MTV presenter Kristiane Backer on how her conversion to Islam changed her life - but it certainly wasn't easy
Millions would tune in as I presented shows such as the weekly European Top 20. I’d moved to London in 1989 to become the first German presenter on MTV Europe. My VJ colleagues and I were teen idols in Europe and received masses of fan mail. Work hard, party hard was our motto. Every few weeks, I was jetting off to amazing events across the continent with my other show, the MTV Coca Cola Report interviewing everyone from Neneh Cherry and Dannii Minogue to Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz.
Soon I was voted the most popular presenter on cable TV and described by the European press as Queen of Teen, pop icon, and glamour puss of MTV Europe, and I won several TV awards in Germany. I had everything a young person could possibly dream of, yet I was not really happy. I was under enormous pressure to constantly perform - showbiz was ego-driven and fickle and our lifestyles exhausting and hedonistic. With nights on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans and mornings alone in an anonymous hotel room, it was a life of extremes that left me feeling empty inside.
It was at this time of crisis, at the pinnacle of my career, that I met Imran Khan, who turned my life around. He introduced me to a completely different world – the East and the religion of Islam. The former cricket champion had just captained his team to win the world cup for Pakistan when we met, and he was about to give it all up in order to focus entirely on the construction of his charitable hospital in Lahore. He was also in the process of discovering his faith. He passionately talked about his findings with everyone, especially me, challenging my values and shaking my beliefs.
We discussed spirituality which I knew nothing about, the differences between his culture and mine, between the East and the West, and how faith and tradition provided a set of values unlike those that are forever changing, depending on the whims of the zeitgeist. We talked about the tyranny of fashion, and how the less figure-hugging clothes worn by Muslim women positively affected the way they were perceived and their own self-confidence. Our discussions about morality and ethics, politics and the meaning of religion were the antidote to my job that I’d been craving. Imran did not ram religious rulings down my throat; we talked about philosophy.
Imran gave me books on Islam so that I could begin to understand his faith about which I knew so little and against which I had nothing but prejudices. To my surprise I was hooked from the first book I read and looking beyond the media stereotypes, the concepts actually made sense. What particularly fascinated me was to find out more about spirituality. I read about the soul and its longing to return to its source - God. I discovered that the soul, like the body and the mind, also needs nourishment. And that is something I had so far had completely neglected.
Soon Imran invited me to visit him in Pakistan and took me on trips all over his country, including many places that would be impossible to visit today, such as the stunningly beautiful Swat valley, the frontier town Peshawar and Waziristan in FATA, which is now said to be a safe haven for local and international militants. In Lahore the beauty of the exquisite mogul architecture, the Badshahi mosque and the Shalimar Gardens struck me and I realised something great must be behind it all. The people we met were incredibly warm and hospitable. Even the very poor offered us their food with the phrase bismillah, in the name of God, on their lips. And often they pressed a few rupees into Imran’s hand to support his hospital project as an act of faith. It was the actions of these humble people that touched me.
Subconsciously I paid attention to how I was treated as a Western woman, and indeed to the fate of women in general in his country. In truth, no man ever showed me contempt or disrespect. On the contrary. The men I encountered were unfailingly polite and courteous.
My travels in Pakistan affected me deeply. Something had caught fire inside and slowly grew. I began to question the superficiality of the showbiz world I was part of, the position of women in society and eventually started wearing longer skirts and higher tops on MTV. I generally tried to make more of an effort to be good rather than just look good.
In 1995, several years and many travels and books later, after Imran and I split up, I converted to Islam in a London mosque. Unexpectedly becoming a Muslim prompted a crucifying press campaign in Germany and as a result, despite a freshly signed contract and several TV awards, my youth show sacked me. Later that year MTV did not renew my contract either. My TV career suddenly came to an end in Germany. At the same time in the UK Tatler Magazine included me in its little black book, with a photograph as one of the hottest 100 dates in town. The text read: “You better talk mosques”.
I found peace and solace amongst a Muslim community in North London and one day took my former neighbour Bob Geldof to meet the Shaykh after Bob’s wife had left him very publically for a more famous rock star. Soon photos of Bob with the Shaykh were published and Sir Bob was called a Muslim in the press. I left the group in shock over the lies. Bob luckily took all this with good humour.
I eventually found a spiritual home with a group around the late English scholar and Sufi Shaykh Dr Martin Lings. Sufism is the inner or spiritual dimension of Islam. I loved the communal prayers, the dhikr sessions (remembrance of God, a form of meditation), and conversations with these enlightened people who came from all over the world. Many of them were highly educated and very well mannered. Here at the prayer meetings I began to find a sense of inner peace, no matter how turbulent life was otherwise. Every time I felt stressed or down, I returned calm, confident and uplifted from the prayers and saw the world with different eyes, with God’s eyes.
Becoming a Muslim and surrendering to the will of God turned out to be a liberation from all sorts of societal pressures and a profound process of transformation that took time. There were many practicalities I learned to take on board - from five daily Arabic prayers, to interacting appropriately with the opposite sex, from giving up alcohol to fasting during Ramadan.
My faith helps me make sense of everything in life, it answers the big questions where we come from and where we are going, and most importantly it provides spiritual sustenance - soul food. The emptiness I felt before is now filled with purpose and meaning. Recently I began to actively participate in the Muslim dialogue in Britain and became the face of the ‘Inspired by Muhammad campaign’ which caused a bit of a stir in the media and was aimed at dispelling Islamophobic prejudices based on ignorance (and the bad actions of a few dangerously errant Muslims) by highlighting some of the beautiful teachings of the Prophet. I continue to develop in my identity as a European Muslim. Both value systems and both ways of life are part of me. It is my wish to live and express both and to mediate between them.
From MTV to Mecca by Kristiane Backer is out now, published by Arcadia Books and Awakening.