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IslAmerica: The Trials of Islamic Converts in The United States

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Though Will Caldwell was born, raised and college educated in Georgia, he is uncomfortable praying there.

He has felt that way since a clear summer evening in 2007 at a nondescript gas station off a nondescript interstate somewhere between Savannah and Macon. He was on his way home to Saint Simons Island from Emory University, where he had just finished his junior year. Caldwell had pulled his red Mini Cooper into the rest stop because the sun was starting to set and, since he had converted to Islam one year earlier, this meant that it was time to pray.

In the empty field next to the gas station, he found a discrete corner, laid out his mat and began to recite the holy verses, first standing, then bent forward, then on his knees with his head to the ground. He noticed two people looking at him, secretively peering out from behind their truck. Uneasy, he rushed through the ritual, folded up his mat and got back in the car to leave. As he pulled away, he could see in his rear view mirror a cop car pulling into the parking lot. The people who had been staring were flagging down the police officer and pointing at Caldwell. He drove on at an intentionally moderate pace, and the cop did not follow, but he has not risked praying publicly in the South since.

Caldwell is soft spoken. He pauses thoughtfully before talking and sometimes between sentences. He wears a plaid button down shirt, slacks and small, round wire-framed glasses. His wide-set green eyes gaze out earnestly from his creamy white face. One quickly gets the sense that he is a kind and spiritual person. Perhaps this is his fatal flaw. After growing up in the Episcopal Church, Caldwell rediscovered his spirituality in Islam and decided to convert. Now, less than a hundred miles from where he was raised, onlookers see Caldwell's prayer as a potential threat. Why might this be?

"The political context we are in is so charged with anti-Muslim rhetoric that it's almost impossible, I would say, for that conversion not to have some kind of political ramifications even if the convert in no way intends it," says Brannon Ingram, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University, who specializes in Islam and Sufism. In July of 2013, Fox News correspondent Lauren Green interviewed religion scholar Reza Aslan about "Zealot", a book he just had written about Jesus Christ. She repeatedly questioned his credentials and asked him to explain how a Muslim could write about Christianity. In 2013, a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study found that 45 percent of Americans believe that Muslims face "a lot" of discrimination.

Negative sentiments about Muslims most often link to an association of Islam with radicalism and terrorism. A 2007 document by the New York Police Department entitled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," says, "Jihadist ideology is the driver that motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out an 'autonomous jihad' via acts of terrorism against their host countries." Because of these beliefs, the police instated surveillance over New York City's mosques and Muslim communities using informants, neighborhood mapping, photos and video footage. When the American Civil Liberties Union caught wind of this policy in June of 2013, they sued the NYPD.

Muslim converts have received extensive media attention. Katherine Russell, the widow of one of the notorious Boston Marathon bombers, began practicing Islam after meeting her husband. Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the "White Widow" after her husband's 2005 suicide bombing in London public transit, is among the suspects implicated in the Nairobi mall massacre in September 2013. She, too, is Muslim convert. Nicholas Brody, a main character of the popular television show "Homeland", becomes a Muslim while he is imprisoned by al-Quaeda in Damascus, Syria. Once back in the United States, he collaborates with his captors to plot and execute terror attacks.

Karen Danielson, Director of Outreach at the Chicago chapter of Muslim American Society, says that any event that brings Islam into the public consciousness -- for negative or positive reasons -- generates interest. "After 9/11 for example, there was a large influx of converts. Sometimes people come forward hostile, but then even they end up converting because of what they discover," she says. "They investigated, they read the Quran, and it answered a lot of questions that they had before." Danielson herself found Islam in 1983 when she was a young adult. She has worked in community building for Muslims ever since and has interacted with hundreds of converts and support groups.

Despite their powers of attraction, these terror-infused portrayals are very problematic for converts, says Iqbal Akhtar, a professor of Islamic Studies at Florida International University. New Muslims are forced to view themselves as outsiders in their own culture and are not given the opportunity to reconcile the different parts of their identities. "Even if in day-to-day interactions you can pass for being American or not being differentiated, you live in a society where the media is constantly defining the Muslim as an 'other,'" says Akhtar. "All these things fit into how you define yourself."

Converts to any faith seem increasingly abnormal as the United States gravitates farther away from religion. According to a Pew Research study, the number of Americans who do not affiliate with a religion has gone up by 5 percent in the past five years, from 15.3 percent in 2007 to 19.6 percent in 2012.

Yet the number of Muslims in the United States is increasing. In the seven years that followed the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Muslim American population grew from 1,104,000 to 1,349,000, according to the 2012 census. And in a study of that same time frame, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 40 percent of Muslims in the United States were not raised with the faith, but joined it as adults.

This anomalous increase in religious practice may be because conversion to Islam is quick and very simple. "It really just requires reciting a formula called the shahada in front of a number of witnesses," says Ingram. He translates the verse to mean, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger." And that's it. There's no training, no test. You just recite the creed. Ingram attributes the successful global spread of Islam to the ease of this process.

The difficulty for many converts comes in the change of daily customs, rather than in the change of faith. In 2005, at the age of 36, Jennifer Gauthier converted from Catholicism to Islam in order to marry to a Muslim man. The pair has since moved to Alexandria, Egypt. "I would say the greatest challenges I face are more related to Islamic cultural traditions rather than what I understand from the Quran," she says. "My dad and I have had many conversations about Islam and Catholicism and have found many overlaps." She says it made a big difference that she already felt comfortable with the idea of one god.

Saba Safder, Scholarship Manager at the national non-profit Islamic Society of North America and a Muslim convert from Methodism, speaks to the challenging cultural adjustments. "In the beginning it was hard to fit in. Sometimes when I came to the mosque, my scarf may not have covered all my hair, or my sleeves may not have been as long as they should have been," she said. "There were many times that women would correct my praying or how I dressed."

Many converts also felt alienated because of their whiteness. In theory, explains Ingram, Islam is meant to be a race-free religion. But in practice, he says, this is not the case. "In the popular imagination Islam is still very much," - he makes air quotes with his fingers - "a brown person's religion." And this belief, he continues, is somewhat valid. "American Muslim communities can be very closely knit in terms of some ethnic background," he says. "Not just immigrants from or descendants of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, but even specific regions in India."

As a result, when Caldwell enters a Muslim center for the first time, he says he gets one of two reactions to his whiteness. The first is suspicion. In a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, he recalls, he could feel everyone's eyes on him. Muslims sometimes suspect that he is an FBI agent, working for the aforementioned government surveillance, he says. "I just try to deal with it because I understand it." he says. Others place him on a pedestal. Immigrants trying to assimilate into white American society take his race as a sign of their success. "Seeing a white person [practicing Islam] sort of validates their own religious existence. There's a lot of embedded racial assumptions about that," he says. "I don't think it's a desirable situation for me or for them, but it is the case nonetheless."

Some converts are forming their own groups, one of which is Ta'leef Collective. Founded as a resource for new Muslims and prospective converts, Ta'leef runs classes, discussions and support groups. Its headquarters are in Fremont, Calif., but it opened a Chicago chapter in 2012. Ta'leef stays away from the media for fear that it will portray them badly. "Our concern is both one of how we are represented to the larger American population and how we are represented to other Muslim communities," said Caldwell, who is a participant. "A lot of what we do would be controversial to other Muslim communities in the sense that it's not a mosque but it's a Muslim community. That doesn't fit so well into the parameters of what they expect."

New Muslims often especially need this social outlet after distancing themselves from their former lives. "I very rarely associate myself with the community I was raised in. I have strong contacts with my family, but many times I just feel like it is hard to belong," says Safder. "There are too many media influences that give people a preconceived idea before seeing that I am still the same person."

If not at home, how do converts find Islam? Danielson was in her first year at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny, Iowa. She intended to lead missions targeting Muslims. To prepare, she studied the Quran and was deeply moved by it. "It was through my personal reading of Quran that I had my own private conversion," she says. "I felt like my questions were answered. The deep bigger questions about justice and life in general. What is the universe all about? What does everything mean?" She says she never found this type of spiritual guidance in the Bible and converted to Islam one month after.

Caldwell's story of coming to Islam is strikingly similar. An altar boy in his youth, Caldwell looked up to his Episcopal priest and wanted to follow in his footsteps. While an undergraduate at Emory University, he learned that seminary students studied Greek but not Hebrew. In order to understand the Old Testament, he started taking Hebrew classes. These led him to Jewish studies classes. Judaism introduced him to the possibility of practicing other religions, but it was too connected to an ethnic and cultural history for him to fully embrace it, he says. "I guess in a lot of ways Islam is a natural place to look at that point." He started reading the Quran and spent the summer and fall of his junior year in Jerusalem. He promised himself that he wouldn't make any big decisions until he finished it. One month into his studies in Israel, he finished the Quran and converted to Islam.

Ingram has noticed a trend in why people like Danielson or Caldwell may gravitate toward the religion. "I've spoken to a few white converts over the years who said Christianity never made sense to me, the trinity never made sense to me, the idea of God being one and three at the same time never made sense to me," he said. "Islam doesn't have that problem. People are attracted to the comparative simplicity of Islam's notion of God."

Their strong connection to Islamic theology helps converts deal with stigma. "We know that Islam does not preach terrorism. We know Islam does not preach extremist radical thought. Those things are not linked to Islam. They're linked to Muslims," says Danielson. "Muslims are people. They have so many factors that motivate who they are. Yes, Islam influences them, but they have their economic condition and their political situation, too."

Gauthier puts this idea concisely. "A saying I've heard often -- and I think it applies to all religions -- is 'Don't look to Muslims to understand Islam. Look to Islam itself,'" she says.

But, according to Danielson, converts need to change people's preconceptions about Muslims. "We have to get our voice heard better. Islam should be understood better, and that's a difficult position to be in," she says. "First-hand knowledge of Islam and Muslims needs relationship building and a genuine commitment to long-term cooperation."