Conver(t)sations: the Unheard Stories of Muslim Converts

 Muslim and Christian leaders agreed today that all religious institutions should help the needy regardless of their religious beliefs, said exploitation of their desperation for aid to proselytise should be rejected.
The stance was established this evening when the leaders, including Perlis Mufti Dr Juanda Jaya and Council of Churches Malaysia general secretary Reverend Dr Hermen Shastri, huddled together at a closed-door function here in a forum to discuss the role of religious institutions in disbursing help to the needy.
The touchy subject of impoverished Muslims turning to Christians for help has been raging on for weeks, possibly adding strain to inter-religious ties in Malaysia although the country recently established diplomatic relations with the Roman Catholic church.
The row first exploded when the Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) in Petaling Jaya was raided by religious authorities investigation a proselytisation complaint. It later exacerbated when allegations surfaced that Christian organisations have been attempting to lure impoverished Muslims into the religion by offering them aid.
Pro-Umno newspapers have been highlighting the issue of late, beginning with Utusan Malaysia’s report on a Christian conspiracy to usurp Islam. In the latest twist to the saga, a tuition centre accused of trying to convert Muslim schoolchildren to Christianity was ordered shut after the Malay daily highlighted the allegations last week.
But today’s forum participants disagreed that religion should stand in the way of an individual’s need for welfare, noting that all faiths preach extending assistance to the less fortunate. Such assistance from religious bodies, they said, should not be politicised but should instead be promoted extensively to inform the needy that such help is available.
The leaders however sighed over the lack of communication between the country’s different religious communities, repeatedly pointing out that such inter-religious matters should not have to be discussed in such a clandestine manner. The forum, organised by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), was held in a small function room at Hotel Midah here and saw the participation of a group of religious leaders, civil society representatives and handpicked media organisations.
“We are of the same opinion that the issue of poverty should be tackled by all, especially the religious institutions. But programmes to help the poor should be better organised. More importantly, whatever activity that involves the congregation of different religious communities should be done in a more open and transparent manner, in a manner that shows respect for one another,” Dr Juanda (picture) said.
He noted that the disbursement of zakat funds reach even the non-Muslims, adding that a recipient does not need to embrace Islam to receive aid.
“It is given in order to reduce hostilities between religions. If a non-Muslim needs help, it is right to give them help. And I believe that when a person needs help, when they are in desperate conditions, they will accept it from anyone,” he told the forum.
Dr Juanda added that on the ground, relationships between the different religious communities have always been cordial and harmonious but lamented that unfounded fears that the issue could heighten religious tension have quelled open discourse.
“These issues can be resolved quickly and should be so that all misconceptions can be cleared immediately. Programmes like this forum should be held often so that no matter what happens, we can always contact one another directly to get information,” he said.
When the topic of proselytisation was raised, Hermen said that should such activities occur, there are appropriate laws that can be used but stressed that the acts of “one or two persons” should not be used to demonise the entire religion.
He agreed that certain sects may choose to proselytise the needy by offering assistance in return but said this was not done after consultation with the church.
“If someone says — if you want charity, you must convert — we do not condone it. So if that happens, then those persons must face the consequences. But we cannot characterise the whole religion just because one or two persons do it,” he said.
Hermen said response to help offered by the church varies between different individuals, with some feeling “drawn” to the religion after receiving the assistance.
“But, we do not make it a condition that a person must be Christian first before receiving charity. Never a condition that they should become a member of our faith,” he stressed.
Dr Maszlee Malik of Universiti Islam Antarabangsa said better networking and cooperation among the religious communities is needed to tackle such sensitive matters, adding that certain incidents are better kept out of the media.
“It helps that there is substantial communication between one another and I think alot of issues, like what we have now, could be solved behind the media or even, without going to the core or diving into legal issues,” he said.
Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.
If you ask most Muslims what they enjoy most about Ramadan, undoubtedly some will include the sense of community they feel. Their days start off with eating suhoor with family before dawn and their nights pass by with invitation upon invitation from friends to break fast together at sunset. It’s a great experience for most in that regard as we feel closer to those around us simply because we spend that much more time with them.
I was speaking to a young woman named Natalia in my community last night that I hadn’t seen for quite some time. She jokingly told me that Ramadan is interesting for her because each year her family offers her food and she tells them she can’t eat it because she’s fasting. They respond by asking, “Oh, you’re still Muslim?” It’s not an experience that her family shares with her.
Another young woman told me her experience fasting during Ramadan was hard for her because her family wouldn’t accept her Islam. When it came time to eat lunch, her father would put a plate of food in front of her because he refused to acknowledge that she was a Muslim. She was then torn between what she should do and not having a community to turn to at that time made it that much harder.
The convert experience in Islam is one that is tough for many. Muslim communities throughout the world get excited when someone enters into their doors saying they want to accept Islam. There are hugs and laughter and a large uproar – and then everything stops and the convert has to figure out how to move forward on their own. Trying to navigate through the diversity of legal and theological opinion in Islam can be tough enough, but doing so while navigating through the cultural diversity that exists, all the while questioning yourself and wondering what parts of your identity you need to abandon to fit in makes it that much harder. We don’t do a good job in taking care of our converts
During Ramadan it’s that much harder. Every Muslim’s family is not Muslim. Every Muslim does not have a family to eat suhoor with or have iftar with. How many iftars have you hosted or attended to which a convert was invited? Our consciousness doesn’t seem to extend to this place.
We started a program at our center called Conver(t)sations to create an entry point into the community for those who embrace Islam at a later point in their life. In setting up the program, we interviewed around 50 converts from our community here. The group was diverse in in terms of its ethnicity, age, profession, how long they had been Muslim, and were both male and female. We asked them questions about their experiences, heard their stories, took their insights, and then analyzed to see common trends in the data. Most of them shared one thing in common: after becoming Muslim they felt alone.
A young man mentioned to me that his family had been completely fine with his conversion, but no Muslims really included him in anything. He expected that the local mosque would welcome him in and invite him to things, but he found that if he didn’t make a point of going on his own, no one really asked him to come. No one checked in on him, asked him how he was doing, or if he ever needed anything. His mother would call him daily to wake him up for suhoor, which he proceeded to eat on his own and then waited til sunset to break his fast alone as well.
As part of the Conver(t)sations program, we hosted a panel at our annual conference that featured twelve converts from our community along with Imam Suhaib Webb, a really great man that I look up to and aspire to be like who himself is an American born convert. I facilitated the conversation with an audience of about 700 and we started by asking each panelist to share briefly why and how they became Muslim, and then got into discussion that you tend to not hear about the convert experience. Why was it hard? What was it like dealing with the Muslim Community? What kind of resources did you wish you had? The majority of the audience was left in tears and afterward said they didn’t realize what the reality of the situation was. You can check out video from that panel here.
In general we should start asking people in our communities what their needs are. It’s the easiest way to know and understand what kind of programs and services to provide. You don’t have to assume what people need – just ask them. They can tell you themselves.
In regards to the convert experience, make a point to invite and include those who are new Muslims to your gatherings, as well as just people in general. You can start in the next couple of weeks. The day after Ramadan is the holiday of Eid ul-Fitr. When you are celebrating with loved ones and friends, understand that it will mean so much to someone who doesn’t have a family to celebrate with if you included them in your gatherings. The number of converts that I’ve spoken with that say Eid is such a lonely day is unfortunately huge. They end up going to prayers in the morning and then maybe to a diner afterward, and that’s the end of it. Don’t let that be the case this year.
Let’s start in these last 10 days of Ramadan in really understanding the convert experience in Islam. Aside from educational programming, we should set up meaningful programs and develop organic relationships that help meet the social and community needs of those who converted into the faith. It’s something we’re all able to do and should be doing, both in Ramadan and beyond it.
FULLERTON, Calif. — In many ways, Yousuf Salama is a typical teenager: He lives for football, worries about acne and would rather dash off to see “Captain America” with friends than spend one more minute with his mother.
He’s aware, however, that his actions in particular can have greater meaning. Yousuf is a Muslim, one of only two in an all-boys Catholic prep school in Southern California. He has been asked if he’s a terrorist and routinely shrugs off jokes about bombs and jihad.
“Sometimes I feel like I take it upon myself to be a better example,” he said on a recent evening after returning for a weeklong football camp.
Yousuf is among thousands of children who navigate every day the subtle and complex challenges that come with growing up Muslim in a deeply traumatized post-Sept. 11 America. Some were still in diapers and others in grade school when hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a decade ago, but their childhoods have been deeply touched by the pain and anger of a nation struggling to come to terms with a day that, for them, represents the worst perversion of their faith.
For some, like Yousuf in California and others across the country, the bullying, the hard stares and endless defense of their identity has nurtured a deeper faith and a maturity and resilience that surprises even their parents.
“I tell them that when they’re out in the world, they represent the best of our community, they are our faith ambassadors,” said Kari Ansari, who was pregnant with her youngest child on Sept. 11 and lives outside Washington, D.C with her family. “They will have learned to have compassion for people who maybe don’t even deserve that kind of compassion – dealing with bigots and dealing with prejudice – and that’s a great life lesson.”
For Ansari’s oldest daughter, Aneesa, that lesson colors her earliest memories.
She started attending a private Muslim kindergarten in Denver just days before Sept. 11 and it shut down for two weeks after angry protesters gathered outside. It eventually reopened, but an armed security guard stayed on campus for almost a year.
Today, the 15-year-old is deeply invested in her religious identity and exudes a quiet pride at being Muslim. She began wearing a head scarf in public without prompting in the fifth grade and has never removed it despite being cursed at while waiting in line at Ikea, stared at and pressured at school, she said.
Aneesa goes to the library during the lunch hour so she can observe the holy month of Ramadan (a month of no food or water from sunrise to sundown) and said she prefers to spend time with other Muslim teens to avoid the pressure to drink and do drugs.
Her mother worried that her young daughter would be pitied or discriminated against for wearing the hijab. But for Aneesa, wearing the head covering was a rebuke to those who dwelled on her differences and minimized her faith. Even at 11, she said, she was adamant that it was her choice and her identity.
“I have enough strength, I guess, to not be afraid of who I am,” Aneesa said. “It’s this pressure to change, people kind of hint that you don’t have to wear a scarf at school, they ask if your parents make you.
“Combatting that makes you a stronger person,” she said.
When the family moved from Denver to a new school in the western suburbs of Chicago, her younger brother Sajid suddenly found himself the only Muslim boy in his grade in a tiny school district.
For three years, from the fourth to the sixth grade, he was relentlessly bullied by dozens of students who ganged up on him, called him a terrorist and ridiculed him for his faith.
In a sixth-grade art class, a group of boys passed him a note showing a drawing of the twin towers, with the words “Look familiar?” written below. On another occasion, he was walking his sister home in the snow when other students ambushed them with icy snowballs. One hit his face, leaving a bloody gash on his cheek.
Sajid’s grades plummeted and attempts to get adults to help led to more abuse, so he stopped telling his parents about what was going on.
“I just kind of felt like, `Why was I born at a time when people didn’t understand?’ I didn’t have any problem with being Muslim or being born that way,” said Sajid, now 13.
“Sometimes, I felt it was unfair that I was born at a time when all this was happening,” he said. “It’s hard to explain that you’re not the stereotype that’s put out.”
The Ansaris eventually moved to northern Virginia and put their children in a bigger and more diverse school district where Sajid has thrived.
Today, Sajid is open with classmates about his faith, explaining that he can’t eat pepperoni because Muslims don’t eat pork and talking with friends about the terrorist characters that represent the enemy on war-themed video games.
“When you are a person of faith you look at your life circumstances and every situation that comes up is a trial or challenge to you in your faith,” said Ansari, who works as a freelance marketing consultant. “We believe it’s God’s way of saying, `What are you going to do about this? Are you going to succumb to it or rise above it and show what the true story is?”
In Southern California’s Orange County, Yousuf Salama, his 18-year-old sister Sarah and his 21-year-old brother Omar have spent years navigating the same types of challenges at their private, Catholic prep schools. Their parents sent them there because of the top-notch education and same-sex environment.
One of Yousuf’s friends asked if he was a terrorist after watching a TV program on Islamic extremism.
His older brother, unusually tall and lanky for his age, was called “Twin Tower” at a seventh-grade flag football camp and quietly endured an endless loop of jokes: Do you have a bomb in your backpack? When do you leave for jihad?
These days, those memories barely raise an eyebrow in the family’s upscale suburban home, where their parents juggle a home business, their children’s sports practices and part-time jobs as well the nightly prayers at the mosque during Ramadan.
On a recent night, the children, Omar’s new wife and their grandmother gathered to break the Ramadan fast with heaping plates of lamb and chicken kebobs, sliced grilled eggplant, humus and a thick chocolate cake for dessert.
“How have we been living for the past 10 years?” asked Anita Bond-Salama, their mother.
“There’s no answer, there’s no magic formula,” she continued. “My husband and I have just dealt with things very matter-of-factly: This is what happened. There’s good and there’s bad in the world. And unfortunately there’s bad people who represent our religion but our religion doesn’t say that.”
Omar was 11 when the airplanes were hijacked and of the three siblings, he has the clearest memories of that day and its aftermath. He remembers thinking at the time that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would change his life, too.
Over the years, he learned to restrain himself from physically confronting anyone who made fun of him, but he had his hardest test as a high school senior – six years after Sept. 11 – when a teacher asked him to read aloud in class. A fellow student leaned in, he recalled, and whispered: “Does your religion allow you to read?”
“I was this close to climbing over my seat and really messing him up,” Omar said.
He remembered thinking on that occasion and on many others that he should not react violently.
“If I did that … the whole school would be thinking in the back of their mind, `Oh, there goes another Muslim. There goes Omar again, a typical Muslim – violent and angry,'” he said.
Omar started high school “football crazy” and every bit the jock. He played for his school’s powerhouse football team, fasting during Ramadan while doing two-a-day workouts.
Over time, as the teasing got to him, he distanced himself from school friends and spent more time at the mosque. By his senior year, he had quit football and devoted himself to studying his faith so he could better explain Islam.
He attended more prayers, stopped swearing and improved his grades, which had slipped to Cs and Ds.
“If I’m being attacked by an individual or even just a curious individual, I have to be able to answer. I can’t just say, `I don’t know.’ It made me pick up a book,” he said. “In that sense, it’s changed my life.”

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