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 Qur’an,” 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. Though it often 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 Qur’an and was deeply moved by it.
“It was through my personal reading of Qur’an that I had my own private conversion,” she says.
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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an and converted to Islam.
Finding the Truth
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.”