8258Converts/Reverts: More Americans converting to Islam
- Sep 16, 2007More Americans converting to Islam
Young people find stereotypes a challenge
By SUMMER HARLOW, The News Journal
Posted Sunday, September 9, 2007
Drew Marshall could have been any of the dozen or so
university students studying and sipping coffee at a
About 6 feet tall, with a close beard and a light blue
shirt, not much about him stands out.
Until he offers an Arabic greeting.
Marshall, or Ahmad, as the 23-year-old white American
from Hockessin now calls himself, converted to Islam
two years ago.
Wearing a dress shirt and slacks, carrying his school
bag like a briefcase, Marshall looks more like a
member of the faculty than a college senior.
People show him more respect when he dresses this way,
he says. Changing his appearance along with his name
was just another way to distance himself from his old
A senior majoring in international relations with a
minor in Islamic studies, Marshall quotes hadiths and
verses from the Quran, seamlessly switching between
English and Arabic. Arabic is like a mathematical
formula, he says, so it's not hard to learn.
Six years ago, as a senior in high school sitting in
the cafeteria during his free period on the morning of
Sept. 11, 2001, learning Arabic was the last thing on
Like most everyone in America, Marshall remembers
watching the Twin Towers collapse, recalls the fear,
confusion and anger.
"I remember after 9/11 saying it was going to be World
War III, and let's go get Bin Laden," he said. "I was
on the bandwagon of revenge, definitely. We all blamed
it on Muslim terrorists -- that's the default
That act of terror put thousands of Americans on the
path to Islam.
"People want to know more about what they didn't know
about before, and 9/11 piqued that. So as a result,
people are becoming more aware, and perhaps getting to
the point they realize there's something in Islam for
them," said Ismat Shah, University of Delaware
associate professor of physics and material science,
and adviser to the Muslim Students Association.
Despite or perhaps because of Sept. 11, conversions to
Islam have increased, making it the fastest-growing
religion in the world, said Muqtedar Khan, associate
professor of political science and international
relations at the University of Delaware. About 23
percent of American Muslims are converts, about half
of which turned to Islam before age 21, according to a
May report from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan
"There's a curiosity about Islam today," Khan said.
"Islam has become the major thing everyone in the
world is talking about."
According to the Pew report, there are an estimated
2.35 million American Muslims, about 35 percent of
whom were born in the United States. About 850,000 are
under age 18.
But there are certain challenges American Muslims,
especially new converts, must face, said Ibrahim
Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based civil
rights and advocacy group Council on American-Islamic
It's fairly common for them to be accused of betraying
their race or background, or rejecting their friends
or family, when they accept Islam, said Hooper, also a
Ray Duran, a junior at the University of Delaware,
converted after the Sept. 11 attacks and has faced
questions of whether he's going to become an
But as a child of Mexican immigrants, he said, he's
learned to deal with racist and ignorant comments.
He's used to stereotypical comments about Mexican
dishwashers and undocumented immigrants, and that, he
said, helps him take anti-Muslim rhetoric in stride.
"I know people say malicious things, and they always
make assumptions," he said.
Faced with such challenges, it's crucial for new
Muslims to find educational and social support within
the Muslim community, he said.
In the last six years, it has become increasingly
difficult to be a Muslim in the United States, said
members of the University of Delaware's Muslim
They're not imagining things. The Pew study found that
more than half of American Muslims said intolerance
and discrimination had gotten worse, and roughly four
in 10 under the age of 30 said they had been taunted,
threatened or attacked in the last year.
In 2005, a Delaware Muslim mother of three schoolgirls
filed a federal lawsuit against the Cape Henlopen
School District, accusing a teacher at Shields
Elementary School in Lewes of equating Muslims with
terrorists, and claiming school officials didn't stop
ridicule by other students.
'People do judge'
When Amani Alkotf went off to college, her father
worried that she would be treated negatively if she
wore a veil.
"People do judge," Alkotf, an 18-year-old senior at
UD, said. "They assume if we wear a scarf, we're
Surrounded by mostly white peers in Khan's Islam and
Global Affairs class, she was the only one wearing a
head scarf. She decided against the veil.
Knowing the looks she gets when she stops in campus
bathrooms to wash her hands, face and feet before
praying, Alkotf said she's surprised so many white
Americans are turning to Islam.
"Everything you hear about Islam is negative," she
Marjorie Belez, a UD freshman from Smyrna, said she
knows many people associate Muslims with terrorists,
but she's never witnessed any discrimination.
"Not everyone agrees with everyone else, but for the
most part, people are respectful," she said. "I don't
think, 'Oh, they're Muslim, I better stay away.' "
For Marshall, terrorism and stereotypes didn't cross
his mind when he first was attracted to Islam, he
Marshall said he led a life typical of youth, all
about partying and disregarding his parents, he said.
Now, as a Muslim, he won't elaborate on what a "party,
party, party" lifestyle entailed -- Muslims shouldn't
talk about their sins in public, he said.
"I was very individualistic," he said.
He grew up in Hockessin, raised in an all-American
nuclear family, with a younger sister, a dog and a
small boat for weekend outings. They went to church at
Limestone Presbyterian Church, where his mom taught
But Marshall felt something about his life wasn't
"I felt like I was being someone I wasn't," he said.
"I became disgruntled."
He didn't like the ugly way students at his high
school treated one another. He didn't like the
fighting, the way people took advantage of each other,
the materialism, the competition to be "cool."
It wasn't until his sophomore year in college that he
found a solution.
Out of curiosity, he enrolled in a class on Islamic
art. He wasn't planning on converting; he just was
intrigued by the Quran, poetry, anything
"The biggest thing, for me, was to hear the call to
prayer," he said. "It was in a different language,
just the pure beauty of it drew me in."
He began reading the Quran. The more he learned, the
more he wanted to know.
His mother, Sally Marshall, said she thinks the
gentleness of Islam, and the kindness and respect he
received at the mosque, appealed to him.
"He liked the Muslim students because they were
genuine, not pretentious, and didn't need beer pong to
have fun," she said. "They didn't get rowdy and beat
each other up. Islam teaches respect and consideration
of parents, especially mothers. Islam has helped him
to grow into a young man I am proud of."
'I don't really miss my old life'
Duran, a child of Mexican immigrants, grew up Roman
Catholic in Scranton, Pa. His friends and family have
questioned his decision to convert, but they
understand that who he is hasn't changed, he said.
"They love that I'm involved in religion, but they
don't understand Islam," he said.
In his black socks and Nike sandals, khaki shorts and
UD cap, Duran doesn't look any different from the
thousands of other students on campus.
Because of that, he said, people don't automatically
fear or ridicule him.
Still, he said, he sometimes feels awkward when he has
to pray on campus as other students look at him
strangely, not understanding what he's doing.
A resident adviser for a UD dorm, Duran said he hadn't
yet told the students on his floor that he's Muslim --
he wanted them to know him as an individual first.
Because he lives on a mostly white floor, Duran was
worried they would be confused, at the least.
"It will be interesting to see how they react," he
said. "It always creates tension when people don't
Marshall said he's heard people ask why he "went over
to the other side."
"They're joking about it, but just because they're
afraid to actually say it," he said.
He does worry about people's reactions to his being
Muslim. He exudes confidence, he said, and some day he
wouldn't be surprised if "some redneck next to me just
pops me one."
And when he travels now, he's paranoid, he said.
"I always feel people are looking at me," he said.
Sania Mirza, 20, president of the Muslim Students
Association, said that since Sept. 11, she feels she
constantly must prove she's American, take that extra
step to show being Muslim does not equate with
"It's frustrating, and it's not fair," she said. "And
really, how do you prove you're more American? It's
not like I'm wearing a scarf, but I don't wear
revealing clothing or listen to vulgar music or drink.
I don't think that's what makes you American. Justice,
equality, freedom of speech -- that's what's
Marshall and Duran say that while they miss aspects of
their old lives, it's not like becoming Muslim made
them any less American than their peers.
Duran still plays basketball, he's still involved in
campus organizations, but now, he said, he devotes
more time to prayer, to God.
And while Marshall said he occasionally longs for a
cold beer on a hot day, water refreshes him just the
"I make these sacrifices because I want to serve my
God," he said. "I don't really miss my old life
because I carried with me everything that was good
Contact Summer Harlow at 324-2794 or
Convert finds true home in Islam
'I finally found a house where I can place all my
morals, my ideals'
September 14, 2007
BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Editorial Board Writer
Aaron Siebert-Llera would wake up wearing the Star of
David one day and a cross the next.
But the religion he eventually chose was neither his
father's Jewish faith nor his Mexican-American
mother's Roman Catholicism.
But the religion he eventually chose was neither his
father's Jewish faith nor his Mexican-American
mother's Roman Catholicism.
He chose Islam.
"I felt like I finally found a house where I can place
all my morals, my ideals, the way I was living," says
Siebert-Llera, who was a wallflower at nightclubs and
shunned alcohol, which is prohibited by Islam, even
when working the front door at a blues club while in
college at San Francisco State University.
Siebert-Llera lost most of his friends when he
converted three years ago.
His parents, who divorced when he was 7, thought it
was a phase. They feared that their son, a die-hard
Green Bay Packers fan who grew up in Madison, Wis.,
and California, would abandon his sense of humor and
stop voting for Democrats and Green Party candidates.
Siebert-Llera's father, Jack, who teaches English as a
second language, was particularly concerned.
Jack Siebert served on a scholarship committee with
the father of John Walker Lindh, the infamous
"American Taliban" captured in Afghanistan shortly
after Sept. 11, and he worried that his youngest child
might go the same route.
"Right away, I'm like, 'Papa, I'm not becoming Taliban
and going to Afghanistan. I'm not becoming a
right-wing nut who's going to be moving halfway across
the world. . . . I'm not changing who I am," says
Siebert-Llera, 31, a student at Loyola University's
Growing up, Siebert-Llera's knowledge about Islam was
limited to what he saw on television and in the
movies. Islam wasn't even a religion he seriously
thought about when he first began a spiritual quest,
searching for something "internally."
Then Sept. 11 happened.
Siebert-Llera knew enough to differentiate between the
Islamic extremists who hijacked the planes and the
majority of practicing Muslims. Still, he was curious
about the Quran. He bought a copy but just skimmed
through the pages, not really finding the passages
that some said advocated terrorism.
Two years later in Chicago, he met a young
Mexican-American woman at Loyola, where he had been
pursuing his graduate studies before transferring to
One day, she walked into class with a hijab, or head
scarf, and a jilbab, a long robe-like coat worn by
many in the Middle East. She had converted to Islam.
"I definitely saw a change in her as far as comfort
and general level of happiness. She was at ease with
her life," says Siebert-Llera, of Orland Park.
A few weeks later, Siebert-Llera accompanied his
friend to the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview.
He asked questions and was impressed with what he
learned about the charitable requirement of giving
away 2.5 percent of your annual salary, daily prayers,
pilgrimages to Mecca. Islam isn't just about going to
services; it's an all-encompassing primer on the kind
of disciplined life Siebert-Llera craved.
What he likes most about his adopted religion is that
it has no hierarchy and many schools of thought
ranging from the ultra-conservative to liberal.
Siebert-Llera called his parents and older sister,
Andrea, on Oct. 6, 2004. He converted the next day.
He grew a beard, based on the Sunnah or actions of the
Prophet Muhammad. He started fasting during Ramadan
and praying the five daily prayers. A year after
converting, he met Huda, a fellow law student,
Syrian-American and devout Muslim woman, and they
married in 2005.
Siebert-Llera believes his family has accepted his
commitment to Islam. Early Thursday evening, just
before he was going to break his first fast of the
year, Siebert-Llera's mother called him to wish him a
He keeps his cell phone handy, waiting for sister and
father to do the same. He knows they will.
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