Martin Rowson's illustation for New Brotherhood by Caspar MelvilleIn the office of a youth training scheme in Tooting, D is telling me about his conversion to Islam. "Everyone in this world has a war of good and evil going on inside them, doesn't matter who you are, everyone has a conscience. I am not 100 per cent good but I know I have a good heart. Different Muslims lead different kinds of lives. Some have never been caught up in the street, and have always lived the good way. Some have come from a bad way and found the right path, some are hypocrites." D is one of those who did get caught up in 'the street'. Aged 18, the child of Nigerian migrants, raised in the tough estates of south London, he's been in and out of prison and admits to having 'done bad'. But in recent years he has been drawn to Islam, and is determined to use his faith to become a better person.

"I don't want to be bringing badness into Islam, so at the moment I am staying away. I still do a lot of things I have learnt from Islam, I still pray, but I just got out of prison and I am not totally clean and I don't want to be a hypocrite. Obviously you are not going to change overnight but if you keep your faith strong then slowly but surely.... Later, inshallah, I would like to move closer to it."

In Britain an increasing number of young black people are converting to Islam. Omar Urquhart, Imam of the Brixton Mosque – himself a convert – is on record as saying that fully 60 per cent of his 500-strong congregation are converts. While there are large black Muslim populations in London from Nigeria, Somalia and Tanzania, the majority of the converts are Afro-Caribbean Britons, the descendants of migrants from the West Indies.

When it comes to trying to understand this, at first glance, peculiar phenomenon, there are all manner of assumptions swirling around that muddy the water. There are particular dangers when it comes to discussing conversion in relation to black youth, as there is already a heavily weighted series of assumptions about the inherent danger posed by black youth to society, shored up by recent press anxiety over two different aspects of black conversion. The first is that associated with terrorism. The fact that Jermaine Lindsay, one of the 7 July bombers, was a black convert has fed spiraling anxieties about 'home grown' terrorists, within which the image of the black convert is an effective bogeyman. A separate, though linked, series of anxieties has been raised in news reports of Muslim criminal gangs in South London (going by the name of the PDC 'Poverty Driven Children' or 'Peel Dem Crew' and the SMS or 'Southern Man Syndicate') robbing and killing in the name of Islam and forcibly converting other young people.

Are young black people being forced to convert to Islam? "It is happening," B says. B is 22, his father from Jamaica was a Rastafarian, his Guyanese mother a Christian. "There are crews going round robbing and killing in the name of Islam. They do force people to convert and some think that if they become a Muslim they can join the gang. Most of them have converted to Islam but Islam isn't about that." "I think they are using Islam as a front," D agrees. "I say if you want to gangbang don't do it in God's name, do it on your own account." As to whether they were forcibly converted, D is plausibly adamant: "If I feel it, I feel it, but you can't force me to do anything I don't want to do."

So what brought these boys, both raised as Christians, both denizens of south London's gangsta street culture, to Islam? The stories are similar, but do not betray the imprint of coercion or a radical fundamentalist agenda. "I got talking to a brother," says B. "He started giving me books and pamphlets, teaching me about Islam. I started going to mosques, and I felt my questions were being answered when I prayed."

D empathises: "Christianity never motivated me, it never touched me. I was just hanging around on the block, smoking, gang banging. A brother started talking to me about Islam, and that got me engaged. I used to go see him and talk about the Koran. I went to the mosque and when I was 18 I made the decision. Islam drew me closer to God." The language is not that of jihad, or even of community, but of a personal struggle for self-improvement, guided by relationships with 'brothers'. Much therefore depends on the influence these 'brothers' have on the thoughts and actions of converts. Are they being duped or radicalised?

In response to my question about which sects or organisations within Islam attracted them they seemed a bit mystified: "I follow the teaching of Mohammed, peace be upon him, I don't follow anyone but him," comments B. The nature of their engagement with the faith was continually articulated as direct, apparently unmediated by sectarianism or demagogic Imams. In fact, they spoke about Imams with a refreshing lack of reverence: "There are Imams who are serious and there are Imams who are not, there are good and bad people in every faith."

Photo of Karim, young black Muslim by Andrea Rocca We are joined by two more young men, brothers Karim (20) and Idris (17), both of whom have been brought up as Muslims within the Tanzanian community in London. The came from a settled home, and neither had been in trouble with the law. They were the 'good boys' described by D, never having to deal with life on the streets (though growing up black they were no strangers to racism). Although according to the hierarchy of the streets D and B outranked Karim and Idris, in relation to Islam they deferred to them. The experience and knowledge carried by Karim and Idris about Islam and its codes granted them status in the eyes of the converts. Idris, stunningly articulate for a teenager, laid down some of the principles of his faith to which all present assented: "Islam is about how you lead your life, how to live. Islam shows you there is a meaning to life, only to worship Allah. We pray five times a day. Islam gives you time to focus on the divine and not just on your own pleasure. It helps you understand that is not all about you. One thing is that people who have just come to the religion recently need to learn about it, they need to read and study."

If there is a slight note of rebuke in this the converts do not take umbrage, and all agree that reading, study and knowledge are vital. D talked enthusiastically about a book he had read while in prison called Islam in Focus, which had provided him with the means by which to critique the hypocrisy of those who would use Islam for violent ends. For someone obviously intelligent, but with little formal education, Islam provided for the first time a structure within which knowledge and learning were highly valued and important guides to action. We must be careful not to romanticise this process - while Islam in Focus, for example, takes a moderate line toward political violence it also takes a fundamentalist line on gender and sexuality. But neither can we assume that we know in advance what these young men will take from their reading, and reading anything and arguing about it is the precondition for critical engagement with these ideas, which are in any case by no means confined within Islam.

Photo of Idris, a young black Muslim by Andrea Rocca

There are new forms of identity at work here. Twenty years ago we might have expected young men like D and B to be drawn to one or other of the strong versions of black identity available in The Black Atlantic world and closely tied to powerful popular music – either Rastafarianism or black power-inflected hip hop. That both men and thousands like them have definitively turned away from Christianity and from Rasta and hip hop forms of identification speaks both of the waning power of those identities, which increasingly lack relevance to young black Britons' lives, and of the particular effectiveness of Islam. It also speaks of, at least the possibility of a black British Islamic community within which black Britons of African descent and those of Afro-Caribbean heritage can meet as equals. This is something previous notions of black identity – which tended to prioritise Jamaican or American models of 'blackness' which had little purchase on contemporary Africa – have struggled to achieve. Of course conversion creates new divisions – between believers and non-believers – but there are powerful traditions within Islam of tolerance, debate and co-operation, which themselves could do with being revived by future generations. In the local context anything which can provide a bridge between those who potentially share so much, yet have been divided by assumptions of cultural incompatibility, fueled by hostility from without and within, might provide the foundation for new more productive alliances.

A clue to the effectiveness of Muslim conversion lies in both the simplicity of the fundamental story of Islam, compared in particular to the abstract, much-moderated and confusing stories of Christianity, and the way in which these stories are passed on. Historian Marshall Hodgson, author of The Venture of Islam, wrote on the 'simple' appeal of Islam: "Muslims made a personal appeal to people's religious consciousness. This could seem attractively straightforward to people dissatisfied with taking things on faith from a learned priest whose mysteries they could not comprehend. A single Creator, to be worshiped by each person for himself, on the basis of a revelation given to a famous prophet whom millions already acknowledged, was at once intelligible and plausible."

Similarly Islam speaks about justice and behaviour in a way which sits more comfortably with the masculine codes of the street, and carries the cache of 'resistance' because of its associations with American black power as much as more current forms of anti-Westernism. D illustrates this in contrasting Christianity with Islam as a practical guide: "Christianity teaches that if someone slaps me I should turn the other cheek. Why? So they can slap that one? Islam says you should treat people as they treat you. If you slap me I will slap you back, but if you come to me with respect that is how I will treat you."

The idea of street appeal is echoed by Abdul-Rehman Malik, contributing editor of liberal Muslim magazine Q News. Malik grew up the son of Pakistani Muslim parents in Toronto, Canada. But although he was raised in the faith of his parents, his perspective on Islam was dramatically different, because the Imam who captured his imagination was an African-American convert, who had come to Canada as a Vietnam draft dodger in the 1960s. "Growing up with African Americans as a Pakistani young person, I felt closer to my African-American Imam than I did to my Asian or Arab teachers. We spoke the same language – not just English but street language, which was closer to the language of hip hop, of Public Enemy. Maybe it's stereotypical but in Afro-Caribbean communities there is certain charisma of language and experience, and street cred matters a lot."

Cover of The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe most potent symbol of the struggle and value of conversion remains Malcolm X, argues Malik: "There is no doubt about it Malcolm is the most influential icon of black Islam, and the book [his autobiography] is the scared text of that journey, because it is a journey from slavery through criminality, trying to fit in, false consciousness, struggle, coming to consciousness, and then finding his liberation in religion. Malcolm is a globalised figure. He had one eye on America and one of Africa and he believed in international institutions, like the UN." D and B are equally enthusiastic about the legacy of the 1960s black activist: "He was an important person, he lived through it, he was bad and then he came to religion. He had to learn from prison...That was a great film," says B, referring to Spike Lee's film based on X's autobiography.

Broadcaster Tony Phillips, who has studied black British attitudes to Islam since producing his first documentary on the subject back in 1991, sees Malcolm X's influence as potentially extremely positive: "It is not easy growing up black in Britain, where the core institutions systematically devalue you. Anything which encourages them to lift their heads, to look beyond the prison of race could be constructive. Malcolm is exemplary because he represents a journey, a development, something that deepens and changes over time." The lesson his life offers young converts, for Phillips, is not a fixed dogma, but one of exploration, of a journey that never stops.

"These are not kids, it seems to me, who are necessarily going to become orthodox ideologues or dogmatists," says Philips. "They are from the streets, they are hungry for knowledge and for structure and meaning."

At the heart of the appeal of Islam, in Abdul-Rehman Malik's view, is the fact that it offers a form of community which is beyond race. For those raised within the rigid racial hierarchies of post-colonial Britain, the attraction of a sense of solidarity which refuses to prejudge people based on skin colour is obvious. For D this appears a critical attraction: "Islam is open to anyone, doesn't matter what colour you are, black, brown, white...."

Certainly there is a sense in all the young men I talk to of a global communal consciousness hardly typical of the average teenager. From comments on the vilifying of Muslims – "when that black boy [Anthony Walker] was killed in Liverpool no-one said it was a group of Christians who did it, or that it shows all white people are murderers" – to the link between the war in Iraq and terrorism – "I think the government are hypocrites, they are the ones stirring it up. They are waging a war for oil. How can they not expect retaliation? I'm not saying that one life is worth more than another but the London bombs have been on the front page for months and you have people dying in Iraq everyday" – they exhibit a healthy, realistic scepticism. Islam is providing them a frame within which to understand domestic racism. "Not everyone in the country is racist, maybe it's a quarter, maybe half. Its not blatant, but its deep" – and politics together – "the government of this country is Christian, they see a lot of people turning to Islam so they are trying to make it look bad".

The arguments can be callow, but feel grasped for rather than implanted, and in motion rather than dogmatic. They are engaged in the act of thinking themselves into and through a sense of national and global identity within which they can find dignity and common purpose, values sorely lacking in British youth of any stripe. "What I feel," concludes D, the group's most garrulous talker and persuasive rhetorician, "is that if they gave us a chance and stopped trying to beat us down then we would make something of ourselves and show that we can become something."

It may be time to acknowledge that young people discovering a personal sense of responsibility, an appetite for knowledge and a global sense of commonality might be a good thing, even if they do discover these things within the context of religion. People like D and B, Idris and Karim, have the potential to form a new kind of engaged, moderate, pragmatic political and cultural leadership for British Muslims. If Britain is to deliver on its multicultural promise, their voice needs to be heard.