Muslim Converts in Britain Seen as Among Most Extreme

Times Staff Writer

He was just 12, the son of a former Conservative Party organizer in a neat suburban neighborhood of single-family homes and duplexes, when the father he adored died. He started drinking, neighbors say. Getting in fights.

But six months ago, Don Stewart-Whyte stopped drinking and smoking, and became calmer and more polite, those who know him say.

The 21-year-old had converted to Islam, the currency of some of the toughest and hippest young Asian students in his High Wycombe neighborhood.


“Islam answered all his questions, so he became a Muslim,” said Abid Zaman, a Muslim habitue of the neighborhood west of London.

Today, Stewart-Whyte is being held with 21 other suspects in an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic. Stewart-Whyte, who became Abdul Waheed, and two other suspects were converts to Islam, reinforcing what many security experts and clerics already knew: The fervor and inexperience of new converts provides fertile soil for the allure of radical theology.

“The converts are seen as the most extreme, and they’re seen as the most extreme even by other Muslims who may not come from the U.K. Which is really worrying,” said Anthony Glees, director of the Brunel University Center for Intelligence and Security Studies in West London.

The growing number of homegrown converts in the ranks of militant Islam in Britain is raising troubling new questions not only about what it means to be British, but whether new Muslims must choose between family and faith across what many see as a yawning divide between civilizations.

Britain now has perhaps 50,000 Muslim converts, ranging from fair-haired homemakers in Yorkshire who have adopted the hijab to former Catholic priests, Afro-Caribbean street gang members and upper-middle-class university students.

At meetings attended by many new converts, Glees said, “people are brainwashed with certain ideas. Such as, there was no Holocaust. Such as, the London [transport] bombers killed far fewer people than the number of Muslims killed over hundreds of years by the British. These things are said, and they become increasingly accepted by these people as their ideological currency.”

“Of course, we have noticed this,” said Abdurahman Anderson, who has worked extensively with new Muslims at South London’s Brixton mosque. The congregation there, about 60% converts, has included Richard Reid, the British-born would-be “shoe bomber” who was himself a convert, and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, now serving a life sentence in the U.S.

“A lot of youth ... have had a kind of intellectual revolution,” Anderson said. “And with the world events, they’ve decided to get a fervor in themselves. We call it hamas. This excitement can come to a new convert, or someone who’s turning away from the old, traditional Islam.

“What we find is that extremists have used this enthusiasm to try and teach them their erroneous ideas. And these individuals, who have a quest for knowledge, and an excitement, they’re susceptible to it.”

Friends say that after his conversion, Stewart-Whyte grew a beard, wore baggy trousers or sometimes the shalwar kameez, a loose-fitting tunic and pants, and frequented a local Islamic studies center with two other young Muslims also arrested in the alleged plot.

A few weeks before the arrests, he married a Moroccan woman who had moved into the house he shared with his mother, a physical education teacher. Neighbors said the young bride never emerged from the house without a full black burka, leaving only slits for her eyes.

Neighbor Zaman, who says he worked for a year as a driver for radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, defended the young convert. “Don’s a nice guy,” he said. “He never talks about jihad. Just basic Islamic principles, love your neighbor and all that. You know, ‘Hi brother, how you doing?’ Nothing to do with terrorism.

“Of course he was upset, like everybody is. You’ve got the U.S. selling these bunker-busting bombs to Israel, and they use those weapons to kill Lebanese men, women and children -- this is state-sponsored terrorism, you know what I mean?” he said. “But Don and all these Muslims that are in Britain, they’re working, they’ve got their wives, they’ve got their families.”

The purported plot to blow up liquid explosives on board aircraft “just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” he added. “OK, a hole blows in the fuselage and the plane starts going down, and you’re there with the rest of them, you’re bloody yelling and dying for five minutes? It’s crazy! Who would do that?”

Another High Wycombe resident arrested was Brian Young, 28, a former Rastafarian who became Umar Islam when he converted to Islam about three years ago. Young, married to a Muslim woman and a recent father, apparently worked as a city bus inspector. The Sun reported he was on duty the day of the London transport explosions in July 2005, and searched buses for other possible bombs.

Accountant Oliver Savant, 25, was also a convert. He lived with his Muslim wife, six months pregnant, in the East London area of Walthamstow. Neighbors said that he was the son of an Iranian-born architect, and that his mother, an accountant, was British by birth. “He was the younger of two brothers. The older brother was a high flier in the City,” neighbor Hazel Kleinman said, referring to London’s financial district.

Islam and Savant were charged Monday with conspiracy to commit murder and preparing acts of terrorism. Stewart-Whyte was one of 11 suspects still under detention pending completion of the investigation.

At least three other British converts have been implicated in terrorism plots in the last two years, including Germaine Lindsay, a native of Jamaica who adopted the Muslim faith and became one of four suicide bombers in the 2005 attacks.

With the large growth in Muslim converts, the number who have been drawn to violent Islam is statistically small.

Much more important, said Timothy Winter, a Muslim convert and lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University, is the potential for Western converts to inject new intellectual blood into the faith, not only expanding the reach of Islam, but transforming it.

In some respects, he said, recent converts are instinctively drawn not to radicalized Muslim youths, but to their parents, whose interaction with Islam is more spiritual than political.

“The perception is that second-generation Muslims in Britain often are more motivated by identity politics issues than the desire to please God. And people who have converted for religious reasons are more concerned about issues of piety and worship than about politics,” he said.

Yet the act of straddling a cultural divide inevitably raises the potential of a values gap, particularly wrenching for converts who have a foot in both camps.

“There’s a concept in Islam that is very powerful, the idea of a united, powerful umma. It means sort of family, really. So there is a strong idea in Islam of brotherhood ties between Muslims globally,” said Matthew Wilkinson, who was the epitome of Britishness -- head boy at Eton -- before converting to Islam at the conclusion of his years as a theology student at Cambridge.

“Obviously, one owes one’s allegiance to the country in which one is resident, and one has a duty of countryhood to the people whom one is living amongst. So Muslims often have dual loyalties, and I share this feeling,” Wilkinson said. “Practically speaking, I’d say I pretty much feel 50/50.”

Inevitably, politics and theology become intertwined.

Jamal Harwood grew up in a Christian family in Canada, but by the time he moved to Britain as a young man he had converted to Islam because of nagging questions about his faith.

Why was Jesus more important than the other prophets? Why did Sunday sermons rarely talk about real things, like crime, divorce, violence against women? Were the pastors not aware that the other half of the world was locked in poverty?

Soon, those questions spawned others. Why was Israel imprisoning and killing Palestinians in occupied lands? Why were corrupt, secular Arab regimes ruling over the Muslim faithful?

Harwood joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization often described as a farm team for extremists that advocates the establishment of an Islamic caliphate from the Palestinian territories to Turkmenistan.

These days, Harwood makes speeches across Britain -- in the venues where his organization isn’t banned -- railing against what his group calls U.S. atrocities in Iraq and advocating the overthrow of Israel. He is more articulate and more vociferous in his defense of the Muslim umma than many native-born Muslims. But that doesn’t make him any less British, he says.

“People talk about British values. Well, which British values?” said the 46-year-old information technology consultant. “Yes, I have a different belief system. Yes, I have a different world view. But why should it be a problem?

“The Muslim community has a very strong duty of care in this country,” he said. “The whole debate about integration -- yes, Muslims should be well settled within the community; we should be productive members of society; we work, we pay our taxes -- but we also maintain a very distinct identity.”