‘Terry, I converted to Islam’

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Author’s note: Based on a request for  more information, I’m pleased to have just received from a reader the paperback, “What Every American Should Know About Islam and The Muslims,” by Iman Muhammad Armiya Nu’Man, New Mind Productions, Jersey City, NJ, 1985 IBN 0-933821-04-2.  The 82-page book is available for $5.95.
Okay, I give up.

Despite earnest attempts to finish, “Merry Christmas, oops, did I offend someone?”  I keep getting interrupted with “breaking news” that diverts my attention.

First it was Supreme Court “Justice” Scalia’s “OMIF” (Open Mouth, Insert Foot) moment which led last week’s post under that title. This time it is the international attention that’s ascended upon on my sleepy little hometown, Staunton, Virginia and Riverheads High School (the alma mater of my beautiful niece and handsome nephew) just outside city limits.

Now for those who don’t stay glued to the news, the brouhaha was about outrage from some parents over a world geography assignment where a teacher provided a worksheet and asked her students to copy the Islamic statement of faith. My, my, my, the end of the world, I suppose. Anyway, the flare-up went viral and social media comments were all over the map.

Now given that Islam is at the core of all this – and since it is getting lots of negative press these days (thanks in part to “The Donald,” “The Ben” et al) – I decided to retrieve a column I published a while back. Here’s an excerpt of the heart wrenching email I received that inspired it:

“Terry, I have read many of your columns and greatly admire the work of you and your colleagues in your sessions promoting religious awareness in the workplace. But have not found anything reflective of my experiences. I am a white female born into a Christian family and raised Christian. In the recent year 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 a big step and converted to Islam. I am blessed with a family that accepted me in my choice. But 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 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 open at work with my change in religion. The reaction I received shocked me and I thought, ‘What’s going to happen when I started wearing a head scarf?’ This is a large company with branches in many countries so surely I cannot be the only person to experience this. Think of a Muslim or Hindu converting to Christianity or a Jewish person denouncing his/her faith. I think this is a good subject to bring up now so others on both sides can prepare for present and future situations such as mine.”

In response to that email, I posed the following questions to some folks whose views I highly regard:

What is your immediate response to this one?

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

It’s not very surprising. Conversion is a highly personal issue, and often there can be a sense of betrayal when conversion 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). The key question that this email raises is how should we respond in the workplace? – Mormon person

I am grateful that there are people who take time to learn about Islam rather than relying on negative media propaganda. I’m a bit sad and a little shocked that her co-workers would have a negative reaction. Religion 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 could she have done differently?

I’m not sure anything different could have been done. By allowing her co-workers to know about the new religion, she may have helped avoid even more awkward moments that could happen when people assume they’re talking with a non-Muslim and say things that are directly offensive. If a co-worker is uncomfortable discussing the change in religion, I think it’s wise to drop it as a topic of conversation with that person. But I don’t think the author of the email should try to hide her religion (i.e., I don’t think she should avoid praying or avoid wearing a head covering). – Mormon person

Frankly, nothing. As long as she has not embarked on a crusade to convert others or disrupted her team’s productivity, I don’t think she did anything wrong. I would advise her to seek out friends (both Muslim and non-Muslim) who are supportive so she has a support system. If she wants to wear a scarf then she should, but be cognizant of the fact that many people will be surprised about her decision and may have questions. Respectful surprise and being inquisitive are OK in my opinion. Disrespect is not. – Muslim person

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

Be empathetic and 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 listen and extend whatever 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 contribute in some way? 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. Often as allies we have more power to influence change than we may realize. Here’s a short list of possible ally verbal interventions. The reader is encouraged to have a response ready should he/she encounter similar situations :

“Whoa “Ben Carson”, I disagree with your comment about her. In fact, I respect her for it and will do whatever I can to make her feel comfortable here.”

“Let’s not go there “Donald Trump”. How would you feel if you or someone close to you made a similar 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 my sense is that she seems to be hurt by that.”

Now what? Where do we go from here? Perhaps this quote from Elie Wiesel’s “Soul of Fire,” may help:

“But where do I start? The world is so vast. I shall start with the country I know best, my own. But my country is so very large. I had better start with my town. But my town, too, is large. I had best start with my street. No, my home. No, my family. Never mind, I shall start with myself!

Alright, since it looks like I won’t be able to complete “Merry Christmas, oops, did I offend anyone?” in time for Christmas, maybe I’ll go with it this time next year.

(c) Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story-teller, global trainer and senior associate with Diversity Wealth (www.DiversityWealth.com). He also serves as contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle and The American Diversity Report and is a member of the Cross Cultural Academy. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com or Terry@diversitywealth.com.


NOTE: The inquisitive reader may want to check out Mohamed Hanifi’s “I worry about Muslims” editorial in today’s New York Times.


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