In the post-9/11 era, many more Americans have entered Islam than before. At the same time, Islamophobia and violence against Muslims has also been on the rise. For example, the number of anti-Muslim groups in USA nearly tripled during 2016 – from 34 groups in 2015 to 101 in 2016. In a short interview with BuzzFeed News, four young Americans – Annika, Cassie, Christopher, and Reina – described why they entered Islam, the challenges they have faced since their conversion, and how Islam has changed them.
What brought them to Islam?
When asked how she was introduced to Islam, Annika says, “I worked in an environment with a lot of Muslims, and they would talk to me about Islam. So, at that point, I decided to learn about Islam from an insider’s perspective.” Once she studied Islamic teachings without any preconceived notions, she was pleasantly surprised by what she discovered. As she explains, “It was really natural and what I feel like I’ve always believed.”
Cassie, who never felt a connection with God prior to studying Islam, says, “It was amazing to find something that embodied the beliefs that I already held true.” Christopher started exploring Islam while going through a “crisis of faith”. For him too, Islam, as he puts it, “made the things that I grew up with sort of make sense.”
How did the people react?
One of the main challenges that converts to Islam face is the reaction of others to their change of faith. Many people, despite claiming to uphold freedom of choice as one of their great principles, do not take kindly to their family members leaving their own doctrines. There are also some who specifically view Islam in a very negative light – something they are perhaps taught or encouraged to despise and view as a threat.
Annika says she was confronted with “anger” when she disclosed her choice of Islam to her close ones. Christopher felt much apprehension telling his “super Christian parents” about his conversion to Islam. He describes the typical reaction to his conversion as, “So you’re a Muslim now? Like Osama?” Reina also recalls people telling him, “Oh, you’re in the wrong religion, you’re doing the wrong things.”
New Muslims also face the fear of hurting or disappointing their loved ones who are against their conversion. Cassie describes the painful experience “when you see someone with a broken heart and you think that you are causing it.” Converts like Cassie are forced to practice Islam while trying to maintain friendly terms with those around them, particularly since Islam calls for kind treatment of parents even if they are trying to lure one away from their faith.
Dealing with Misconceptions and Bias
Many people have genuine misconceptions about Islam. “Women who wear Hijab are oppressed,” Annika recalls being thus confronted. Then there are the politically biases against Muslims. Reina experienced common anti-Muslim epithets such as, “Muslims are terrorists.” There are also the racially inspired notions against Islam. “You’re black – how can you be a Muslim?” Reina was asked, even though there are hundreds of millions of black Muslims around the world.
“It’s difficult defending a whole religion on my own.” Annika says. New Muslims face the uphill task of not only practicing Islam in an often hostile environment, but also explaining their choice to others and countering the accusations about Islam. Cassie says, “You see it on YouTube, you see it on TV – people being anti-Muslim. I wanted to show people that Muslim does not equal terrorist.” Doing so, no doubt, requires great perseverance from these determined Muslims.
Trump’s ban on Muslims
Reacting to a 2017 ban on the entry of people from seven Muslim countries into the US by then-President Donald Trump, Reina says he felt hurt by the controversial measure. “How can you say, ‘This group of people can’t come here,’ just because they pray in a different way or they believe in different things?” he asks.
Annika’s family supported the Muslim ban which added to her confusion regarding the whole situation. She says, “It was really difficult when I heard about the ban. My family was happy that they were going to be stuck in that situation, and I didn’t know how to reconcile those two things.”
Christopher also felt great apprehension for how the immigrant Muslims – including his wife and her family – were now going to be treated in America. “…I look at my wife and I look at her family. I look at my beautiful niece and nephew, and I was terrified for them. And I still am.” Cassie says, “I felt like that [ban] makes no sense. We’re just as crucial to the community that is America as you are.”
Life since becoming Muslim
How has Islam changed these young Americans? Does it require them to completely alter their lifestyle? Cassie answers these questions: “People often ask me if I’ve had to change drastically just because I converted, but I don’t think so at all. If anything I’m so much more comfortable in my own skin.”
These young Americans have also had the chance to meet other Muslim converts who, according to Annika, “come from wildly different backgrounds”. Interacting with these other converts who are so different from them, yet similar in faith, opens up new horizons for them.
Reina explains how entering Islam turned his life around for the better: “Three months of me becoming a Muslim, I have a job, and in six months, I met a woman. She’s my wife.” He says regarding his conversion, “And it was like the best thing I ever did in my life.”
“I’m grateful for this day,” Christopher concludes.
You can watch the YouTube video by BuzzFeed News containing clips from these interviews here.