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Answering the call of Allah

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    Answering the call of Allah

    Answering the call of Allah

    Sunday 23 December 2001

    Happy in the faith: Maryam Clarkson, Rafiq Clarkson, Rasheeda Cooper, Sharif Condon and Rachel Woodlock


    A decade ago Ruth Cooper was travelling the world as a student and a devout Lutheran when she stopped to do community work in the poverty-stricken regions of India. She left the subcontinent with more than just memories.

    On Friday, Ms Cooper, who now also uses the name Rasheeda, celebrated the end of Ramadan, Islam's holy month of fasting. At a festival in Flemington, Ms Cooper was indistinguishable from Muslim women from dozens of nations. She wore the hijab, the traditional head scarf, and entertained the audience by playing drums for a short piece of sitar-accompanied music.

    Ms Cooper is among a growing number of Australians who have converted to Islam. Over the years Islam, particularly the militant Nation of Islam group, has boasted a host of celebrity recruits, including boxing champions Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Mike Tyson, singer Cat Stevens and American basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabar. In Australia, former rugby league star and boxer Anthony Mundine announced his conversation in 1999.

    Since September 11, however, Islam and its converts - the preferred term is revert, because under Islamic beliefs people are born pure - have come under much closer scutiny. Their image has not been helped by the arrest in Afghanistan of Adelaide convert David Hicks, an al Qaeda fighter who has been portrayed as a misguided loser.

    Ms Cooper and four friends spoke to The Sunday Age about what attracted them to Islam.

    A 29-year-old piano teacher, Ms Cooper said her conversation come gradually. "Islam gave me a whole new framework and a new way of expressing my spirituality," she said.

    After pledging the shahadah - the core belief that "there is no true god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the Messenger of God" - she chose the Arabic name Rasheeda.

    "It comes from one of the characteristics of God, meaning the guide, and I felt that God had guided me and asked me to guide others," she said.

    One of the most common perceptions of people outside the religion, bolstered by widely publicised restrictions in such strict regimes as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, is that women occupy a lowly status.

    Maryam Clarkson said she was aware of the perception but found it not applicable in Australia.

    "As a woman I feel that I am treated more respectfully and more as a woman in Islam than I was before," she said.

    "Because I feel that before I became Muslim I might have been treated more for what I looked like or what I wore or how thin I was or things like that. Now I feel I have the permission just to be me, and not try to live up to things."

    Ms Clarkson, 29, was also attracted to the Islamic way of life, with its daily rituals.

    Fellow convert Rachel Woodlock said the group regarded themselves as observant Muslims, albeit in an Australian way. She said the religion could not be seen as homogeneous, and that different cultures brought their own unique characteristics.

    According to the 1996 census, Australia had 200,885 Muslims, up from 76,792 in 1981. Islamic community leaders say the real figure was greater, because it was not compulsory to reveal religious beliefs on the census.

    Yasser Soliman, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said there were now more than 110,000 Muslims in Victoria, with up to 10per cent of them - 11,000 - converts.

    "They find balance and perspective on many issues that tie in things about this life and what's to come after this life," he said.

    "It provides some sort of structure for the family."

    He said Islam had a culture of tolerance, and converts brought new perspectives to the Muslim community - the Australian Muslim community consisted of more than 60 different nationalities.

    However, every community had its share of "Rambos", Mr Soliman said.

    Rafiq Clarkson, who converted in 1989, said the media often focused on the voice of the minority because "they match what people want to believe about a religion".

    The truth was that most Muslims were "practical people" living a good life, he said.

    High school teacher Sharif Condon said stereotypes occurred because of ignorance about Islam and its teachings.

    Mr Condon, whose Arabic name means leader, said there were many similarities between Islamic and Christian beliefs. The 40-year-old had been brought up as a Catholic but had also tried Buddhism before discovering Islam, which he found less complicated than other religions. He converted four years ago, shortly before a Ramadan, the month when followers abstain from food, drink or sexual relations during daylight hours.

    "I used to work in a housing estate and dealt with a lot of migrants and refugees, and I was really impressed with how they lived their lives, considering their situations," Mr Condon said.

    "I felt that I must become a Muslim. It seemed like everything I'd lived up to that point in my life suddenly made sense and I felt a lot of peace, the peace you feel when you've found what you are looking for in the spiritual side of your life."
    Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2001.