News on Converts/Reverts: A Filipina Finds Her Way Home
- A Filipina Finds Her Way Home
By Melissa Perez
Friday, 30 August 2013 00:00
I was born into a very traditional Catholic family that observes and practices all kinds of innovations that are not even related to the real teachings of the Bible.
All of my family, from my great grandparents to the youngest grandchildren, are all Catholic and most of my friends and neighbors were also Catholic.
We would observe all kinds of Catholic traditions and customs, such as the fiestas (celebration of saints' birthdays), Christmas, Holy Week, processions of saints, Sunday Mass, the rosary, and so on. Actually, all of these practices were a part of our life.
Although some of my family believe in one God, this "One God" is sometimes called Jesus, and at other times, the Father. This was a bit confusing for me.
In my opinion, the Catholic way of life is not really strict, although there are many clear laws found in the Bible that we should follow and practice. Despite this, I didn't feel much pressure to follow those rules because we were taught that God can forgive all sins the moment you repent sincerely to Him. This idea is similar to the teachings of Islam, but the difference is that, in Islam, everyone will be accountable and responsible for their own sins; whereas in Christianity, Jesus has already paid for everyone's sins.
I grew up knowing no other religion but Christianity. Neither my parents nor any of my family members knew anything about Islam as no one would teach us about it. We never heard anything good about it. I remember when I was young and my mother would inform us that Muslims were murderers and that when Muslims get angry, they will behead anyone around them. This is all we knew about Muslims.
In the Philippines, where I grew up, one rarely sees Muslims mingling with Christians, and Christians don't usually have Muslim neighbors or friends. Muslims and Christians do not associate with others, and that's why they have their own communities. Until now, the Muslims have been fighting with the Philippine government to allocate them a part of the country so they can have their own independent government.
If I were still living in the Philippines, I think it would be quite impossible to be interested in learning about Islam. However, I know the true message of Islam and who Muslims really are. I am glad to be Muslim, al-hamdu lillah.
At a young age I learned to be independent. I experienced many difficulties in my life. My parents were separated when I was young, and we were forced to live with our relatives in their house. Those days were among the most difficult days in my entire life. Suddenly, at that time, I felt that all of the responsibilities had been laid on my shoulders.
Although I had to face all these hardships, there was no one around with whom I could talk, so I only could call upon God for help.
At the age of 18, I started working abroad with my mother in the hope of fulfilling our dreams of owning our own house in the Philippines. With God's blessing and the help of my mother and brother, I was able to buy a house at the age of 23.
While working abroad, I was exposed to new cultures, traditions, beliefs, and different ways of life, and I made new friends. Everything was very different from the way I was brought up. I had lots of freedom while abroad, which led me to commit sins for which I ask Allah the All-Mighty God to forgive me.
The Need to Settle Down
At the age of 29 I wanted to settle down. I felt that I had done so much in my life and that it was time to start my own family. I met my husband through the Internet, and we talked together only for about two months. I then traveled to Egypt to see whether he was serious or not, and, al-hamdu lillah, we got married there.
In the beginning I was in a quandary because he was a Muslim and I was a Christian. How could I deal with such a situation? He assured me that religion and belief would not come into our relationship and that in Islam, a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Christian woman. I also wondered how I could explain to my family that suddenly I was going to get married to a Muslim man whom I had known for only two months.
Anyway, I am the kind of person that, when I want to do something, no person or thing can get in my way; I will always stand by what I want through thick and thin. At the back of my mind I have always held the belief that God is there to help and guide me, and I don't need anyone else except God to guide me to the right way.
While I was on the plane to Egypt, I asked for God's guidance to decide the affair for me about my future husband and, al-hamdu lillah, God was so kind in listening to my prayers. We got married in Egypt, and then my husband moved with me to Hong Kong. In the beginning he had a culture shock from seeing some practices of the local cultures and customs, which he had never seen while living in Egypt. In any case, I did not blame him for having these feelings because it was his first time to be away from his homeland.
Because I used to regularly attend Sunday Mass, I invited my husband to come along with me to attend the prayers, which he did not mind doing and in fact he came with me to church services.
God Decided to Guide Both of Us
One day my husband decided to renew his faith, to study Islam, and to start practicing it. Suddenly he started to observe prayers, fasting, etc. For me, it was the first chance that I had to observe the way Muslims worship God. My husband started learning and reading more about Islam. During the course of his studies, he started to preach Islam to me.
At first I was hesitant because I loved Jesus very much, but when I learned that Muslims also love Jesus, I started to learn with my husband and gain more knowledge about the teachings of Islam.
What touched me most was the Islamic prayers, especially during the prostration. I told myself that this was the right way to pray — kneeling and bowing down before God. God was worthy of being praised like this.
In my heart I wanted to try to pray in the same position, but I had not yet made my declaration of faith because, in my heart, I was still not 100 percent clear about what I was getting myself into.
While my husband and I were in the Philippines, I asked him whether it was possible to pray with him in the Islamic way without having to be a Muslim. I tried performing the Islamic prayers several times and I liked it. However, at that time, I wasn't sure if I was ready to perform the five daily prayers or adhere to other obligations, such as wearing the hijab. In addition, I didn't know very much about the Prophet Muhammad.
My husband told me, "You could learn gradually. You do not need to know everything in one day; you do not have to wear hijab until you want to know the wisdom behind it and when you are totally ready to do anything that God ordered you to do."
Many times my husband told me to declare my testimony of faith that God is one and that Muhammad is His Messenger. He told me that I had to make this decision without compulsion or force but that I also shouldn't delay because I didn't know if I would be alive tomorrow or not.
Anyway, one day we were listening to one Islamic lecture called "The Purpose of Life" by Sheikh Khalid Yasin. While I was listening, one part of the lecture caught my attention when Sheikh Yasin said, "Why can't you declare that God is one and Muhammad is His Messenger? Are you arrogant?"
After hearing those words, my heart was wide open and I decided not to be arrogant. By at the end of this tape I had declared my Shahadah. Al-hamdu lillah, I was able to say, "Ashhadu an la illaha illa Allah, wa ashhadu ana Muhammad rasulullah." A few minutes later, I declared my faith before my husband, who was my first witness after God Almighty.
Until this day, I am trying to learn about and understand Islam. There is no end to the learning process. A saying goes "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave." Every day in our lives we need to learn by reading and through experience.
Shortly after embracing Islam, I read a book entitled The Bible Led Me to Islam by Abdul Malik Le Blanc. This book inspired me and opened my mind and made me aware God is really One and Unique in His attributes and that Jesus is one of the messengers and prophets of God.
Also, I read another booklet called "The Gift of Muhammad". It was a very touching booklet that contained some of Prophet Muhammad's sayings. It introduced me for my first time to the teachings of this great Prophet. I remember one of the sayings that touched me a lot, when God says
"If you come to Me walking, I come to you running" (Al-Bukhari).
It took me some time to decide to wear hijab. It was not easy for me to dress the way the Muslims do because I had been living for about 30 years as a non-Muslim and had dressed in an immodest style. All of the people who knew me were used to seeing me in "very attractive clothes," and so I always thought of what they would say if they saw me wearing hijab. Yet I asked myself what was more important to me — people or God. The answer was God, He Who had given me more than what I asked for. I told myself that if wearing the hijab is really what pleases God, then I would do it without hesitation.
A few months after I had said my Shahadah, God continued to bestow His mercy and kindness upon me. God was merciful by allowing me to visit Makkah and to perform the Hajj. This amazing experience increased my faith in Islam, and I felt that I was really on the right track. I cannot describe how wonderful I felt when I entered, for the first time, the Sacred Mosque in Makkah and saw the Ka`bah. Tears of happiness filled my eyes as I entered into a complete state of real peace within myself and with people around me.
After Embracing Islam
After becoming a Muslim I began to be more aware of what I was doing in life. Now I feel that God is always present, watching over me in everything that I do. I have found the inner peace that I was looking for, and I know what the purpose of this life is and what lies ahead in the hereafter.
I am trying to strive to follow Allah's commandments to have a place in Jannah (Paradise), in sha' Allah. Until this day, I continue to learn about the Islamic rules and obligations, which one day, in sha' Allah, I hope I will perfectly follow.
My Family's Reaction
My mother didn't really get mad at me, al-hamdu lillah. In fact, my conversion made her think more deeply about Islam and she gave away all her images of Jesus, Mary, and the cross and decided not to worship them anymore. Although she hasn't taken her Shahadah yet, I hope one day that Allah the Almighty God will open her heart to Islam. Ameen.
Al-hamdu lillah, I've witnessed many other people who have decided to embrace Islam, especially in Hong Kong. One of our friends even took her Shahadah in our house, al-hamdu lillah.
Thank you for reading my story, and may Allah, the Almighty God always show us the right path.
How they came to choose Islam
As the holy month of Ramadan draws to a close, some Muslim converts in Pittsburgh share stories about the faith they've embraced
August 4, 2013 12:22 am
By Marina Bolotnikova / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Philip and Sherry Snow grew up Catholic in predominantly Christian towns on opposite sides of the country. Today, Philip and Sherry go by Ibrahim and Safiye, live on the North Side with their four children -- and are devout adherents to Islam.
When Sherry met Philip, a convert to Islam, online in 1996, she had been questioning her Catholic faith but had no interest in learning about his religion.
"I went through the whole gamut of stereotypes that I'd heard about Muslims," she said. But as she learned about Islam from Philip, she realized not just that her preconceptions about the religion were wrong, but also that Islam filled the gaps she perceived in Christianity.
Mr. Snow, who works as an arborist, and Ms. Snow, a graphic designer, are two of a large and diverse community of Muslim converts in Pittsburgh. This week, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan will draw to a close, calling for increased piety from Muslims around the world.
Muslims believe that God revealed the Quran to the prophet Muhammad on one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan. For many converts, successful completion of the obligation to fast during Ramadan is one of the most tangible changes in their transition to Islam.
"I officially converted when I completed Ramadan correctly," said Julie Webb, outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.
Though it is difficult to track precise rates of conversion to Islam, about 20 percent of American Muslims are converts. Converts come from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, and most report that Islam agreed with them on a deep, intuitive level.
"It didn't take me long to realize that Islam was nothing that I thought it was. As I started learning more, I realized Islam appealed more to what I already believe about God," Ms. Snow said. "Being raised Catholic, they teach about the Trinity, and the Trinity never resonated with me. It never made sense. When I found out Muslims believe God is just one, that made more sense to me."
After three years learning about Islam from Mr. Snow, reading the Quran and learning about other belief systems, Ms. Snow knew that Islam was the one that agreed with her understanding of the world.
She recited the shahada, a declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of the prophet Muhammad as his messenger, on Halloween 1999. For non-Muslims, public profession of the shahada signals one's conversion to the faith, and many take an Islamic name at the time of their conversion. Ms. Snow used the name Safiye along with her given name.
After her conversion, Ms. Snow flew from New Jersey to California to meet Mr. Snow for the first time. Within a week, they were married.
Mr. Snow, who converted to Islam six years before his wife, had been learning about the faith for more than a decade from Muslim friends and Quran study. The first time he learned about Islamic beliefs, from a Libyan friend, the religion immediately resonated with him.
"We were driving through Utah at around 1 in the morning, and when I asked him what was the dominant faith in Libya, he started talking about Islam. It was that night that my heart embraced Islam. I was so thrilled at what he was telling me. I let out a laugh of release. I laughed out of comfort and joy at what he described to me," he said.
Like his wife, Mr. Snow found in Islam answers to questions that Christianity could not provide to him. "Whenever I asked questions [about Christianity], I noticed there was an agitation, a frustration. Oftentimes they would get angry at me for posing a question. Muslims were never irritated by questions," he said.
Pittsburgh's Muslim movement
Historically, Pittsburgh has been no stranger to Islamic conversion. In the 1930s, Muslim converts established the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh, one of the first mosques in the United States to be founded by converts.
"Pittsburgh has a great history of conversion to Islam," said Patrick Bowen, who specializes in Islam in the United States at the University of Denver. "African-American Sunni mosques mushroomed in the middle of the 20th century, and Pittsburgh was the main center. The largest concentration [of Muslim converts] was in the Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio region."
The majority of American Muslim converts are African-American. Today, the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh is one of many mosques in the Pittsburgh area that serve predominantly African-American converts, said Salaah Brooks, who has served as the mosque's imam, or religious leader, since 1999. The mosque adheres to Salafism, an orthodox strain of Islam.
"I was 14 or 15 when I converted. I felt a spiritual void, and I began learning as much as I could about God. ... After speaking with Muslims, it became clear to me that that was the void I was trying to fill," Imam Brooks said.
"We believe that every person is born with an innate knowledge that Allah is their creator. Hence, his exclusive right to be worshipped alone. So converting to Islam is almost like a coming home feeling. ... It gave me a great sense of tranquility and peace and helped stabilize my life," he said.
Imam Brooks' family was supportive of his transition to Islam, due in large part to the positive effects his faith had on his life. Eventually, his mother converted, too.
"Islam is not a strange faith in the African-American community," said Imam Brooks. "A person who converts often has an uncle, a cousin, someone in their family who has converted."
"Islam has a very strong social justice message that many African-American converts are attracted to."
Other converts have chosen to attend mosques that serve primarily immigrant and non-convert communities, including the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, the largest mosque in the region.
"The international component of Muslims in Pittsburgh is unmatched," said Ms. Webb. Many larger cities have Muslim communities large enough for particular ethnic groups to form their own mosques, Ms. Webb said, but Pittsburgh is just small enough that mosques like ICP draw people from a wide spectrum of nationalities. And because Islam is one of the largest and most diverse religions in the world, integration has proven both rewarding and confusing for new converts.
"Because there are so many different cultures in Islam, there are so many beautiful rituals that come out of them, you have to be confident enough to ask the imam if it's something you really have to do. It takes time to navigate through all the different cultures. ... A convert needs to understand what it means to be involved with an international community of believers," Ms. Webb said. "You have to have an anthropological heart."
Converts have strived not just to integrate with native-born Muslims, but also to gain acceptance from friends, family and strangers.
"I noticed when I became Muslim, my friends started kind of distancing themselves from me," Ms. Snow said. "I was sad and figured if they were uncomfortable with that, they didn't really know me. When I put on the head scarf to show my devotion, other people revealed their true selves.
"When 9/11 happened, it was scary for a little while. People were reacting explosively. One time when I was driving two guys pulled over next to me and made an exploding sound in my window. I had to modify my dress so that I just wore a hoodie and it was not obvious that I was a Muslim woman on the road," she said.
"I went into an interview with one employer who at the end said, 'Will you wear that thing on your head every day?' But honestly, I don't want to work for those kinds of people. I was glad I had my scarf on. He obviously wasn't judging me on my ability," she said.
But asked whether the events of 9/11 and the prejudices of others affected their devotion, converts said emphatically that they did not. "I did not see the geopolitical concern in any way having to do with my faith. It's disturbing to all Muslims I know to hear of the acts done in the name of Islam," Ms. Webb said.
"I haven't found anything to waver my faith once I realized what Islam had," Ms. Snow said. "It's not that I'm not learning about what other people believe, but I've never found anything stronger."
"There's plenty of times I don't feel like an outstanding Muslim. I feel I probably don't worship as much as I could, am not as patient as I could be," she said. "Islam is perfect -- Muslims are not."
Marina Bolotnikova: mbolotnikova@... or on Twitter @mbolotnikova.
First Published August 4, 2013 12:00 am
A Mechanic’s Wife Put Me on The Right Track
By Heather Shaw
Thursday, 03 October 2013 00:00
I was raised in a religious Christian family where religion was intertwined with all aspects of life.
As a result, even at a very young age, I took religious matters seriously, and played a role in teaching the other children at church.
This was also facilitated by the fact that we didn't have a television at home (for reasons of principle) and thus I would spend a great deal of time reading anything I could get my hands on, religious books included.
When I was around twelve, I started having serious doubts about Christianity, and by fourteen I had reached the conclusion that it could not be the truth... although I didn't have anything else to take its place.
From that time, I began to form a philosophical framework of the components that I believed the true religion must include. Among the most important elements of this framework were that it must be the first religion known to man, it must be textually coherent (i.e. not contradictory within its own text), it must be factually correct, it must be in harmony with the logical principles that govern normal human behavior.
And, most importantly, it should call to belief in one God…
As I researched what I believed to be the oldest religions, I found many that were polytheistic, and none which met the framework I had set. Of course, at that time, I didn't even think to look into Islam due to my misconception that it is a new religion that was born after Christianity.
After some time, I began to feel hopeless that I would ever find the truth, and tried to fill the void within me with Buddhism, which intrigued me on some levels, though deep inside I knew that it wasn't what I was looking for.
Starting My In Depth Research
I spent my senior year of high school in Japan as an exchange student, and this was a pivotal experience for me. My views on many social principles, such as feminism and concept of family were greatly impacted. It was in Japan that I realized that men and women can have equal roles, yet not identical; and it was there that I experienced the deep cohesion within families and the ongoing support that they provide, which unfortunately is often lacking in the West. At the same time, the Buddhist practices that I saw there convinced me that I could no longer continue to pull the wool over my eyes, trying to content myself with something that deep inside, I knew wasn't the truth.
When I returned to the US, I happened to get into a car accident, and heard about a mechanic who could fix my car at his home inexpensively. When I took my car to him, his wife invited me to sit inside and have some tea with her. She was dressed in a long skirt with a long white scarf wrapped around her head, an image that I had only seen in National Geographic magazines. I began to ask her about her beliefs, and one by one, the answers she gave me seemed to address the core principles that I was searching for.
Before her husband was finished with my car, she had invited me to attend a weekly study circle for women that was held at her home. I attended for nearly six months before someone finally asked me if I was ready to take my shahadah. At that point, I agreed, however, it was only because I believed at that time that Islam seemed to be what I was looking for, and that I could never know for sure unless I actually committed to it and saw it from the inside.
Striving to Seek Full Knowledge
Looking back, I realized that I was missing the absolute assurance, which is a condition for faith. At that time, I neither knew that it was a requirement for faith, nor did I even realize that it was possible. For me, doubt was a rule; even the most demonstrable scientific laws could be subject to doubt, so how much more for something that required me to 'believe' in the unseen!
While I can't say that I was actually Muslim at that time, it was the beginning for me. A beginning from which I began to learn and grow... with a great number of growing pains along the way. It seemed like no sooner had I learned something, that someone else would come along and tell me the opposite... At the masjid, the Arab sisters had their circle in Arabic, and the Pakistanis in Urdu... but none took the initiative to teach anything in English... so, although I was the newest to Islam, I began to try to prepare lessons, in the course of which I learned a great deal.
Learning without a teacher to guide the student, however, is not without its perils. After several years, I had begun to study Fiqh, the sciences of the Quran, and 'Aqeedah... when I arrived at a perplexing point for me related to an issue involving all three... which, at the time, seemed to me to be an issue of contradictory texts and teachings. I consulted some sheikhs in the US, all of whom were not able to resolve the issue to my satisfaction, causing me a great deal of frustration.
While the thought did occur to me to leave Islam, instead I decided to put the issue on hold until I had better resources to research it in depth.
Nearly a year later, I woke up one morning to find all of my joints swollen and aching. My condition deteriorated, and I began having serious memory problems. After a month of tests the doctors informed me that they believed I was in the last stage of lymphoma, and that I had little time left to live. What a shock!
Later however, they changed their opinion, diagnosing me with sarcoidosis, a chronic disease that can affect a number of organs in the body. At that time I was still too sick to celebrate the new lease on life that this gave me, rather than the previous terminal diagnosis, but with time my condition gradually improved and I was able to shift my thoughts to how to live, rather than preparation for death.
As I gradually became better, I decided that I could no longer afford to put off addressing the issue that had caused me doubts regarding Islam. I decided that the only way to deal with it would be for me to learn Arabic and research for myself, rather than depending on others to translate the texts for me.
I consulted with other students who had studied in Morocco and Syria, and with people who had lived in Egypt and the Gulf, and finally I decided that Egypt would be the best for me.
Support for Muslim converts during Ramadan
By Lisa Wangsness | GLOBE STAFF JULY 20, 2013
He set out to disprove a faith, woo a girl — now he loves both
Published: May 19, 2013
By LARRY LARUE — Staff writer
When they met at a 2007 Washington camp for scholarship winners, Bashair Alazadi was 16 and wore the traditional headscarf of all Muslim women. Carlos Sandoval was 17, Catholic and a smartass.
“I grew up in Tacoma, and I’d never seen a Muslim,” said Sandoval, a graduate of Mount Tahoma High School. “To me at the time — Arab, Islam, Muslim — it was all the same.” Born in Iraq, relocated with her family to Everett at age 4, Alazadi was used to questions about Islam. Especially after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. She wasn’t all that impressed with the depth of Sandoval’s inquiry.
“He asked why I wore the scarf,” she said. “He wanted to see my hair.”
The two stayed in touch — first by email, then telephone — and went to college together at Pacific Lutheran University.
He kept asking her out. She always said no, but the two would spend hours on campus talking to each other.
“I went to Everett to meet her father,” Sandoval said. “He was open to me learning Islam. He was not happy about my interest in his daughter.”
Alazadi, on the other hand, made an impression with Sandoval’s mother. Along with Arabic and English, Alazadi spoke Spanish.
A relationship that began as a challenge, Sandoval admitted, changed his life. “Initially, I hated Islam. I tried to convince her she’d been brainwashed, that her religion was oppressive,” he said. “I bought a Quran so I could read it and stump her with questions. The more I read, the more I learned, the more I came to appreciate Islam.”
He did something more. He fell in love.
“Bashair was smarter than me, more articulate. She was more assimilated to this country than I was,” he said. “I grew up a Mexican, and there was a stigma attached to that. She grew up Muslim, and there was a stigma for her, too.”
Alazadi loved him, too, impressed by the growing depth of his inquiries and commitment to her culture.
A year and a half after their relationship began, Sandoval and Alazadi asked her father for permission to marry.
“He wasn’t happy, but he was supportive,” Alazadi said.
Sandoval had to complete a transition that had begun with him teasing her.
“I converted to Islam just before the wedding. I didn’t do it just to marry Bashair. I considered it the final step in my study of Islam,” he said. “It’s not the right path for everyone. It was the right path for me.”
They married on Aug. 29, 2009.
Last year, a group of PLU filmmakers had traveled the country putting together a documentary on how Islam is defined in America. They had questions and footage but no central hook.
“In June, we had all this info but no real main focus,” said co-producer JuliAnne Rose, a PLU senior. “A member of our team had Bashair in a class. We thought she could help us find other Muslims. We met her husband and realized we had a nugget and made it the central piece.”
The documentary that followed, “Beyond Burkas and Bombers: Anti-Muslim Sentiment in America” premiered on the Parkland campus April 11. It has been nominated for an Emmy and booked into film festivals around the country.
“Our hesitation when they first approached us was we didn’t want to represent all Muslims,” Sandoval said. “There were only a few on campus, but there are a lot in Tacoma. We were just two of them. We were willing to show them how the two of us lived.”
Alazadi graduated in December and is working as an accountant in Seattle, studying for her certified public accountant credentials. Sandoval graduates next weekend and wants to work in juvenile detention.
“If someone says something that isn’t true about Islam, I might ignore them. Carlos will take them on,” Alazadi said. “I grew up Muslim, but he knows more about it now than I do.
“My father didn’t like him when he first met him, but now he treats him like a son.”
“My parents love Bashair, too,” he said. “We’re proud of the way both our parents accepted us and our decisions.”
Part of that transition was made easier, Alazadi said, because Islam is more inclusive than many Americans know.
“There is so much misunderstanding,” she said. “Muslims believe Christians and Jews are on the path to heaven, too. It’s just a different path.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638
Not 'brainwashed': American women who converted to Islam speak out
26 Apr 2013
By JoNel Aleccia, Senior Writer, NBC News
When an American convert to Islam was revealed as the wife of the dead Boston bombing suspect, Lauren Schreiber wasn’t surprised at what came next.
Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor’s daughter, must have been coerced and controlled by her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week in a firefight with police.
“She was a very sweet woman, but I think kind of brainwashed by him,” reported the Associated Press, quoting Anne Kilzer, a Belmont, Mass., woman who said she knew Russell and her 3-year-old daughter.
That kind of assumption isn’t new to Schreiber, 26, a Greenbelt, Md., woman who became a Muslim in 2010.
“The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,” says Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress.
The Boston terror attack and the questions about whether Russell knew about her husband’s deadly plans have renewed stereotypes and misconceptions that U.S. women who have chosen that faith say they want to dispel.
“It’s not because somebody made me do this,” explains Schreiber, who converted after a college study-abroad trip to West Africa. “It’s what I choose to do and I’m happy.”
Her view is echoed by Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago. When her students, ages 5 to 8, ask why she wears a headscarf, she always says the same thing: "It's something that's important to me and it reminds me to be a good person," says Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.
Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In 2011, about 1.8 million U.S. adults were Muslim, and about 20 percent had converted to the faith, Pew researchers say. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women. About 1 in 5 converts mentioned family factors, including marrying a Muslim, as a reason for adopting the faith.
Accusations are 'harsh'
Women convert for a wide range of reasons -- spiritual, intellectual and romantic -- says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.
“Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind,” says Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.”
Women like Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., say that wearing a headscarf and other traditional Islamic garb in public often leads people to assume she sacrificed her American life to please a man.
“'You must have converted in order to marry him,' I hear it all the time,” says Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband, Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago.
She’s also heard people say that her husband is allowed to beat her, that she’s not free to get a divorce, that she and her two children, ages 4 months and 2, are subservient to the man. Such concepts are untrue, of course, she says.
“In the beginning, it did offend me a lot,” says Faraj, who grew up in a Christian family in Florida. “But now as my sense of my new self has grown, I don’t feel offended.”
She’s able to joke, for instance, about the woman who screamed insults from a passing car.
“They screamed: ‘Go back to your own country’ and I thought, ‘It doesn’t get more white than this, girl,’” says Faraj, indicating her fair features.
Like all stereotypes, such views are steeped in fear, says Haddad.
“Accusations of brainwashing are harsh,” she says. “They cover up the fact that we don’t comprehend why people like ‘us’ want to change and be like ‘them.’”
All three women say they came to Islam after much thought and spiritual searching.
Islam 'entered my heart'
Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to the religion after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary's College of Maryland in 2009.
She grew up in an agnostic family where she was encouraged to discover her own faith.
"It was, whatever you decide to do -- temple, church, mosque -- I support you finding yourself," says Schreiber. She's now married to a Muslim man, Muhammad Oda, 27, whose parents were both converts to Islam. She said came to the faith before the relationship.
Faraj, a stay-at-home mom, says she never saw herself "as a religious person, in the least," but became enthralled after trying to learn more about Islam before a visit to see her husband's family.
“The concept of Islam hit me,” Faraj recalls. “It was just something that entered my heart.”
Minor, who is single, says she was intrigued by Islam in college, when she was close friends with a deployed American Marine but had Muslim friends at school.
"I saw a huge discrepancy in the negative things I heard coming from my (friend) and the actions I could see in my co-workers," she recalls. After spending 18 months learning about Islam, she decided to convert.
The response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly supportive, Minor says.
"The more you can do to educate people about Islam, not by preaching, but by actions, the better," she says.
Reports that Katherine Russell might have been embroiled in an abusive relationship, or that her husband intimidated her aren’t an indictment of Islam, Haddad says.
"Abusive men come in all colors, nationalities, ethnicities and from all religions," she says. "No one says that Christianity teaches abuse of women because some Christian men are abusive."
Schreiber says she frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf. She says she appreciates it when people actually ask questions instead of making assumptions.
“I just want people to know that there are American Muslim women who wear hijab by choice because they believe in it and it feels right to them, not because anyone tells them to.”
April 5th, 2013
09:32 AM ET
The Gitmo guard who converted to Islam
By Jim Roope, CNN
(CNN) - Army Specialist Terry Holdbrooks was a member of the 463rd Military Police Company when he came to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2003. He was an angry, nearly atheistic 19-year-old military police guard. Nearly a year later, he left a changed man and a Muslim.
[0:18] “One of the things that kind of amazed me about Guantanamo was that the detainees could wake up each day and smile.”
Holdbrooks thought, how can these men, who have no freedom, no rights, not only tell each other jokes and keep each other’s spirits up but still believe in and pray to God?
[1:57] “Obviously there’s something more to Islam than what I’ve been told which was nothing.”
Against the rules, Holdbrooks began to have discussions with the detainees. He became particularly close to one detainee, a Moroccan man named Ahmed Errachidi. It was this relationship that started Holdbrooks' journey of religious conversion.
The joys and rigours of converting to another religion
The diversity of the GTA and its influx of immigrants make it fertile ground for religious conversions.
By: Noor Javed News reporter, Published on Sun Mar 31 2013
Monika Pakos found God while driving through Mississauga.
It wasn’t quite how the 22-year-old imagined such a life-changing moment would take place.
She had been researching religion, and specifically Islam, for two years after a university class on world religions sparked an interest. And, lately, thoughts of conversion had crossed her mind.
But Pakos, who grew up in a Polish Catholic household, wasn’t quite sure what she had to do to take the final leap of faith. So, as she drove to her job at a restaurant last November, she called up a local Islamic centre.
The woman on the line told her it was easy: just have belief in your heart and then recite the Islamic creed in the presence of a witness. It was so easy, in fact, that she could do it right then.
“Right now?” asked Pakos as she tried to remain focused on the road.
“All you have to do is repeat it after me,” the woman replied.
Pakos paused briefly, and then began to repeat the words: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger.”
Seconds later, even before she parked, it was over. She was officially a Muslim.
“Once it happened, I felt so relieved,” says Pakos. “It happened so suddenly . . . but it felt right.”
Over the past few decades, the GTA has become fertile ground for religious converts. It’s estimated that every year, thousands of people across the city leave the faith they were born into — or the absence of faith — and are “reborn” into a new one.
The diversity of the city encourages inter-religious marriages and exposure to a variety of faiths, the two most common reasons for taking the plunge. And mass immigration from around the world — including officially secular countries such as China — has also given organized religion a whole new audience to preach to.
Statistics show religion is fading fast from the public sphere, which makes converts all the more remarkable, even anomalous. According to Statistics Canada, 25 per cent of Canadians — up from 1 per cent in 1961 — say religion has no role in their lives. And 17.5 per cent say they have no religion — up from 12 per cent a decade earlier.
Committing to a new religion is a life-changing decision, one converts often struggle with. And once they’ve switched, they have a greater burden to bear: many people see them as saviours.
“Converts are often accepted within the communities they join because they validate that community’s claim to have a particular and perhaps privileged approach to truth,” says Nicholas Terpstra, a history professor at the University of Toronto who has extensively studied religious conversions. “That said, converts can challenge communities and be resented for it, because they don’t know or accept the many small compromises with which communities negotiate that gap between what their scriptures proclaim or require and what believers actually live in the day to day.”
Growing up in Angola, Eduardo Brito was the only kid on his street who hadn’t been baptized. His father was an atheist.
Q&A with Eduardo Brito
After the birth of his sons in Toronto, Brito, a project manager with retailer H&M, decided to revisit the Catholicism that surrounded him in his youth. “I didn’t want my kids to go through the confusion I felt as a child.”
Last Easter, after spending a year in the conversion process, known as the rites of Christian initiation of adults, Brito was accepted into the Catholic Church — through the rituals of baptism, confirmation and communion. His wife was confirmed and welcomed into the church on the same day.
Converts in pluralistic countries such as Canada and the U.S are among the lucky ones, free to choose or leave a religion as they please. A Pew Forum Poll from 2007 found that half of Americans said their faith was different from the one they were raised with: those who had grown up with religion had left it altogether or adopted a new faith, while those who grew up with no faith had since joined one.
But elsewhere in the world, conversion is seen as more a political than spiritual move. In some countries, conversions are strictly controlled by law and in extreme cases, can be punishable by death.
Malaysia, for example, has laws that espouse religious freedom, but the constitution gives the government power to restrict Muslims from converting to another religion — although members of other religions can convert to Islam. In India, some states with predominantly Hindu populations have introduced laws requiring those intending to change religions to tell the district magistrate at least 30 days in advance. Failure to do so can lead to a police investigation, prosecution and sanctions.
In Canada, the challenges of converting are much more subtle. Some converts struggle with winning approval from family and friends, or with fielding their scorn.
“Of course, nobody will call you crazy, but you feel like people are thinking, ‘You are going to a lot of trouble . . . and for what?’ ” says Brito, who adds that even his sister tells him he’s “changed” since he became Catholic.
The process of conversion is often unintentional. Some who adopt a new religion say they weren’t looking for one and then, all of a sudden, they stumbled upon a feeling or a philosophy that called to them. Years of study can come to a head in a single moment, seemingly inspired by the heavens above.
The night before she converted to Islam, Nichole Hosein had a dream. The 27-year-old French teacher had been grappling with the decision to convert since her days at the University of Waterloo, but she feared her Christian parents’ strong disapproval. One night five years ago, she knelt down and asked God if she was doing the right thing. Then she dreamt that an angel in the form of a towering light, in which she could see the form of a person, stood next to her bed and told her she was making the right choice.
Sometimes, exposure to people or a community is enough to convince someone to convert. But, most often, the impetus is romantic love.
“Love is a very powerful force,” says Imam Hamid Slimi, the chair of the Canadian Council of Imams, who has performed conversions in the past. Slimi estimates that in the Muslim community, 80 per cent of women who convert do so for marriage, and 90 per cent of men. “For some people, it’s not finding solace or spirituality, or finding God. It’s because you love someone very much, and are willing to do anything for them, including changing your religion.”
In 2001, nearly 20 per cent of people married someone outside their faith, according to Statistics Canada, up from 15 per cent two decades ago. Of that 20 per cent, Jews and Christians were the most likely to be in inter-religious unions. In 2001, 17 per cent of marriages involving a Jew were inter-religious, compared with 9 per cent in 1981. More than half of inter-religious unions in Canada were between a Catholic and Protestant.
But these are not simply conversions of convenience, religious leaders stress. In Judaism, for example, serious discussion is mandatory before one can even enter into the conversion process, says Rabbi Adam Cutler of Toronto’s Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation.
“For the majority, the impetus or final push is because of a Jewish partner,” he says. “But we are very clear at the beginning, and we check at the end, that this can’t be the sole reason for conversion. It’s a pretty major commitment, and a life-changing experience. If it’s not what you want, that becomes pretty evident.”
The lengthy conversion process for all three movements includes a year or more of study, acceptance from the three-person tribunal called the Beit Din , a cleansing bath called a mikvah and, in the case of males in Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, ritual circumcision.
Traditionally, those two movements movements have played a little hard-to-get, turning potential candidates away as many as three times before accepting their intention to become Jews.
“There is some push-back — we really make sure they are serious and sincere,” says Cutler, adding that Jews don’t actively proselytize, as Christians and Muslims do. Despite this, around 150 people in the GTA convert to the Jewish faith each year. The Reform and Conservative movements accept 50-60 each, while the Orthodox community accepts between 30 and 35 people a year.
But it is one thing to convert and another to live life as a convert. Once the spiritual high wears off, reality sets in.
In the majority of cases, the convert is seen as a boon to the community. Gregory Beath, who works in the Office of Formation for Discipleship with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, says that while the number of converts is relatively small compared to the overall word Catholic population, their presence is vital to the church. In 2011, more than 2,000 people over the age of 7 became Catholic in the GTA — up more than 20 per cent from the year before.
“The faith of the whole community is . . . deepened,” he says.
Rabbi Cutler says that in his synagogue, about half the active, involved members are converts.
But does the fervour of converts make up for the thousands who leave organized religions each year?
That’s difficult to assess, faith leaders say. The number of Catholics has been rising modestly, at 1 to 2 per cent a year, for the past decade in the GTA, but primarily because of immigration and birth rates, not conversions.
The same goes for Islam. Slimi estimates that the average mosque will conduct around 10 conversions a year. Due to the often private nature of Islamic conversions, there is no official record of how many take place every year. In England, where the Muslim population is around 2.7 million, more than three times that of Muslims in Canada, a recent study found 5,000 people convert to Islam every year.
“There is this perception that there are so many conversions happening in the GTA, but that is simply not true,” says Slimi.
And he feels there is a more pressing challenge to deal with: retaining the converts who have made it so far.
Tabatha Cunningham, 37, an entrepreneur who converted to Islam 17 years ago, says she has had periods in her life when she simply refers to herself as a woman of faith and no longer a Muslim.
“Sometimes people get so absorbed in becoming an ideal Muslim that they almost forget what it’s like to be an ideal responsible citizen,” says Cunningham, who was raised in a conservative Christian family. She is writing a book about her experience, which has included two bad marriages and a lack of social support from the broader community. “It can be a real messy world for a new convert without proper guidance.”
As a result, many Muslim converts she knows have left the faith altogether. “They become so disillusioned that they simply stop practising,” said Cunningham, who married soon after she joined the faith.
For some converts, the challenge is integrating into the community.
Chloe Korenblum was an atheist who converted to Judaism two years ago after meeting her husband, a Conservative Jew. Even before then, says the now-25-year-old, she felt she had a “Jewish soul.” But despite her devotion to the faith, the reaction from the Jewish community has been mixed.
Chloe Korenblum Q&A
She says Orthodox and Reform Jews don’t consider her to be fully Jewish.
“But it’s confusing, because it’s a very big sin to not be welcoming and kind to a convert. People get around it by saying that she did a conversion that is lesser than our beliefs, so we don’t have to follow that rule.” She adds that people within her own extended family have told her she “isn’t really Jewish.”
Korenblum says it’s a frustrating fact of life for the Jewish convert, but not enough to dissuade her from her faith. “It makes me want to be a better person, overall. And it’s not like you can go back: once you’re Jewish, you are Jewish.”
Six months later, Pakos is getting accustomed to life as a convert. Soon after she told her parents, they kicked her out of the house. She says she has found some support through an introductory class on Islam for new Muslims, but still has moments of doubt.
“The hardest thing has been my relationship with my mother,” she says. “Money problems, living alone I can live with. But I know my mother is really unhappy, and I just don’t if that is something I can live with.”
Could the family strife change her mind?
“I feel like I have made the right choice,” she says, adding that imams and sheiks have told her 90 per cent of converts face family resistance. “It will take time, but I feel like God is with me.”
Chloe Korenblum, 25
Plans to enter social work
Now: Conservative Jew
Throughout her life, Chloe Korenblum (née Noel) felt she had a “Jewish soul.” Although her parents were atheists, she grew up with Jewish friends in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood and was exposed to the culture. After she went on a trip to Israel, she started to feel a “strong connection” to the faith.
“I thought to myself, why am I not a part of this?” she says.
While living in Paris, she started going through the conversion process with the Reform movement. But when she came to Toronto, she met her husband, Henry, a Conservative Jew, who encouraged her to take on his faith.
“He said if I was a Reform Jew, some people in the Conservative moment would not accept the Reform one in the same way,” says Korenblum, who converted in 2010.
The Jewish conversion process is complicated and can take a year — if not longer. The basic rituals are similar for the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism, but fundamentals of the belief can differ significantly.
Rabbi Adam Cutler of Toronto’s Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation says all candidates need a sponsoring rabbi, who meets with them a few times a year to monitor their progress. They are enrolled in an introductory course on Judaism, in which students learn Hebrew and about Jewish culture and the high holidays.
“After about a year, if I see they are attending the class and fulfill all the requirements in terms of keeping kosher, practising Sabbath, and attending synagogue, I will make a recommendation of them to the rabbinical court, the Beit Din ,” says Cutler, who is currently sponsoring 11 candidates.
The candidate then stands in front of the three-member Beit Din for an interview that takes approximately 20 minutes. “By this point, I serve as a gatekeeper,” says Cutler. “I am not going to recommend someone who I don’t think will pass.”
In the Conservative and Orthodox denominations, and in some Reform congregations, men who have not been circumcised must undergo a medical circumcision in the hospital. For men who are circumcised, there is a symbolic taking of blood from the same area.
Then both men and women take a ritual bath, called a mikvah , which ends the official conversion process.
Korenblum says that was the most meaningful experience for her.
“You can’t wear anything. No nail polish, no jewelry, no makeup, nothing.” She says that during the process, you enter into a pool and dunk your head three times while prayers are being recited, and then recite some words in Hebrew.
“You are cleansing your past life and starting fresh as this new person. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Far-right Dutch Politician Finds Islam
OnIslam & News Agencies
Tuesday, 05 March 2013 00:00
AMSTERDAM – A leading member in far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ party has reverted to Islam after an extensive study about the Islamic religion and Muslims.
“I can understand people are skeptic, especially that it is unexpected for many of them,” Arnoud Van Doorn told Al-Jazeera English satellite channel.
“This is a very big decision, which I have not taken lightly.”
The news about Doorn’s reversion first came to the surface last month when he tweeted “new beginning”.
He later posted a tweet in Arabic pronouncing the Shahadah (proclamation of faith).
The politician later announced that he reverted to Islam, giving no more information about the reasons behind the decision.
“In my own close circle people have known that I have been actively researching the Qur’an, Hadith, Sunnah and other writings for almost a year now,” he said.
“In addition, I have had numerous conversations with Muslims about the religion.”
Driven by his party’s anti-Islam discourse, Doorn decided to dig in for the truth about the religion himself.
“I have heard so many negative stories about Islam, but I am not a person who follows opinions of others without doing my own research,” he said.
“Therefore, I have actually started to deepen my knowledge of the Islam out of curiosity.
“My colleague Aboe Khoulani from the City Council in The Hague has brought me further into contact with the as-Soennah mosque, which has guided me even further.”
A member of the Dutch parliament and The Hague city council, Doorn’s name has long been associated with Wilders’ anti-Islam, far-right PVV party.
Wilders himself is known for his rants against Islam, Muslims and the Noble Qur’an.
Doorn’s decision to embrace Islam has won mixed reactions in the Netherlands.
“According to some people I am a traitor, but according to most others I have actually made a very good decision,” he told Aljazeera.
“The reactions are generally positive and I also received quite some support via twitter.
“It feels good that people who do not know me personally have understanding of my situation and support me in my choice.”
For the Dutch politician, finding Islam was finally guiding him to the true path in his life.
“I have made mistakes in life as many others. From these mistakes I have learned a lot,” Doorn said.
“And by my conversion to Islam I have the feeling that I finally found my path.
“I realize that this is a new start and that I still have much to learn as well.”
Departing from his earlier life as a PVV member, Doorn expects much resistance in his political life.
“The expectation is that I will continue to face much resistance, also from certain government institutions,” he said.
“I have all faith in Allah to support me and to guide me through these moments.”
Why Did Katia from Russia Revert to Islam?
Interview With Sister Katia on How She Found Islam
By Reading Islam Staff
Saturday, 16 February 2013 00:00
Q: May I know what’s your name?
Sister Katia: My name is Katia, and my Muslim name now is Aisha.
Q: Ma-Shaa-Allah. I want to ask you Aisha, what were you before you became Muslim?
Sister Katia: I was a Russian Orthodox, I was Christian.
Q: So you are actually from Russia. Were you born there?
Sister Katia: Yes, I was born in Russia, then I came here, so I’ve been here for over 12 years.
Q: How long have you been a Muslim?
Sister Katia: About a year and a half.
Q: What kind of person were you before Islam? Were you a religious Christian, or just an agnostic Christian?
Sister Katia: I think I would have been more religious if my family were. My family was not really that religious, so when I came I was looking for this. Part of me was constantly looking for something to belong to. You know?
And I tried different branches of Christianity, a lot of my friends were Pentecostal, Catholic, so I would try to kind of fit-in, I would try to go to church mass, and I really enjoyed some of them. I’m not trying like to say something bad about people, as this is everywhere, but I did find a lot of hypocorism. There a lot of people who put on this face inside the building, and as soon as they are out of it completely different people, completely different personalities. So that kind really pushed me away from a lot of religious groups.
In different religions except Islam, there are a lot of things that don’t fill up this gap, and there are a lot of questions that are left unanswered.
Q: What was the key for you to become a Muslim? Had you seen a Muslim before in Russia? What really made you think about Islam as a religion?
Don't Judge Islam by Muslims
Sister Katia: Mainly I’ve seen Muslims in Russia, but I never saw hijab, like the hijab I’m wearing. I’ve never seen a woman cover, so perhaps I never saw a Muslim who was covered who was obvious to the eye.
But I had a friend, her name is Salaly, in high school, and she was the only girl that I ever seen who was covered. And to be honest to you, I was never thinking I respect her religion or I’m proud of her because she’s got this faith. Actually it was the other way round, I actually thought it was strange. I thought OK, good for her, whatever makes her happy go for it, but it was rather interesting.
And I’ve had some Muslim friends, but they were not as religious, and the best thing I learned when I began to research about Islam someone said to me “Don't judge Islam by Muslims, because Islam is one – there is one pure thing – but Muslims are so many and different in race, culture and everybody practices Islam in their own completely different way.
But I don’t care, everyone has their own traditions. And that’s what I think a lot of times makes people really surprised because they see for example me, the way I dress, they don’t realize sometimes that I am Muslim, they ask me if I’m Jewish, because they expect Muslim women to have the face veil, and all black, and not even be outside, and this is strange because how different people cultures in their home country does not necessarily mean that is what Islam is all about.
And so the biggest thing I think turning to it is a cultural gap, and also what happened in 9/11 along with all the rest of my classmates, my high school …, because this time when I was at high school everybody started pointing fingers and everybody started spreading these rumors, and automatically believing that this one particular group is the one to blame for every problem in the world, especially 9/11.
And just like my peers, and I see that not just in 9/11 but every day, everybody, especially I feel like being here and standing in the outside I see that people here sometimes give up on thinking for themselves, and tend to rely on what their other peers or family or media tells them to believe and think. And so just like everybody else I was in this frame of thinking “they hate us, we should hate them back, we should do something about it, …” and it did really make me I guess upset enough to look into it, and Al-Hamdulel-Allah I think things do happen for a reason. I’m not saying that such a horrible thing happened for me, but …
Q: You are not the only one who became Muslim because of 9/11, there was actually a lot of people who turned around and started to know and to question Islam, so this is not abnormal for you to question Islam after 9/11
Sister Katia: Yes, but because like I said I had some friends in high school who are Muslims and who are people I would never even think of do such thing, and here are a group of people pointing fingers at Muslims and I was like OK I want to be one of those people who points, but I want to know why I’m pointing, I want to know why I’m blaming these Muslims.
And I did, I began to read a lot, I began to look into it, and I began to question a lot of people, but it was not “In Islam do you teach people to blow up themselves?”, and this is the most ridiculous question people sometimes joke with me about. It’s that which make me truly look into Islam. I doesn’t have to be this scholarly study of Islam, you don’t have to go and attend classes, all you need is the five-page booklet that teaches you why you should wear hijab, you know pure modesty, and this kind of stuff in little steps.
Q: Some people say oh you become a Muslim because you love a man, because of a boyfriend, did that apply in your life?
Sister Katia: No. Almost every single person, even the friends I have right now, the Muslim ladies I have right now, that was the first thing:
- “Oh Ma-Shaa-Allah, thank God sister you became Muslim. Who is he?”
- “Who is who?”
- “Who is the man, the man who brought you?”
And everyone thought it is some kind of boyfriend relationship, fiancé, … and I say no. And the friends I have now everybody is kind of surprised and say:
“Oh, really? There is nobody? No marriage? Nothing involved?"
And I was like no. Sometimes it takes a person, you know you have nothing to do finding out. So it was really my finding Islam, not any kind of friends...