Lauren Booth, journalist, campaigner and on-air reporter for the Iranian Government-owned Press TV channel in London, is not the first Western woman to convert to Islam. But she is one of the most high profile to do so. For good or ill, this is largely based on the fact that she is former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s colorful sister in law—and because she has been a high-profile critic of his military ventures from the outset.
I met her recently in her North London apartment just as a U.K.-based, Islamic channel TV crew were leaving, and it soon became apparent that her adoption of the Muslim faith is rooted in something rather more profound than family disputes. Yet despite Booth’s longstanding affinity for the Palestinian cause in particular, it was all a bit of a surprise. What, I wondered, had been the reaction to her explosive piece of news?
"Well in 48 hours I’ve had over 600 messages of congratulations and love," said Booth. "From the Philippines to Peru; from East Timor to East Grinstead. Every Muslim who has wi-fi seems to be sending me congratulations and saying they will support me in the difficult times ahead. Because let’s be honest, I haven’t joined a trendy religion, I haven’t taken up Scientology with the wealthy. This is a difficult one and it is done with real conviction."
I asked if the "penny had suddenly dropped"—that it was a spur of the moment thing—or whether there had been a slow drift towards a religion and way of life that she had increasingly become comfortable with.
"It seems pretty dramatic to people who haven’t been working with me for the past five years," she said. "What’s interesting to me is that when I tell Palestinian friends, Christians and Muslims they tend to say 'we thought you were a Muslim already!' It wasn’t a spiritual change at first, but when I began to appreciate the complete falsity in the reporting of Muslim communities and the way they live their life, and for what we are constantly being sold as excuse for war in the West, mainly that these people are violent, they hate Westerners, that their religion is one of hate and aggression—when you see all of that—and when you see the reality, you really do begin to wonder."
Next I asked about her conversion process, which has been covered in a pretty cursory fashion in the British press.
"It was at the Fatima Masuma shrine in the holy city of Qom," she said. "Contrary to reports, I didn’t go to Iran to convert. I had no thoughts of converting. I went to Iran to work. I was actually en route for Isfahan, and a friend I was travelling with said 'let’s just stop at the shrine.' There were lots of women baking bread and children playing and as you got closer to the shrine, there were believers holding the bars which contain the remains of Fatima. My spiritual awakening and confirmation really happened there."
Booth has been reporting and campaigning in the Middle East in one way or another for the best part of a decade, most recently taking an active part in supporting attempts to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. I asked her why this cause has such resonance for her.
"I don’t think that was ever a 'pull' as such, but there was always a willingness to stand up for the underdog," said Booth. "In 2000, I remember seeing footage on the BBC of that little boy throwing a stone at a tank. He died seven days later—Israeli snipers had shot him. I got to report from the West Bank, and many of the stereotypes that I had been fed simply melted away. It was my experience traveling from Tel Aviv to Ramallah with Jamal the Palestinian taxi driver that really sealed it for me. When we go to the West Bank, he told me that he wasn’t allowed to cross the checkpoint. 'But that’s Palestine!' I said. 'You don’t understand,' he replied, 'I have Israeli papers that don’t allow me to the West Bank or Gaza.'"
But surely there is a lot of mistreatment meted out to Muslims elsewhere, I said. I was thinking in particular of some the brutal treatment meted out to the peaceful demonstrators in Tehran who protested the Presidential election that had seen President Ahmadinejad returned to office?
"Injustice is wrong wherever it happens," said Booth. "Do you know that when the Ayatollah heard that people were being mistreated in an Iranian jail, he shut it down, and four of the accused got capital sentences for torture? Not that was ever reported. I just happen to think that the greatest injustice in our times has been in Iraq."
So what did brother in law Tony Blair think of Lauren’s conversion?
"I can’t put thoughts into someone else’s head," she replied. "Tony has set up a Faith Foundation. There’s a lot of these inter-faith foundations, a lot of these groups that are set up to 'de-radicalize' Muslims , and they seem great from the outside but actually what they set out to do is to prevent Muslims from having a political voice, and they are just cover for a dislike of Islam. I don’t believe in Tony Blair’s inter-faith foundation, because there are already plenty of inter-faith organizations. I went to a meeting the other week where there were Rabbis, Priests and Imams. This stuff is already happening without Tony Blair. It is cover for de-radicalizing Muslims which means stopping them from having a political voice – and this while a million Iraqis are dead and the repercussions of Fallujah are going to be known for generations, because of chemical weapons."
Talking about this, Booth became quite adamant: "Muslims need a political voice. How dare you try and take it away!"
I wondered whether she thought that Tony Blair’s decision to set up a Faith Foundation was partly motivated by guilt at the carnage of Iraq?
"I don’t think he feels any guilt at all," she replied. "It’s a cover to take the heat off his shameful addiction to the Zionist narrative."
So would this mean that Lauren and family would be taken of the Blair's Christmas guest list?
"Would I go? I don’t think his security would let me go, do you!"
There are of course closer family members, whose reaction might matter rather more to Lauren. After all, no one can deny that she has taken a real leap of faith. What of those who are closer to her?
"Well, my Mum was interesting," said Booth. "She’s 73. I described to her the feeling of absolute peace I had in the shrine and she started crying: 'I’m delighted, you’ve really been touched by something. I’ll support you.' I thought 'Wow, that was easy!' So next week, when I went to visit her, I had a scarf on and she said 'Why are you wearing that scarf?' When I reminded her that I had converted to Islam, she said 'Muslim! I thought you had become a Buddhist! Islam! Those head bangers!' But I have gently talked to her, and about my experiences, and she has definitely come round. She is very supportive."
But surely there will be others who wonder how a woman bought up in a liberal Western tradition, with left=leaning political views, can feel comfortable in a religion and way of life that they believe is quite conservative?
"There is a Left/Right leap here of sorts—a move away from a liberal lifestyle into what many see a as conservative lifestyle because there are certain behaviors that are expected and that you expect of yourself. But then there is another side. For me actually it is an extension of socialism—personal wealth matters less, what you give counts for more. You are really expected to care about the person in the next house and the next twenty in the street. How lovely is that?”
Of course there is a narrative, often played out on American TV network that Islam is being perverted by fundamentalists. But was there, I wondered, a smidgen of truth in this? Or, rather, wasn’t it true that some people have set out to pervert Islam? "Do we ask every American we meet 'What are you going to do about your penal code in Texas and locking up black youngsters?,'" Booth shot back.
Some of the coverage of Muslims in the United States does on occasion verge on the hysterical—the plan to build an Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan, constantly referred to as a 'mosque,' could be a case in point. Would Booth, if invited, go and speak there?" "I keep being asked to do speaking tours. I don’t really want to go to America, but if I’m asked I would consider it—but I would be disappointed if Homeland Security didn’t have a field day!"
Given that Britain is increasingly secular and church attendance just keeps on dwindling, I wanted to know finally if Booth could be the first of an increasing number of people that are reacting to what they see as spiritual emptiness in a land obsessed with status and wealth?
"They already are—and the majority of them are women," she told me. "And they are often professional women because we are finding a complete dearth of values in our own society."