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."