Western Youth Turn to Islam, Inspired by Palestinians' Faith in God

The resilience shown by the people of Gaza during the five-month-long bloody war has ignited curiosity about Islam among young people in the West, leading many to embrace Islam.

A Palestinian woman sits on the ground, embracing her deceased toddler who's draped in a white sheet. Tears stream down her face as she silently cries and murmurs the word "alhamdulillah," a humble acknowledgement in Arabic that Muslims use to express gratitude and thankfulness to God regardless of difficult circumstances they may be encountering.

That expression of faith touched millions of viewers on social media, even resulting in life-changing decisions for some. And the 25-year-old Abbey Hafez, who’s married to a Muslim man and identified herself as a Christian, was one of them.

The American social media influencer began reading the Quran after watching this video and being captivated by the Palestinian mother's devotion. Sharing her story in an interview, she said, "I need to read this book and see what it is that they believe in to be this steadfast in their faith."

Like Hafez, whose videos have garnered over 35 million views online, there’s a widespread trend across Western countries where people are taking a keen interest in knowing Islam beyond its stereotypical portrayal peddled by mainstream media for decades.

From famous celebrities to activists with millions of followers, the trend of individuals announcing their decision to embrace Islam or, at the very least, start reading the Quran has become increasingly common on social media since October 7.

Examples include Henry Klassen, a renowned ophthalmology professor at the University of California, and former Spanish football player Jose Ignacio Peleterio converting to Islam. Hollywood star Will Smith has also expressed his interest in reading the Quran. In another instance, at least 30 women announced their conversion to Islam in Melbourne, Australia, deeply moved by witnessing the strong faith of Palestinians.

The snowball effect

Feelings of solidarity, empathy or sympathy with Palestinians might contribute to the wish to learn more about their background and faith, Dr Vanessa Vroon of Social and Behavioural Sciences at University of Amsterdam explains.

Once people start to educate themselves about Islam, they often realise that “it is different from what they learn from the often negative media coverage of Islam in Western countries,” she tells TRT World.

When asked about what might be the political roots and implications of these conversions, Vroon says, “Politics are known to play a role in so far as people ask themselves: is Islam really that bad?”

“What might make a difference in light of the Palestine-Israel conflict is that in the news, day in day out, people see that amidst the devastation of war, Palestinians turn to Allah for help and strength. This, again, might be a first impetus to start learning more about their religion, possibly become convinced of its truth and consider becoming Muslim oneself,” she adds.

A young American woman, Megan Rice, was among the pioneers in sharing her exploration of Islam online, inspired by the Palestinian people. She began posting videos discussing her journey into Islam, particularly after purchasing the Quran, which garnered interest from her followers, prompting them to consider buying the holy book themselves.

While interacting with her followers and responding to their queries largely about her learning of the Quran, Rice established a digital book club where people could exchange thoughts and interpretations of Quranic passages. The number of Western individuals who have begun reading the Quran and sharing numerous videos detailing their positive and enriching experiences has thus increased over the months.

Megan's journey experienced a profound transformation as she evolved from being influenced by others to becoming an influencer herself, assuming the role of an initiator within her newfound community after her conversion to Islam. Now, she actively continues her social media activism by spearheading various campaigns.

The new young social media users aren’t just bold enough to reject Western states’ blind support for every Israeli action, challenge media biases, and seek truth through independent research; they also aimed to inspire others to join their quest for a more nuanced understanding of the colonial occupation.

Another American woman, 32-year-old author and content designer Kaitlyn Luckow, currently residing in Germany, launched a BookTok series—a type of content on TikTok where users share, discuss, and review books—after October 7 to impart knowledge on the history of Palestine.

“I knew I had to use the platform I had –regardless of how small it may be– to share learnings, resources, and books. I don’t know everything and I’m learning every single day. And if I can encourage others to do the same, then maybe we can collectively demand and create systemic change,” she told TRT World.

People around the world, especially the youth, are starting to open their eyes and educate themselves, Luckow believes, as they go on social media every day and watch as innocent humans are being murdered while their governments try to convince them that this is the right thing to do to protect their own interests.

Despite receiving numerous hateful comments every day, she remains determined to encourage people to question mainstream media narratives and embark on their own journeys of learning about pressing issues.

“While I am under no illusion that I am going to change someone's opinion immediately, I am hopeful that maybe I can help plant a seed of doubt regarding the information they are receiving and how to become more media literate,” she says.

TikTok says it all

Experts say that 2014 was a pivotal year in shaping a new generation's understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During that year, a war in Gaza resulted in the deaths of over 2,250 Palestinians, coinciding with protests erupting in the US when the police shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man.

The global youth’s opinion on Palestine took on a new dimension also when the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem witnessed settler occupation in May 2021. It marked the first time Palestinians, whose homes were occupied, could share detailed accounts of the Israeli occupation as it unfolded, thanks to Instagram's live-streaming feature. Notably, these accounts went viral, and people watched Israeli forces trying to expel the el-Kurd family from their homes for weeks.

Following these events, with TikTok surpassing Google in website visits in 2022 and experiencing the fastest growth to over a billion users among all social media apps, the collective memory of Palestine among the youth in the West began to take shape.

Right after the October 7 attack, a wave of online self-education has unfolded as TikTok users started posting videos inviting open discussions about the ongoing conflict, leading to many conversations delving into the history of Israeli occupation.

From October 16th to 30th, there were nearly four times as many views organically on TikTok posts with the hashtag #StandwithPalestine globally as there were on posts with the hashtag #StandwithIsrael, the Chinese app announced, in response to the accusations that it was pushing pro-Palestine videos deliberately, subtly influencing the youth of America.

The millennials and Gen-Z, who are the primary users of the app, are more aware that the Israel-Palestine conflict did not originate on October 7th. A recent survey indicates a notable generational difference in the American perspective on support for either Israel or Palestine, with younger generations showing a more pronounced pro-Palestine stance and increased scrutiny of US policies regarding the conflict.

The Counter-effect

While TikTok and its young users remain a notable aspect of West-Islam interaction, the phenomenon of increased interest in Islam following catastrophes in the Muslim world is nothing new.

The September 11 attacks in 2001 marked the initial exposure to Islam for many Westerners, initiating a transformation. This shift has led to significant growth in the Muslim population in the United States, with numbers increasing from an estimated 1 million to 2.6 million between 2000 and 2010—a 67 percent surge—making Islam the second-largest religious group in the country and the fastest-growing religion in the world.

People who then first learned about this religion and began exploring it out of curiosity often mention experiencing a significant shift in mindset after realising that the religion stands in stark contrast to the extremist ideologies acclaimed by those responsible for the attacks.

“From September 11 onwards, you couldn't find a single newspaper in the United States that did not mention the words "Islam" and "Muslims" daily or weekly for years, and it has obviously had consequences,” says Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, the Communications Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida.

He mentions that it was in the early 2000s when pioneering academic institutions around the world began conducting studies on fields such as Islamic studies, Muslims civilizational studies, and Christian-Muslim relations.

"Whenever Muslims are portrayed, whether positively or negatively, people become curious about who Muslims are and what Islam entails. By placing Muslims in the forefront, regardless of the intent behind it, people will inevitably learn from them. Whether Muslims are showcased to speak the truth about their beliefs and actions or being simply vilified, it will inevitably yield consequences and individuals will become intrigued," he tells TRT World.

Ruiz, who himself reverted in 2003, a couple of years following the 9/11 attacks, believes that another consequence of the increasing Islamophobia in the US following the crisis in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli war was that Muslims became more vigilant against discrimination and endeavoured to educate themselves about their rights.

( Source: This article by TRT World can be accessed here )


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