By Muhammad Islam
For The Guardian, as told to Shaista Gohir, September 2005
I hated all foreigners but feared Muslims the most. I grew up in the 1960s in Gateshead, in a predominantly white area; I can’t remember seeing an Asian face there. As a family we were not religious. We only went to weddings, funerals and christenings. I was not interested in school, either. You didn’t need to stay on because you were more or less guaranteed a job in the mines, steelworks or shipyards.
When I was 16, all my friends were British National Party activists. It was a cool thing to do, and I joined in, too. I wanted to shock, to rebel. We would get together, drink, listen to music, chase girls and go out Paki-bashing. That wasn’t a phrase we considered bad or wrong.
I remember my first time; it was a Saturday night and we had been drinking. We went into an Asian area and came across a lad of about 17. We started chanting – the usual thing, “Go back to your own country” – and then went after him. There were about 10 of us, and we kicked and punched him. When we ran away, I remember, we were laughing. I don’t know what happened to him, and at the time I wouldn’t have cared: I was in a group and we had camaraderie.
By the time I was 19 I was growing out of the BNP. I moved to London for work and stopped going to meetings. But I still hated all foreigners, especially Muslims. Over the next few years I became involved with people who went to Muslim meetings in Hyde Park, mainly to cause trouble.
Then, one day in 1989, I was walking past a secondhand book stall by the Royal Festival Hall when a cover caught my eye: it was the most beautiful picture, in the most gorgeous colours, of a building. I didn’t know what the book was, but it was only 20p so I bought it. I thought I’d buy a cheap frame and have a nice picture for my wall. I had no idea until I got home that I had bought the Qur’an.
I was horrified when I found out. My initial reaction was to throw it away. But then I got curious. I started reading it, thinking I would find things to use against Muslims; I thought it would be filled with contradictions. When I was young, my mum always made her views known and from her I acquired a love of debating. Now, I would regularly go and debate with Muslims at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. As I did so, I started to get a very different picture of Islam. Seeing people pray in unison was such a powerful image.
A few years later, I returned to the north-east – I’d got a job as a chef. When I saw a group of Muslims at an Islamic book stall in Newcastle, I thought, “Here’s another group I can wind up; I probably know more about Islam than they do.” But I was shocked when I approached them; they were very knowledgeable. I kept going back because I enjoyed debating with them, and after four weeks they challenged me.
They wanted me to try to disprove the Qur’an and convince them my way of life was better. They said if I succeeded they would become Christians, but if I failed I should become a Muslim. I accepted the challenge. But after months of returning to the stall and debating, I realised I was losing and panicked. I stopped going to the stall.
Three years had passed when I bumped into one of the guys from the stall. As I thought about what I wanted to do, I felt as if a big rock were crushing me, but when I told him I wanted to convert, I had a total sense of peace. I made my final decision on Wednesday November 17 1996 and converted the following day. I have been close to the Hizb ut-Tahrir group ever since: I became a Muslim because of them; they were the guys at the stall.
When I told my family, my sister stopped talking to me. My father was horrified but didn’t want to discuss it. My mother thought it was a phase I was going through and was more worried about what the neighbours would think. She now lets me pray in the house, but refuses to call me Muhammad (I was born John Ord).
I met my wife, who is Pakistani, after converting. We live in Birmingham, where she works as a primary school teacher. I have just started a degree in social work. When I look back, I can’t believe the things I did; it feels like a different person and a different life. Ironically, because of the backlash from the London bombings, I now fear attack, and have started going out in my English clothes. In them I look like a bearded, middle-aged white guy.