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Feature: The attraction of veil

Tasmin Salih sweeps down the steps of the Edinburgh central mosque her headscarf fixed round her neck with a cut-glass brooch her black robe flapping in the breeze. From a distance she is a stereotypical Muslim woman. But as she draws closer it becomes clear there is something different about Salih: the little flesh that is exposed is white. Salih is an Islamic convert. Just three years ago she was Kimberley McCrindle from Penicuick in Midlothian a drama student. She has left behind the perceived freedoms of a western upbringing to embrace Islam. Ever since James McLintock 37 a middle-class Dundonian was arrested in Afghanistan on suspicion of being a member of Al-Qaeda Islamic converts have been in the spotlight. Now known as Mohammed Yacoub when he was captured McLintock was wearing Afghan clothes and had a long dark brown beard. It became clear he was not a terrorist but the fascination persisted about why someone would look outside his own culture and towards Islam to fulfil his spiritual needs.

A growing number of young white people are taking the shahadah ? the testimony of faith that makes you a Muslim ? every year. About 20 000 British people have converted during the last decade. At Edinburgh?s central mosque there have been 80 "reverts" ? Muslims believe that everyone is born into Islam ? over the last four years. A clutch of websites have been set up to answer converts? questions. At daily prayers white faces are no longer a talking point.

Saeed Abdulrahim secretary of the Islam Awareness Project at the East London Mosque has seen a similar pattern emerge. "We do not go out looking to convert people we merely provide information on Islam when asked. But obviously whenever someone reverts it is a cause for celebration as it means one more Muslim in the world " says Abdulrahim.

So many people have taken the shahadah in recent years that the New Muslim Project has been set up in Leicester to help converts who fall out with their families. The Al-Maktoum centre for Islamic Studies at Abertay University in Dundee is hoping to study the phenomenon.

For Mohammed Yasin trustee of Edinburgh Central Mosque there is no mystery in Islam?s appeal. "It is a religion where everyone is equal and I think that is attractive to many people."

Yet what is clear is that Islam is offering people something so powerful they are prepared to risk rejection.

Scots poet Kathleen Jamie who has spent time with Shia Muslims in northern Pakistan believes Islam would appeal to anyone looking for structure in their lives. "The rules and rigour that some people find constraining may be exactly what appeals to the converts. And while outsiders may criticise the veil as a symbol of oppression those who embrace it often see it as a liberation from the pressures of an image-conscious world."

Salih 19 was raised in a household where religion was rarely discussed and she began her spiritual quest in her early teens. Christian churches left her ill-at-ease.

Bullied at school she was severely depressed throughout her adolescence. At sixth-year college she met Muslim girls who used to talk about their religion. "I started reading the Koran and immediately everything fell into place.Everything about the religion suited me. I can organise myself around it. If you don?t have rules to follow then you can start to go astray."

Anyone who believes themselves to be a Muslim can become one by taking the shahadah. This involves saying the words: "There is no God but Allah. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah". By this stage however most converts will have learned to pray have studied the Koran and learnt some Arabic.

Salih was just 17 when she took the shahadah in front of the Imam and other witnesses at Edinburgh Central Mosque. She did not invite her mother Victoria a secretary or her father Ronald a greenkeeper. They had no idea of their daughter?s plans. When she finally told them they were horrified.

Then she announced she was engaged to Sabir now 34 a Muslim student from Sudan whom she had met at college. "In Islam the family is so important and I very much wanted them to understand what I was doing " Salih says. "But Sabir went to my father three times to ask for permission and each time he said no so eventually we went ahead and married in the mosque.

"Gradually my mum came round to the idea. Last year we got married in the register office and she came to that but my father has disowned me. I still speak to my sister Janine but we don?t have much in common any more."

Before converting Salih had been planning a career on the stage. Her dream from the age of five she had already performed at Edinburgh?s Lyceum theatre. Even after she had become a Muslim she studied drama at Telford College but came to believe her vocation was irreconcilable with her new faith since it would involve close contact with men. So she gave it up and now hopes to become a nurse.

She also had to decide if she would embrace hijab ? cover her body leaving only her hands and face visible. An unmistakable statement of faith it can alienate outsiders and make it more difficult for a convert?s families to accept the decision. It is a vexed issue for many female converts: the koran forbids a woman to show her hair but it can take some new Muslims years to find the courage to wear a headscarf to work.

Salih chooses to wear a jilbab ? the black over-garment worn by the most devout. "I was worried at the beginning not because I disagreed with it but because I was worried about the reaction it might provoke " she says. "I have had comments particularly since September 11. People have shouted: ?Go back home to where you came from? and I?m like ?Where is that then Penicuick?? "It is frustrating because the images of Islam you see on television are not ones you recognise from your own experience.

"But nowadays it doesn?t really bother me what people think. I know covering my head doesn?t mean I am oppressed. I have a lot more self-confidence than I used to. I wear the scarf for God and that?s the main thing in my life now " says Salih.

Jamie whose book about her time in Pakistan is soon to be updated and republished as Among Muslims agrees the veil is often misunderstood. "When you first see a woman in the veil you can think there is no personality no intelligence there but then you realise you are talking to a university graduate with a very good grasp of life and your preconceptions are challenged " she says.

"The veil strips away the western obsession with image and makes you focus on the person. I met some very beautiful people who really didn?t know they were beautiful and I wondered if that would be possible in the west where they are so sexualised." Although she won?t convert Jamie who teaches creative writing at the University of St Andrews can understand why Islam would appeal to the Scottish sensibility.

"I grew up in Scotland in the days when the Church of Scotland was strong on duty and not so strong on singing and dancing. Also to a large extent Islam is classless much like Scotland. But as to why people would opt for Islam over Christianity I?m not sure. Maybe Christianity just carries too much baggage."

There is certainly no sign of Islam?s appeal diminishing. The new Muslim Project is in contact with hundreds of converts nationwide and there are known to be many more. Joe-Ahmed Dobson son of Frank Dobson the former health secretary is one of London?s new white middle-class Muslims. Former BBC chief John Birt?s son Jonathan has also converted and now works in an Islamic bookshop.

For Kimberley McCrindle ? bullied for years because she was different ? becoming a Muslim has meant finally having a place to belong. Since she found Islam she claims she has suffered no more depression and needs no more medication. "When I first knew Tasmin she was always thinking bad thoughts and I was always having to talk her round " her husband Sabir says smiling at his young wife. "Now she is a different person. A calm person. A happy person."