It's Friday afternoon, a week after the July 7 bombings in London, and the central mosque of London at Russell Square is crammed. Worshipers flood the mosque and, even though it seems as if there is no more room inside or outside, the mosque's attendants unfold more and more praying carpets.
The crowd is multiracial, filled with Muslims of Arab, Pakistani, Afghani and Malaysian descent. A tall man with a long blond beard and the look of a Viking approaches.
"As-salam aleikum, my name is Abd ar-Rahman, can I be of any help?" he asks in perfect British English.
Abd ar-Rahman was born and raised in London, where he was once called Eric. He converted to Islam 19 years ago, after reading and studying extensively about the religion, and he has been coming to the mosque at Russell Square ever since, to pray and help other members of the congregation.
Abd ar-Rahman is not the only Caucasian among the crowd. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Muslims of European origin scattered around the mosque.
As the prayer begins, women are told to go to the women's quarters on the second floor. Sitting there, quietly, are women in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes: some wear simple white scarves, others don colorful African shawls or black niqabs (veils), while some are decked out in fashionable Versace or Burberry scarves.
Amongst them is a woman in her early 20s, most probably of Eastern-European descent, praying with great devotion. When the prayer ends, the young woman - Aisha is her name - approaches.
"Isn't Islam beautiful?" she asks. "I saw you were sitting in the corner and looking at us. If you'd like, I can tell you more about Islam - I just said the shahada myself one year ago."
Aisha was formerly known as Rebecca. Half British and half Polish, she converted to Islam after she married a man of Pakistani origin. But by no means, she hastily adds, did she decide to convert because she felt forced to. Rather, she says, it was a conscious and calculated decision "that really turned my life around."
Eric/Abd ar-Rahman and Rebecca/Aisha are not alone. It is now a common occurrence for Britons to convert to Islam, says Sheikh Anwar, one of the leaders of the Russell Square mosque.
"Hamdulillah (thanks to God), it happens all the time, and recently maybe even more. Allah has opened people's hearts and minds so they would accept Islam," he says, smiling.
Many people in the mosque say that they have noticed an increase in the number of converts coming to the mosque to study, pray and receive guidance within the last three to four years.
The fastest-growing religion
Today, Islam is the second-largest religion on earth. According to various sources, just over a fifth of the world's population is Muslim. Only Christianity is larger, comprising 33 percent of the population. But Islam is by far the fastest-growing religion on the planet, with a growth rate estimated at 2.8%-2.9% per year.
One explanation for this increase is that the birth rate in Muslim countries is much higher than in the majority of Christian countries (a reasoning popular among Christian missionaries), while others say that most of Muslim growth in Europe and the US comes from immigration, rather than conversion.
However, numerous studies indicate that the rapid growth of Islam in the United States, Canada, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa is, in fact, due to conversion. There are also surveys that point out the following phenomenon: a wave of conversion to Islam in the US and Europe following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Pan-Arab newspapers such as Al-Hayat and A-Sharq al-Awsat, as well as The New York Times, The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times, have reported an increasing interest in Islam in the US, which in many cases results in a conversion.
But Muhammad Mahdi Sharovsky, a Muslim based in Hebron who was once a Kiryat Arba settler and religious Jew, doesn't think that there is a correlation between the dreadful event and the wave of conversion to Islam in the West.
"Perhaps there is more awareness of Islam in the West after these events, but I'm sure that conversion is more a result of a personal growth, understanding, studying and quest," he says.
Searching for God
Muhammad Mahdi - formerly Michael - converted to Islam in 1998 while still living in the heart of the very right-wing Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. He immigrated from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in the early 1990s and quickly adopted an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
"Back in Azerbaijan, my family was always very aware of us being Jewish, and unlike many other olim [immigrants] from the FSU (former Soviet Union), I came to Israel highly motivated politically, nationally and religiously.
"I first settled down in Netanya, but soon realized that this lifestyle of promiscuity is really not for me. I understood that I'm not built for a secular life at all, and in 1995, I decided to move to Kiryat Arba. I was studying hard in kollel and tried to gain as much knowledge as I could.
"The more I learned, the more I became aware of many antinomies between Torah and Talmud, between the word of God and the interpretations of man. I tried to find comfort in my work - I'm a professional coach and worked in a gym - but as I always was a man of faith, I felt that something was missing."
Sorting his prayer-beads (an irreplaceable item for a practicing Muslim), Sharovsky tells about his experiences in the radical political movement in Kiryat Arba, about harassing and disregarding Arabs and about emotions of vengeance and hate.
"I have always thought of Arabs as inferior human beings, incapable of spiritual quest, immateriality and true religiosity. That was a common belief in Kiryat Arba, as a matter of fact.
"Imagine my surprise when I first started a conversation about religion with an Arab, a very simple guy, a mechanic in a garage. He is by no means my guru, or spiritual leader or anything of that kind. But these conversations with him brought me to study and learn more about Islam. And it wasn't easy at all - gradually I realized that Islam is the only true religion, the only monotheistic religion, and that I have to abandon my old ways to embrace the teachings of prophet Muhammad, sala ala alaihi wa sallama (may prayer be upon him).
"The hardest task for me was Shabbat, as I was raised to believe that a Jew who doesn't observe Shabbat is no longer a Jew. But hamdulillah (thanks to God), I overcame this difficulty and said my shahada - testified that Allah is God and Muhammad is his prophet."
Today, Sharovsky lives in Hebron with his wife, who also converted to Islam, and their four children. He embraced the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, which is viewed as by far the most rigid and harsh. Discussing his experience as a Muslim in Hebron, but also in Baku, where he returned for a short period after converting to Islam, Sharovsky mentions that it wasn't easy for him to be accepted as a new convert.
"I'm not a man of halfway things. I believe in going the whole way, and sometimes I feel that my steadfast beliefs and way of life irritate many. So what? I didn't become a Muslim because of them."
FOR YULIA LICHENKO, an immigrant to Haifa from Moscow who came to live in Israel with her husband and three kids, the path to Islam was just as entangled as it was for Sharovsky.
A convert from Christianity, Yulia was acquainted with a Jewish friend who had embraced Orthodoxy.
"He used to bring me tons of religious literature about Judaism, because he wanted me to embrace Judaism so much," recalls Yulia. By that time, her marriage was already in trouble due to her husband's alcohol addiction, a habit that eventually led to their divorce.
"I didn't convert to Islam from thin air," says Lichenko, who now dresses in religious Muslim female garb, prays and fully practices a Muslim way of life.
"While I was reading and learning about Islam I came to understand that this religion gives answers to many of my questions about life. I was never a part of a crowd and didn't feel that I have to follow the crowd - I'm an individual who found out that Islam is the one true thing. It took me a few months of thoughts and considerations, and then my friend's brother took me to a mosque where I said my shahada," she said.
UNLIKE YULIA, who studied about Islam on her own, Yousef al-Khattab - formerly Yosef Cohen - came to learn about Islam after a theological dialogue with an Emirati sheikh over the Internet. Once an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, today Yousef is a fervent and fully devoted Muslim. He moved to East Jerusalem, shaved his head, grew a beard and opened an incense shop in the Old City, where he also distributes free materials about Islam.
"I first 'saw the light' when I was 18 years old, and embraced a religious, even Orthodox, lifestyle," he recalls. "By 1998, me and my wife came to live in Israel. But I soon was disappointed by how Judaism looks in Israel; I was disappointed with how people lived their lives here. The behavior of the girls here... Judaism didn't seem to control it at all.
"At that time I met this person on the Internet, a sheikh from UAE (United Arab Emirates), whom I met later on, and we started chatting and talking on the 'net. He made me ask questions which I addressed to rabbis, and I saw that they gave me only partial and very different answers. But when I first opened a Koran, I realized that it was exactly what I believed in as a Jew. I just couldn't put it down. Unlike Torah, which I think is just plain boring, Koran is a fascinating book."
The conversation stops when a customer comes to Khattab's shop to buy some incense. Dressed in a long robe, with a black turban on his shaved head, Yousef greets his customer in Arabic, seasoned with a strong American accent.
"May blessing be upon you, brother," he says, packing the purchase into a paper bag. Yousef's wife also converted to Islam, he says, after understanding "that it is the only correct path in life."
"Everyone who compares Judaism and Islam understands that Torah was forged, that the words and interpretations of a man substituted the words of God. All these rabbis - there is no unity among them, there is no one opinion, there is a shop of opinions," says the recent convert.
"Pure" Islam - only on the Web
Many converts to Islam say that the process of conversion and the decision-making involved is actually much easier than the process of learning how to adjust to their new environment. Reactions from both sides - the old congregation, society and family, as well as from the newly-acquired brothers-in-faith - are sometimes hurtful and suspicious.
"Naturally, my family didn't want to accept the fact of me being a Muslim," says Khattab. He believes that his family in the US was told of his conversion by activists of the Yad le-Achim organization, whose aim is fighting the conversion phenomenon.
"They sent social service agents to my house and even police, but eventually we proved that we are not doing anything wrong, we just practice our faith," related Khattab, who is now in touch with his family only by e-mail.
His new Arab neighbors didn't exactly welcome him either, treating him with a great deal of suspicion.
"Many of the Arabs do not understand my motives. Many disapprove of my lifestyle. Unfortunately, the Islam in Palestine is very weak, and many people are very distant from Islam, they are away from Allah. The situation is also quite gruesome in all the other Arab and Muslim states - unfortunately the pure Islam exists today only on the 'net."
Lichenko also criticizes Arab society in Israel and Palestine as being a far cry from "real" Islam.
"I heard a lot of hurtful things from the Jews, but I will not hide my being Muslim just because of them. As for the Arabs - at first many people suspected that I was a Shin Bet agent, and many were amazed by my choice. But I believe that the Arabs should not be the only guardians and representatives of Islam on earth. After all, the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs. And let's not mix between the Arab mentality and Islamic mentality - they are two totally different things."
Sharovsky also believes being a Muslim and being an Arab do not go hand in hand.
"Now I am comfortable here in Hebron. In fact, it reminds me of the old Baku of my childhood: Children are respectful of their parents and there is a high sense of morality.
"At first people were very suspicious of me, and some even implied to me that I'm not welcome. But that was then. I was also living in Abu Ghosh for a short time, and it was much worse for me than Hebron, as there was so much hypocrisy there. People in Abu Ghosh hate Jews, but hide it because the Jews give them a very good living. Anyhow, I felt I could not be a true Muslim in that place. That's why I went to live in Hebron, which is much more traditional."
Many European converts say that, due to the negative image of Islam in the West, especially after September 11, they feel hostility from society.
"People often ask me how I can be a Muslim, if Muslims all over the world are known to be terrorists and killers," says Aisha, in London. "I just smile at them and try to explain that these people - terrorists - do not represent Islam, and in fact their deeds contradict the true Islam."
Mixing religion and politics
While some converts didn't change their political views after converting to Islam, others became sudden admirers of al-Qaida and Hamas.
Sharovsky, who used to be a Kahane Chai sympathizer, has turned 180 degrees. Nowadays, although he declares that he doesn't identify with any political party, he says the Palestinian uprising against Israel is absolutely justified. He believes that there will ultimately be an Islamic caliphate - the only legitimate form of government on earth, he says, which will also resolve all the problems of what he believes is a fully bankrupt nation-state.
"It's wrong to kill innocent women and children," says Sharovsky, who believes that no political party, especially secular, is permitted to take the law into their own hands.
Khattab, on the other hand, is not ready to denounce the suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, although he calls the Beslan tragedy a "slaughter." In his tiny shop in east Jerusalem, you can find a photo of bin Laden, symbols of Hamas and other Palestinian organizations.
"I'm not a Hamas activist, although I support them in good things that they do," he says.
Like Sharovsky, Khattab believes the only real solution is the creation of an Islamic caliphate which will rule the world.
"Islam is not about the East and the West. You can be Muslim anywhere, and the Koran teaches that our future is the true Islamic state, not like the fake and corrupt states there are today," he says.
Both Sharovsky and Khattab believe that Islam has not yet peaked, and that more and more people will soon realize that this is the only true solution for humanity.
The proselyte religion
Researchers also believe that Islam has not yet reached its peak in terms of expansion and conversion.
"The expansion of Islam didn't stop in the 7th century, and Islam certainly continued to spread in different regions over the course of time. Sometimes it takes hundreds of years for a certain region to convert fully, while others convert faster then others," explained Professor Reuven Amitai of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, director of the Nehemia Levtzion Center of Islamic Studies.
"There are a few models of conversion in history; among them is the conversion which comes after the expansion of the state - it happened in the 7th century after the first conquests of Islam. The second model is a conversion which is initiated by the individuals - scholars, merchants, travelers and migrants who come from the world of Islam. Today we are witnessing the second model.
"Islam is a missionary religion; there is a general call for people to embrace Islam. It is also quite easy to become a Muslim - you just need to repeat a shahada before a witness and that's it," Amitai continues.
"Of course, there is no one simple answer to the question of why people convert to Islam, and the reasons vary from individual to individual, but perhaps one of the reasons is the alienation of Western society - the frustration and disillusion by modern theories, such as communism, socialism etc., whereas Islam gives simple and clear answers."
As for the expansion of Islam in the West, Amitai believes that each case should be examined individually, since there is no single rule for the US, France, Germany and Great Britain.
"It's still early to judge the phenomenon, as we are talking about the first generation of converts. The intensification usually happens in the second generation - the children will go through the system of Islamic education, and they already will be raised as Muslims, not knowing something else."
To those still clinging to other religions, Sharovsky offers the following advice: "Hurry up," he says. "There is not a lot of time. You have to embrace Islam as soon as possible."