The world was clearly shocked recently to hear that Lauren Booth, sister of Cherie (wife of Tony Blair) has become a Muslim. The news unleashed a storm of criticism and abuse on Booth.
Or did it? And from whom?
My guess is that most of the world read it and moved on to the sport pages. The people who got stroppy about it were simply the usual suspects who spotted a good source of a few more ranty words for their newspaper columns… and a pile of vituperative islamophobes who are characterised by their staggering ignorance and sheer nastiness. There are two elements of the story that I find interesting: (a) media coverage of it, and (b) the reasons for Booth’s conversion.
In today’s Mail on Sunday Lauren Booth gives her side of the story. Credit to the Mail for giving her the space, but it is set amidst the usual xenophobic content we have come to expect. The headline speaks volumes: ‘Why I love Islam: Lauren Booth defiantly explains why she is becoming a Muslim’. I defy you to read what Booth actually writes and call it ‘defiant’. ‘Defiant’ suggests stubbornness, arrogance or deliberate contrariness; yet, she writes calmly, clearly and honestly to explain why she has converted. She doesn’t pretend to know more than she does and she doesn’t overstate her case.
However, she does give an account of how prejudiced she (and other Western) hacks can be when reporting or commenting on Islamic matters. Try this, for instance:
But it makes more sense to go back to January 2005, when I arrived alone in the West Bank to cover the elections there for The Mail on Sunday. It is safe to say that before that visit I had never spent any time with Arabs, or Muslims. The whole experience was a shock, but not for the reasons I might have expected. So much of what we know about this part of the world and the people who follow Mohammed the Prophet is based on disturbing – some would say biased – news bulletins. So, as I flew towards the Middle East, my mind was full of the usual 10pm buzzwords: radical extremists, fanatics, forced marriages, suicide bombers and jihad. Not much of a travel brochure. My very first experience, though, could hardly have been more positive…
You’ll have to read the article to see the experience of generous hospitality that impressed her. And it is this that provides the most interesting element of the story.
The factors in her conversion were: (a) unexpected generosity from a stranger; (b) experience of hospitality and community; (c) an intense spiritual experience. Interestingly, she is only now learning to read the Qur’an and understand the faith that has grasped her. Didn’t someone once speak of ‘faith seeking understanding’? And someone else of ‘believing before belonging’? The message is meaningless without a community in which to see it lived.
Now, some of the usual suspects are going to take her admitted ‘life crises’ (current divorce, move of home from France to England, emotional vulnerability and questions of existential identity) and smugly conclude that she has simply found a crutch with which to limp unthinkingly through life. Let them – they’re becoming tedious. But consider the challenge her experience offers to the fragmented society the Mail bitterly complains about (and promotes?) – a culture dominated by loneliness, idolatry of celebrity, xenophobia and judgmentalism.
Christians find that conversion rarely begins with intellectual conviction, but, rather, with experience of God (spirituality), community (people who love you and care for you regardless of who you are or where you come from) and generosity (self-giving in expectation of no reward or reciprocity). I am sad that Lauren Booth has not found a Christian community that provides this – which is decidedly not the same as saying that such is not to be found.
I can point you to hundreds of Christian churches of all complexions where people have become followers of Jesus (and reflectors of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels) because of their experience of loving, giving, sacrificial and celebratory communities of faithful Christ-ians.
Just as Islam is fragmented and contains a spectrum of ‘believers’ – from the mad to the wonderfully wonderful – so is Christianity. Just as I want Christianity to be judged by the best examples of Christian expression and community, so I want the same for Muslims. I wonder if the Mail plans to give any thought to, consideration of or coverage of good Christian stories that speak for themselves – or are Christians only useful if they are pitted against ‘the others’. Certainly, to depict Christians as white, Anglo-Saxon victims of persecution in the UK is ridiculous… but it sells well.