Monday 29 October 2012

Kristiane Backer: On the search for God

"As a journalist, as a communicator, I was itching to speak out, because a lot of times the media portrayed Islam so differently to this beautiful religion and how it really, truly is,” says Kristiane Backer on her sentiments in the years following her high-profile conversion to Islam.
Speaking to Today's Zaman, Backer speaks about her new book, Islamophobia in Europe, meeting Imran Khan and the journey which led her to the “beautiful values” of a religion which allows for her to look at the world differently.

Backer's journey began in 1995. Europe was shocked by the news that this well-known MTV presenter was converting to Islam. She had experienced the glitz and glamour of showbiz, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Geldof, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Annie Lenox; she had lived the so-called “high life,” hanging out with celebrities, being flown across continents, presenting MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) and being invited to the most exclusive parties. Hers was a world that had no association with religion, far from any kind of spiritually.

However, at the height of her career, she met famous cricketer and current leader of Pakistan's political party Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) Imran Khan -- a relationship that changed the course of her life forever. Through her travels in Pakistan she began a personal quest in which she encountered a completely different world to the one she knew, a world which was dominated by a love of God.
Kristiane Backer's new book “From MTV to Mecca” -- or, as Bob Geldof prefers to say, “From Babe to Burqa” -- takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery. Through her travels from Pakistan to Bosnia, Hamburg to Saudi Arabia, LA to London, we follow Backer's quest for true freedom and true liberation. As she herself so beautifully writes: “The more I traveled on the path to God, the more I felt His blessings, and my faith grew into a strong, unshakeable tree. My heart had found another home.”

Can you give us a brief insight into your book “From MTV to Mecca”? Why did you write the book?
I wrote the book because there is a lot of Islamophobia in Europe, which I also experienced myself when in 1995 I became a Muslim. I was an award-winning presenter at the time, presenting shows on MTV; I had my own youth show in Germany, and when it came out that I was a Muslim I was sacked from my show, and with that pretty much my career on TV in Germany ended. For years agents have told me, “If you ever want to work on TV again, don't speak about Islam.” So I listened to their advice and I spent those years deepening my faith and learning about Islam, traveling, etc. But of course as a journalist, as a communicator, I was itching to speak out, because a lot of times the media portrayed Islam so differently to this beautiful religion and how it really, truly is. I wanted to speak out, and eventually I went on the Hajj when I was 40 years old, and that was reported very positively in the German press. A book agent came to me and asked me, “Would you like to write your story in a book?” and I thought, “Great!” My time had come to try and redress some prejudices, and try to take the reader by the hand and show how I dissolved the prejudices I initially had against Islam, and how I discovered the beautiful values of the religion and tried to practice some of them before I became a Muslim.
You had this glamorous job, a lifestyle envied by many people. What was it? What was lacking?
It was the connection to the divine, really, that was lacking. God was lacking in my life, to put it in a nutshell. Yes, I had everything a young person dreams of: partying, interviewing rock stars for a living, announcing videos, getting red carpet treatment wherever we were traveling with a team, but I was inwardly not truly satisfied.

How much about Islam did you know before you converted?
I was introduced to Islam in 1992, by none other than handsome sportsman Imran Khan, not an imam with a long beard. He was cricket captain at that time and just had won the World Cup, but I knew nothing about cricket, so he didn't mean anything to me. But he became my first teacher of Islam, so I studied for three years, I read a lot of books, I traveled to Pakistan many times, I asked scholars so many questions, as well as ordinary people in London and Pakistan. I studied for three years and then I converted, for myself, not for anybody else.

Tell us a bit about your experiences traveling around the Muslim world post your conversion. What were your initial reactions to the region? Did it differ greatly from your expectations and common Western conceptions?
Well, we don't have much of a conception; you don't hear much about Pakistan, except for negative news, so I loved it from the moment I got there. It's such a beautiful country with a very stunning landscape and mountains and lush green fields and deserts. People were very friendly and enormously generous, offering us their last bits and pieces, even in the poor mountainous areas… My trips put a lot of things in perspective and really made me think.
I was shuttling between the two worlds for a few years and really had key moments. In the West, time is money, and people don't have time for each other anymore because there are so many pressures. Also the sacred is completely lacking from people's lives here. Faith is pretty much marginalized, unfortunately, in the West, and with my book I am also trying to put faith back onto the map. So yes, in Pakistan God was everywhere, everybody did everything in the name of God, and also sacrificed themselves for others and for the sake of God, to please God.
You said that Imran Khan was the tool of God to make you convert. Could you explain what aspect of his belief influenced you the most?
It's not only one thing really. I was quite inspired by the way he built a charitable hospital in Lahore where the poor would be treated free of charge. And with an army of volunteers they worked day and night to raise the funds for the hospital, as a service to God in a way. So that was really impressive. In fact, he gave up his entire career to become a charity worker, to fulfill his promise to build this hospital, so that was quite amazing. It was really his whole philosophy, seeing the world through Muslim eyes, and I hadn't encountered that before. He had a slightly different view of the world, keeping the afterlife in mind for example, than people who don't have faith do. So for the first time I met somebody who so passionately believed in God and tried to better his own iman (faith) and study. And actually, as I had always liked philosophy, I was thrilled and I was captivated from the first moment. I started reading, looking into this.

In your book you mention the Naqshibandi [a Sufi spiritual order, or tariqa]. What was it about this tariqa that appealed to you? Do you still have connections to this Sufi order?
The Naqshibandi are a beautiful Sufi group, a beautiful tariqa. One of many I suppose, but predominantly based in Turkey, Iraq, Central Asia and so on. They are serious and their teachings are very profound and beautiful, and they're like some of the people I met. And at the time I also enjoyed what the sheikh taught us. I was a beginner and it was what I needed at that time. He said, “Prayers are your animal to ride to heaven, basically.” He stressed the importance of prayers and all sorts of things, seeing life from a spiritual perspective. In fact, when I converted, around that time all this turmoil happened, and I lost my job and my love. It was the Sufism in the Naqshibandi mosque that helped me see the events from a spiritual perspective, from a higher level. And I learned about the benefits of suffering… For a believer it's a win-win scenario: When things go wrong and you go through tests and trials you'll be purified, and that's good for you, and when everything goes really well it's a blessing from God.
After your travels and study of Islam, what do you think of Turkey's contribution to Islamic philosophy and culture?
Obviously Sufism and Islamic philosophy are the historical roots of the Ottoman Empire, and it's tremendous and something that goes back 800 years or more, in which a lot of philosophers and sheiks and masters have contributed to Islamic thought and philosophy -- so the heritage is incredibly rich. Unfortunately, as we all know, it got squashed during the [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk times, so spirituality and Sufism became forbidden and you were liable to be caught by the police if you were to meet together and pray together. I think that's all quite sad, but as far as I understand it's all changing again.

Apart from the obvious implications with regard to your career, what were the reactions of friends and family on hearing about your conversion?
Well, my family didn't know what to make of it. They didn't necessarily understand why I embraced Islam. We had a lot of discussions and debates, and nowadays they support me. They support me because I am happy, and if it makes me happy they're fine with that. As Bob Geldof very kindly said in an interview, I'm not that different. I'm still who I am at the core, although I've changed many things; my core nature is still the same. So it's not like they can't recognize me anymore.

You had a lot of affiliations with VIPs before and after you converted. Did your belief change your perception of these people and vice versa?
My belief and my growing value system changed my views on everything, on the entertainment business and on people. Now I see people through different eyes and value them in a different way… That is the beauty of religion. It gives you the strength and power to stand up and to really follow one path, never mind whether it's hip or not. All that is irrelevant, when you think deeply about it. So Bob in my view is still an extraordinary human being, what he does for humanity, the poor and also for his children and for the people in his home. Charity starts at home, so our number one priority is whether we are a good person at home.
It's been a long journey of discovery, being a Muslim. I also had to learn that sadly not all Muslims who pray and fast are honest and good people; they may pray and fast and cheat and lie for the rest of their lives. I don't know how this goes together. It's always puzzling to me, but I guess it means their faith is superficial.

Did the negative media coverage in Germany change your attitude towards your home country?
I live in London for good reasons. It is because I feel that here I am accepted for who I am. There is a very vibrant Muslim scene going on, and it's just far more interesting and international. In Germany I feel things are just a little backwards when it comes to Islam and dialogue and dealing with Muslims in general.

You talk about the intense Islamophobia prevalent at the time of your conversion. Can you expand on this? How has the situation changed more recently, in particular post-9/11 and the Arab Spring?
In London I didn't experience any problems. That is why I stayed here. I think there are two trends: One is a good trend and one a negative trend. On the one hand, we have more access to halal food and halal products, and in fact the whole halal market is worth a staggering $2.1 trillion and consumer marketers and businesses are flocking to it. It's a vast untapped market, and it's becoming interesting for the economy and for businesses. Even fashion labels like Chanel and Zara cater for Muslims nowadays, making longer clothes -- tunics have become more fashionable… That's all great, but on the other hand there is a lot of Islamophobia going on -- and that's why I wrote my book and why I'm trying to get the message out, ideally to the mainstream -- obviously after 9/11, and nowadays with the awful things happening in the Middle East and the American ambassador being murdered over the derogatory film about Muhammad (peace be upon him). The film was terrible, but it is no reason to murder someone. So these events don't help, and unfortunately they'll hold us back.

Why did you wait years after your conversion in 1995 to publicly speak about Islam?
After losing all my jobs I was quite traumatized, since being a Muslim had seriously affected my career. However, hopefully things are turning around now, so that was one reason. I couldn't take it, it was so bad what happened, the negative press campaign. Also, I wanted to make a contribution but I also felt I wasn't quite ready to tell my story. I hadn't arrived yet. After MTV, what could I have talked about? My knowledge wasn't great enough, and the sheikh at the time recommended, “Put your din [religion] first into stabilizing your faith and really feeling comfortable with it.” I am so pleased about this advice, because now I can talk about Islam with great confidence, with some kind of knowledge, after some 20 years of reading into it.

You were a part of the Inspired by Muhammad campaign. Can you tell us a little about this?
Two years ago we had posters of different slogans of Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his teachings on buses, tubes and taxis, and my slogan was, “I believe in the environment. So does Muhammad (peace be upon him).” Just to shatter some of those misconceptions. We did this on the back of a YouGov [a market research agency] study that in the UK 50 percent [of people] associated Islam with terrorism, 58 percent with violence and 69 percent with the oppression of women. This shows what generally the people out here think, and it's a lot worse in Europe, so we all have a lot of work to do.

What does Islam give to you as a woman?
It gives me dignity as a woman. I'm respected as a person and I'm not constantly a sexual object. For example, when I worked for a Muslim TV station, Ebru TV, everybody was so respectful, nobody made a pass, whereas at Western TV stations often the language is gutter and it's all about flirtation and so on. And generally Western mainstream society is so sexualized, everything is innuendo and flirtation and so on, whereas in a Muslim context that doesn't happen. People are very respectful, and I really like that.

If we look at another famous convert -- Cat Stevens -- he shied away from music, performing, etc. to begin with. However, more recently his stance has mellowed and he's admitted to perhaps misunderstanding his faith early on. The longer you've been a Muslim, has your relationship with the religion changed?
I think it's a continued involvement. For me, it's a way of perhaps submitting, surrendering more gradually. I can't say it was opposite; it was different use of Islam, and luckily, alhamdulillah, I didn't have his influences and was exposed to different kinds of teaching -- more spiritually minded. The longer I've been a Muslim, the more I've surrendered as time has progressed. Before I couldn't speak out; nowadays I am more active and outspoken about this beautiful religion. I am not quiet anymore.

How can Islam and the West, in your opinion, live more comfortably going forward?
I have a very positive view. It can only get a lot better as more and more Muslims are born in the West and go through the education system and take up jobs in the mainstream and not remain in the Muslim bubble. Only through personal encounters can you dispel misconceptions. Suddenly you hear about something you have no idea about and you change your mind so I think it's very important to engage, to interact with society and not remain in your comfort zone. And unfortunately that is what happens in Germany and from both sides.

There are many young Muslim girls who would love to emigrate from Mecca to MTV, but you went from MTV to Mecca. What is your message to them?
Read my book and be inspired. I've been there and done that and it doesn't give happiness ultimately. You find happiness in faith and you can still be watching your MTV, but if you have that treasure of faith, then that is the greatest tool for happiness and contentment. It's not in consumerism. It's not in MTV.

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