Dr Myriam Francois Cerrah Explains Why She Embraced Islam
By Dr Myriam Francois Cerrah
I embraced Islam after graduating from Cambridge. Prior to that I was a skeptical Catholic; a believer in God but with a mistrust of organized religion.
The Qur’an was pivotal for me. I first tried to approach it in anger, as part of an attempt to prove my Muslim friend wrong. Later I began reading it with a more open mind.
The opening of Al Fatiha, with its address to the whole of mankind, psychologically stopped me in my tracks. It spoke of previous scriptures in a way which I both recognized, but also differed. It clarified many of the doubts I had about Christianity. It made me an adult as I suddenly realized that my destiny and my actions had consequences for which I alone would now be held responsible.
In a world governed by relativism, it outlined objective moral truths and the foundation of morality. As someone who’d always had a keen interest in philosophy, the Qur’an felt like the culmination of all of this philosophical cogitation. It combined Kant, Hume, Sartre and Aristotle. It somehow managed to address and answer the deep philosophical questions posed over centuries of human existence and answer its most fundamental one, ‘why are we here?’
In the Prophet Muhammad SAW, I recognized a man who was tasked with a momentous mission, like his predecessors, Moses, Jesus and Abraham. I had to pick apart much of the Orientalist libel surrounding him in order to obtain accurate information, since the historical relativism which people apply to some degree when studying other historical figures, is often completely absent, in what is a clear attempt to disparage his person.
I think many of my close friends thought I was going through another phase and would emerge from the other side unscathed, not realizing that the change was much more profound. Some of my closest friends did their best to support me and understand my decisions. I have remained very close to some of my childhood friends and through them I recognize the universality of the Divine message, as God’s values shine through in the good deeds any human does, Muslim or not.
I have never seen my conversion as a ‘reaction’ against, or an opposition to my culture. In contrast, it was a validation of what I’ve always thought was praiseworthy, whilst being a guidance for areas in need of improvement. I also found many mosques not particularly welcoming and found the rules and protocol confusing and stressful. I did not immediately identify with the Muslim community. I found many things odd and many attitudes perplexing. The attention given to the outward over the inward continues to trouble me deeply.
There is a need for a confident, articulate British Muslim identity which can contribute to the discussions of our time. Islam is not meant to be an alien religion, we shouldn’t feel like we’ve lost all trace of ourselves. Islam is a validation of the good in us and a means to rectify the bad. Islam is about always having balance and I think the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) message was fundamentally about having balance and equilibrium in all that we do.
The Prophet’s (SAW) message was always that you repel bad with good that you always respond to evil with good and always remember that God loves justice so even when people are committing serious injustices against you, you have a moral responsibility and a moral obligation in front of God to always uphold justice and never yourself transgress those limits.
Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) said: ‘Forgive him who wrongs you. Join him who cuts you off. Do good to him who does evil to you and speak the truth even if it be against yourself.’
Islam’s beauty really becomes to its own when it becomes manifest and it becomes manifest when you make it into a tool for the betterment of society, human kind and the world.
The ideal from an Islamic perspective is for ethics to become lived ethics, to become an applied body of values and not remain unfortunately as it often is cloistered in the mosque of somewhere which is some more divorced from reality.
About Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Myriam François-Cerrah, 34, was born December 1982 and is a Franco-British writer, broadcaster and academic on issues related to Islam, France and the Middle East.
She currently works as an international news correspondent.
She writes a monthly column for the New Statesman online and is also a regular contributor to Middle East Eye.
She has guest lectured at universities including Harvard (2014), Birmingham, (2014), Luther College (2015) and Kingston University, UK (2012–14).
She became popular when she was a child for playing Margaret Dashwood in the 90’s hit film ‘Sense and Sensibility’ alongside Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. She went on to star in Paws (1997) alongside Nathan Cavaleri and Heath Ledger, and New Year’s Day (2000), in which she played Heather.
Now she is gaining more popularity for being one of a growing number of educated middle class female converts to Islam in Britain.
An interview with Myriam published recently
What was the strongest thing that pulled you toward Islam?
I wouldn’t say I was pulled towards Islam, possibly quite the contrary. My engagement with Islam and its principles began on the basis of an instinctive hostility I felt towards it in the post 9⁄11 climate, and as a result of an education which tended to regard religion at best as a moral crutch and at worst as a dangerous delusion. I began talking and debating with Muslims on the basis that I felt I could help them overcome this lagging in development by rejecting what I then viewed as outmoded and archaic views. It wasn’t until I began to do some independent research into it, including into the life of Prophet Mohamed (saw), that my perspective began to shift and most specifically in my interaction with the Quran.
How do you feel that your path to Islam has helped you be a better spokesperson for the religion?
I’m not sure I’m a ‘better’ anything to be honest, I’m grateful for all my life experiences. They’ve been pivotal in shaping me and I certainly regard sports and drama as very positive activities for all young people since they encourage self-confidence and public speaking skills.
What led you to choose the Islamic movements in Morocco as the focus of your doctorate?
I have an interest in modern Islamic theorizing and the forces that shape it, whether consciously or not! Morocco fascinates me for a number of reasons. It’s a meeting of African, Arab and European influences. It has a long and rich history as an Islamic state, which long predates the contemporary modernist obsession with creating an Islamic state. It combines a strong Sufi tradition with a more recent literalist Salafi trend, Islamists and a king who is also “amir al muminin” – its a rich religious tapestry and yet still considered a hub of European tourism and a key Western ally. At the same time, it is a post-colonial developing nation struggling with corruption, poverty, illiteracy and negotiating an independent identity. On a more pragmatic note, it being a French speaking nation, it also meant I wouldn’t have to do ALL my research in Arabic. Need I say more…
How do you feel that Muslim women are perceived in the UK?
Sadly not very positively – you don’t need me to tell you that – the overarching portrayal is passive, mindless, brainwashed victims who need freeing from oppressive husbands/practices/traditions – its a very reductive perception which I personally experience as a tiring wall of prejudice in my day to day. That said, it is far better in the UK than in France or Germany…
What do you think we can do, as Muslim women, to improve the way we are perceived?
Get involved! Look beyond the comfort zone of the community and become an invaluable asset in the improvement of broader society – the reality I experience of Muslim women is generally far removed from the stereotype. It is a question now of interacting sufficiently with the public sphere for perceptions to shift.
In one of your articles, you talk of how Islam has helped you see through the myth of modernism. In what ways do you feel this myth has affected Muslim’s women perception of Islam?
The myth of modernity affects all of us – it is rooted an evolutionary perception of history whereby humans are on a continual path of human progression – this means we view other societies and cultures as lagging behind not just our obvious technological advances, but also our current moral stances and abandonment of religion. It also holds a singular version of modernity rooted in Western historical experience to be Universalist in nature and assumes all other cultures are moving towards it. This therefore assumes that the dominant model of femininity, as epitomized by the women we find in the public sphere, represents the height of ‘modernity’, i.e. the highest level of human social and moral evolution.
What advice would you give to a young Muslim woman who aspires to be successful in the media?
I’d say don’t aspire to be successful, for success’s sake, aspire to be true to your principles and to use any presence you may have to further good. Any industry has norms and expectations – it takes a strong person not to allow yourself to become shaped by the commercial drive, but rather to draw on your principles to help try and shape it. Whether your actions receive widespread public recognition or not, may not be a reflection of the worth of what you’re doing, so much as a reflection of the expectations of the field you’re operating in. Stay clear in what your objectives are and whom you’re trying to please…success is relative.
Do you have any Muslim women role models?
Certainly, my good friend and mentor Sarah Joseph, OBE (emel). Dalia Mogahed (Gallup), Salma Yaqoob (RESPECT), and the women of the Arab revolutions, out there struggling and even dying for their principles. Historically, I’d say Aisha (rA), Fatima (rA), Khadija (rA) and Rabia Al Adawiya are hugely inspirational models.
Do you feel that young Muslim women suffer from a lack of role models?
Yes I do – where are the female scholars, the authorities and not just on women’s issues! I think there is a certain visibility of a particular model of Muslim woman in the public sphere, but we need much more diversity. This impedes young women’s ability to conceive of themselves as active in those spheres and means they conceive of men as the guardians of the faith and necessary gateways to a correct praxis. We don’t necessarily men to affirm our interpretations – if they’re grounded, reasoned and well justified, that is sufficient.
** What are you most proud of?**
My kids, alhamdulillah, who actually inspire and challenge me more than many adults!