Lauren Booth is a human rights activist, a British journalist working for Iran’s state channel PressTV, and half-sister of Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Booth. She is also Muslim, and caused a gasping uproar in the British press when she converted to Islam less than a month ago, after having a spiritual experience while at the tomb of Fatimah Masumeh in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom.
According to initial reports and Booth’s own testimonies, she had always been “sympathetic” towards Islam, a position highlighted by her work to fight Islamophobia as well as her political sympathies towards the Palestinian cause, indicated by her August 2008 trip to Gaza with the Free Gaza Movement.
While Booth has seemingly found peace of heart and mind in having found Islam, her conversion brought with it a media frenzy and public obsession. Initial reports were filled with condescendingly framed remarks of how Booth hadn’t touched alcohol since converting, was wearing the hijab—truly the most horrific of horrors!—and had read to page 60 of the Qur’an.
The backlash against the outspoken journalist also targeted her on various fronts, ranging from being an attention-seeker to her general “naiveté” and political “immaturity,” which of course made her susceptible to falling into the trap of conversion.
The most insulting stories have been the pieces that question the apparent rise in conversion to Islam among young British women. In a column from the Tory-lovin’ Telegraph, Ed West writes:
I’ve written before about the fascination some middle-class Englishwomen have with Islam and the Arab world; the paradox is that many who convert come from progressive backgrounds and would be horrified at the idea of embracing Catholicism or one of the more conservative forms of Protestantism…
No doubt their Islam is partly a reaction to the excesses of the last 40 years, by people too programmed to oppose “Right-wing politics” to become conventionally conservative…Islam is also attractive because it’s so demanding, asking great sacrifices of its followers.
But partly it is because Islam is, unlike any other faith, more than just a religion – it is also a political idea. And ever since the decline of socialism and Left-wing intellectuals’ abandonment of the working class, third worldist “anti-imperialism” has become the radical chic of choice, especially so with the Holy Land conflict. And what better way of embracing the politics of the 1968 generation than by submitting to Islam?
There is merit to the idea of Islam becoming a political force of resistance, particularly in the West. The idea, however, that the conversion of Booth or of any English woman of a Christian background as solely a move of political resistance, as opposed to a perspective shift altogether is highly problematic and representative of the sort of essentialism that exists in the understanding and manifestation of “progressiveness.” Conversion can seemingly never really be just simply a result of a spiritual revelation or occurrence, as this seems completely implausible to the author.
Another piece was written by former Muslim Eve Ahmed, who asks, “Why ARE So Many British Career Women Converting to Islam?“ Sandwiched in between a rather unfortunate personal story of a struggle with faith and the question of choice, Ahmed explores various career-oriented women (with rather public faces and lives) who have converted to Islam over the years. While the particular piece has some redeeming points in its discussion, the overarching fascination is with these women (and always such fascination with women, as opposed to the countless men who convert), who are independent, “career-driven” and ostensibly “without any constraints.”
There is undeniably a foundational assumption underlying most discussions that focus on “career-oriented” women converting to Islam. These articles present the idea that a strong dichotomy exists between being a Muslim woman and being a career-oriented woman; an assumption buttressed with the ultimate theory that Islam coerces women to drop their public lives and submit not only to the Will of God, but to the will of Betty Crocker and Mr. Clean.
And their husbands. And fathers. And brothers.
Booth decided to take on the media and public backlash and reaction to her conversion, herself, in a widely read piece in the Guardian:
[My] conversion to Islam has been an excuse for sarcastic commentators to heap such patronising points of view on to Muslim women everywhere. So much so, that on my way to a meeting on the subject of Islamophobia in the media this week, I seriously considered buying myself a hook and posing as Abu Hamza. After all, judging by the reaction of many women columnists, I am now to women’s rights what the hooked one is to knife and fork sales.
Is it so hard for the media and general public to believe that one can choose to completely alter their eschatological perspective with some significant tweaks to everyday life and practice? Do we really need to end the world by way of our media and public outrage every time a successful, career-oriented woman decides to become Muslim? Or are we just so consumed by women, period, that in our quest to grant her promised salvation, we just perpetuate the existence of her chains by continuously casting her private choices into very public and very scrutinizing light?
Lauren Booth is now a Muslim. Let’s move on, okay?
Sana Saeed is a Montreal-based writer and graduate student of Islamic Studies. She blogs at Kabobfest.com and MuslimahMediaWatch, where this article was first published. Her personal blog can be found at aristotleslackey.wordpress.com.