Monday, September 17, 2007

Convert finds true home in Islam


'I finally found a house where I can place all my morals, my ideals'

BY RUMMANA HUSSAIN Editorial Board Writer

Aaron Siebert-Llera would wake up wearing the Star of David one day and a cross the next.
But the religion he eventually chose was neither his father's Jewish faith nor his Mexican-American mother's Roman Catholicism.
But the religion he eventually chose was neither his father's Jewish faith nor his Mexican-American mother's Roman Catholicism.
He chose Islam.

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Facts about Muslims
• Nearly 60 percent of converts to Islam in America are African American.
• Almost half converted before the age of 21.
• Two-thirds of converts came from Protestant churches; ten percent came from Catholicism, and five percent from other religions. Fifteen percent had no religious affiliation before converting.
SOURCE: 2007 Pew Research Center study on Muslim Americans

He chose Islam.
"I felt like I finally found a house where I can place all my morals, my ideals, the way I was living," says Siebert-Llera, who was a wallflower at nightclubs and shunned alcohol, which is prohibited by Islam, even when working the front door at a blues club while in college at San Francisco State University.
Siebert-Llera lost most of his friends when he converted three years ago.
His parents, who divorced when he was 7, thought it was a phase. They feared that their son, a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan who grew up in Madison, Wis., and California, would abandon his sense of humor and stop voting for Democrats and Green Party candidates.
Siebert-Llera's father, Jack, who teaches English as a second language, was particularly concerned.
Jack Siebert served on a scholarship committee with the father of John Walker Lindh, the infamous "American Taliban" captured in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, and he worried that his youngest child might go the same route.
"Right away, I'm like, 'Papa, I'm not becoming Taliban and going to Afghanistan. I'm not becoming a right-wing nut who's going to be moving halfway across the world. . . . I'm not changing who I am," says Siebert-Llera, 31, a student at Loyola University's law school.
Growing up, Siebert-Llera's knowledge about Islam was limited to what he saw on television and in the movies. Islam wasn't even a religion he seriously thought about when he first began a spiritual quest, searching for something "internally."
Then Sept. 11 happened.
Siebert-Llera knew enough to differentiate between the Islamic extremists who hijacked the planes and the majority of practicing Muslims. Still, he was curious about the Quran. He bought a copy but just skimmed through the pages, not really finding the passages that some said advocated terrorism.
Two years later in Chicago, he met a young Mexican-American woman at Loyola, where he had been pursuing his graduate studies before transferring to DePaul.
One day, she walked into class with a hijab, or head scarf, and a jilbab, a long robe-like coat worn by many in the Middle East. She had converted to Islam.
"I definitely saw a change in her as far as comfort and general level of happiness. She was at ease with her life," says Siebert-Llera, of Orland Park.
A few weeks later, Siebert-Llera accompanied his friend to the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview.
He asked questions and was impressed with what he learned about the charitable requirement of giving away 2.5 percent of your annual salary, daily prayers, pilgrimages to Mecca. Islam isn't just about going to services; it's an all-encompassing primer on the kind of disciplined life Siebert-Llera craved.
What he likes most about his adopted religion is that it has no hierarchy and many schools of thought ranging from the ultra-conservative to liberal.
Siebert-Llera called his parents and older sister, Andrea, on Oct. 6, 2004. He converted the next day.
He grew a beard, based on the Sunnah or actions of the Prophet Muhammad. He started fasting during Ramadan and praying the five daily prayers. A year after converting, he met Huda, a fellow law student, Syrian-American and devout Muslim woman, and they married in 2005.
Siebert-Llera believes his family has accepted his commitment to Islam. Early Thursday evening, just before he was going to break his first fast of the year, Siebert-Llera's mother called him to wish him a Happy Ramadan.
He keeps his cell phone handy, waiting for sister and father to do the same. He knows they will.

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