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8258Converts/Reverts: More Americans converting to Islam

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  • Zafar Khan
    Sep 16, 2007
      More 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
      Newark cafe.

      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
      his mind.

      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
      think tank.

      "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
      Students Association.

      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
      Sunday school.

      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
      understand something."

      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
      from it."

      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
      law school.

      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
      Happy Ramadan.

      He keeps his cell phone handy, waiting for sister and
      father to do the same. He knows they will.

      More on Converts at:

      Islam the fastest gorwing religion at: