It is not every day that you hear of a former MTV presenter writing a book on Islam. “From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired My Life” is a riveting account of how Kristiane Backer went from being one of the most recognised faces on MTV Europe to converting to Islam after meeting with Pakistani cricketing legend (now turned politician) Imran Khan.
“I wrote this book because I have been a victim of Islamophobia,” she tells Weekend Review. “The Islam I read about in the media on a daily basis is not the Islam I converted to and the Islam my teachers taught me. It is such a wide gap that I wrote the book to take people by the hand and show them how I discovered Islam and how I overcame these prejudices. I want to show the true values of Islam.”
I am sitting with Backer in a café at the World’s End, a slightly odd name for a district in west London. She tells me about an amusing incident on August 31, 1997, during a visit to Ireland. “It was the night when Princess Diana died,” she says. “Bless her soul and Dodi. One musician friend at the time, Jim Kerr from Simple Minds, had sorted out backstage passes for me to meet Bono, the lead singer of U2. I was there to pick up the passes with a friend and they said, ‘Have you got your passport? How do we know it’s you?’ I said, ‘No, of course, I haven’t got my passport on me. I’m going to a rock concert.’ We were debating and then everybody in the queue said, ‘Of course, it is Kristiane, don’t you know her? She is on MTV. She is famous.’ All the Irish people in the queue said, ‘This is Kristiane, give her a ticket’ — it was an American guy, you see, he didn’t know.”
Backer joined MTV Europe in 1989 as one of its first VJs. In the years that followed, her stardom rocketed as she presented shows such as “The Coca Cola Report”, “European Top 20” and “MTV at the Movies”. In 1992, alongside working for MTV, she also landed herself a youth show on German national television, Bravo TV. She met and befriended many famous stars at the time such as Prince, Seal, Bob Geldof and Mick Jagger. She even went Christmas shopping with rock star Bryan Adams. “He bought me a hat,” she says. “He doesn’t live far from here. But since I moved here I haven’t actually seen him, although we are Facebook friends. He invited me for dinner with a group of friends. He is a vegan, a very funny and nice guy.”
At one stage during her MTV years Backer’s fame began to dwarf some of the iconic musician friends she hung out with. In 1995, at the launch of the VH1 party in Hamburg, a PR agent came up to Backer and told her David Bowie would like a picture with her. “David Bowie asking for a picture with me?” she recalls. “I always loved his music. Gosh, I was stunned for words, I must say. But then we chatted about Berlin, he lived there in the Seventies. At that time he said he hadn’t gone back since the wall came down. Did you know, his wife Eman, the Ethopian supermodel, is also a Muslim and — I only found this out recently — he even has a sister who converted to Islam.”
Backer’s line of work meant she was never too far from the limelight. Once, during a rock festival in Nuremberg, the MTV press department pushed her on stage right before Prince to talk about “The Coca Cola Report” competition. “I absolutely had no time to even think about it or get nervous,” she says. “There I was in front of a sea of people as far as I could see. Seventy thousand people — and they were all screaming and clapping. It was as if I was levitating on a cloud of energy while talking away about ‘The Coca Cola report’, this and that. Whatever I said didn’t matter. I don’t think anybody heard it. But they all cheered and clapped.”
Yet, even though she had everything a young person could dream of, Backer felt something was lacking. She was fed up of having to constantly perform — one show chasing the next — and then being home alone again. “I thought what I was missing was love for a man,” she says. “But then I realised that the inner void I’d felt could only be filled by Allah — not by a human being. Because people come and go — love happens, then it disappears again, and then what? Only one love is for ever and eternal and that is the love for God. There came a point when I experienced a personal crisis. I was so stressed out from all the pressure that I was ready to go: ready to die, basically — I felt that depressed. As I was rushing to a show I was supposed to host in Belgium, I thought if the [aircraft] crashed it didn’t matter. Who cares? No joy here. Although we did end up having fun that night in the end.”
Shortly after came a turning point in her life. In 1992 she met Imran Khan at a friend’s dinner and they began to see each other frequently. Khan incidentally at that time was finding his own faith. He was reading a lot of books about Islam and enthusiastically started sharing everything with her. “I was somehow receptive to that because I had always had an interest in philosophy, ethics and religion in school,” she says. “He talked to me about God, our purpose in life and a higher goal to look at.”
One of the books she read, which deeply influenced her, was “The Road to Mecca”, by Mohammad Asad, formerly a Jewish journalist who famously converted to Islam in Berlin in 1926 after travelling the Arabian lands. “He described the beautiful noble Arab soul so eloquently before the arrival of oil,” Backer says. “That was when he was there in the Arabian peninsula, hanging out with the Bedouin. He describes beautifully how you could travel throughout the whole Arabia and never pay a penny as the people were so hospitable. He observes the striking contrast between the warmth of the Arabian people he encountered in the desert and the miserable and stressed passengers of the Berlin tube. When Asad came home he opened the Quran and read, ‘You are obsessed by greed for more and more, until you go down to your graves.’” And he thought this was the answer to what he had seen on the tube.” Backer’s own encounters with Muslims had some strange parallels to Asad’s.
As their relationship developed, Khan invited Backer to travel with him to the northern regions of Pakistan. Backer was impressed by the hospitality of the village people she met who were living with so little.
“We passed many poor people who had a light in their eyes,” she says. “When I returned I had an experience similar to Mohammad Asad’s. You realise people are miserable because they can’t get the latest Prada handbag that has sold out. Or they haven’t got the right VIP all-access pass. I was commuting between two worlds. I saw for myself the difference between attitudes. OK, I will give you an example.”
She recounts her experience on the flight back from Pakistan. Backer was sitting next to a Pakistani man and they began chatting. “At the airport in London a whole tribe was waiting for him,” she laughs, “And he noticed I was alone. So he suggested he and some of his family members take me home first. This delayed the family visit by an hour or so. Unbelievable, I didn’t even know these people.”
Shortly afterwards Backer went to Germany to participate in a major TV event. “The boss of my TV station asked my producers who were then driving back to the hotel and if he could get a lift,” she says. “In the car, they debated among themselves briefly and concluded time is money — that would be a ten-minute detour, so no, couldn’t give a lift.”
But it wasn’t just these contrasting experiences which drew her to Islam. For Backer the attraction to the religion was on different levels. “I saw so many people on the team of Imran Khan’s cancer hospital,” she says. “They all donated their time, money, and effort just to help build this hospital for the people of Pakistan, where the poor would be treated free of charge. Pakistan never had a cancer hospital, or indeed a health-care system — it was sad. Imran built the first cancer hospital there with an army of volunteers, and I was really touched by that. When I travelled through the Karakorum mountains, I saw very poor people who lived in little mud houses and slept above their animals so that the heat rose and kept them warm. It was heartbreaking — I’d never seen anything like it. Yet, what touched me was their generosity. When we got out of our jeep and visited the villages the people offered us whatever they had — almonds, apricots, walnuts — with a ‘Bismillah’, ‘in the name of God’.”
However inspired she may have been by the simple Muslim people she encountered, her interest in Islam ended up costing Backer her job. In 1995 she was celebrating the 100th episode of her show on Bravo TV. One journalist had done his research really well and asked if she had already converted for her boyfriend. “I had never said I had a boyfriend because of respect for Imran’s culture and religion,” she says. “Imran wasn’t known in Germany, so that was never a subject anyway. So I said no, but that I was a Muslim at heart. I had still not converted at that time. This little remark practically ended my career. A negative media campaign followed, the press accused me of having lost the plot, presenting my youth show from behind the burqa or supporting terrorism. On top of all that, a week later, Imran broke up with me. It was during those tumultuous times that I then converted to Islam, and shortly after, I lost my youth show. It all happened at the same time, unbelievable.”
Prior to the press demonisation there hadn’t been any problems with Bravo TV. “What can I say?” she says. “The contract was just signed. Then they pretended the contract didn’t exist. It practically finished my career.”
Backer credits her faith for pulling her through all her professional difficulties. “I lost everything at the same time,” she says, “my job, my relationship. But I had gained my faith, the most precious gift of all. I was going to a certain mosque where there were a lot of spiritual people, Sufis. They helped me see these difficulties from a higher perspective and understand that there is some good even in suffering. The great theologian and mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi likens suffering to chickpeas being cooked in the boiling water so they become delicious and soft. That is what happens with your soul when you experience difficulties. It is a cleansing process and it is good for you. If God loves you, he afflicts you, a Hadith says. And who experienced the most difficulties? The prophets. So I suppose anybody going through a difficult time is a good sign, God loves you.” She also forged a close friendship with the late Gai Eaton, a well-known convert to Islam, an author and intellectual who became a mentor and close friend.
Backer’s book comes with some impressive reviews. One is from renowned Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who has described it as “journey of a woman who shows how converting to Islam gave her a sense of liberation”. Another is Imran Khan who praises her as someone who “not only loved the sacred music and the desi food but had an open mind to study and look beyond the headlines”. And then there is Bob Geldof, who was a guest at her book launch in London, and is quoted on the front cover saying: “From MTV to Mecca? From babe to burqa is more like it!”
Backer believes there is a message in the book for people caught up in today’s materialistic lifestyle. “A lot of young people want MTV, entertainment, culture,” she says. “I had all that and I can tell you it doesn’t bring lasting happiness. I would never want my old life back. That emptiness I felt before I converted is now filled with meaning. I have a focus, a purpose in my life and that constant connection with God — an anchor in heaven.”
She also makes a distinction between religious practices and the culture, which people often mix up. “For an European, converting to Islam doesn’t mean wearing the abaya in London,” she says. “The abaya is a cultural custom. We can wear our modest European clothes, pray, give charity and abstain from alcohol — adhere to the principles but not necessarily take on other cultural traits. I don’t need to wear a shalwar kameez or an abaya, although I have a few of each and enjoy wearing them when suitable. But normally, in the West, I wear my European clothes. Basically I try to practise Islam with my European understanding of things.” Backer feels certain essential values which can be characterised as European, such as a respect for human rights and concern for the environment, are also Islamic values. Yet these are missing in a lot of Muslim-majority countries. “Mohammad Asad, in the last century, said you find a lot of Islam in Europe but few Muslims, yet you find a lot of Muslims in the East but very little true Islam,” she says.
Being a convert to Islam has its challenges, acknowledges Backer, particularly with regard to finding a like-minded social circle. Even more of a struggle for converts can be to locate a suitable marriage partner, as many are stuck between two worlds. Backer herself is divorced and finds life at times can get a bit lonely. “Muslims are so keen on converting people to Islam,” she says. “But I always say, what about the aftercare? That is when the real work starts. Don’t just think about converting someone and then leaving them to their own devices. I am fortunate to have developed a good network of friends in faith by now. Thank God. But how many Eids have I not celebrated because I am on my own? And every Eid it is the same, going to the mosque, and then it is business as usual for me, unfortunately. Unless I am really lucky and someone invites me, but it doesn’t always happen.”
However she is not alone in this experience. “Often, on Eid, I end up having dinner with one convert friend who also doesn’t have a Muslim family,” she says. “And on Christmas, we are both not really welcome among our own families anymore either because they think we have chosen something else. It’s the same in Ramadan. I don’t have anyone to share sahoor with in the morning, or open my fast with — except of course when invited for iftar. A degree of isolation is a part of being a convert or a revert, although, of course, we are now always in the best company of all — God. And it is the faith that pulls us through any challenge, although I have heard of a number of new Muslims who gave up again because of a lack of support from the Muslim community. Only yesterday I met a lady who was a practising Muslim for ten years or so and then later became a Christian minister.”
Backer keeps busy with efforts to improve the public image of Islam in Britain. She was one of the names behind an “Inspired by [Prophet] Mohammad [PBUH]” campaign in London that aimed to present a positive message of the religion by displaying adverts at bus stops, tube stations and cabs. Her picture was featured on the posters with the words, “I believe in protecting the environment, so did [Prophet] Mohammad [PBUH].” The campaign was positively received in the media. More recently she was interviewed by the BBC to talk about the controversy surrounding the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims”.
One of her concerns remains that a majority of people in the United Kingdom draw their knowledge about Islam from what the media tells them. “People don’t go into Islamic bookshops and buy books by Gai Eaton or other scholars,” she says, “They just read the Daily Mail or watch TV, and then form their opinion on Islam. I believe it’s all about education. That is why I usually do all these interviews. When The Sun calls, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to speak to The Sun.’ I do it because even if I could just get a drop of the truth into that ocean it could have a ripple effect.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.
From MTV to Mecca is available in Virgin Megastores in the Arab countries. Translation for the Arabic edition is under way.