In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. The peace and blessings be upon you all, brothers and sisters. Praise be to Allah and a hearty thank you to IslamiCity.com for allowing me to write about discovering Islam. My name is Lee Glaesemann, and I currently work as a reading and study skills for college teacher at a high school in Minnesota, a northern state in the United States.
One glance at what I like to do and one can tell that I am your typical American male: I root for the home team (Go Minnesota Twins and Vikings!), I play many different sports, I lift weights, swim, and pedal on the Stairmaster at the local YMCA, and I even hang out with my family at Apache Mall or at the Chateau movie theaters. In other words, I am another American citizen attempting to live the American dream.
While I love my country and all Americans, I recognize now that an aspect of my identity runs counter to mainstream convention: I am a mainstream American living as a Muslim in the United States. To an American, this profound awareness of Allah’s Truth is both exhilarating and frightening; the former because your heart has found its true partner; the latter because what you know often is difficult for most Americans to understand. Stephen Covey, a renowned self-help writer and business leader, states that one of our greatest challenges is to be understood by others around us. To be understood, he says, is equivalent to a starving man craving bread. To be understood, therefore, is essential to our existence. In the next few paragraphs, I would like to explain not only how but why I chose to be Muslim; in addition, I would like to identify the common struggles that new American Muslims encounter when they explain their decision to non-Muslim Americans.
I was your typical American Christian prior to becoming Muslim, growing up Lutheran in adolescence and early adulthood. Approximately five years ago, (I am 32 years old now), I had a chance to complete a cultural diversity project at my university. I decided to study Islam and Muslims because, as a Christian, I had been raised to believe that Muslims were the enemy.
The first Muslim I met was a student from Saudi Arabia, Khalid al-Khalifah. He had completed a degree in Arabic and Quranic Studies at his college, so he was the perfect one to teach me about this group that appeared so foreign to me. Admittedly, I was intimidated because the people looked so different; who were these girls who wore scarves and confining dresses? What I soon learned, though, would leave a distinct mark on me for the next five years.
As a "pretend" Muslim for three months, I prayed, ate, fasted, and talked with Muslims from around the globe. For the first two months, everything felt so odd, so strange, so counter to the way I live my American life. In addition to learning about Islam, I was inculcated by the cultures associated with Islam.
I finished my cultural diversity workshop, and, to be honest, even though I knew Islam was the true path for me, I continued with Christianity, mainly due to its familiarity — it’s uniquely American — and its cultural comfort. What, no praying or fasting? Count me in! Yet, while I was a committed Baptist in Houston, Texas, where I taught ESOL for five years, Christianity never completely made sense to me. The dilemma we American Muslims face is that our proclamation in Allah runs so counter to the dominant culture’s insistence that anything outside Christianity is misguided, misunderstood, or, in some eyes, "cult-like."
The other thing an American Muslim learns is just how marginalized many groups are in American society. While we can "pass" if we wear western clothes, we realize that many groups lack these options. If you’re marginalized in American society, and, worst of all, if people know it, you’re never really comfortable in your surroundings. The true key to feeling comfortable as an American Muslim is to embrace what you believe while maintaining the "qualities" which make you proud to be an American. Aren’t there millions of Muslims in this world who are proud to be Saudi, Somali, and Malaysian? They know, and we should learn as well, that a person has to love Allah but at the same time love the country from which they come.
One of my students in my reading class is a very devout Muslim. One day in April, he invited me to a workshop on understanding Muslims, which I gleefully attended. When I listened to Jamal Badawi from St. Mary’s University speak Arabic, my heart just sang again. Within two to four weeks, I took the greatest step by saying shahada (declaration of faith) on IslamiCity.
One of the things I think the Muslim ummah must address, though, is the initial isolation new Muslims, especially American Muslims, feel when they must interact with the public once they’ve altered their identities. One thing is that it’s very difficult to let people know that you are Muslim.
I am cautious to let everyone know about my new identity. Too many Americans, unfortunately, associate Islam with terrorism or violence, primarily as a result of what is reported in the mainstream media. When people hear that you’re Muslim, they automatically assume that you’ve become like the American Taliban John Walker Lindh, ready to take up arms against the "Great devil" United States.
Unfortunately, the deep-seeded hatred of Islam in the United States and in the west in general derives, in part, from the medieval Crusades; if you’ve read Dante’s Inferno, a famous Christian Epic Italian poem about a man’s journey through the cantos of hell, guess which prophet is in the second to worst layer? This work of literature shows gruesome graphical details because what it considers corruption of the Christian faith. That same mistrust of Islam and that same callous disregard for any religion "outside" Christianity still lingers in the hearts of too many Americans.
The second problem with being a new Muslim or an American Muslim is that Time becomes an enemy. What do I mean? The point is that, in general, Muslims
need approximately 15 to 20 minutes to perform each prayer properly. In Saudi Arabia, for example, they will put people on hold, close down shops, and stop class in order for people to perform prayers. In the fast-paced American society, businesses struggle to give employees one 30-minute break, 20 minutes if you are a teacher or a student. I think, if you talked to several new Muslims, they will probably relate their frustrations in performing each prayer "on time." Few businesses are willing to concede much to anyone, let alone a new Muslim who suddenly makes additional requests to perform something "not practical."
The third major concern is a new Muslim’s relationship to his often non-Muslim family. Whether we want to admit it or not, families like to build their cultural heritage around their faith. A child’s development is marked by his or her performance of certain religious rituals — i.e. communion, confirmation, church retreats, Sunday school. When a new Muslim finally garners the courage to tell his parents and relatives of his faith in Allah, there is a lot of heartache. Sometimes it’s so bad that parents and children never speak to each other again. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time. The point is that no one can control how another person feels.
The last major problem is that a new Muslim accepts Islam but is unsure which culture to embrace. There is only one Islam, of course, but there are several different cultures that embrace it. Often, most American Muslims will be in contact with other Muslims from very different cultural backgrounds. Americans can be Muslims and follow Islam (alhamdulilah!), but most likely we’ve grown up in a distinctly western world with western ideas and western ways, which is not completely bad. Last time I checked, Allah (subhanah wah ta allah) does not separate his world between the East and West; all of it belongs strictly to him. The struggle develops when Muslims from the East interact with American Muslims in a manner that seems a typical to the social customs of the West. (I also understand that miscommunication is a two-way street!)
A Chinese philosopher once said that a journey of a lifetime begins with a single step. I tend to believe that, with time, Allah-willing, most new American Muslims will achieve a peaceful balance between their identity as a Muslim and their responsibilities as loyal Americans. I understand that Islam is a religion of the middle path; if Allah is the true source of common ground for all of us, then surely we can find a common ground within ourselves.
"Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that ye may be witnesses over mankind, and that the messenger may be a witness over yourselves .." Quran 2:143