U.S. media makes it difficult for Americans to see that the diversity of Muslim Americans goes far beyond first generation, foreign-born immigrants and their U.S.-born children, and is inclusive of American, U.S.-born converts to Islam who are culturally, as American as apple pie. There are extreme misperceptions of Muslims and Islam by a majority (57%) of the American public, who according to a 2007 Gallup Poll feel less knowledgeable about Muslims and Islam six years after 9/11 than they did in a 2002 Gallup Poll (54%). Many Americans find it incomprehensible that a ‘real American’ would voluntarily convert to Islam and conclude he/she must be brainwashed. While there is a great deal of research focusing on the experiences of Muslim Americans post-9/11, it is crucial to understand whom the term ‘Muslim Americans’ is referencing. More importantly, with statistics showing that approximately 20% of Muslim Americans are American converts to Islam, it is vital to fill the gap in current research by including this growing demographic in the conversation regarding Muslims in America.
A recent book, Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today states that, “Surveys conducted through the Council on American Islamic Relations conclude that some 20,000 people convert each year, with women outnumbering men approximately four to one.” Research on U.S. converts to Islam, and women in particular, is crucial because Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world; Muslim Americans are underrepresented and misrepresented in the media and perhaps even in polls; and the majority of U.S. converts to Islam are women. This leaves many Americans questioning who these women are, what they have to say for themselves, and whether they are ‘real Americans’.
One question in my 2014 study, Feeling Muslim, asked American female converts to Islam, “How does feeling Muslim make you feel about yourself as an American?” Two respondents in the study stated:
I think Americans often don’t understand Islam so because I’m an American and a Muslim sometimes I feel like an oxymoron. Sometimes Muslims think that Americans can’t be Muslim, so I’m not accepted by the Americans because I’m Muslim and I’m not accepted by the Muslims because I’m American… I see Islam as a religion and America as a land where people are free to practice any religion they choose and where persecuted peoples can come to for refuge.
I feel so proud to be an American!
I see Islamic values being practiced in America quite often, whether it is conscious or not. …And, the American values of courtesy, self-reliance, community, integrity, honesty, hard work, and forward planning are indeed the same values that our Prophet (pbuh) had and taught the world to have.
Barbara states from the outset that many Americans are hesitant to accept Muslims as American and many Muslims are hesitant to accept Americans as Muslim. This paradox is echoed in many of the 257 responses from American female converts to Islam, with many clearly frustrated at feeling as though they do not belong in their respective Muslim communities, and others stating they do not have a ‘home Muslim community’ due to problems such as this.
As to whether they have a home Muslim community, one woman answered, “No, I do not. There is too much cultural Islam, too much discrimination against women, and too many arrogant men.” Yet another who self-identified as gay and gender non-conforming stated that, “The sense of isolation is chilling and physically painful.” There are numerous internal challenges facing the American Muslim community, but by a large margin, the women participating in the survey see patriarchy, ethnocentrism, racism, and lack of cultural assimilation by many Muslim immigrants as primary obstacles to their sense of belonging as Muslims of American heritage.
Many respondents, such as Lakisha, are clearly proud to be American and see many similarities between Islamic and American values. However, numerous responses reflected U.S. female converts who identify as culturally American, uncomfortable with U.S. foreign policy and/or current pop culture, and feeling alienated as a religious minority in the U.S.
For example, Teresa stated:
I learned more about our country’s actions in the world in terms of military, financial, and cultural colonialism. I am not proud of that as I am not proud of the way we treated Native Americans, or supported slavery, or the current Islamophobia. But in America we have a chance to change and create new and beautiful systems as well. I feel American and am culturally American, and proud of the beauty of America.
While Teresa identifies several historic and present-day actions by the United States that she is not proud of, she still affirms the beauty of America and her American identity. While many Muslims and non-Muslims alike find America’s foreign policy problematic, American converts to Islam are in a unique position to bridge the existing cultural gaps within our greater American family, including immigrants and non-immigrants, Muslims and non-Muslims. Many of the women expressed an awareness, eagerness, and commitment to changing negative perceptions of Muslim women by the American public, engaging in interfaith dialogue and community outreach, and developing resources for Muslims, both born Muslims and converts.
In the U.S. news media’s portrayal of Muslim women, 73% of images the American public are seeing of Muslim women are portraying them as passive, oppressed victims, compared with only 15% of Muslim men portrayed in such a manner. This portrayal of Muslim women is not representative of the way Muslim women see themselves, and does not communicate the real, vibrant, and distinctly American voices of U.S. female converts to Islam.
I feel there is no conflict in being “Muslim” and “American” although the fact that others do makes it an issue but it doesn’t have to be. Unacceptance of Muslims in America or Muslims in general stems from political interests, racism, ignorance, or dominant groups’ tendency to feel culturally superior to minority groups.
I feel more American living overseas as I realize many things about me identify me as American to others. As a person of color, I’ve had the experience of not being accepted in my country of birth and being Muslim just adds another layer to my experience.
These findings corroborate the findings in Anne Sofie Roald’s book section, “The Shaping of Scandinavian ‘Islam’: Converts and Gender Equal Opportunity,” in which she states that some new Muslims, “like second-generation Muslim children, develop “integrated plural identities,” which she describes as a “harmonious transcultural oscillation among various patterns of identity.” The findings of Sociologist Nicole Bourque of the University of Glasgow corroborate this and assert that in addition to redefining their religious and gender identity, “new Muslims must also renegotiate their British and Scottish identity,” which leads some converts to emphasize their religious identity over all others, while some redefine their national identity, and others downplay the problem by emphasizing the “universal community of Muslims.” As is evidenced, U.S. female converts to Islam responded openly and did not hold back their opinions. These women are highly intelligent and have no problem expressing their opinions on numerous topics, which are highly controversial in Muslim communities across America.
These responses paint an intimate portrait of the thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and hopes of American female converts to Islam from across the spectrum. The responses provide a glimpse into the lives of U.S. female converts that has previously been largely inaccessible, demonstrating the frustration of those respondents who are eager to help and feel their “gifts” are of no use or that they are “invisible,” while other responses portray converts who are integrated in their respective Muslim communities, and even providing beneficial services within those communities. However, the number of U.S. female converts who expressed feeling lonely and isolated far outnumbered those who reported the opposite.
As U.S. citizens who understand American cultural and societal norms, American female converts to Islam are in a good position to serve as advocates and agents for change, not only for themselves, but also on behalf of their fellow Muslim Americans. Understanding converts’ perceptions about their own identities, their ideas about community support, and what they need, is a first step toward understanding the important role U.S. converts to Islam can play in bridging the cultural divide between Muslims and other Americans. These American voices are offering a challenge to both the greater non-Muslim American community and the Muslim American community in clearly articulated, individual voices saying: I am a ‘real American’, I am a ‘real Muslim’, I am ready to have the conversation. You bring the vanilla ice cream – I’ll bring the apple pie.