How Tony Blair's sister-in-law converted to Islam

Lauren Booth tells The National how she made the journey to publicly embrace Islam.

LONDON. 27th October. 2010 . Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking at her home in North London after she converted to Islam.  Stephen Lock  for The National. FOR SATURDAY PAPER.
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Lauren Booth, journalist, campaigner and on-air reporter for the Iranian government-owned Press TV channel in London, is not the first western woman to convert to Islam. But she is one of the most high-profile converts. For good or ill, this is largely based on the fact that she is the colourful sister-in-law of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister - and because she has been a loud critic of his military ventures from the outset.

Her adoption of the Muslim faith is rooted in something rather more profound than family disputes. Yet despite Lauren Booth's longstanding affinity for the Palestinian cause in particular, it was all a bit of a surprise. Reaction to the news of her conversion was immense.

"Well, in 48 hours I've had over 600 messages of congratulations and love. From the Philippines to Peru; from East Timor to East Grinstead. Every Muslim who has Wi-Fi seems to be sending me congratulations and saying they will support me in the difficult times ahead. Because, let's be honest, I haven't joined a trendy religion; I haven't taken up Scientology with the wealthy. This is a difficult one and it is done with real conviction."

Was the conversion a spur-of-the-moment thing or had there been a slow drift towards a religion and way of life that she had increasingly become comfortable with?

"It seems pretty dramatic to people who haven't been working with me for the past five years. What's interesting to me is that when I tell Palestinian friends, Christians and Muslims, they tend to say, 'We thought you were a Muslim already!' It wasn't a spiritual change at first, but when I began to appreciate the complete falsity in the reporting of Muslim communities and the way they live their life, and for what we are constantly being sold as an excuse for war in the West, mainly that these people are violent, they hate westerners, that their religion is one of hate and aggression - when you see all of that - and when you see the reality, you really do begin to wonder."

For all the hype, the conversion itself was covered in a rather cursory fashion in the British press. Booth was en route to Isfahan, about 350km south of Tehran, for some reporting. On the way, however, she stopped at a shrine in Qom dedicated to Fatima Masuma. Masuma was a highly esteemed figure in Islam, an adviser to sheikhs on the teachings of Muslim scripture because she was so well versed in the Quran.

"It was at the Fatima Masuma shrine in the holy city of Qom. Contrary to reports, I didn't go to Iran to convert. I had no thoughts of converting. I went to Iran to work. I was actually en route to Isfahan, and a friend I was travelling with said, 'Let's just stop at the shrine'. There were lots of women baking bread and children playing, and as you got closer to the shrine there were believers holding the bars which contain the remains of Fatima. My spiritual awakening and confirmation really happened there."

Booth has been reporting and campaigning in the Middle East in one way or another for the best part of a decade, most recently taking an active part in supporting attempts to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"I don't think that was ever a 'pull' as such." She continued that "in 2000 I remember seeing footage on the BBC of that little boy throwing a stone at a tank. He died seven days later - Israeli snipers had shot him. I got to report from the West Bank, and many of the stereotypes that I had been fed simply melted away.

"It was my experience travelling from Tel Aviv to Ramallah with Jamal, the Palestinian taxi driver, that really sealed it for me. When we got to the West Bank, he told me that he wasn't allowed to cross the checkpoint. 'But that's Palestine!' I said. 'You don't understand', he replied. 'I have Israeli papers that don't allow me to the West Bank or Gaza."

Booth, 43, is the half-sister of Mr Blair's wife, Cherie, a practicing Roman Catholic and human-rights lawyer. After leaving office, Blair himself converted to Catholicism, so religious journeys are not unknown in the family.

"I can't put thoughts into someone else's head. Tony has set up a faith foundation. There's a lot of these interfaith foundations . I went to a meeting the other week where there were rabbis, priests and imams. This stuff is already happening without Tony Blair."

The decision by Blair, who is the UN's Middle East peace envoy, to set up his faith foundation was, Booth claims, not motivated by guilt at the carnage of Iraq. "I don't think he feels any guilt at all. It's a cover to take the heat off his shameful addiction to the Zionist narrative."

There are of course closer family members, whose reaction to her conversion might matter rather more to Booth, who is divorcing her husband, the actor Craig Darby. After all, no one can deny that she has taken a real leap of faith.

"Well, my mum was interesting. She's 73. I described to her the feeling of absolute peace I had in the shrine and she started crying - 'I'm delighted, you've really been touched by something - I'll support you'. I thought, 'Wow, that was easy'! So next week, when I went to visit her, I had a scarf on and she said, 'Why are you wearing that scarf?' When I reminded her that I had converted to Islam, she said, 'Muslim! I thought you had become a Buddhist!' But I have gently talked to her, and about my experiences, and she has definitely come round. She is very supportive."

There will be others, of course, who will wonder how a woman brought up in a liberal western tradition with left-leaning political views - Booth is the daughter of the actor Tony Booth (Till Death Us Do Part) - can feel comfortable in a religion and way of life seen as conservative.

"There is a Left-Right leap here of sorts," Booth admitted, "a move away from a liberal lifestyle into what many see as a conservative lifestyle because there are certain behaviours that are expected and that you expect of yourself.

"But then there is another side - for me, actually, it is an extension of socialism: personal wealth matters less; what you give counts for more. You are really expected to care about the person in the next house and the next 20 in the street. How lovely is that?"

That is not the narrative, often played out on western TV programming, however, where Islam is described as being perverted by fundamentalists. Some of the coverage of Muslims in the United States does on occasion verge on the hysterical - the plan to build an Islamic centre in Lower Manhattan, constantly referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque", could be seen as a case in point.

" I keep being asked to do speaking tours. I don't really want to go to America, but if I'm asked I would consider it. But I would be disappointed if Homeland Security didn't have a field day!"

Although Britain is increasingly secular and church attendance is dwindling, there have been instances recently indicating that people are reacting to what they see as spiritual emptiness in a land obsessed with status and wealth. For example, Pope Benedict XVI drew 500,000 people during his visit in September, even though he was derided by many in the UK because of the clerical sex scandal.

Booth said the tide is turning; people are seeking religion. "And the majority of them are women, and they are often professional women, because we are finding a complete dearth of values in our own society."