“Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture.” Islam is “like a malignant cancer.” “I think Islam hates us.”
These are just a few of the outlandish statements made by Western voices of political influence in recent times, one of whom is the president of the United States of America.
Such rhetoric that dangerously conflates Muslims and terrorists, and seeks to inflame the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” is nothing new. But it has made it especially difficult to be a Muslim today in America and Europe. In 2016 alone, the U.S. saw at least 385 instances of documented Islamophobia, many in the form of hate crimes and slandering. Only a few days ago, a crazed white man brutally killed two heroic men as they attempted to prevent him from harassing two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, on a train in Portland, Oregon. And Europe is experiencing a surge of anti-Muslim incidents as well.
“I hope that this initiative ― the sharing of Western Muslim convert stories throughout Ramadan ― can begin to change the conversation.”
Meanwhile, acts of terror committed in the name of a distorted version of Islam ― from Orlando and Paris to Manchester and Baghdad ― continue to dominate the news. Groups like the so-called Islamic State claim responsibility, and onlookers become ever more fearful of “the other.” In the West’s climate of Islamophobia, this “other,” more often than not, takes the form of a usually non-white immigrant Muslim who has an apparent deep hatred for Western society and its culture. It doesn’t matter to many that the statistics paint a much more nuanced picture, that a significant amount of those who end up carrying out attacks are not immigrants but Western natives who might not even be religious or that not all Muslims come from an Arab or South Asian ancestry. Or even that the vast majority of the people killed by these terrorists outside of the West are Muslims themselves.
But it should. And I hope that this initiative ― the sharing of Western Muslim convert stories throughout Ramadan ― can begin to change the conversation.
It is against a backdrop of the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump that we need actions like this more than ever. Efforts that ostensibly promote unity, such as Trump’s recent speech in Saudi Arabia to Arab and Muslim leaders, or his statement to mark the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, almost always fall flat, focusing on terrorism instead of the actual values of the faith ― piety, peace and compassion, to name a few.
As an American Muslim with American children and grandchildren, I am drawn to projects such as this in part because I understand the risks posed to families like my own if we don’t speak up. As a scholar of Islam committed to building bridges, I am also all too familiar with the many misconceptions we must eliminate in order to help heal this disconnect between Muslims and the West. It’s the ignorance and misunderstanding that fuels the violence directed towards “Middle Eastern-looking” men or women, including non-Muslims such as Hindus and Sikhs. Innocent lives lost as a result mean that it’s not just enough to understand the hatred or to know the statistics. We must seek out the stories of those who showcase the religion’s diversity and explicitly turn the stereotypes on their head.
Islam is a religion, not a skin tone or ethnicity. Its adherents range from Middle Eastern, to Bosnian, to African, to East Asian and everywhere in between. Your white neighbor could be a Muslim. A Muslim can also be someone not born into the religion but who decided to adopt it later on ― a convert. And while there are reports of Muslim converts turning to terrorism, those who take that route are tiny in number.
In fact, in my journeys across much of the Western world, I have found that Western Muslim converts present a unique perspective in the quest to understand Islam’s complex identity. They are often aware of both the strengths of Islam, such as its great respect for knowledge, learning and compassion, as well as the problems in the Muslim community and the stereotypes associated with the faith. As a result, converts are sometimes placed in the awkward position of being seen as somehow compromised Westerners in their native society and incomplete Muslims in the Muslim community. But it is precisely this position of the person in the middle that can allow them to play an important role in bridge building. They are able to communicate what it was in Islam in the first place that attracted them to it ― and their stories resonate far easier with those with whom they can relate in both appearance and experience.
“Western Muslim converts present a unique perspective in the quest to understand Islam’s complex identity.”
It is an unfortunate reality that this is where we are ― that in order to help those who fear Muslims understand the humanity of people of one of the world’s largest religions, it’s necessary to find examples of people who look like them and speak like them and have a shared history. That we must convince people in the West that people who worship like I do can be white, blonde and have never stepped foot in the Middle East. But I believe there is a lot of power in realizing that people of different backgrounds practice the same faith and follow the same rituals, even if it means acknowledging the uncomfortable reality that white Muslims may not face the same kind of discrimination for their “Muslim-ness” as non-white Muslims.
One of the ways I believe we can begin to turn the tide is to start by educating people about the diversity within Islam. I am an immigrant Muslim with a Pakistani background living in the U.S., and so I do fit in part the stereotype many in the West may have of Muslims. But there are others not like me ― born in the States or Europe, different in color from me, not even second-generation immigrants ― who are just as Muslim. These are the Western converts to Islam. Because they don’t fit the bill of “Muslim” and may not be immediately “otherized,” they may be just the perspective those wary of Muslims need to hear in order to understand that we’re just like anyone else.
I met some of these distinguished converts to Islam while conducting fieldwork for “Journey into Europe,” a project on Islam in Europe and its place in European history and civilization. The converts that appear in this Ramadan series also appear in my feature-length documentary film (included below) and forthcoming book, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.
This Ramadan, I hope to close the empathy gap with these stories of Western Muslim converts that I will be releasing throughout the month in this series. Ramadan is a time to look out for each other with compassion and care, to recognize and embrace our common humanity as we strive to be better humans in a better world. In sharing these stories of people who have chosen to adopt my faith, I hope to challenge your perspective of Islam.
If we start here and shake up people’s perceptions of Muslims and Islam, then perhaps we can turn the corner. It only takes one spark or one conversation to do it, and there could be no better time to unite as a global community than during Ramadan. I challenge you to be a part of this journey. If nothing else, consider these extraordinary profiles of Western Muslim converts as my gift towards peace in this blessed month.
This piece is the start of a series on Western Muslim converts releasing throughout the month of Ramadan. It was produced with the help of Frankie Martin and Patrick Burnett and edited and assembled by Farah Mohamed and Suzanne Gaber.