‘Terry, I converted to Islam’

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“Mr. Howard, I have read all your columns but have not yet found a topic familiar with my own experiences. I am a white female born into a Christian family and raised Christian. Recently I became interested in learning about Islam away from what the media portrays and signed up for classes at a Masjid near my home. What I discovered in studying Islam is that it is a beautiful, peaceful and disciplined religion. I took one of the biggest steps I have ever taken in my life and converted to Islam. I am blessed with a family that accepts me in any choice that I decide. My problem lies with the way some of my co-workers and friends have treated me. I have experienced everything from people saying ‘This is some kind of joke and it won’t last,’ to others completely cutting off normal day-to-day conversations with me. I felt cold glances that spoke, ‘How could you betray your faith?’ Therefore I decided to keep mum and not be so openly comfortable at work with my change in religion. The reactions shocked me and I thought, ‘What is going to happen when I start wearing a head scarf?’

In response to that email, I posed the following questions to a cross section of folks whose opinions I value:

What is your immediate response to this one?

I know only a little of how this feels as I get some of the same reactions when people find out I’m Jewish. I don’t hide my religion, but I don’t broadcast it, so people usually make the assumption that I’m a white Christian. When they find out I’m Jewish I’ve gotten similar reactions. – Jewish person

It’s not surprising to me. Conversion is a highly personal issue, and often there can be a sense of betrayal when it happens. When I was in high school, I was the only Mormon in a group of friends that almost entirely consisted of born-again Christians. One day a member of our circle of friends walked up to our group and said “I’ve converted to Mormonism.” This was met with groans until the friend said, “April Fool’s,” at which point everyone was relieved (except me).    – Mormon person

I am delighted that there are people who take time to learn about Islam rather than relying on negative propaganda about the religion and happy to hear that this person found Islam and felt drawn to it enough to convert. Now I’m a bit sad that her co-workers would have a negative reaction to the conversion. Religion/spirituality is a very personal matter. The fact that co-workers would ridicule, dismiss, or no longer socialize with this person because of her conversion is appalling. I’m thinking about how I would react if a Muslim peer converted to another religion. I would have questions for sure, and if I’m being honest, I would feel troubled that he/she chose to deviate from Islam. Still though, I would hope that I am mature and sensitive enough to remain respectful toward that person and would not change the nature of my relationship. – Muslim person

What advice would you offer to supportive allies, peers, etc.? 

Be supportive. Put yourself in her shoes. For Muslims, do not inundate her with recommendations about how she should practice her new faith. Let her figure it out at her own pace. – Muslim person

My advice is to continue to extend help you can to make her feel that she can get the support and encouragement she needs and not feel alone. Make her know that she can always come to you in difficult times and to share what is on her mind and get some helpful inputs. – Jewish person

Enter the “Ally” 

How often have you spoken up on behalf of someone who was being treated disrespectfully? Did you laugh? Or perhaps you walked away, embarrassed, thinking, “I can’t believe what I just heard.”

What this emailer’s dilemma presents is an opportunity for a bystander, or ally, regardless of his/her position, to intervene on her behalf. Often, as an ally, we have more power to influence change than we may realize because the target of the disrespect may be stunned into silence. Here’s a short list of possible ally verbal interventions:

“Whoa Sam, I’m don’t agree with your comment about her decision. In fact, I respect her for it and will do whatever I can to make her feel comfortable here.”

“Let’s not go there Raul. How would you feel if you, or someone close to you, made a similar choice?”

“Wait, wait, wait Tammy. Why would you want to make such a comment about her personal choice?”

“I hope you don’t mind my sharing an observation with you Anita, but I’ve noticed that you’ve tended to avoid ___ since she converted to Islam. Maybe that’s not your intent, but she seems to be hurt by your behavior.”

Now if those “scripts” don’t work for you, develop your own in anticipation of those inevitable times when someone blurts out his or her biases.

In the end, it is our job as allies to apply a brake, when necessary, to the excesses of bigotry. And, yes, this applies to those high profile candidates for public office who spew – or allow others to spew – such ignorance. And you don’t have to be perfect at this ally thing; perfection is not within the human repertoire.

Now, has this article opened up and pushed you down the painful corridor of discomfort and guilt as you reflect on your recent compliance, silence….or inaction?

If your answer is “yes,” great! Shucks, why should I have all the fun?

© Terry Howard is a writer, trainer, story teller and senior associate at Diversity Wealth and a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle and the American Diversity Report. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com

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