Turning Muslim: Part Three

The horrific attacks on September 11, 2001 brought to the forefront of my attention that something was terribly wrong. My peaceful fantasy world was shattered that day.

I knew I had to do something, so I tried to better understand the geo-political situation by investigating history, and fervently keeping up with current events.

I really cannot be sure of whether or not I had ever heard of Islam before September 11… but obviously with that abhorrent attack came the knowledge that there was this other religion out there called Islam.

I was not very fond of religion, so although I never believed the attacks were driven by something inherent in Islam, my disdain of religion was really validated when I thought about a religion being related to this atrocity.

This propelled me to embark upon a project I thought would be groundbreaking. I decided to prove all religions were manmade. I was going to do it by methodically comparing them to political philosophies, which I had begun studying that same semester and found strikingly similar to religion. Flawed and conflicting with one another, they provided the perfect medium to show the world what I had come to believe: Religions were human falsifications and religious adherents, dupes.

This grand idea required me to read religious “scriptures”, so I bought a Bible, the Hindu scriptures, books on Buddhism, Taoism and thankfully, I managed to get a free copy of the translation of the Quran some time after I had begun my studies of the other books. The Quran stood out and quickly dominated my reading. It began to accompany me everywhere I went. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. Its flow, accessibility and its message was so much more digestible, easy to understand and strikingly applicable. The other books, in comparison, had become a struggle to complete and my interest in them, and my project, slowly faded.

Meanwhile, I felt so disturbed by this new post-9/11 reality that I decided to take some time off from college. After that semester, I flew to Australia. I was running away, but the Quran and the other books came with me along with books by Bertrand Russell and other anti-religious “critical thinkers”. My goal remained intact, albeit weakened.

Although overall my getaway was amazing, there are only two points that really are relevant to my journey to Islam.

The first turned out to be significant. The owner of the apartment I sublet in Australia was Israeli. Through this Israeli, I heard enough about the situation in the Middle East to stoke an intense curiosity. I suddenly felt that I needed to know what was really going on. I began making regular trips to the library (there were no smartphones!) and reading up on the formation of Israel and its tumultuous history.

It all seemed so confusing. I read contradictory accounts and descriptions of the situation in Israel. Each side seemed to have a completely different story. Not only that, but people who talked about it were always so passionate and often emotional, irrational even.

Something was not right.

I knew that what was happening in the Middle East was related to the terrorism which had just hit home, literally. That meant it was crucial knowledge for me. My powerful desire to dig deeper and get the truth about one of the causes of the violence that now threatened my life, my home, and my family, grew more and more prominent as time progressed.

It was when I returned home to New York that I would encounter the life-changing opportunity to travel to Israel and to travel through the West Bank. Had I not sublet a flat from an Israeli on the opposite side of the world, I may have never garnered the will to make such a dangerous choice – a choice that proved momentous in terms of my relationship with the Quran and Islam.

The other significant part of my trip was that I suddenly experienced being a foreigner for the first time, which was extremely humbling.

In Australia, although Australians speak English, I felt shy to speak, because my accent sounded so strange, compared to what was the norm there. Whenever I spoke, it was obvious I was a foreigner. It was stressful not being able to blend in and just exist amongst the people.

From Australia, I decided to travel to Southeast Asia, where I travelled through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Not even being able to communicate properly in the native languages was nerve-wracking. I tried my best to learn the basic phrases from my travel books, but even with that, it was all but impossible to understand what was going on most of the time. I was in Asia for about a month, and by the end, I was exhausted!

In Laos, there is a small rural town that became a popular stop for many tourists. Many restaurants have popped up to cater to the growing tourism – which, in ways, have helped the country’s economy – but I couldn’t help but notice how the tourists tended to trample on the Laotian culture and how they were being taken advantage of for the low value of their money.

A riverside restaurant in Laos that caters to foreign tourists
A riverside restaurant in Laos that caters to foreign travellers

When I tried to experience a more authentic Laotian cuisine in a local Laotian restaurant, a group of native people approached me and demanded that I “speak Lao”. They were testing me and showing their animosity for the lack of respect they get from tourists, who come into town to party without any interest in, or respect for, Laotian culture and language. I went back to my hotel room and cried after that.

I cried and cried.

In Vietnam and Laos, there are some people who still have enmity and resentment toward America, lingering since the Vietnam War. To this day there remain signs of the war on the streets, such as people born with birth defects caused by Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant dropped into jungles by the US to expose enemy fighters during the war.

It was difficult for me to see them begging on the streets, living a life of suffering, because of a war waged before I was even born. I don’t know how to describe the feeling; it was like remorse, shame. Seeing, in person, the suffering humans can cause one another was a profoundly overwhelming experience.

This itself did not lead me to Islam, but it primed my heart. Before all of this, I was pretty arrogant, but slowly through these experiences my heart softened and my mind expanded. My perceptions and understanding shifted and matured.

I walked through the war museum in Hanoi, viewing the conflict from the Vietnamese perspective, while all the Vietnamese patrons stared at me! I was surprised when some people approached me in the museum and expressed reconciliation and forgiveness. It was extremely emotional. I genuinely felt sorry for what had happened to them during the war. Being able to connect with those people without even having a common language, to reconcile such a long-lasting rift on a human level, was extraordinary.

I felt a deep sense of culpability being abroad. It was the weight of responsibility to represent my country and the American people in the most positive way possible – to somehow express our diversity and general goodness.

A riverside scene in Vietnam
A more local riverside scene, in Vietnam

It weighed very heavily on me.

I suddenly felt shy to be seen as someone who would be disdainful of other people and cultures because they are different from my own. I felt ashamed when I walked into that Laotian restaurant unable to speak Lao. It didn’t seem right to be taking advantage of people by enjoying one-dollar hamburgers and three-dollar gourmet meals they could not afford themselves.

It really struck me being on the other side, but it was enlightening to see myself, and my country, from a different point of view. That was truly an unforeseen aspect of my travels, and I am grateful to have gained a deeper perspective.

It helped me understand that we people are all so much alike. I personally decided that I did not want to allow myself to feel that just by being American I am somehow better than anyone else. Foremost I am a human being, in many ways like every other human being on the face of this Earth.

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