Written by William Dobson
As one of the first ever presenters of MTV Europe, Kristiane Backer had pretty much everything a young girl from Germany might want. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mick Jagger, Bono, Bob Geldof and Cat Stevens, her job brought her a cult following and took her to the very heart of the international music scene. However, at the height of her career, a chance encounter with cricketer Imran Khan took her to Pakistan and subsequently led her to convert to Islam. With her new book out today, From MTV to Mecca – How Islam Inspired My Life, she tells us more about her journey.
Sugar Street Review: What was the inspiration behind your conversion to Islam?
Kristiane Backer: When Islam was introduced to me, I was at first touched by ancient Sufi poems that were sung by traditional Pakistani musicians. The genre is called Qawwali. It is intoxicating music once you understand the lyrics. I began to read books and was intellectually captivated also. When travelling to Pakistan and seeing the exquisite Mogul architecture, I knew something great must be behind it. After researching the religion for a few more years and asking so many questions to scholars and anyone I met, I eventually felt the desire to taste the spiritual fruits I was reading about and actively bring God into my life. So, although intellectually convinced, the decision to convert was a spiritual one.
SSR: Tell us a bit about your experiences travelling 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?
KB: Travelling for the first time to Pakistan was an eye opener. It is a very beautiful country, the landscape is varied from awe-inspiring snow peaked mountains to luscious valleys and the desert. Lahore, the Paris of the Subcontinent with its Old City is a richly colourful, bustling place with wonderful ancient art and architecture. It is as if several centuries exist there in parallel. You have donkeys pulling carts in the bazaars but at the same time high tech and a sumptuous high society night life. Mostly I was taken by the warmth and generosity of the Pakistani people, which did not depend on their status but their culture and their faith in God.
SSR: Do you think travelling as a Muslim gave you a greater insight into the culture?
KB: Since converting there is a kind of inner bond between me and other Muslims. And I love travelling in Muslim majority countries, hearing the call to prayer five times a day, praying in mosques, not worrying about whether the food is religiously clean and visiting places of spiritual and cultural interest that we don’t have here in the West. So, yes, being a Muslim has allowed me to immerse myself into the culture and enjoy it from within rather than looking at it from the outside like the display in a shop through a glass window.
SSR: As a white European making the journey to Mecca, how did your fellow pilgrims view you?
KB: On Hajj, in Mecca and Medina, it feels like the whole universe is congregating; you see all different kinds of nationalities, colours and outfits and you hear every language in the world. I was one of three million plus. Fellow pilgrims were all exceptionally friendly. I remember after staying for days in a tent in Mina with only very basic amenities, on my return to Mecca I went to a bathroom in the Hilton Hotel directly opposite the holy mosque to avoid the crowds and for once do my washing in style. Next to me were some Saudi ladies in elegant abayas dripping in diamonds while I felt like a dusty tramp but they still admired my hair and my features. We had a heart to heart chat from woman to woman. Only when they left did they put on their face veils and it become apparent that they were from a different culture. When I asked them if they didn’t mind, they replied not at all, they were used to it since they had been wearing it since they were teenagers.
SSR: How would you describe the experience for those who won’t get the chance to make the trip themselves?
KB: The Hajj is an enormous challenge on all levels- physical, interpersonal and spiritual. You are pushed to your limits- sleep very little and are constantly surrounded by millions of people. But all worldly matters are irrelevant. You are there at the the centre of Islam to connect with God. That is your entire focus. And everyone else’s. Circulating the House of God in the middle of the grand mosque, the Kaaba in prayer with everyone else clad in white robes, you are suspended from time and space, you feel as happy as a child. It is as if God’s light shines into your heart. It is so beautiful and peaceful. You leave on a spiritual high and this special feeling stays with you for quite a while. I love Yusuf Islam’s quote on the Hajj which I found at the Hajj exhibition:
“I had come to the Centre of the Universe, where the physical and metaphysical worlds meet. I was floating in that wonderful sea of humanity, turning like stars in a galaxy, around the house of God …I had at last found that dimension where human existence ceases to be held by the gravitation of sensual and worldly desires, where the soul is freed in an atmosphere of obedience and peaceful submission to the Divine Presence.”
SSR: Apart from the obvious implications with regard to you career, what was the reaction of friends and family on hearing about your conversion?
KB: My real friends are still all with me. They respected my decision, and even found it inspiring. My parents at first couldn’t understand as they only know Islam from the media but meanwhile they support me in my faith. They are happy when I am happy. Islam is not an issue we relate on other matters.
SSR: You talk about the intense Islamophobia prevalent at the time of your conversion. Can you expand upon this? How has the situation changed more recently, in particular post-9/11 and the Arab Spring?
KB: Well, I was not even aware of the situation in ’95 when during an interview in Germany I was asked whether I had already converted to Islam, and my answer was ‘No but I am a Muslim at heart’. This tiny innocuous comment before my conversion practically finished my career. A hugely negative press campaign followed, from being an award winning TV presenter I was suddenly accused of having lost the plot and possibly supporting terrorism. Within a few weeks my youth show sacked me despite a freshly signed contract. This came as a real shock to me and I was continually advised by my TV agents if I ever wanted to work again, I should not speak about Islam as no company or TV station would hire me as a presenter knowing I am a Muslim. Incidents such as 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings naturally made things worse for Muslims in the West. However, at the same time I can also see a positive trend as second and third generations of Muslims are growing up in the UK and Europe and are full members of our society contributing in all fields from politics and economics to science, sports and the arts. As an optimist I believe our multi-cultural, multi-faith society will thrive harmoniously.
SSR: How does your interpretation of Islam differ from the stereotypical Western view of Islam?
KB: True Islam is very different from its picture painted in the media (or the ugly distortions by certain extremists). It is not only my personal interpretation that is different. Anyone who takes the time to do serious research (reading books and speaking to Muslim scholars not just browsing the internet) with an open heart and mind will discover its profundity, and will see the truth in its spiritual and ethical teachings.
SSR: 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?
KB: I am actually charting Yusuf Islam’s (Cat Stevens’) journey in my book as one of the side stories. I met him first in ’92 with Imran Khan where he was wearing long white flowing robes and had given up on music. And recently I was so happy to see him on stage again doing what he does best, playing music. My journey was different, I gradually surrendered so to say (Islam means surrender to God) and discovered and deepened my faith slowly. While I chose to focus on my inward development for many years I have recently become more active as a Muslim outwardly, trying to make a small contribution to the relations between Islam and the West. One aspect of that was writing my book.
SSR: How can Islam and the West, in your opinion, live more comfortably going forward?
KB: Islam is a universal religion, it is not bound to Eastern culture. I am very comfortable in my identity as a European Muslim. There are no conflicts at all, in fact real European values such as human rights, environmental consciousness, honesty, professionalism, religious freedom etc are also Islamic values. I am writing about this in my book From MTV to Mecca because it is a subject close to my heart. Of course we need good will and open minds and hearts on both sides to transcend stereotypes, get to know one another and work together for the common good.