Converts to radical Islamist sects have become the public face of twenty-first-century British Islam. The shocking images of a bloodied and dazed Michael Olumide Adebolajo (Mujahid Abu Hamza) following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013 are unlikely to fade quickly from the public consciousness. Adebolajo is believed to have been radicalised a decade earlier and attended meetings of the now banned extremist group Al-Muhajiroun for several years. Al-Muhajiroun and its successor organisations, which first emerged in the mid-1990s when its British-based leaders split from the international Islamist organisation, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, attracted (through alleged membership or by association) a small number of disenfranchised converts like Adebolajo, Richard Dart (Salahuddin al Britani), who was jailed for terrorism offences in 2013, and Germaine Lindsay (Abdullah Shaheed Jamal), one of the four London 7/7 suicide bombers. In September 2013, and within hours of the Nairobi shopping mall attack, the British press were quick to condemn Lindsay’s widow and fellow convert, Samantha Lewthwaite, as not merely an al-Shabaab operative but the ‘Bloodbath Mastermind’. The evidence against Lewthwaite – dubbed the ‘White Widow’ by the media – was scant and contradictory but she has become the latest cause celebre of home grown terrorism, a target of fear and loathing. The jury is still out on Lewthwaite, but it is clear that, actually, few Britons convert to radical Islam. Indeed, converts today pick and choose from a wide variety of Islams to be found in contemporary Britain. We need to take an historical perspective to understand how and why this variety has arisen.

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