A celebrity conversion story: 'Finding peace in the Holy Land'

A celebrity conversion story: 'Finding peace in the Holy Land'
Book Club: Lauren Booth's memoir is a captivating description of her path to Islam, and the public and private challenges she faced along the way, writes Sadek Hamid.
6 min read
13 Nov, 2018
Lauren Booth and Ken Livingstone attend the premiere of 'The killing$ of Tony Blair' [Getty]
Irish popstar Sinead O'Connor's recent conversion to Islam highlighted the mix of reactions that can accompany a public figure's change of faith. 

Her enthusiastic announcement was warmly welcomed by Muslims and criticised by some non-Muslims. Hostility towards her decision was to be expected from Islamophobic elements of the press who questioned her mental health and were dismissive of her reasons for converting to Islam.

Perhaps more unexpected was the unfortunate pronouncement by Christian Theologian John Milbank who described Sinead O'Connor as a "civilisational traitress with no taste."  

The growing numbers of British (mostly women) embracing a faith that is represented as patriarchal and misogynistic can appear inexplicable, to some.  

As CJ Werleman noted last week; "
White converts to Islam cause confusion to both non-Muslims and even lifelong Muslims because whiteness and Islam are seen as incompatible."

These issues are explored in the new memoir '
Finding Peace in the Holy Land' by Lauren Booth. A journalist, broadcaster and human rights advocate for Palestinians, she is perhaps best known for being the sister-in-law of Tony Blair. Written in an engaging style, which is at times funny and sometimes profound, it is a story of spiritual awakening, personal transformation and quest for justice that takes readers through the worlds of showbiz, politics and religious devotion.

She states that Tony Blair radicalised her after his decision to support America's intervention in Iraq

Lauren Booth begins her story with recollections from her childhood growing up in the suburbs of North London. Her early life is somewhat marked by poverty as her father, who despite being a famous actor, struggled to make ends meet but instilled values and ambition into his children.

Raised as a "part-time Christian", she ignored the Trinity and decided to pray to God alone, though her faith was shattered by a mysterious fire that almost killed her father. The chapters about her experiences of growing up in an increasingly multicultural Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s, contain telling observations of social history.

Her exposure to Islam at that point was filtered through exposure to Asian Muslims who were considered by mainstream society to be socially and racially inferior. It was a period when "nobody cared which weird and wonderful, undoubtedly colourful God the new arrivals, with their peculiar, spicy food, chose to pray to." In contrast, she noticed how people of Afro-Caribbean heritage were starting to achieve mainstream acceptance through popular music, despite continuing to struggle with prejudice and structural racism.

After leaving school, Booth decided to enrol on a performing arts course hoping to pursue a career in drama. This proved more difficult than she'd imagined, and after working in bars and restaurants she spent the next few years travelling and living in Australia with her boyfriend. Upon returning to the UK, she rubbed shoulders with celebrities, working as a professional clown while trying to make it as a serious actor in her 20s.

Around this time, Booth recounts her interactions with her influential brother–in-law, as he rises to the top of the Labour party, to eventually become prime minister.

Being "Blair's sister-in-law" opened many doors and helped secure a new career as she transitioned to high end journalism, securing a comfortable lifestyle.  

But the relationship with her brother-in-law soured as she became disillusioned with direction of the Labour government, and she states that Tony Blair radicalised her after his decision to support America's intervention in Iraq.

Encounters with Stop The War activists piqued her interest in the Middle East and the Israel/Palestine conflict in particular, and she visited the region as a journaliast. 

This first visit opened her eyes to the realities of occupation and the behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians. It changed her perception of Arabs, realising that she had unknowingly held Orientalist views of the region, its people, their religion and cultures.

Encounters with Stop The War activists piqued her interest in the Middle East

It also triggered questions about her attitudes towards motherhood and having a career, after observing how Palestinian women, particularly the elderly were treated by younger family members.

The dignity and generosity of strangers, coupled with the hope that Booth would go back and write about their plight, left a deep imprint. A taxi driver who appreciated her work told her, "I pray you come to Islam, madam. May God the all merciful bless you always."

There was, however, no Damascene moment, as she had no interest in changing her faith at that point her life. Christianity suited her, for God was "like a divine iPod, silent until I switched him on", but this relationship was remote and her theological doubts lingered over aspects of Christology.

One of the memorable reflections in her search for the truth comes when she eventually sits down to read a copy of the Quran which she purchased in East Jerusalem.

The first few sentences of the second chapter strike her as amazing, and appear to be speaking to directly to her. At that moment she realises that she had a "diseased heart" - going to Church was "a means to assuage her middle class guilt" and that her faith was not submission to the Divine.

She was, in her words, a "faith-faker". Her eventual conversion occurred gradually a few years later in Iran after further personal and professional interactions with Muslims. These involved stints working for the Islam Channel and Press TV, where she covered issues related Palestine and participated in various brave attempts to highlight their plight.

Converts to Islam face a number of challenges. Many non-Muslims conflate being Muslim with being Asian, or Arab. Afro-Caribbean converts often experience racism from people within Muslim communities, and white converts lose the privilege they were used to, often being dismissed as cultural renegades.

Lauren Booth writes candidly about the negative responses from friends and colleagues on announcing her conversion, as well as her struggle to avoid slipping back into her former lifestyle.

Her inner dialogues express anxiety and sincerity as she overcomes moments of weakness, and the difficulties of growing into her adopted faith. Like other
notable British people who have adopted Islam, this road to Mecca via Jerusalem, is a celebrity conversion story worth reading for its candour and insights into the dilemmas facing those who become Muslim in modern Britain.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of 'Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism' and is co-author of 'British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism'.

Follow him on Twitter: @sadekhamid

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.