LONDON // Unprecedented numbers of Britons have converted to Islam over the past decade, according to a study.
Ten years ago, it was estimated that more than 60,000 Britons were converts. The report published yesterday puts the current figure at about 100,000, with an estimated 5,200 converts turning to Islam each year.
According to the report compiled by researchers at Swansea University for Faith Matters - a Muslim group dedicated to interfaith dialogue -more than half the converts were white, indigenous Britons. Two-thirds of them were women. The average age was just under 28.
The findings were, perhaps, surprising at a time when Islamophobia in the UK is high and when media portrayal of Muslims - converts in particular - is often in connection with extremism or terrorist activity.
Nevertheless, the figures are comparable with studies in Germany and France that have found that about 4,000 people a year in each of those nations convert to Islam.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, said coming up with a reliable estimate of the number of converts was at best an "intellectual guesstimate" based on census numbers. But he added: "Few people doubt that the number adopting Islam in the UK has risen dramatically in the past 10 years.
"I think there is definitely a relationship between conversions being on the increase and the prominence of Islam in the public domain.
"People are interested in finding out what Islam is all about and when they do that they go in different directions. Most shrug their shoulders and return to their lives but some will inevitably end up liking what they discover and will convert."
The importance of the converts, he said, was that they could play a role in bringing communities together by "disentangling cultural norms that have been carried over from the Middle East, Pakistan and India and which blur the true essence of Islam". For example, he said, some customs and practices such as wearing the burqa and the subjugation of women, owe their origins to tradition, rather than religion, and are at odds with mainstream British culture.
Inayat Bunglawala, the founder of Muslims4UK, which promotes active Muslim engagement in British society, told The Independent newspaper that the figures were "not implausible".
"It would mean that around one in 600 Britons is a convert to the faith. Islam is a missionary religion and many Muslim organisations, and particularly university students' Islamic societies, have active outreach programmes designed to remove popular misconceptions about the faith," he said.
Batool al Toma, an Irish-born convert to Islam of 25 years who works at the Islamic Foundation and runs the New Muslims Project, a group set up specifically to help converts, said she believed the new figures were probably "a little on the high side".
"My guess would be the real figure is somewhere in between previous estimates, which were too low, and this latest one.
"I definitely think there has been a noticeable increase in the number of converts in recent years. The media often tries to pinpoint specifics but the reasons are as varied as the converts themselves," she said.
Mr Mughal said that one worrying aspect of the report was the way that, in recent years, UK newspapers had "consistently linked converts to security threats".
In an analysis of media reports in the past decade, the researchers found that, while 32 per cent of all articles on Islam published since 2001 were linked to terrorism or extremism, the figure jumped to 62 per cent when the subjects were converts.
"Converts who become extremists or terrorists are, of course, a legitimate story," said Mr Mughal. "But my worry is that the saturation of such stories risks equating all Muslim converts with being some sort of problem when the vast majority are not."
He said that the true value of converts was the role they could play in helping Muslim communities integrate with mainstream British society.
Kevin Brice, the Swansea University academic who wrote the report, said that converts often had a high price to pay in terms of isolation from their families and friends.
Asked why such a high proportion of women became converts, he said they normally fall into two categories: career women or those getting married to a Muslim.
The first group, he said, "seek spirituality, a higher meaning, and tend to be deep thinkers".
He added: "The other type of women who turn to Islam are what I call 'converts of convenience'. They'll assume the trappings of the religion to please their Muslim husband and his family, but won't necessarily attend mosque, pray or fast.'