Old ladies greeted me with open arms as if they had known me all my life. “Welcome!” they said, hugging me. “We will protect you if there is any attack here.”
Lauren’s fear was seeping away.
But she was not on the road to Islam. “I was still drinking. I reveled in my Western ideas of freedom and selfishness.” Deep down, she still cared only about herself.
In 2008, she went to Gaza as part of the “Free Gaza” movement. That was a turning point. She was in a group of 46, traveling in two boats. Only three were Muslims. It was a deliberate decision to include few Muslims because “we white Westerners from Europe and America wanted to show the world that we too cared about the plight of the Gazans.”
The group was the first in 41 years to sail into Gaza from outside. Children swam out into the ocean to meet them. “It was like D-Day in Paris!”
Lauren knew something inside her was changing. God was charting a course for her, only she didn’t know what. Planning to stay for a few days, she ended up staying a month because the Israelis and the Egyptians blockaded her group in Gaza.
I remember crying one day because I had just spoken to my daughter. I had not seen my children for a month. Then an elderly Palestinian woman came and sat by me. She was a stranger to me as much as I was to her. ‘I am so sorry,’ she said. ‘I can see you miss your children.’”
Then she told me her story. She used to live in the West Bank. One day she had to travel to Gaza for a day. The Israelis let her in. When she tried to return, though, the Israelis tore up her papers, threw her into the back of a van and dumped her in Gaza. “She hadn’t seen her husband and two sons for four years! And here she was, trying to console me and crying with me! How can you even begin to describe such empathy?”
I began to love the Arabs for their hospitality, empathy and the grace of their faith in the face of cruelty. I became what you might call an Arabaphile. But I was still not interested in Islam.”
It was the month of Ramadan. A family in the refugee camp invited her to share iftar with them. Sixteen of them were packed into a hovel. But the smile they greeted her with made her feel as if she was entering a palace.
Bet when she sat down to eat, she was angry with the Muslim God. “These people had so little to eat, yet their God demanded that they fast as well! He must be a cruel God indeed!”
When she asked her hosts why they fasted in such wretched condition, they told her they loved Allah and His prophet more than anything else in the world. Since Allah asked Muslims to fast, they obeyed His command with gratitude. Lauren saw the enormous love in their eyes. Something stirred inside her. “If this is Islam, I told myself, I want it. I want to be a part of this generosity, this empathy. I will join this faith with all my heart.”
Still, she had ways to go.
Returning to London and resuming her work, she came in contact with Somali and Eritrean cab drivers. Their passion about Islam overwhelmed her. They told her the most beautiful stories about the prophet, about how he taught that paradise lay beneath the feet of mothers, that the mother was the most venerable person on earth, far more than the father.
The stories moved her to tears. They were in stark contrast to what she saw in her own society. She knew of no one in her circle – not a single English man or woman – who was looking after his or her family. Children showed no sympathy toward their aging parents or grandparents. The attitude was: Send them off to homes and let them fend for themselves.
Yet these humble cab drives worked 18-20 shifts so they could send money back home for the care of their extended families. Their love and concern for their parents, spouses and children were palpable.
It all came together for her when she went to Iran to report for Press TV. At a mosque in Qom, she suddenly found herself crying. She used to think she was so smart and clever, yet realized in a moment of blinding clarity that narcissism led to nowhere. All negative feelings drained away from her. “I said from the heart, ‘O Allah, Thank you!’ A shot of pure emotional joy coursed through my veins. That night, I slept on the floor of the mosque. I was anxious. Where was I heading? What lay ahead for me?”
Next morning when she woke up for Fajr, all her anxiety had vanished. She had experienced an intense, unbidden spiritual awakening. The mysterious had become manifest. “I became a Muslim.”
I had a chance to talk with Lauren Booth afterwards. I told her that her story reminded me of the spiritual journey of the great Muslim scholar Muhammad Asad, as described in his monumental autobiography, The Road to Mecca.
Lauren Booth was pleasantly surprised. “That was the first book a Muslim brother gave me after I embraced Islam,” she said. She felt a shock of recognition when she read it. “If you change the title of the book and the name of the author, it reflects my own spiritual journey!”
Muslims born into Islam often take their faith for granted. Deadening habits blind us to its beauty. Secularists have no sense of the sacred. Pharaonic oppressors perpetuate injustice. Extremists debase the faith’s message of mercy and compassion through violence.
Muslims like Lauren Booth who accept Islam through the odyssey of their own hearts remind us of what it truly means to be a Muslim.