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"Revved up about religion"
Motorcycle ministries strive to spread faith to riders on open road
by Mary Maraghy ("Florida Times," March 2, 2001)

Bike Week once meant drinking, drugs and hopefully a scuffle or two for Jacksonville Beach motorcyclist Russell Victor.

But now he uses the annual Daytona Beach affair, that starts today, to hand out Bibles and share his newfound faith with whom he calls "1-percenters" -- the hard-core bikers who live as recklessly as he once did.

The 35-year-old born-again Christian, who sports a Jesus tattoo on his forearm and a ring on every finger, plans to spend much of Bike Week 2001 in a Daytona Beach church serving free meals, handing out religious tracts, holding services and praying for bikers who request it.

"Some will have their bike prayed for, if not themselves," said Victor, who founded Spirit Riders Motorcycle Ministry through Isle of Faith United Methodist Church on San Pablo Road.

Victor is part of a growing breed of motorcycle missionaries, said Jerry Murray, state coordinator for the Christian Motorcycle Association, a non-profit organization based in Arkansas that trains bikers for ministry through a correspondence course.

Biker groups visit prisons, children's homes and nursing homes. They also visit churches and encourage congregations to be biker-friendly.

In addition to Victor's ministry, there are several others in the Jacksonville area, including Riders for the Son and Bikers for Christ. Warriors of Christ recently formed in St. Augustine. And some bikers in Fernandina Beach are trying to form their own group, Murray said.

Motorcycle ministries are another effort by Protestant churches to take God's love to people who don't come to church, said the Rev. John Suskey of Anthony, who heads a motorcycle ministry at his church north of Ocala.

For a century, Suskey said, churches have separated themselves from society.

"It's an image that must change to keep the church alive," said Suskey, pastor of Anthony United Methodist Church.

Wearing his "leathers" -- which in biker terms means leather chaps, jacket, vest and gloves -- the long-haired Victor rides his 1975 Harley Davidson FX custom motorcycle to motorcycle events around Florida and Georgia.

He said he hopes for opportunities to share how God changed his life. He said he regularly used drugs, chugged Jim Beam and Coke and fought in bars for sport. He said he's been arrested for driving drunk, carrying a concealed  weapon and domestic violence.

"I was on a road to death," Victor said. "I would drink and become 10 feet tall and bullet-proof."

That all changed, Victor said, in 1993, when he saw his biker friend, 49-year-old Billy Hinson, lying dead on a St. Johns County road. Hinson collided with a van on the Palm Valley Bridge.

With his dead friend at his feet, Victor said he had visions in his mind he believes came from God. "I saw myself dead on the ground," he said.

He then saw himself with a little girl who looked like him. She called him "Daddy." He had no children at the time. The girl reached for a joint and a  liquor bottle Victor was holding.

He called his wife and told her he was going to ditch his wild life and start attending church.

The first sermon he heard was about the parable of the prodigal son.

His priorities are now God, his family and sharing the Gospel. He's happily married with two daughters.

The Rev. John Hill, co-pastor of Isle of Faith, said Victor's ministry reaches people other

"One man's journey from terrorist to missionary"
by Justin McCurry ("Daily Yomiuri," Feb. 13, 2001)

KOBE--Japan, least of all this historic port city, is no stranger to Christian missionaries. But few can have had quite as unconventional a past as Hugh Brown.

When Brown talks to hardened yakuza inmates during his monthly visits to Kobe Prison, he connects not because he possesses a well-attuned empathy with their human failings. He does so because he has seen and done it all himself,  and has the scars to prove it.

Exactly 25 years ago, Brown, unlike many 18-year-olds, was not thinking about further education, finding a job or just planning nights out with friends. To be sure, the future was very much on his mind, but it was one that for the next few years would be spent behind bars in Northern Ireland's most notorious prison as a convicted armed robber and member of the province's foremost loyalist terrorist organization.

Hugh Brown's induction into the brutal, vicious cycle of Northern Irish terrorism came early. He was just 15 when he joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), one of several pro-British paramilitary groups that engaged in tit-for-tat killings with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other groups fighting for a withdrawal of British troops from the province and the creation of a united Ireland.

"I was in it to murder only IRA terrorists," Brown, 43, said in a recent interview. "As I saw it, by wiping out IRA terrorists I would be saving lives. That was my personal way of looking at it."

Brown attributed his particularly dangerous choice of adolescent rebellion to the political atmosphere of the early 1970s.

"From the age of 12 or 13, the IRA were blowing up people left right and center; women and children, without warning or discrimination.

Brown did not himself commit murder, but as a UVF commanding officer in charge of 60 men, he planned and ordered sectarian killings: "It's difficult to say that because I didn't pull the trigger that I didn't murder anyone...but I never found it easy to be involved in that.

"There was the terrifying side of it, but there was also the excitement, the honor of being part of an organization that was looked upon in our community as heroes."

It wasn't long before the terror began to outweigh the excitement. One night as he and his twin brother slept, armed men broke into their house and drove them to a windowless room, where they were interrogated about an earlier gun  theft.

After two hours of questioning and intermittent torture, the boys were taken outside and administered a knee-capping--a bullet directed at each knee-cap that often cripples the victim. Brown's pain was tempered only by relief that  the bullets had not been intended for his head.

Unusually for a knee-capping victim, he recovered in about three months, though even today, cold weather brings a painful reminder, as if one were needed, of that terrifying morning.

His response was not, as many others had done, to cross the Irish Sea in search of a new life on mainland Britain. As a 16-year-old, his options were limited, and in any case, voluntary retirement was not an option for teenage terrorists. Instead, he vowed to be "tougher, more cautious, more order to survive." And to sleep with a gun beneath his pillow.

Brown was 18 when he was sentenced in 1976 to six years in the Maze prison for an armed robbery at a village bank the previous year. He spent three years of his sentence (he was paroled for the second half) with fellow UVF inmates in relatively good conditions, fortunate to have been among the last batch of terrorist inmates to be treated as political prisoners.

With six months of his sentence remaining, Brown experienced something that was to change his life forever.

After being locked up for the night, he settled down in the hut he shared with several other inmates to watch the film "Ben-Hur."

"I experienced something I can only describe as a spiritual experience," he recalls. "In that film there is a crucifixion scene. To put it very simply, it was made very clear to me inasmuch as it was almost like I was taken there, and was actually present at the crucifixion of Christ.

"In one instant of time, watching that film, I understood perfectly what it was all about. It was made very personal in the sense that I saw clearly that I was responsible for crucifying the son of God.

"How did I crucify the son of God? It wasn't only terrorism, it wasn't only running around as a young thug in a street gang thieving, fighting and drinking. That was all part of it. It was because I was living, purely and simply, selfishly. I was only interested in doing what I wanted and what pleased me.

"When I saw (the crucifixion scene) the reaction it produced in my heart was, 'From here on, I don't want to live like that.'

"That produced all kinds of turmoil in my heart because I was still a member of a terrorist organization."

Brown knew his conversion to Christianity would be unacceptable to the UVF, and wrestled with the consequences of his new life, including the possibility he would be murdered: "I decided to go through with it and to leave the consequences with God--it was a step of faith."

After his release, Brown made a point of telling other UVF men he encountered of his new way of life. Thankfully, he was never threatened. He discovered later that several senior figures in the organization had undergone similar  conversions at around the same time.

A trusted friend in the church urged Brown to take his faith a step further, to pray for knowledge of God's will for him.

His answer came in the middle of the night on March 16, 1980. He awoke suddenly, and immediately sensed the room was "filled with the presence of God." A reading of the Bible convinced him that his future lay in spreading a  message of peace.

In the days that followed, Japan arose in conversation, in newspapers and on television so often that he was unable to put it down to coincidence. Two weeks later, at a missionary convention meeting in North-ern Ireland, Brown's fate was sealed when, for the first time in recent memory, the gathering was addressed by a missionary who had worked in Japan.

In 1984, after four years at Bible colleges in Scotland and England, he was accepted by the mission in Kobe to which he now belongs. Brown's conviction for armed robbery could easily have put paid to his plans, but after exhaustive checks by immigration officials in Kobe, he was granted a visa.

"For me that was the final confirmation that Japan was the place," he said. "I couldn't say that I suffered culture shock or anything, it just seemed that I was in the right place from day one. That's why I don't really think I can leave Japan."

He spent the first 10 years in Japan with his wife and four children, two of whom were born here. They moved back to Belfast in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, although Brown makes regular trips to his hometown.

During his services at Kobe Prison, where he is chaplain, Brown avoids proselytizing, and simply tells his own incredible story: "Because of my background, I think I get a fair hearing," he said. "The prisoners listen very attentively with open hearts because of where I've been. They can identify with that. They have something in common with me."

Brown believes anyone can undergo a Road-to-Damascus conversion, but says that the road of life often has to be sufficiently bumpy for any such change to find willing subjects: "A lot of men in prison have a lot of time to think about where they're at, where they've come from, and where they're going. So there are lots of men who are looking for redemption in that sense.

"Men who have hit rock bottom are a lot easier to reach and save than people who have been fortunate enough to live straight, upright lives."

But what of the skeptics who argue that many of these "conversions" are simply attempts to blot out the past, a quick-fix way to right wrongs and assuage guilt?

"People who have been in the depths of crime and evil realize that there is no way that they can save themselves," he said. "A lot of them have tried, and tried again to improve themselves, to redeem themselves by making resolutions.

They realize they can't do it.

"They become degraded to the point that they've given up all hope of ever saving themselves. If I had not encountered God in the way I did, I just couldn't have changed myself, even though I wanted to. The change had to come from something much bigger, something much more powerful than any human strength or ability."

Brown has been approached several times over the years to write an account of his experiences. He showed little interest in the idea until last year, when a publisher suggested using a book to communicate a message of hope to Japan's troubled youngsters.

"Naze Hito o Koroshite wa Ikenaino Desuka?" (Why is it wrong to kill people?) took Brown, a fluent reader and speaker of Japanese, about six months to complete. It is part autobiography, part history of the Northern Ireland  Troubles, and part commentary on the ills of Japanese society.

"The central theme is the preciousness of human life," he said. "I came to Japan and one of the things that shocked me most was how lightly people, for example, take their own lives."

He is shocked, too, not so much by the alarming rise in violent juvenile crime, but by its causes: "The biggest social problem in Japanese modern society is not juvenile crime. I think it's the deterioration of family life: In other words, children who don't even know their own parents even though they live in the same house.

"It's the way that, in modern Japanese society, both in the workplace and education system, the balance has completely gone.

"One of the things I admire about Japan is how people work so hard, and I would never want to undermine that. But when they take that to the point where their own family, their own children are sacrificed, then they have gone too far.

"I'm basically talking about experiencing love, the bonds of family love, whatever form it takes. A lot of Japanese young people have never experienced love because their parents are too busy."

The solution, he says, lies in redressing the balance so that family life no longer takes second place to school or work: "With my personality, I am also inclined to go to extremes. For a while, I lost the balance between religious life and normal secular life. But I learned the importance of maintaining a balance in everything.

"Japanese society is a classic example of a society that doesn't know the value of keeping a balance between work, family, study and play."

"Naze Hito o Koroshite wa Ikenaino Desuka," published by Gentosha, is available at major bookstores, priced 1,500 yen (excluding tax).

The Divine Power of Nature
By Victoria Tanski
Forman, N.D.
Friday, July 14, 2006; 4:37 PM

There are few moments in my life in which I have had an overwhelming spiritual experience. One summer's afternoon, visiting the Oregon coast, I found myself having an unexpected moment of clarity. I stood at a rocky shore with the ocean spray against my cheeks and the sun beaming down, glorious in its intensity. A chant rose from my throat only to be lost in the sound of breaking waves. It was the earth that seemed to speak to me, filling me with a peace I seemed to have lost.

When words and melody came tumbling out of me, I knew that I was in a place of enlightenment. Nature became my refuge and my mistress. I think it was in that moment when I began to fully consider myself Wiccan. It may have been the absolute presence of nature and universe that overwhelmed me. I don't even recall the chant that came to mind, but I knew that my spiritual life would be centered on finding that feeling of completion and trying to tap into that wellspring of natural harmony once more.

Whenever people look down upon my spiritual beliefs, or berate me for not having seen "the truth," I remember that afternoon and know there is not one person on the planet or god in creation that can take the gift of that experience away from me. I am forever chasing the feeling from that sunny day, but I have caught glimpses of it whenever I leave my modern life behind and surround myself with Mother Nature.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


Finding a Way Back Home
By Diane Hayden
Hartford, Conn.
Friday, July 14, 2006; 4:28 PM

I was raised in a sheltered environment as a Christian Scientist (you know, the folks who don't go to doctors), and even attended a school for Christian Scientists. I graduated and went off to college in D.C. where suddenly no one cared if I went to class, stayed out all night or did whatever. To say I was thrown off balance is to put what happened to me mildly. By the end of my first semester, I was on academic probation, having failed two courses and barely passed the others. I had given up church attendance, was dating a fraternity guy, and experimenting with drinking and other things. And I was miserable.

One spring evening I sat behind the library almost in tears when the thought came: "Go to church." "No way," I thought, "I'm done with that." But the thought persisted, until the next thing I knew I was sprinting across campus back to the dorm to change my clothes (those were the days when skirts and dresses were the only acceptable attire in church.) I got changed and to the bus in record time. As I walked into the building, the congregation was singing a loved and familiar hymn and I felt like I had come home. The Scripture readings that night were centered on Jesus's words, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." By the time that service was over, I knew who I was and what was important to me.

I walked out of church that night having made Christian Science my own, and have never looked back. And for me, the proof that I was being led by God that night came several weeks later when my beloved older brother passed on in the course of his duties as a naval officer. Had that happened prior to my "return home," I could not have borne it. But because I had found my God and my center, He brought me through unscathed.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

Finding New Hope by Taking Buddhist Path
Sunday, July 2, 2006; 8:30 AM

The events of September 11th shook my sense of security in the world and reminded me of the ultimate fragility of life. But most of all, they made me wonder how people could be filled with so much hate that killing themselves and others in this horrible way was the answer.

This question continued to plague me for some time. I could see that something was fundamentally wrong with the way many people viewed one another. I knew that dividing the world into "us" and "them," and seeking to annihilate "them," would only lead to more violence.

While I was pondering these questions, I read that the Dalai Lama was coming to speak at Washington National Cathedral on the two-year anniversary of the attacks. I waited for several hours in a line that extended for what seemed like miles. I was unable to get into the overflowing cathedral, but I heard his talk on loudspeakers from the lawn.

He spoke about how hatred leads to more hatred, and said this was not an effective long-term solution to the problem of terrorism. He discussed the need to understand that we are all human beings with the same desire for happiness and that we all need to be compassionate with others. He was a voice of reason and hope in a dark time.
This was a turning point in my spiritual life. For many years, I had been interested in Buddhism but had not pursued it seriously. The visit by the Dalai Lama re-ignited my interest. Nothing I had heard prior to that talk had spoken to me in the same way.

His message gave me the hope that people can change and can stop the cycle of hatred and violence. To stop this cycle, I knew that I had to start with myself. I became dedicated to Tibetan Buddhist teachings and regularly attended and took classes at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Washington, D.C. Approximately one year later, I took my "refuge vows," expressing commitment to the Buddhist path.

Beth Roberts, State College, Pa.


Community Allows Beliefs To Evolve
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 5:20 PM

I'm a very optimistic agnostic, ripe for a deathbed epiphany. I found my faith in a community, not a creed.
Traditional religion fell apart for me decades ago, with the painful realization that I was "less than" in most traditions because of my gender. It broke my heart, and I lost the words for worship -- but how I missed it.
Eventually I found the Unitarian Universalist Church and hovered in the back pews for over a year, fighting the fear that I would have to leave my mind at the door and affirm a belief statement someone else wrote. It threatened me beyond all measure, as scolding responses to reason and doubt had scarred me in Sunday school as a child.
(The UUC kept that part pretty secret, I thought, but I knew they'd spring it on me when I asked about membership.)
There was no such requirement. A kind gentleman with amazing crow's-feet invited me to sign my name in a book and gave me a pat on the back. With that gesture I was welcomed into a dynamic religious community that has inspired me and comforted me for the last 20 years.

I still fuss about the "To Whom It May Concern" part when I pray, but I pray anyway. My faith in the strength and purpose of this community has grown very strong over the years. I can worship without words, or with an evolving script, and I know I am welcome, I am home.

--Laura J. Wallace, Charlottesville, Va.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

Spirituality Outside of Religion

Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 5:19 PM

I do not follow any particular religion, rather I consider myself to be an inquisitive agnostic. Not following a religion and having an agnostic leaning doesn't mean that I lack a sense of spirituality. Instead of having rituals or teachings prescribed by a religious faith, I developed my own ways to get in touch with my spiritual side. I base my spirituality and beliefs on my interpretation of facts rather than faith, and I consider my quest for knowledge and my spirituality linked.

Reading the histories and teachings behind various religious faiths and having lively discussions and debates with believers and non-believers allows me to feel spiritually alive. I find spirituality in appreciating beautiful art, literature and music as well as from feeling love from family and friends. Taking long walks in the woods near my house, appreciating all the beauty around me and becoming one with nature also awakens my spiritual side.

To some people the concept of a "spiritual agnostic" may be an oxymoron, but I believe that one does not have to possess faith in a higher power or a particular religion in order to be spiritual. Spirituality is highly personal, and all people, including atheists and agnostics, can have a spiritual side. I feel fortunate to have been able to tap into my spirituality and still maintain my agnostic viewpoint.

--Stephanie Fuller, Fairfax, Va.

 "Allah's Recruits"

("Time Magazine," August 21, 2006)

London, England - Jamal Harwood prays five times a day. He doesn't drink, smoke or eat pork. He's active in his local Muslim community, and he's very serious about the need for an Islamic state. But if you passed him on the street, you would have no idea. Not just because Harwood, a financial consultant in London, wears a suit instead of traditional Muslim dress. Or because he keeps his beard cropped fashionably close. But because he's white.

Born in Vancouver, Harwood used to be a model Christian, studying the Bible, attending church and taking religion classes at school. "But I had certain reservations," he says, "certain question marks in my mind--some theological, some societal--that I wanted to reconcile." He went to Southeast Asia to find himself and explored Islam there. At 25 he settled in London, where friends helped him learn more about the faith. A year later, he converted and soon joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, a political party known for its radical views that is banned in many Muslim countries. Harwood, 45, is now a spokesman for the group; he says it is opposed to terrorism. Although his life choices may make him an object of scrutiny by his government--Hizb ut-Tahrir has been on Britain's watch list since the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London--he has no regrets. "I found that Islam was giving me good, solid answers to my questions," he says. "It wasn't difficult for me to embrace it."

That sentiment rings true for growing numbers of Westerners, reared on other faiths or none at all, who are converting to Islam--despite the fact that relations between the Muslim world and the West have rarely seemed so strained. Although figures on conversions to Islam in Western countries are difficult to nail down, it's safe to say that Muslim converts in the U.S. and Europe number in the hundreds of thousands, and anecdotal evidence suggests the number is on the rise. The arrest of at least three English converts in the plot to blow up passenger jets over the Atlantic has raised the troubling possibility that jihadist groups may be drawing some of their most committed operatives from the pool of new believers. "When converts are trying to find their way in their new religion, they are vulnerable to the influence of extremists," says Didier-Yacine Beyens, former president of Belgium's Muslim Executive and a convert. "They can sometimes be persuaded by radical preachers who claim to represent the 'true' voice of Islam, when in fact they represent nothing of the sort."

The vast majority of converts are, like the vast majority of Muslims, moderates who reject the extremism espoused by al-Qaeda and its ilk. But as with any religion, converts to Islam tend to be more devout than those born into the faith. And it's indisputable that some converts do, in fact, become terrorists, including shoe-bomb suspect Richard Reid; Jose Padilla, the Chicago native arrested four years ago for involvement in an alleged al-Qaeda plot to detonate a radiological bomb; and Germaine Lindsay, a Jamaican-born Briton who was one of the suicide bombers who attacked the London Underground last summer. "Originally, jihadist groups were suspicious of converts because they saw them as a way for intelligence forces to infiltrate," says Gustavo de Aristegui, a Spanish terrorism expert and the author of Jihad in Spain. "But they're realizing that ... someone with a Western last name and blue eyes is going to raise fewer suspicions. Converts can be virtually impossible to detect, especially if they have not revealed their conversion to their family."

So why do they do it? In this day and age, what kind of person is prone to explore religious conversion? And what is the attraction of Islam? The three British converts arrested two weeks ago have three things in common: all are men, all are described by people who know them as friendly, regular guys, and all are in their 20s. But the similarities pretty much end there. According to accounts from friends, Don Stewart-Whyte, who changed his name to Abdul Waheed, converted six months ago, giving up drugs and alcohol. He grew a beard, shaved his head and started wearing traditional Islamic dress. Friends say Brian Young, who is of West Indian descent, was troubled by the decadence of Western society. Oliver Savant, now called Ibrahim, has been a Muslim for some seven years and, friends say, never mentioned politics. "He just talked about soccer and general chitchat," says a friend.

The reasons converts give for making the change vary widely. But one common refrain is that in an increasingly secular world in which society's rules get looser by the day, Islam provides a detailed moral map covering everything from friendships to protecting the environment. And for Western youths, taking up Islam can also serve as an outlet for rebellion. A majority of converts, especially in Western Europe, are in their late teens or 20s. "Islam is a kind of refuge for those who are downtrodden and disenfranchised because it has become the religion of the oppressed," says Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Paris professor and the author of several books on Muslim extremism. "Previously--say, 20 years ago--they may have chosen communism or gone to leftist ideologies. Now Islam is the religion of those who fight against imperialism, who are treated unjustly by the arrogant Western societies and so on."

There's another appeal to converting to Islam: it's relatively easy. In Catholicism and Judaism, the conversion process can involve years of preparation and study. In Islam, the process is called reversion (because islam literally means "submission to God," believers hold that everyone is born Muslim), and it's mainly a matter of uttering a two-line declaration of faith, the Shahadah. Say the Shahadah aloud in Arabic, and the conversion is complete.

But being newcomers to the faith doesn't spare converts from the suspicions and pressures faced by Muslims in the West today. Ali Khan, the national director of the American Muslim Council in Chicago, says he once had to convince a recent convert's wife, who wasn't Muslim, that her husband wouldn't suddenly become a terrorist. "A lot of their families freak out at first," Khan says. He says another convert had to reassure his brother, who asked, "You're not going to kill me in my sleep, are you?" And yet there's little evidence that negative perceptions of Islam--fewer than 20% of Americans say they have a positive image of the religion, according to one poll--have had any effect on the rate of conversion. Instead, since 9/11, some mosques have seen a jump in the number of people converting to Islam. "Awareness of Islam is much greater now, whether positive or negative, than it was prior to September 11," says Khan. "People are becoming curious. Sometimes it starts when they just walk into a bookshop and start reading a Koran after hearing George Bush talking about it."

Ultimately, the path that most converts choose will be determined by the outcome of the larger struggle within Islam, between the forces of moderation and extremism. Abdula, 22, a tall, bearded Londoner of Ghanaian descent, was a devout Christian until a university friend introduced him to Islam. "I started researching more about it to try and find its faults," he says. "But I couldn't, and I was captured." Abdula (who won't give his last name) officially converted eight months ago. He supports equality for women and condemns terrorism, but he acknowledges that his perspective on the world is still taking shape. "These are my views, and you must understand they might not be correct because I'm always in need of guidance." The challenge for the West is to makes sure men like Abdula get the right kind.

"Hungry for Fresh Recruits, Cult-Like Islamic Groups Know Just When to Pounce"

by Sarah Lyall ("NY Times," August 17, 2006)

London, England - When he converted to Islam six years ago, Nicholas Lock said, he faced two immediate difficulties. One was the aggressive skepticism of his father, an English professor and Oxford graduate who mockingly asked, “Do we have a convert on our hands?” and then proceeded to cook pork for dinner — bacon, sausages, chops — every night for a week.

The other, potentially more troubling in its way, was the greedily opportunistic reaction of various Muslim groups to Mr. Lock when he arrived at the University of Leeds to begin his studies that fall. They fell upon him as if he were a prodigal son.

“As a new convert, when you first become a Muslim, a lot of people try things out on you,” said Mr. Lock, 24, who also uses the Muslim given name Mahdi and runs a support network for Muslim converts in Nottingham. “They want you to come to this meeting, this talk. Certain radical groups want you because you're impressionable, and it looks good to get white guys.”

Mr. Lock likened some of the organizations that approached him to cults, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which says it is nonviolent but preaches the establishment of a caliphate, or pan-Islamic government, and has been banned from some Middle Eastern countries. “They think you don't know anything, and they pounce.”

The potential vulnerability of converts to extremism — especially young men —is of particular concern now, considering that 3 of the 24 people arrested last week on suspicion of plotting to use explosives to blow up trans-Atlantic airplanes were converts. Neighbors and friends of the three have said that at least from the outside, it appeared that their transformations from aimless Western youths to highly observant Muslims were bewilderingly thorough.

One of the suspects, Abdul Waheed, whose late father was a local Conservative Party official, is said to have converted within the last six months, changing his appearance, behavior and friends, and marrying a Muslim woman believed to be from Morocco.

In addition, Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, was a British-born convert to Islam who discovered religion while serving a prison sentence for a string of petty street crimes and muggings. He is currently serving a life sentence in the United States after being convicted of trying to blow up an airplane over the Atlantic by igniting explosives in his shoe.

There are no official statistics on how many converts to Islam live in Britain. Yahya Birt, a convert who is a research fellow at the Islamic Center in rural Leicestershire, puts the number at slightly more than 14,000, an extrapolation based on the number of people who described themselves as Islamic converts in the Scottish 2001 census (the census for England and Wales did not ask about conversion).

Clearly, only a minuscule percentage of converts turn to active radicalism, and there are many reasons for converting: an admiration of Islamic texts and practices; a desire by women to remove themselves from what they perceive as the aggressive sexualization of Western life; the countercultural rebellion of the younger generation against their parents' liberalism; a sense of outrage at Western policy in places like Iraq and Lebanon.

But among young people in Britain, a common theme seems to be adolescent anomie, a longing for answers in a world full of intractable questions.

“It's not a physical thing — it's a passionate approach,” said Khalad Walaad, a spokesman for the Bradford Islamic Center, in the north of England. “When someone is looking for something, it's us who can lead him as a human being.”

Myfanwy Franks, a researcher who has studied converts to Islam and is the author of “Women and Revivalism in the West: Choosing Fundamentalism in a Liberal Democracy,” said, “Being troubled does not necessarily lead people to conversion — people who aren't troubled convert — but it could lead to extreme radicalization.”

Mentioning reports in the news media that Mr. Waheed was a heavy drinker and drug user before turning to Islam, Ms. Franks added: “I think there's a tendency for some people, when they stop using some kind of addictive substance, to be left with a big hole in their lives. To do something extreme is the easiest way to go, because it fills that big hole.”

Britain has a number of well-known converts, including Mr. Birt, 38, who is the son of John Birt, the former director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation and who changed his name from Jonathan when he converted, 16 years ago; Joe Ahmed-Dobson, 30, the son of Frank Dobson, a former Labor health secretary; and the singer and Muslim campaigner Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.

Perhaps the highest-profile female convert is Yvonne Ridley, a former correspondent for The Sunday Express who began studying Islam after she was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Now the host of a daily current affairs talk program on the Islamic Channel, Ms. Ridley, who wears a hijab that covers her hair and neck, said that Islam for her is a welcome antidote to Western libertinism. “What's more liberating — being judged on the size of your I.Q., or on the size of your bust?” Divorced, with a 13-year-old daughter, she has stopped drinking and having flings. “I never sit in, waiting for the telephone to ring,” she said, “and I'm never dragged in to immaterial rows by inconsiderate, useless men.”

Many converts are apolitical, but for people like Ms. Ridley, who says that “this war on terror is a war on Islam,” religion is inextricably bound with politics. Increasingly, that seems to be the case, among Muslims in general, and among converts.

“It's become much more political since 9/11,” Ms. Franks, the researcher, said.

Before Sept. 11, converts tended to discuss spiritualism and personal choice, she said, “but now they're not talking like that.” She added: “I think there's this polarization now. It's like the middle ground has disappeared.” Where women once tended to wear head scarves — even in her hometown of Bradford, in West Yorkshire — she says that she sees many more in garments that cover their entire bodies, including their eyes. “It's a political statement,” she said.

For young white men in economically blighted sections of the north, where jobs are scarce and disaffection is high, she said, Islam speaks to their masculinity, offering a place of refuge and a solid political base from which to reject their heritage. “The greater Muslim community is transnational and supranational,” she said. “It gives them an identify and a togetherness which is inevitably going to be against the West, because of their identity with other Muslims.”

Since the government began cracking down on imams who preach violent jihad against the West, many mosques have posted signs that expressly forbid political discussion inside. So recruiters who single out converts or the newly pious tend to do it on the streets outside the mosque or in universities and prisons, with their captive and impressionable populations.

“A lot of conversion happens at life changes, and there's no doubt that you have radical recruiters who see new converts who come in to the faith as really good targets for their perverted ideologies,” Mr. Birt said. “The crucial thing is getting them near the time of their conversion, when they're not settled in, where there's a lot of feelings and emotions.”

Dutch Convert to Islam: Veiled and Viewed as a 'Traitor'"

by Molly Moore ("Washington Post," March 19, 2006)

Breda, Netherlands -

Rabi'a Frank sees her Dutch home town through the narrow slit of the black veil that covers her face.

The looks she receives from the townspeople are seldom kindly.

On a recent winter afternoon, the wind tugged at her ankle-length taupe skirt, olive head scarf and black, rectangular face veil as she walked to her car from an Islamic prayer meeting in downtown Breda. Two blond teenagers on bicycles stared, their faces screwed into hostile snarls. Other passersby gawked. Some stepped off the sidewalk to avoid coming too near.

She tried to act like it didn't offend her. But it did. She knows what they think of Muslim women like her.

"If you cover yourself, you are oppressed -- that's it," said Frank, a lanky, 29-year-old Dutch woman who converted to Islam 11 years ago, about the time she married her Moroccan husband. "You are being brainwashed by your husband or your friends."

Or, you're a potential terrorist.

"Sometimes I make a joke and say, 'Oh, you don't have to be scared of me.' " Other times, she gets so fed up that she yanks up her hand under her robe like it's a pistol and shouts, "Boom!"

Frank spoke on a recent day in her living room in this city of 162,000 people near the Netherlands' southern border with Belgium. "They don't have the right to treat me different," she said. "It's like staring at someone in a wheelchair. It's not polite. I'm human, even if you don't like the way I appear."

This day-to-day struggle for acceptance on the streets of her home town is one woman's confrontation with a deepening rift in West European societies, where the emergence of a 15 million-member Muslim minority is reshaping concepts of national and personal identity.

Some European governments have passed laws they say are intended to help preserve national identity. Critics argue that the measures reflect Islamophobia and fears of terrorism triggered by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent transit bombings in Madrid and London.

The Netherlands, with nearly 1 million Muslims, almost 6 percent of its population, is particularly on edge. The 2002 assassination of an anti-immigrant politician, Pim Fortuyn, by an animal rights activist was followed by the execution-style murder in 2004 of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had just released a controversial film seen as anti-Islamic. A young Muslim radical admitted to the killing.

A country with a history of tolerance is now adopting or debating some of the most restrictive anti-immigration and anti-Muslim laws in Europe. One proposed measure would ban women from wearing face veils, called niqab , in public. Another would outlaw the speaking of languages other than Dutch on the street.
Immigrants must learn some Dutch, pass a history and geography test and, to get a feel for whether they can live in this society, watch a film on Dutch culture that includes two gay men kissing and a topless woman walking on a beach.

Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament, said he was drafting a bill that would ban all immigration for the next five years. "Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism and humanism," Wilders said in an interview in his tiny office in the parliament building in The Hague. "We should not be ashamed of it. This is who we are and who we should stay."

In Belgium, some cities have banned women from wearing face veils and burqas , which cover the entire body and face, in public places. A year ago, France barred women and girls from wearing head scarves in public schools. A London school district has imposed a similar ban.

The Path of a Convert

For natives such as Frank who have converted to Islam, the hostility is often greater than that directed at immigrants.

"They think you are a traitor," said Frank, whose thin, pale face is framed by long blondish-brown curls. "You're not acting like a Dutch girl anymore.

"I'm a Muslim, a woman and also Dutch," she continued. "What upsets people is that I'm a Muslim first."

Frank can recall the instant she decided to wear a face veil: She had just stepped into Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport last year after making her first hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and going to Medina, in Saudi Arabia. They are the holiest sites in Islam.

It is more difficult, she said, to describe the evolution that took the former Rebecca Frank to her dramatic decision.

It began at age 14 as teenage defiance. She developed a crush on a 16-year-old Moroccan boy named Ali who had moved to the Netherlands as a child with his parents. He was exotic, he was different -- and, to the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, he was off-limits.

Over the years, as the relationship became more serious, Ali told Rebecca he could not marry her because she was not Muslim, even though he was not particularly religious. It's not about Islam, he explained, it's about culture.

Without consulting him, she began reading books about Moroccan culture and Islam. Then she decided to read the Koran. "I felt like, 'This is it,' " said Frank, whose parents were divorced and who, like many teenagers, was searching for an identity.

When Ali took her to meet his mother and announced they planned to marry, his mother said she would "break both legs" if he did that, Frank said. Her future husband didn't see his family for the next three months.

Her own mother was so upset over the wedding that she brought flowers to the 18-year-old bride, broke down in tears and left before the Islamic ceremony began. Her father did attend the wedding.
Clothing as a Statement

Like most of her Muslim convert friends, Frank said, she found that the process of fully embracing Islamic thinking and dress was gradual. But eventually the clothing became the outward statement of her identity. "I smiled at all the Muslim women I saw in the streets," she said. "But to them, I was just a plain Dutch girl with brown hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be recognized as a Muslim woman."

She changed her name from Rebecca to Rabi'a and began giving lectures about Islam. After she published an article on Islam in a local newspaper, a woman wrote her a letter demanding: "Go back to your own country."

"I'm in it now!" she thought angrily.

The more Frank studied her religion, the more convinced she became that she should take the final step and wear not only a head scarf but a face veil. "It took me two years to convince my husband I wanted to do it," Frank said. "He really didn't want me to wear it because of the reaction when we go out together."

Frank had begun focusing on the words of one of the Koran's foremost ancient interpreters, Rasulullah, who warned that "a woman who reveals her body" violates the tenets of Islam.

During her pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with her husband and mother-in-law, she covered her face in public for the first time. Far from feeling oppressed, she said, she felt liberated.

"It's like the song," Frank said. She began softly singing the English lyrics of "The Veil," a popular song on Muslim Web sites.

They tell her, 'Girl, don't you know this is the West and you are free?

You don't need to be oppressed, ashamed of your femininity.'

She just shakes her head and speaks so assuredly. . . .

This Hijab, this mark of piety

Is an act of faith, a symbol

For all the world to see.

But on the streets of Breda, covered by her veil, Frank stands out as an anomaly -- a curiosity to some, a freak to others.

A few weeks ago, her middle son, 7-year-old Ismail, pleaded with her, "Why don't you take it off? The children are laughing at you at school."

"I won't take it off," she insisted. "For me, it's like driving a car without a seat belt."

She gazed out her living room window at the street that winds through her suburban enclave of brick townhouses and front gardens browned by winter frosts.

"I am a Muslim," she said with finality. "That's my identity."


Young captive called a zealous convert or 'brainwashed' youth
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

What was John Walker's state of mind -- a sincere convert to radical Islam, or a Marin County teenager "brainwashed" by an Afghan cult?

Experts in the field of religious conversion and "cult mind-control techniques" presented two very different scenarios yesterday, extrapolating from a brief televised interview with Walker and news accounts based on interviews with his family and friends.

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the nation's leading experts on the global rise of religious violence, said the captured Taliban soldier sounded like many other militant converts he had interviewed from middle-class backgrounds.

Juergensmeyer, a sociologist and author of the book "Terror in the Mind of God," said Walker sounded like an "interesting and sensitive guy" who had gone to study abroad and "suddenly saw the world in another way."

"Fighting in a war like this can be very exciting. It's like 'Dungeons and Dragons,' " he said, speaking of the fantasy role-playing game. "Combine that with a sense of purpose and a religious dimension, and it can be personally redemptive and transforming."

Juergensmeyer, a UC Santa Barbara professor and active terrorism consultant for the U.S. State Department, said he had interviewed other Americans who visited Islamic nations and "have this ah-ha experience."

"They see that the Palestinian people are oppressed, and they take on a convert's zeal," he said.

Other experts see Walker, 20, as a victim of "cult mind-control indoctrination."

"Terrorist cult organizations apparently employ many of the same mind- control techniques used by destructive cult groups," said Steven Hassan, director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Somerville, Mass. "These include isolation, hypnosis, sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation and the programming of phobias in the minds of members."

Hassan said Walker should be "properly counseled and can probably be a tremendous resource in the war against terrorism."

"We should be using our knowledge of mind control psychology to undermine the control and power of the people on top of these terrorist organizations," he said.

Another outspoken critic of religious cults, retired UC Berkeley Professor Margaret Singer, said Walker appeared to have gone through a "sudden personality change," which she sees as a sign of "brainwashing."

"There are sincere people who change their religion and become vegetarians or stop eating pork," Singer said. "But this is a dramatic personality change."

Walker attended Islamic schools in Pakistan that used "intense indoctrination," Singer said.

She compared his case -- as have Walker's family and friends -- to that of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment in 1974 by a revolutionary sect that persuaded her to turn against her wealthy parents.

Both Walker and Hearst, Singer said, were "totally cut off from their friends and family."

Other experts disagreed, pointing out that Hearst had been kidnapped, while Walker chose to travel to Yemen and then Pakistan for his Islamic education.

"This kid was obviously indoctrinated, but he was a convert -- a seeker who found it, and acted on what he
found," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion.

A Second Religious Conversion for 'Jane Roe' of Roe vs. Wade

Associated Press
Monday, October 19, 1998

DALLAS (AP) - For years her life has been a twisted path. Its latest turn, Norma McCorvey says, received a nudge from heaven.

In 1970 she was "Jane Roe," an anonymous woman who said she had been raped and needed an abortion. Three years later she was the winning plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade, the epochal Supreme Court case that overturned all of the nation's abortion statutes.

During the 1980s, "Roe" revealed herself in interviews and a made-for-TV movie. She was really Norma McCorvey. She confessed that her tale of rape a decade before had been a lie; she was simply an unwed mother who later gave the child up for adoption.

In 1994 she published an autobiography that mingled pro-choice preachments with tell-all detail about dysfunctional parents, reform school, petty crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, an abusive husband, a second unwed pregnancy, attempted suicide and lesbianism.

She had dabbled in New Age and occult ideas, but in 1995 a new chapter came: She received Jesus and joined the Evangelical Protestants. She was baptized before network TV cameras by a most improbable mentor: the Rev. Philip ("Flip") Benham, national leader of the fervently anti-abortion Operation Rescue. "Jane Roe" joined his staff - and his cause.

Now, three years later, the Christian and the pro-life commitments have stuck. But at age 51, McCorvey has left Operation Rescue and has changed faiths, this time without hoopla.

After intensive instruction she received Roman Catholic confirmation on Aug. 17.

Her parish, St. Thomas Aquinas, is located near the modest bungalow stuffed with knickknacks where she has lived since 1970.

Joining the Catholic church is something of a homecoming, as well as a quest for calm after years of turbulence.

When she was a young girl in a conflict-ridden Texas family, McCorvey sometimes went to Jehovah's Witness meetings with her father but was far more comforted by the Catholic Masses her mother took her to occasionally.

"It was so beautiful and quiet. They seemed so much closer to God and I liked that, being as close as I could possibly be to God," she says in a voice as rough as her background.

The warm memories lingered despite later fury at her mother, who she says tricked her into signing away custody of her firstborn and then threw her out of the house. "My mom screamed, 'What did a lesbian know about raising a child?' I lost my child, and my home."

McCorvey's 1995 turning was largely the work of Benham, a onetime saloonkeeper who had experienced a radical religious conversion much like hers. He simply befriended her when Operation Rescue moved next door to the abortion clinic where she was working.

The moment of conversion, however, did not occur at the church Benham attended but at the nondenominational Hillcrest Church. There McCorvey walked forward one Saturday night to receive Jesus, under the spell of an evangelistic sermon by pastor Morris Sheats. She was to spend nearly three years at Hillcrest.

Working at Operation Rescue headquarters, meanwhile, McCorvey befriended many Catholics. She attended a Houston conference of Human Life International, a Catholic pro-life group, last April. "I felt serene there," she said. "I felt safe. And for me that's saying a lot."

There, she attended a Mass celebrated by Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, and she sensed "this is it. This is where I should be."

Something more mysterious was also at work.

McCorvey believes she sometimes experiences communications from God, not in an audible voice but specific directives nonetheless. "I started getting all these messages from the Lord saying, my child, you will soon be with me." She feared this meant her death was imminent. But one night last June the message became clear: "My child, I want you to come home to my church."

"I shot up out of bed. This just in from the Big Guy upstairs. He wants me to join the Roman Catholic Church." She e-mailed the news to Pavone, then sought Catholic instruction from Father Edward Robinson, a Dallas pro-life leader.

McCorvey began meeting the white-robed, 84-year-old priest in the library of a Dominican priory. He sent her away each time with a pile of reading matter.

"I am extremely impressed with her honesty and willingness to do the homework," Robinson says. "I have a clear field to work in." An eager learner, she brought four pages of questions to their first session.

For McCorvey, the person of Mary is especially attractive. "What took me by surprise was when I found out that Jesus Christ has founded this church for his Mother," she says. "The Blessed Virgin is a teacher, a mother. She's the queen. Without her there would have been no salvation for everyone."

And the pope? "It makes perfectly good sense to have one leader. It takes all the confusion out of it. Whatever he decides is done."

Her conversion to Catholicism hits a bit awkwardly for the Protestant publishing house, Thomas Nelson, which last January issued "Won By Love," McCorvey's account of her Evangelical conversion and her stand against abortion. The book ends with McCorvey happily involved with Operation Rescue and Hillcrest Church.

But she was never a conventional poster child for Evangelical religion.

Her language has cleaned up considerably but, she admits, "I still drop a cuss word now and then." She has cut down to two packs of cigarettes on a good day. She declares herself free of cocaine and alcohol addiction but still drinks a bit, limiting herself to a couple of Corona beers. "I know my limitations."

There's a more complex lifestyle issue. Years ago, McCorvey met Connie Gonzales, a store clerk who had caught her shoplifting. They developed into best friends, housemates and lovers. McCorvey says the relationship turned platonic in the early 1990s, and now that she's a Christian she believes same-sex behavior is wrong.

When the two friends continued to share a house, Flip Benham advised McCorvey to move out, fearing that she might rejoin the lesbian subculture. "Flip had a fit over the whole thing," she recalls. "He said he was my leader. I don't like for people to try to control me and I rebelled." Besides, "Pastor Sheats said if we could stand before God with a pure heart he would encourage us to stay living together."

She also criticizes Benham's recent tack, of having Operation Rescue demonstrate outside the Cathedral of Hope, a large Dallas church that caters to homosexuals. "I don't agree with the lesbians or the gays," she says, "but they have the right to attend the church of their choice and not be interrupted."

On abortion, too, she questions the effectiveness of Operation Rescue's militant tactics and now prefers to participate in silent monthly Catholic prayer vigils outside abortion clinics. "The Catholics are nonviolent. There is no storming into an abortion mill or chaining people to staircases. You accomplish nothing, and some say Operation Rescue set the movement back 20 years."

Benham also opposed McCorvey's decision last year to form the "Roe No More Ministry" and go out on the road as a pro-life speaker. Benham says she was not mature enough as a Christian and should be kept "under wraps."

Ronda Mackey, a fellow Operation Rescue worker who left with McCorvey to help with the new ministry, now has changed her mind and agrees it's too soon for McCorvey to become a platform personality. "She's still a baby Christian. It's an awful lot to ask."

Benham says simply, "I love her and she knows it, but I love her with the truth."

On abortion, though, Operation Rescue seems to have made a permanent impact. Says McCorvey, "I'm 100 per cent pro-life. I don't believe in abortion even in an extreme situation. If the woman is impregnated by a rapist, it's still a child. You're not to act as your own God." She'll be delivering that message in 14 speeches around the United States this fall.

Her new mentor, Robinson, says the speaking tours are a good idea, a way for her to make amends "for any complicity she had in this abortion business." McCorvey has been freed from guilt about her past, he says. "She is perfectly at peace."

Sheats is taking his convert's defection in stride. "People have to see their own journey. We just leave these things in the hands of God. We're grateful that God allowed her to cross our path... . I love her deeply."

McCorvey repays the compliment, saying, "Hillcrest will always be my home church. My testimony is basically Evangelical."

So then, what is she, Evangelical or Catholic? "I'm a Christian," she replies. "We all serve the same God."

Copyright c1998, Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews / E.W. Scripps. Publications