Those most likely to convert to Islam in England are white working class women in their twenties. This is what Grayson Perry suggests. He has included one of them (Kayleigh Khosravi) among the portraits we saw last month at the National Portrait Gallery , also featured then on his television series ‘Who are you?’.
One has to keep this in perspective. The most recent request I’ve had for a certificate recording her Baptism as an infant was for a young woman who needed it as she prepared to be received into the Catholic church. And the numbers given for English people converting to Islam each year are a fraction of the numbers who are confirmed in just the Church of England each year.
Nevertheless, I was fascinated by what emerged when he asked ‘What does Islam offer to a young white woman in her twenties?’.
The answer, I found, appears to be a refuge from the nagging consumer pressures and constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women all pervasive in western society. Conversion also offers a strong and supportive sisterhood within the congregation of the mosque.
What I found particularly striking about this was how it relates to a reflection which I first posted here over six years ago.
Deuteronomy 17 warned God’s people that if they had a King he should not be allowed to have too much gold, too many wives or too many horses. I take this to be awareness that given total freedom this man might want to monopolise the available money, sex and power whatever the detriment to others of his doing so.
One of the few African absolute monarchs today is known for spending more on his private jet than the country’s health service (too much gold), to hold annual half naked parades to select a new wife (literally too many wives) and to sack judges who make judgements against him (too much power, or, figuratively, too many horses).
Is a purpose of monastic life a radical experiment to see what human life is really like when the distortions of our appetites and their consequences are removed? So to take vows of poverty (no gold), chastity (no wives) and obedience (no horses) must in part be not so much simply to be disciplined about these dynamics but to be curious about what happens when they are removed?
Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the use of my wealth’ but ‘I’ll not allow the acquisition and use of money to motivate me at all’? Not ‘I’ll be responsible about sexual morality’ but ‘I’ll not allow any sexual possibilities to influence my relating at all’? Not ‘I’ll be responsible about the decisions I make’ but ‘I’ll not insist on making the fundamental decisions at all’?
What Grayson Perry heard Kayleigh Khosravi say to him was that she found in her new faith an alternative to our society’s consumerism, sexualisation and loss of any meaningful sense of interdependence - allowing purchase power, sexual attraction and competition to shape us.
The sad thing for me, of course, is that she didn’t suspect that the Christian church would be the place where she’d find this critiqued or resisted – where sacrificial generosity and the forgiveness of debts (a form of mutuality as much as a vow of poverty), marital fidelity and the honouring of each individual (a form of integrity as much as a vow of chastity), and love of neighbour and a bias towards the marginalised (a form of solidarity as much as a vow of obedience) would be normative.