New Muslims to Islam

By Marina Jiménez
National Post
January 19, 2002

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Like all Americans, Debra Portmann felt overcome with grief after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and mourned for the slaughter of her countrymen.

But she also felt something else: a lingering sadness for Islam itself, a faith she felt had been grossly abused by the terrorists to justify their actions.

Ms. Portmann, a Boston native whose Christian ancestors arrived here in 1649, wrote a note of sympathy and slipped it under the door of the Islamic students’ group at the University of Massachusetts, where she studies classical music.

Less than a month later, the 46-year-old liberal converted to Islam, in the basement of the Islamic Society of Boston’s Sunni mosque. It was a simple ceremony that took only moments. She said the shahadah (There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger) in Arabic, a simple testimony of faith she will repeat five times a day for the rest of her life.

Tiffany Motschenbacher, an extroverted theatre major from Michigan with curly brown hair, converted a few days later, sitting on the floor of the society’s cultural centre with a group of sisters, celebrating the occasion later over pizza and soda.

“I said the testimony and, poof, I was a Muslim. I was shaking and weeping,” recalls Ms. Motschenbacher, 30, with a laugh. “I really felt that this religion was the truth and what I’d been looking for my whole life. I used to feel something was wrong with me because I couldn’t grasp the concept of God. Now I finally had peace of heart.”

The terrorist attacks perpetrated by fundamentalist Islamists served as a kind of a catalyst for both of these women and at least four others in their class of New Muslims, propelling them forward on a long and sometimes hesitant spiritual journey toward conversion.

“Instead of running away, I felt myself running toward Islam. My heart had already opened to the religion and I knew that what had happened [in New York and Washington] was not Islam at all,” Ms. Motschenbacher said.

Adds Ms. Portmann, who wears a shalwar kameez — baggy trousers and a loose tunic — and covers her red hair with a pink hijab, or head covering: “When 9/11 happened, it gave Islam a black eye. But I knew the terrorist act was nothing Islam would ever sanction. I knew the terrorists’ idea of jihad was wrong.”

These women are part of a curious trend: a surge in conversions since Sept. 11 both in the United States and in Europe. It is a pattern that has replicated itself throughout recent history; there were many converts during the Bosnian conflict. During the Gulf War, the Saudis claimed to have welcomed 5,000 new Muslims into the fold.

“Americans have bought more flags since 9/11, but they’ve also bought more Korans,” says Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who runs the al-Taqwah mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I’ve had more converts since 9/11 and I’ve spoken in so many different forums and inter-faith meetings.”

At Harvard’s Islamic Society, attendance at the annual Ramadan dinner nearly doubled this year, while several open houses at the Islamic Society of Boston attracted so many people they spilled over into the parking lot.

In New York, Sheik Ishaq Abdul Malik-ul-Mulk, a convert who also goes by his Puerto Rican name Luis Alejandro, says that every week, someone takes shahadah at the Long Island mosque where he worships. “The more controversial something is, the more people it attracts,” he says. “But attraction is just the first step. After that, you have to believe, and the message of Islam is so simple, without any of the Holy Trinity mysteries. You can practise it on your own.”

One Dutch Islamic centre claims a tenfold increase while the New Muslims Project, based in Leicester, England, reports a steady stream of new converts.

In a videotape released by the Pentagon last month, Osama bin Laden himself remarked on the phenomenon to his al-Qaeda lieutenants. “In Holland, the number of people who accepted Islam during the days that followed the operations were more than the people who accepted Islam in the last 11 years. I heard someone on Islamic radio who owns a school in America say: ‘We don’t have time to keep up with the demands of those who are asking about Islamic books to learn about Islam.’ This event made people think [about true Islam], which benefitted Islam greatly.”

Some of the high-profile Western converts who have captured the public limelight have been those drawn to the terrorist cause espoused by radical Islamists. According to the FBI, John Walker, a 20-year-old California man, took up arms with the Taliban and even met bin Laden and knew he had ordered the attacks.

Richard Reid is alleged to have packed plastic explosives into the heels of his black suede high-tops in an attempt to bomb American Airlines Flight 63 last month. In the mid-1990s, he came out of prison and joined a Brixton mosque in London, where he met Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th” terrorist who engineered the hijacking of the planes that crashed into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington.

However, many American and European converts are similar to those in the New Muslim class for converts run by the Islamic Society of Boston. They do not support terrorism, nor share the al-Qaeda credo. They are well-educated, articulate, former Christians; some are even Jewish and Hindu.

These new Muslims, like the approximately 25,000 Hispanic converts in New York and California, are surprise converts to a religion that is the fastest growing in the United States. There are now six million adherents across the country, and more than 30% of mosque attendees are converts, according to a recent survey by four Muslim-American groups.

Some had studied Buddhism, flirted with Roman Catholicism or spent time with Quakers, but ultimately found them lacking.

Conversion is an intensely personal journey. But the influx of new Muslims prompts a number of questions. Why would people choose to embrace the faith at this time in history, when it suffers from such a public relations problem that Muslims can be spit on for wearing a hijab, called rag-heads and taunted in the street? And, a more fundamental question: What can a religion that segregates genders, bans dancing and drinking and requires women to cover up not just their hair, but their elbows and knees, offer to liberated American women?

“Asalam Alaikum!” the New Muslims sisters call out to one another as they arrive at the Old Country Buffet in a suburban mall to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan. The class is marking the occasion a few weeks late, to accommodate the Christmas holidays, which many of the new converts observed with their families.

Some are dressed in jeans and running shoes, their long blond hair shiny and loose; others are in shalwar kameez, their hair completely covered by embroidered hijabs.

Laughing boisterously, they tuck into plates of baked potatoes, roast beef and ice cream sundaes. A few have brought along their young children, who race around the restaurant.

Around the table are Ms. Motschenbacher and Ms. Portmann, as well as two “closet converts”: Laura, a 21-year-old Harvard medical student in a V-necked sweater and T-shirt, and Lisa, a 36-year-old sales manager with blue eyes and honey-coloured hair, looking as all-American as a Gap ad.

The evening might be mistaken for a women’s book club meeting, or a girls’ night out, albeit one with lemonade instead of wine.

The conversation flows from social niceties, such as plans for a class member’s upcoming engagement party, to where to buy halal meat, and purchase a hijab online.

The eldest class member, Karen Courtenay, a 61-year-old linguist who said the shahadah over the telephone last May, sums up how many of the converts feel about what she calls Islam’s rich mysticism and clear theology and rules, which include fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

“Many Christians express dismay about the Trinity, about the tri-partite God. With Islam, there are no miracles and things you can’t understand. Also, the congregational prayer, where everyone prays in a certain way in Arabic and in ritual positions is very powerful. Then there’s the social aspect: If you come from a cold, WASP New England culture, the hugging and hospitality you get from Arab sisters is just wonderful.”

Laura, who was raised as a secular Christian, says she converted by herself in her room a year ago. “The Koran really touched my heart and I liked the inner logic of the religion. It can be seen as un-American, but it is one of the great religions of the world and applies to all places and times,” she says.

Neither she nor Lisa cover their heads — they are not ready to take this final step of being publicly identified as Muslims.

“It was a big step to convert. Until I found this class, I felt like I was the only American girl in the whole world who wanted to convert to Islam and that I was losing my mind,” says Lisa, grinning.

She converted before she met and married a Pakistani Muslim, and has not disclosed either life change to her Anglican parents. She takes solace in her new faith: “I liked the fact that to become a Muslim you don’t have to disrespect Jesus. He is still a prophet, just not the son of God, which I’d always struggled with.”

But even as she joyfully embraces Islam’s family values and moral certainty, she, like many converts, continues to struggle with some of the cultural mores that forbid women to wear short sleeves or shake hands with males who are not relatives.

“I have an independent nature and there are lots of things I’m still trying to understand,” says Lisa, who plans to renew her vows at an American-style wedding reception, with bridesmaids and a white gown.

Some converts do not like having to pray in a separate area from men, with the imam’s words coming to them via closed-circuit television. “It’s like being back in Alabama in the 1960s with whites on one side and blacks on the other,” says Ms. Courtenay, who adds that at her mosque, some women do pray upstairs, behind the men.

Other converts do not miss the distraction of men, and feel more comfortable praying only with women and children. For Ms. Motschenbacher, not having to date or wear the latest styles came as a relief.

Protection from male lust is also what attracted the group’s youngest convert: 15-year-old Nirva Guirand, a Haitian-American, in a white head scarf.

“When I developed in the sixth grade, I got unwanted attention from guys. With Islam, I felt I got respect as a young woman,” she says.

It was the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, an act perpetrated by al-Qaeda in 1998, that prompted Andrea Useem, a 28-year-old journalist who was raised Episcopalian, to convert. Through her interviews with prominent Muslim leaders, she began to appreciate the religion’s structure and form. She separated the theology from the actions of extremists who claimed to kill in the name of Islam.

“I thought it was genius to pray five times a day,” says Ms. Useem, who now teaches the class. “It is more comprehensive than Christianity. It’s a total package. Sometimes I’ve had to stop and pray under a tree. At times, you feel you’re just like every other weird American doing their thing.”

Religious scholars believe it is difficult for a Western, secular culture to understand the power of religion, because it plays such an ambiguous role in our own society. This might be precisely the draw of Islam. While new Muslims see their change of faith in theological terms, it also gives them a sense of community order they might not find in U.S. society, explains Earl Waugh, a professor of religion at the University of Alberta.

“They may be converting in reaction to feelings of ambivalence and ambiguity of being a Christian in the U.S., when Santa Claus is more predominant in the consciousness than the birth of Jesus,” he says. Islam is seen as the best and only way to answer the United States’ moral decay and materialism.

Others might be identifying with the underdog and the downtrodden and see conversion as an act of defiance.

A crisis such as the terrorist attacks can often prompt those who have not yet had publicly to declare their conviction to do so. “It makes them want to say something about their existential person, rather than just to be an American,” says Prof. Waugh.

Last September’s terrorist attacks may have attracted new converts — but they also prompted a crisis for the larger Muslim community.

When Ms. Useem heard bin Laden’s bragging about the many Islam converts that followed the terrorist “operation,” she felt sickened. “I converted in spite of him, not because of him,” she said. “Sept. 11 has forced Muslim-Americans to become outward-looking overnight. There are inner contradictions. With immigrant Muslims, you get their politics, and you have to figure out what are your politics? What is a Muslim’s responsibility when a Muslim does something like that?”

Lack of understanding is often greatest closest to home.

After Sept. 11, Ms. Guirand’s own mother interpreted her recent conversion as a gesture of support for terrorism. “My mother said, ‘What’s the matter with you, do you love Osama bin Laden? Do you want to be his wife?’ I told her, it’s something he did, it’s not what the religion teaches.”

In the neighbouring state of New York, Ms. Guirand might have something in common with another group of surprising converts, or “reverts” as many of them prefer to be known: Latino Muslims.

At first glance, the religion might seem as alien to Latinos, with their long tradition of Roman Catholicism and fiesta spirit, as to liberated American women. But many Hispanic Muslims see their conversion as a return to their Moorish roots, just as many blacks see Islam as part of their African heritage.

“People say, you’re not really Latino if you’re Muslim but being a Muslim means you’ve embraced Arab culture, which was present in the Iberian peninsula for 900 years,” says Ibrahim Gonzalez, a “Nuyorican” or Puerto Rican New Yorker, who co-founded Alianza Islamica, a Hispanic mosque in the Bronx.

Other Hispanics are attracted to Islam for reasons of spiritual redemption; as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian establishment; and because they are influenced by the African-American communities they live near.

Some may have converted in prison, following the lead of their black brothers. In New York State prisons, for example, as many as 40% to 60% of black prisoners are Muslim converts, according to Robert Dannin, a New York University professor and author of Black Pilgrimage to Islam.

As with American women, Latino Muslims must relinquish elements of their effusive culture; samba music, dancing and the barranda, a Puerto Rican holiday tradition that involves going from house to house dancing and drinking, have no place in Islam.

Yet just as some new sisters still bare their tresses, some Latinos continue to play their merengue and salsa music quietly at home.

Others know that conservative Islam forbids these pleasures — and relish the sacrifice as proof of their new-found devotion.

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