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Jeremy Greenberg

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The Observations of a Jew Who Converted to Islam

Posted: 11/18/11 02:01 PM ET

Have you ever wondered exactly what it is to be an American Muslim? Are they human? How exactly to do they plan on killing us all and turning the United States into a Muslim nation ruled by a galactic caliphate? And how have they learned to pretend to enjoy living here in the United States even though we all know they consider this country to be the great Satan?

Hello. My name is Jeremy Greenberg, and I am here to help you better understand the truth about American Muslims. Although my opening questions are clearly sarcastic, I, like many Americans was largely ignorant about what it's like to be Muslim in America. That is, until last March when this Jew walked into a mosque in Louisville, Kentucky, a city in which I was performing for the week, and converted to Islam. I am now alternatively known as Assad Ibrahim, or "Lion of Abraham."

Why did I convert? Simple. I wanted to better understand the life of Muslims in America, and what their growing presence means for the rest of us. I didn't trust how politicians and the media were playing the issue, and I didn't want any second-hand information. The only way I truly felt I could know American Muslims was to become one.

Oddly enough, converting to Islam is one of the most Jewish things I've ever done. We clearly have an Islamophobia problem in this country. Mosques across this nation are repeatedly being vandalized, and women wearing traditional Muslim clothing are being thrown off of airplanes for no good reason. The craziest part is that most of us don't care. But Jews should care a lot! The last time a western nation was complicit in the demonization of an entire group of people was during the Nazi regime in Germany. Every person who values freedom and tolerance should be doing their best to make sure Muslims are not unfairly demonized. I know some of my Jewish brethren will see my conversion as traitorous. But the truth is, my becoming a Muslim so as to better understand and explain them to those who will listen is actually a mitzvah, or blessing. I'm no more of a traitor than Oskar Schindler. And if your immediate feeling upon learning that I became a Muslim is repulsion, then you are for whom I'm writing this the most.

Because I travel across the country performing stand-up comedy, I was afforded the opportunity to pray in many different mosques. I knelt in rich Pakistani mosques as ornate as anything the pontiff would poke his head out of, as well as humble converted track homes in which African and Arab cab drivers would pop in and pray to Allah that the day would be blessed with fares enough to feed their families. I didn't agree with everything I saw. But much of what I witnessed reassured my hypothesis that Muslim-Americans are here for the same reason we are: to raise their families in peace, to get rich, to forget the past, start punk bands, learn to skateboard, and most importantly, to overeat. Allow me to share some of what I saw:

First, let's talk about prayer. Very few Muslims actually pray five times per day outside of the month of Ramadan. They're supposed to, but most just aren't that extreme. They know they should, just the way Christians know they should go to church every Sunday. Maybe in other countries there is a higher percentage of people praying five times per day. But in America Muslims pray far less, I suspect because they actually have real hope. And here's something that's interesting: Muhammad originally thought Muslims should pray 50 times per day, but in a dream Moses convinced him that 5 daily prayers was sufficient. I believe Moses' exact quote was, "50, why kill yourself, Muhammad? 5. 5 is plenty. Who has what to pray 50 times per day?"

Secondly, Muslims are as diverse as any group. I attended the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Long Beach, California. It was a three day event meant to foster discussion about what it is to be Muslim in America. Some of the speakers were American converts, some were raised Muslim, others were straight out of the Middle East with heavy accents. Some dressed in western clothes, and others sported the thobe, which is the traditional white uni-gown. However, during the lunch break is when the diversity in the Muslim community became most apparent. A quick trip into the bathroom revealed a line of men washing their feet in the sinks as part of their ritual prayer ablutions. (Fortunately, I happened to have a bottle of hand sanitizer.) At the very same time some Muslims were cleansing themselves for prayer, others chattily skipped out of the auditorium, checking their iPhones, and discussing where to go to lunch. The California Pizza kitchen across the street from the convention center was filled to the brim with Muslim attendees. Some of the women were wearing the hijab, while others dressed completely western with hair that would make Sandra Bullock proud. There were old, Arab-looking women whose primary concern during lunch was not that she must bow before Allah, but that the server would add just enough fresh cracked ground pepper to her California Cobb Salad (hold the bacon). They added Splenda to their iced teas, and chatted with family and friends in between firing off text messages.

Next, let's discuss anti-Semitism. One of my big fears was that I'd hear something anti-Semitic in one of the mosques, not be able to control myself, and stand up and yell, "I'm Jewish, assholes!!!" (and also a Muslim, of course. It's very complicated). But in all of the Friday Jumma prayers I attended, and all of the Ramadan services, and in every mosque in which I prayed, not a single word was uttered about Israel or Jews. I'm sure there are anti-Semitic feelings among those in the mosques. Why wouldn't there be? There's anti-Islamic sentiment among the Jewish population. But what was reassuring is that the mosques were places of peace. Even though I converted to Islam, I am very pro-Israel. I've actually done five tours overseas to entertain the troops. And despite my very liberal social leanings, I'm militarily hawkish. The fact that the mosques were preserved as pure houses of peace, and not as used centers of political activity leads me to believe there is hope to one day put our differences aside.

One of the major things I noticed is that the mosques are modernizing. In the more traditional mosques, the women were still sequestered away. They had to pray in a different room with the Imam's voice piped in, which I thought was kind of lame. By the way, the tradition of segregating the women didn't arise solely out of a drive for male dominance, but because back in Muhammad's time, the men didn't wear underwear. When a man prostrated himself, a woman behind him might actually see his prostate. (And we all know how hard it is to think about God when confronted with a dusty, camel-worn buttocks.) However, many of the new mosques had the women praying in the same room, albeit still behind the men. They aren't side by side yet, but it does seem to be moving in that direction.

Perhaps my favorite observation came during Ramadan when I attended a Saturday evening prayer in my hometown of San Ramon, California. San Ramon is a bedroom community for many who work in the Silicon Valley, as well as various other white collar trades in Oakland and the surrounding East Bay. Not to profile, but this mosque seemed very mixed. While some mosques are predominantly Afghani, pan-Arab, or Pakistani, the San Ramon mosque appeared to have a bit of everyone, including a handful of Wuslims, or white Muslims, of which I was one. When I entered, I noticed that there were a lot of kids, ranging in age from eight to eighteen. The striking observation, the really important thing to note is that these kids were bored out of their minds! -- just like I was when my parents dragged me to Temple B'nai Shalom for the High Holy Days. There is no greater sign of successful assimilation than a group of Muslim kids kneeling in a mosque, praying that they were back home playing video games. These kids will grow up to phone in Ramadan in the same way I wish my mom a happy Yom Kippur as I'm jaw deep in a slice of pepperoni pizza -- and my Christian wife commemorates the birth of Jesus by throwing tinsel on a tree. When it comes to creating a peaceful pluralistic society, there is safety in apathy.

Islam is on pace to surpass Judaism as the second most popular American religion (although I will next be converting to Buddhism, so no Abrahimic faith will be claiming me among its ranks). As Americans, we have a legacy of harassing a group of immigrants before accepting them into the larger culture. I believe it's time to let the Muslims stop eating goldfish and admit them to the fraternity. I think we'll be surprised at what fine Americans they'll become. Above all, please remember that it's only a tiny fraction of Muslims who are extremists. Most Muslims hate al Qaeda more than we do, because they've made their lives a living hell. Imagine if every Anglo-American was perceived as being the Unabomber. How much of a pain in the ass would it be to try to board a flight?

I of course saw much more than I can share in this brief essay. But I hope people can start to look around at their Muslim neighbors and notice many of the same things I have. Some Muslims will be angry. Some Muslim women won't wave back when you wave hello. This behavior is partly cultural, and partly resentment over their negative portrayal in the media. Still, be cool, even if it's weird at first. Like the high tension restaurant scene in Pulp Fiction, we need to follow Samuel L. Jackson's character's advice, and be a bunch of Fonzies. That way, everyone can get out alive.

 

Follow Jeremy Greenberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@thejewishmusli