Whether it's squabbling about the burqa or being nakedly hostile to Muslim refugees fleeing to Europe, Islam – and all sorts of inflammatory statements about it – has dominated Western headlines for the past decade or so. Among all that loud, bolshy coverage, Muslims and those converting to Islam have been forced to deal with mistrust, obtuse interpretations of their beliefs or just straight up hatred.
With the last census finding the number of Britons choosing to convert to Islam had more than doubled in the decade preceding, now – more than ever – Muslim converts are finding it difficult to allay their new faith with the society around them. A study published today by Cambridge University's Centre of Islamic Studies has found that male converts are routinely misunderstood by their peers, families and people within their newly-adopted faith.
The study of 50 Muslim men living in the UK finds that "there is often targeting of converts by the British Security Services to work as informants", and that their integration into their new community can be "tenuous". White converts "lose their white privilege on conversion" and basically the whole thing is chronically misunderstood.
So: what is it that makes young British people convert to Islam? What troubles do new converts run into with their faith as they acculturate? And how has their belief in Islam helped smooth the bump into their new place in society? Dalton Mtengwa, from Oldham, is 24 and credits converting to Islam last February for saving him from a life of petty crime.
VICE: Hi, Dalton. What made you want to convert to Islam?
Dalton Mtengwa: I converted to Islam because I found the truth – the right faith. I was mostly raised as a Christian, but I never practiced because there's not that much to practice in Christianity. In Islam, there's more – a lot of doctrine and a lot of discipline.
So you were brought up a Christian?
Yeah. I believed in God. I'd go to church every now and then. My auntie, who's really religious, took me to Bible studies. It was decent, but I was too young to know much about it. It didn't really do it for me, to be honest – not compared to Islam. It's a religion that everyone should participate in. I don't believe there should be so many religions in this world; there should be one religion and everyone should worship the one and only God.
So you wanted spiritual fulfilment but couldn't find it in church?
I went to church because I was searching for cleansing, salvation. I'd been through a lot – depression. A lot of people go through depression when they haven't got peace in their heart.
What do you think caused your depression?
Life in general. Not having the chance to have what I wanted in life so I could progress further – that leads to committing crimes, drug abuse and stuff like that. I was depressed from about 16 onwards.
Did you commit crimes?
I was involved with crimes and stuff like that, yeah. In my early teenage years I had a tough time at school. I was naughty and was always in trouble. I was easily distracted. I was very popular, which can be quite dangerous. I grew up all over the UK, left school at 17 and tried to go to college, but I found it difficult to adapt. I was more into street life. I was still doing crimes. At college I did get a merit for sport science, but otherwise I struggled.
In your experience, is it common for people who convert to have had a difficult time?
It's very common. The stuff I was doing were just normal teenage crimes – theft, robbery, gang-related stuff. I was in with the wrong crowd, and there was peer pressure. A lot of us were chasing this life of materialistic things. I committed crimes so I had extra money to buy things I saw other people had. It's like a competition. The flashiest things I bought were designer clothes, gold chains and a lot of watches. Last February I embraced Islam and my outlook changed. It teaches me to be humble and try not to be greedy. When you die, these things don't come with you. It's just your deeds – Allah only judges us on this, not if you're driving a Mercedes Benz.
How did you discover Islam?
My friends introduced it to me – brothers would say to me: "You should take Shahada". It's basically a confession that there's only one God, and Mohammed is the last prophet.
Why did they think you specifically should convert?
They thought that I should take it because they thought of me as a religious person. They looked into my heart and they could see the faith in me. When they first met me, they actually thought I was Muslim. I wasn't Christian, really, I was something in the middle, but they were really surprised when I told them.
How does your religion fit in with your life outside of it?
I'm not working at the moment – I'm back at college studying maths and English. Because I didn't have anything before, Islam made me want to better myself and concentrate on my studies. I'm also doing an Islamic course with a guy called Sheikh Bilal, who is also a convert – learning about the beliefs, the religion, doctrine and rectification of prayer. There aren't that many other converts near to where I live.
What's your dating life like now?
My attitude has really changed. If you want to get married you have to be organised. You don't just, like, meet up in a bar. The first time you meet, you might like each other, then she'll get one of her brothers to make up a group chat for me, her and her brother on WhatsApp. We'll get to know each other that way – it's not done in a sly way. My relationships with women beforehand were hectic. In my religion, I would say there's more romance. There's a lot of respect.
Are you still friends with your old group?
No – my circle is very small. I keep myself to myself. I tend to do my five daily prayers, and the more you do that the closer you are to God. So you always have a routine that you're looking forward to. So I don't have much time. I still see one or two of them, but when I was going through a lot of hardships people ween't really there for me.
Do you think Islamophobia is a big problem in the UK?
Yeah, it really is a problem. People need to wake up to it.
Have you experienced Islamophobia?
No. And I've never witnessed any abuse.
What was your family's reaction when you converted?
At first my family were a bit confused about me converting, because Muslims were something they'd only ever seen on the TV. They were a bit like: "What's going on here?" The media always portrays Islam as a bad religion. They now realise that I've turned my life around and I'm a lot more chilled out and humble.
Do you ever feel different or cut off from them?
Some converts say it's like that, but it's been the other way around for me. I feel much closer to my family now. Lots of Muslim converts are misunderstood, but people should just get to know them if they want to find out what it's about.
Thanks, Dalton. @helennianias More from VICE: