Becoming a Muslim has turned me into something “other.” Before my conversion I belonged to the majority group: I was a white Protestant American. Now some people seem confused about my ethnicity and question whether or not I’m still an American. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m from. (By Muslims and non-Muslims alike.) It’s as if there’s this unspoken belief that if you’re a Muslim, you must be a foreigner. And if you’re a foreigner, you’re obviously not an American.
The odd thing is, I’ve always been a person who likes to fade into the background. Or so I thought. But there is also a part of me that wants to be special. I want to stand out from the crowd in some way. I couldn’t do that by being white or Christian. White Christians aren’t exactly rare in America. I couldn’t change my race, but I could change my religion.
That’s not why I converted, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that belonging to a minority appealed to me. I’ve always been appalled by prejudice and there’s no worse prejudice in this country right now than that against Muslims. Becoming a Muslim meant that I was casting my lot in with other Muslims. Being proud to be a Muslim (which I am) is my way of saying that I support Muslims and think the world of Islam. You could say it’s “putting my money where my mouth is.”
When I first converted, I wanted to tell everyone. And I made the mistake of doing just that. I remember telling my hairdresser, of all people, and having her react almost in horror. “What are you going to do about Jesus?” she demanded. “He’s the Son of God.” I didn’t bother to tell her that Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet; I could tell she wouldn’t react well to that. To her Jesus was God and to believe otherwise would be to damn yourself to Hell.
I started wearing the hijab a few months after my conversion because I wanted to “tell” people that I’m a Muslim without having to say a word. I thought that it would spark conversations about my faith. But I’ve found that besides asking me where I’m from, hardly anyone asks me about Islam or why I converted. Sometimes I feel like I’m the elephant in the room that no one will talk about. It’s as obvious as the nose on my face that I’m a Muslim, but most people are afraid to ask me about it.
The result is, I often feel alienated, especially when I’m the only hijabi in the group, which I usually am. I feel it the most in groups of white Christian Americans. But I also feel it when I’m with born Muslims. They have trouble believing that a born American, especially a white one, could have converted to Islam. So I’m an outsider in both groups.
It’s not that born Muslims don’t accept me; when it finally hits them that I’m a Muslim, they’re delighted. They love Islam so much and it makes them proud and happy when they discover that someone else does, too, especially when it’s someone who once knew nothing at all about Islam, or was even once prejudiced against it.
It doesn’t help that I rarely go to the masjid. Since women aren’t encouraged to go, and sometimes are even discouraged from going to the masjid, it’s easier to just pray at home. The Muslim friends I became the closest to when I first converted have all moved away. I know I need to make new friends who are Muslim. Because until I do, I’m going to continue to wonder where exactly I fit in.