Freedom To Choose, Lucy Bushill-Matthews

From emel | By Lucy Bushill-Matthews

As more and more people, especially women, convert to Islam, Lucy Bushill-Matthews reflects on their freedom to be able to enter and leave a religion.

There has been much fascination with the recent conversion to Islam of Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law. Muslims are almost universally delighted that yet another ‘sister’ has chosen to embrace the faith; in contrast, by Booth’s own account, many people have reacted with “shock and horror.” But, don’t we all have the freedom to choose? The Qur’an upholds the principle: “Let there be no compulsion in Religion.” (2:256) Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It includes the freedom to choose which religion to enter - if any, the freedom to choose how to live out our lives with that faith as a guiding compass, the freedom to bring up our children within that framework, and – controversially - the freedom to leave that faith.

When the Prophet Muhammad began preaching to the community around him in 610 CE, he was initially alone as a Muslim. Whilst there had been throughout history many muslims (with a small m), literally meaning those who submitted themselves to God, there was no one else who believed in the complete creed, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His (last) Messenger.” Yet the circle of believers slowly grew. In that era, every Muslim was a convert. Muslims rejoiced when somebody else accepted Islam, and the polytheistic tribal leaders of the Quraish became increasingly agitated, at one point banishing the entire Muslim community into a barren valley for three years.

Today, converts are also greeted with mixed reactions, albeit without such severe consequences. There is a never-ending stream of PhD theses on such individuals, examining what could possibly lie behind their decision to choose Islam. While Muslim converts repeatedly talk about the theology of the One God and many prophets preaching the same message, the spiritual peace they find amongst adherents and the moral value system, it is hard for those not Muslims to accept these reasons as genuine if they continue to retain negative perceptions of Islam. Muslims are also surprisingly inquisitive about why anyone would accept their faith. When Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, was asked by a Muslim what had made him come to Islam, he simply replied, “Well why do you follow Islam? I am Muslim for the same reason as you.”

Unfortunately, many Muslims have not examined the foundations of their faith like Yusuf Islam had. Many Muslims are Muslim simply because their parents are. But this tendency is not limited to Muslims; the US-based National Study of Youth & Religion surveyed teenagers and found that adolescents were very likely to affiliate with the same religious group as one or both of their parents. Yet every adult – Muslim or not – who chooses to pray or fast is making an active choice every moment of every day. After all, as adults we – not our parents – are responsible for our own actions.

While children are young, however, it is only natural for parents to choose to raise them in their own faith. Unfortunately, if we experience a strict cultural upbringing, this can be confused with and blamed on the faith itself. Eve Ahmed, a Daily Mail writer who recently profiled a series of western converts, recounts her own Muslim childhood that totally put her off Islam, “No eating in the street or putting my hands in my pockets. No cutting of my hair or painting my nails. No asking questions or answering back.” The edicts she received on these matters are more a reflection of her parents’ culture and opinions than any genuine Islamic principles. On the contrary, Muslims are encouraged to question their faith, as Jeffery Lang notes in his book, Even Angels Ask. And eating in the street and answering back are impolite in traditional English culture too. However, for Ahmed the damage was done, and it is often hard to consider Islam as a realistic and rational choice after such negative experiences.

My children are already protesting at their Islamic upbringing, which attempts to include moral values and habits as well as the theological basis of the faith. “I want to have my own free will,” announced my pre-teen daughter, distressed about parental insistence on keeping her room in some kind of order. “My life would be so much better if I wasn’t Muslim,” she continued. “I have to pray and feed the rabbits, read the Qur’an and tidy my room – no one else has to do anything.” My eight-year-old son is also a great believer in personal freedom. He writes in his journal, “It makes me sad I have to do whatever I am told to do. It makes me happy if I get whatever I want. And it makes me happy if I get a chocolate bar every hour.”

While our children need us to guide them away from becoming slovenly animal-neglecting chocoholics, we must inevitably recognise and respect our children’s own choices as they mature. I have been asked a number of times by people, some of them Muslims, “When will you make your daughter wear the hijab?” as if the matter lay in my hands, instead of being an intensely personal choice. And, eventually I will even have to allow my child the right to live in chaos, although I am unwilling to give her that choice while she lives under my roof. In the meantime, my daughter is aware of many adults around her who have actively chosen the Islamic faith. And she has decided she definitely wants to make her own choice. “When I am older,” she says, “I’m going to look at all the religions and see which one makes the most sense to me.” I wish her all the best in her research, although as a Muslim myself, it is only natural that I would hope she chooses Islam.

But what about those who choose to leave? A girl recently got in touch via Facebook to discuss her ‘defection’ to Christianity. She was hiding her decision from all but one member of her local Muslim community, terrified of being disowned. A recent case in the US involved teenager Fatimah Rafiqah Barry who, on choosing Christianity, ran away from her Muslim parents alleging she would be killed if she returned. Yet it says in the Qur’an (4: 80), “As for those who turn away, we did not send you as their guardian.” In the Prophet Muhammad’s time, and with his knowledge, Ubaydallah ibn Jahsh left Islam and converted to Christianity. He lived freely as a Christian until he died. We may not agree with the choices that our family, friends and acquaintances make, including the choice to enter or leave Islam, but in these matters each person is accountable ultimately to God, and not to another person.

The Qur’an challenges us, “If it had been the will of your Lord that all the people of the world should be believers, then all the people of the earth would have believed! Would you then compel mankind against their will to believe?” (10:99) One day, when my children grow up a little more, a time when I hope they will choose to feed the rabbits and ration their chocolate intake out of their own free will, they will indeed choose for themselves whether to believe in Islam. And, so will all of our children, of any faith or none. As Lauren Booth’s own family can affirm, we are not forever their guardians.

Lucy Bushill-Matthews, is author of ‘Welcome to Islam – a convert’s tale’

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