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 Soul-searching leads towards Islam

At first she tried to resist.She did not want this to happen. She was not that sort of person. After all, there were no gaps in her life, no spiritual ache, she did not need support or direction. But she kept reading and it kept making sense. `I had absolutely no expectation or desire to end up where I am,` she says. `It was almost with trepidation that I kept turning the pages and the trepidation just increased. I kept thinking: "OK, where`s the flaw? Where`s the bit that doesn`t make sense? But it never came. And then it was like:Oh no I can see where this is leading. This is disastrous. I don`t want to be a Muslim!

Caroline Bate is 30 years old, blonde, blue-eyed and pretty, with a soft Home Counties accent. She has a degree from Cambridge. She studied Russian and German before switching to management studies. She is Middle England`s dream daughter or daughter-in-law. And though she has yet to make her formal declaration of faith in Allah and Prophet Mohammad (Sall Allaho alaihe wasallam)-a two-line pledge called the Shahadah or testimony of faith -- she considers herself a Muslim [but in order to actually embrace Islam, one must recite out aloud the Shahadah or the testimony of faith whose meaning is `there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet and messenger of Allah]. It felt good, she says.

Caroline is not alone. Though data is hard to come by, several London mosques have been reporting an increase in the number of converts to Islam, especially since 11 September. Like Caroline, many of these converts are from solid middle-class backgrounds, have successful careers, enjoy active social lives and are fundamentally happy with their lot.

This is not a new trend, however. Matthew Wilkinson, a former head boy of Eton, became Tariq, when he converted to Islam in 1993. Jonathan Birt, son of Lord Birt, late of the BBC and now the government`s transport guru, converted in 1997. The son and daughter of Lord Justice Scott also converted and Joe Ahmed Dobson, the 26-year-old son of the former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, has recently and, somewhat reluctantly, emerged as the voice of new Muslim converts in Britain. But it is a trend that has been pushed along by recent events. So far, it has gone largely unnoticed, as the press concentrates on some of the more colourful characters that 11 September has thrown up.

A compelling melodrama played out beyond the fringes of Islamic culture in this country. And while it might be stretching a point - and answering caricature with caricature - to insist that a demure English rose is the exemplar of the modern British convert to Islam, Caroline Bate is certainly more representative than anyone else.

Talking to recent Muslim converts, it is striking how similar the descriptions of their embrace of Islam are. Most were introduced to Islam, Islamic history and teachings by their friends. And given that Islam is not generally a missionary faith, these were gentle introductions. For most conversion was born of curiosity, an attempt to better understand the people around them.

Caroline first started reading about Islam last April. A school friend she has known since she was 11 was marrying a Tunisian, a Muslim.My best friend was marrying into a different culture, so I wanted to know more about it,she explains. `I came at it from more of a cultural perspective than a religious one. But the literature that I picked up just stimulated me. And Islamic teaching made perfect logical sense. You can approach it intellectually and there are no gaps no great leaps of faith that you have to make.

Roger (not his real name) is a doctor in his mid-thirties. About a year and a half ago, he started talking about Islam to Muslim colleagues at work. `All I had ever heard about Islam in the media was Hezbollah and guerrillas and all of that. And here were these really decent people whom I was beginning to get to know.So I started to ask a few questions and I was amazed at my own ignorance.` He became a Muslim a couple of months ago.

For these new converts, embracing Islam is usually a covert operation. They quietly read, talk, listen and learn. The hard part is coming out, declaring your newly acquired faith to friends and family, and, in some cases at least, facing up to fear, scepticism and even loathing.

Caroline insists that the coming-out process has not been too painful. `The reaction has been pretty much what I expected. I`ve had everything from "Do you know how they treat women?" to "Wow, great timing! But your friends are your friends and I expect them to deal with it.

Others have had a harder time. Eleanor Martin, now Asya Ali (or some other combination of these names, depending on the circumstance), was a 24-year-old TV actress when she met Mo Sesay. She had a regular role as WPC Georgie Cudworth in BBC`s Dangerfield during the mid-Nineties and Sesay, who later starred in Bhaji on the Beach, w