Young people find stereotypes a challenge
By SUMMER HARLOW, The News Journal
Ahmad (Drew) Marshall, 23, a University of Delaware senior, was introduced to Islam through a class in Islamic art. Raised a Presbyterian in Hockessin, he converted two years ago.
Muqtedar Khan, a UD professor, says Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, fueled by converts. Drew Marshall could have been any of the dozen or so university students studying and sipping coffee at a Newark cafe. About 6 feet tall, with a close beard and a light blue shirt, not much about him stands out. Until he offers an Arabic greeting.
Marshall, or Ahmad, as the 23-year-old white American from Hockessin now calls himself, converted to Islam two years ago.
Wearing a dress shirt and slacks, carrying his school bag like a briefcase, Marshall looks more like a member of the faculty than a college senior.
People show him more respect when he dresses this way, he says. Changing his appearance along with his name was just another way to distance himself from his old life.
A senior majoring in international relations with a minor in Islamic studies, Marshall quotes hadiths and verses from the Quran, seamlessly switching between English and Arabic. Arabic is like a mathematical formula, he says, so it's not hard to learn.
Six years ago, as a senior in high school sitting in the cafeteria during his free period on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, learning Arabic was the last thing on his mind.
Like most everyone in America, Marshall remembers watching the Twin Towers collapse, recalls the fear, confusion and anger.
"I remember after 9/11 saying it was going to be World War III, and let's go get Bin Laden," he said. "I was on the bandwagon of revenge, definitely. We all blamed it on Muslim terrorists -- that's the default culprit."
That act of terror put thousands of Americans on the path to Islam.
"People want to know more about what they didn't know about before, and 9/11 piqued that. So as a result, people are becoming more aware, and perhaps getting to the point they realize there's something in Islam for them," said Ismat Shah, University of Delaware associate professor of physics and material science, and adviser to the Muslim Students Association.
Despite or perhaps because of Sept. 11, conversions to Islam have increased, making it the fastest-growing religion in the world, said Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. About 23 percent of American Muslims are converts, about half of which turned to Islam before age 21, according to a May report from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
"There's a curiosity about Islam today," Khan said. "Islam has become the major thing everyone in the world is talking about."
According to the Pew report, there are an estimated 2.35 million American Muslims, about 35 percent of whom were born in the United States. About 850,000 are under age 18.
But there are certain challenges American Muslims, especially new converts, must face, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations.
It's fairly common for them to be accused of betraying their race or background, or rejecting their friends or family, when they accept Islam, said Hooper, also a convert.
Ray Duran, a junior at the University of Delaware, converted after the Sept. 11 attacks and has faced questions of whether he's going to become an extremist.
But as a child of Mexican immigrants, he said, he's learned to deal with racist and ignorant comments. He's used to stereotypical comments about Mexican dishwashers and undocumented immigrants, and that, he said, helps him take anti-Muslim rhetoric in stride.
"I know people say malicious things, and they always make assumptions," he said.
Faced with such challenges, it's crucial for new Muslims to find educational and social support within the Muslim community, he said.
In the last six years, it has become increasingly difficult to be a Muslim in the United States, said members of the University of Delaware's Muslim Students Association.
They're not imagining things. The Pew study found that more than half of American Muslims said intolerance and discrimination had gotten worse, and roughly four in 10 under the age of 30 said they had been taunted, threatened or attacked in the last year.
In 2005, a Delaware Muslim mother of three schoolgirls filed a federal lawsuit against the Cape Henlopen School District, accusing a teacher at Shields Elementary School in Lewes of equating Muslims with terrorists, and claiming school officials didn't stop ridicule by other students.
'People do judge'
When Amani Alkotf went off to college, her father worried that she would be treated negatively if she wore a veil.
"People do judge," Alkotf, an 18-year-old senior at UD, said. "They assume if we wear a scarf, we're terrorists."
Surrounded by mostly white peers in Khan's Islam and Global Affairs class, she was the only one wearing a head scarf. She decided against the veil.
Knowing the looks she gets when she stops in campus bathrooms to wash her hands, face and feet before praying, Alkotf said she's surprised so many white Americans are turning to Islam.
"Everything you hear about Islam is negative," she said.
Marjorie Belez, a UD freshman from Smyrna, said she knows many people associate Muslims with terrorists, but she's never witnessed any discrimination.
"Not everyone agrees with everyone else, but for the most part, people are respectful," she said. "I don't think, 'Oh, they're Muslim, I better stay away.' "
For Marshall, terrorism and stereotypes didn't cross his mind when he first was attracted to Islam, he said.
Marshall said he led a life typical of youth, all about partying and disregarding his parents, he said.
Now, as a Muslim, he won't elaborate on what a "party, party, party" lifestyle entailed -- Muslims shouldn't talk about their sins in public, he said.
"I was very individualistic," he said.
He grew up in Hockessin, raised in an all-American nuclear family, with a younger sister, a dog and a small boat for weekend outings. They went to church at Limestone Presbyterian Church, where his mom taught Sunday school.
But Marshall felt something about his life wasn't right.
"I felt like I was being someone I wasn't," he said. "I became disgruntled."
He didn't like the ugly way students at his high school treated one another. He didn't like the fighting, the way people took advantage of each other, the materialism, the competition to be "cool."
It wasn't until his sophomore year in college that he found a solution.
Out of curiosity, he enrolled in a class on Islamic art. He wasn't planning on converting; he just was intrigued by the Quran, poetry, anything Islamic-related.
"The biggest thing, for me, was to hear the call to prayer," he said. "It was in a different language, just the pure beauty of it drew me in."
He began reading the Quran. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know.
His mother, Sally Marshall, said she thinks the gentleness of Islam, and the kindness and respect he received at the mosque, appealed to him.
"He liked the Muslim students because they were genuine, not pretentious, and didn't need beer pong to have fun," she said. "They didn't get rowdy and beat each other up. Islam teaches respect and consideration of parents, especially mothers. Islam has helped him to grow into a young man I am proud of."
'I don't really miss my old life'
Duran, a child of Mexican immigrants, grew up Roman Catholic in Scranton, Pa. His friends and family have questioned his decision to convert, but they understand that who he is hasn't changed, he said.
"They love that I'm involved in religion, but they don't understand Islam," he said.
In his black socks and Nike sandals, khaki shorts and UD cap, Duran doesn't look any different from the thousands of other students on campus.
Because of that, he said, people don't automatically fear or ridicule him.
Still, he said, he sometimes feels awkward when he has to pray on campus as other students look at him strangely, not understanding what he's doing.
A resident adviser for a UD dorm, Duran said he hadn't yet told the students on his floor that he's Muslim -- he wanted them to know him as an individual first. Because he lives on a mostly white floor, Duran was worried they would be confused, at the least.
"It will be interesting to see how they react," he said. "It always creates tension when people don't understand something."
Marshall said he's heard people ask why he "went over to the other side."
"They're joking about it, but just because they're afraid to actually say it," he said.
He does worry about people's reactions to his being Muslim. He exudes confidence, he said, and some day he wouldn't be surprised if "some redneck next to me just pops me one."
And when he travels now, he's paranoid, he said.
"I always feel people are looking at me," he said.
Sania Mirza, 20, president of the Muslim Students Association, said that since Sept. 11, she feels she constantly must prove she's American, take that extra step to show being Muslim does not equate with violence.
"It's frustrating, and it's not fair," she said. "And really, how do you prove you're more American? It's not like I'm wearing a scarf, but I don't wear revealing clothing or listen to vulgar music or drink. I don't think that's what makes you American. Justice, equality, freedom of speech -- that's what's American."
Marshall and Duran say that while they miss aspects of their old lives, it's not like becoming Muslim made them any less American than their peers.
Duran still plays basketball, he's still involved in campus organizations, but now, he said, he devotes more time to prayer, to God.
And while Marshall said he occasionally longs for a cold beer on a hot day, water refreshes him just the same.
"I make these sacrifices because I want to serve my God," he said. "I don't really miss my old life because I carried with me everything that was good from it.