The terrifying reality of converting to Islam in America right after 9/11

In November 2001, while firefighters were still sorting through the rubble at the World Trade Center, I became a Muslim.

I had been on my path of discovery for several years. I was raised Catholic, the daughter of a disabled Vietnam vet. And I appreciated the upbringing the church afforded me. At Catholic school, I learned to love God and respect people of all faiths.

But I found it difficult to accept the teachings about the Holy Trinity. So I sought out other monotheistic religions.

In college, I became agnostic. But after my roommate (a Baptist) converted to Islam, I got interested. As she learned more about it, she shared her findings with me. I appreciated the revolutionary equality the prophet Muhammad taught when he said that “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” I saw my passion for justice reflected in the Koran’s call to “be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for God, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, God is more worthy of both.” And I realized that the Islamic attitude that “for you is your religion, and for me is my religion,” could save our world a whole lot of strife if we only heeded it.

To me, Islam was a peaceful faith, no matter what a handful of violent extremists said. So I chose to convert in November 2001. I began wearing a hijab and attending a mosque.

It wasn’t easy. In the weeks and months after 9/11, news outlets portrayed all Muslims as violent and intolerant. There was a 1,700 percent increase of hate crimes against American Muslims between 2000 to 2001. I experienced this intolerance firsthand. Once, a postal worker asked if my package had a bomb in it. Another time, a man in a truck threw eggs at me — I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been targeted because of my Islamic attire. I hated this behavior, but I tried to be understanding. My fellow countrymen and women were scared; maybe they were just lashing out. So I put up with the stares from strangers that dripped with hate. I smiled and moved on. I responded to racial slurs and shouts of “Go back to your country,” with “Hello” and “How are you?”

When my mosque in Savannah, Ga., was burned down in 2003, I started to understand what real fear feels like. I felt rejected by my own people. That day, I understood the bitterness of alienation. But I was also warmed by my community’s resilience. At the Friday service following the arson, as we prayed in the grass next to a charred shell of our mosque, reminded of the Koranic verse, “repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.”

In some ways, the prejudice I experienced  felt drove me toward a deeper understanding of Islam. It pushed me to define for myself what it means to be both fully American and fully Muslim, both for myself and for those who asked.

Twelve years later, the climate of hate has only gotten worse. Extremists who call themselves Muslims continue to terrorize people of all faiths across the globe. American extremists continue to stoke the flames of fear and hate, attacking Muslims in rhetoric, in our houses of worship and even  on the street.

Presidential candidates speak about Muslims like me in debates, interviews and rallies as though I were a problem to be done away with. These same people want 8-year-old Muslim girls to wear ID badges. They want to put the name of a Muslim who served two tours in Iraq in a religious-based registry. They want to close down places where Muslims go to connect with God, to share in holiday celebration and organize volunteer efforts. They want to take away our American rights. Our inalienable rights.

This hate has only made it harder for me to operate as a Muslim woman. Over the past year, I have received hundreds of emails, instant messages and tweets on the website I run, saying things like, “Commit mass suicide as soon as you read this. PLEASE. We need to clean up the environment. Let’s start with sub-human waste.” The man behind me in line growls at me. I am refused service at a coffee shop. My husband’s boss calls him a terrorist in front of clients.

I feel so worn down. Every time I step out of my home, I have to check the news to make sure that the Islamic State or al-Shabaab or Boko Haram haven’t committed another insane act of brutality in their blind search for power. I have to make sure that Trump hasn’t gone on another ignorant tirade, further normalizing Islamophobia in America in his blind search for power. If they have, I know it will not be safe for me to leave my home alone.

Members of my mosque are visibly stressed by their outraged at the Islamic State and exhausted by the atmosphere of fear and anti-Muslim sentiment. A few Fridays ago, I overheard two elderly men at the mosque talking about wanting to join the military to fight ISIS. Like these elderly Muslims, many American Muslims are sickened by terrorists and tired of being lumped in with them. They are desperate for public ways to take action and fight back with good deeds.

Americans cannot lose hope in one another. That the gravitational pull of fear and hate is growing. And the divide is getting wider. But we cannot allow political theater and power hungry thugs to use hate and fear to tear us apart. If we give in and abandon our dearly held principles for the sake of fear, extremists will have won. I know that we Americans — Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, Republicans and Democrats — are braver than that.

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