US Muslim Converts: We’re Not Brainwashed!!!


NEW YORK – As the news revealed that Boston suspect widowed wife was an American convert to Islam, stereotypes and misconceptions have been reignited about US women who have chosen Islam, portraying them as brainwashed and submissive who sacrificed their American life to satisfy their husbands.

“The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,” Lauren Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress, told NBC News on Friday, April 26.

Schreiber, who became a Muslim in 2010, expected to hear comments being brainwashed after the media revealed that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor’s daughter, was married to Boston dead suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that Russell must have been coerced and controlled by her husband.

“She was a very sweet woman, but I think kind of brainwashed by him,” reported the Associated Press, quoting Anne Kilzer, a Belmont, Mass., woman who said she knew Russell and her 3-year-old daughter.

Expecting these false assumptions, Schreiber wanted to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions that US women who have chosen Islam.

“It’s not because somebody made me do this,” explains Schreiber, who converted after a college study-abroad trip to West Africa.

“It’s what I choose to do and I’m happy.”

Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago, agreed.

When her students, ages 5 to 8, ask why she wears a headscarf, she always says the same thing: “It’s something that’s important to me and it reminds me to be a good person,” Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, said.

Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to from 7-8 million Muslims.

According to a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 20 percent of US Muslims are converts to the faith. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women.

An earlier Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans Muslims are loyal to their country and optimistic about their future in the United States.

Harsh Criticism

Finding Islam, US Muslim converts usually face harsh accusations of being brainwashed women who sacrificed their American life to please a man.

“Accusations of brainwashing are harsh,” Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, said.

“They cover up the fact that we don’t comprehend why people like ‘us’ want to change and be like ‘them.’”

“Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind,” added Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.”

Chosng to wear a headscarf and traditional Islamic garb in public, Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., usually faces false assumptions that she has sacrificed her American life to please a man.

“’You must have converted in order to marry him,’ I hear it all the time,” said Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband.

Getting married to Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago, she heard people say that her husband is allowed to beat her, that she’s not free to get a divorce, that she and her two children, ages 4 months and 2, are subservient to the man.

“In the beginning, it did offend me a lot,” says Faraj, who grew up in a Christian family in Florida.

“But now as my sense of my new self has grown, I don’t feel offended.”

Her fair features, reflective a white American in hijab, did not ban others from screaming insults in her face.

“They screamed: ‘Go back to your own country’ and I thought, ‘It doesn’t get more white than this, girl,’” says Faraj, indicating her fair features.

Faraj, a stay-at-home mom, says she never saw herself “as a religious person, in the least,” but became enthralled after trying to learn more about Islam before a visit to see her husband’s family.

“The concept of Islam hit me,” Faraj recalls.

“It was just something that entered my heart.”

Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to Islam after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2009.

Choosing Islam, she rejects accusations that Islam encourages men to abuse their wives.

“Abusive men come in all colors, nationalities, ethnicities and from all religions,” she says.

“No one says that Christianity teaches abuse of women because some Christian men are abusive.”

Schreiber, who frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf, said she appreciates it when people ask questions instead of making assumptions.

“I just want people to know that there are American Muslim women who wear hijab by choice because they believe in it and it feels right to them, not because anyone tells them to,” she said.

 Converting to Islam as a “Red Flag”

Katherine RussellEmily Sutcliffe in her article titled: “Converting to Islam as a “Red Flag”: thoughts on Katherine Russellpublished in, writes: When pictures first emerged of Katherine Russell I was not taken aback by the “strange” scene of a hijab-wearing white American woman from a well-educated family, quite the contrary – I felt a sense of connection to the young woman donning clogs and an animal print scarf; myself an American convert to Islam, looking at a picture of Russell was a lot like looking in the mirror. Interested in the case (as all Americans are), but particularly interested in the role Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife played, I began to seek out news articles about Russell.

I experienced a strong sympathy when I saw the now-famous photo of her, panic-stricken and trying to escape reporters. I felt very sorry for this young mother, who, by all accounts thus far, not only had nothing to do with her husband’s terrorism, but was kind, hard-working  and artistic. I imagined the complex and intersecting layers of grief, fear, anger, shock, and hopelessness that Russell must be facing and I wondered how anyone, aside from a handful of people spread across the globe, could begin to understand what it feels like to be in Russell’s position.

What also struck me was the way Russell’s conversion to Islam was being used by many news outlets as evidence of her fall from grace – as the strongest sign that she was not mentally stable. Reporters continually questioned how the daughter of an Exeter and Yale graduate could do something as insane as become a hijab-wearing Muslim. Surely she must have been abused and brainwashed – who in their right mind would give up the quintessential, elite New Englander lifestyle for…faith?

Reporters keep quoting “friends” of Russell’s who essentially say she went crazy – suddenly converting to Islam, dropping out of college, getting married, and having a baby. If we remove the “converted to Islam” or “started wearing a headscarf”part of Russell’s story, is there anything profoundly unusual about someone dropping out of college or getting married? Sure, Russell’s may not be the ideal sequence of life events, but is it remarkable? What smacks of an “ism” to me – be it colonialism, eurocentrism, or racism – is the underlying message that there is no way, aside from mental illness or duress, that a well-educated, white woman from a wealthy American family would choose to convert to Islam.

See, this is where my sense of connection to Russell runs deeper than clothing choice. If someone freeze-framed my life a few years ago, and the lives of many of my friends, they would find many similarities with Russell’s journey. I come from a relatively well-educated, upwardly mobile, white, Christian, American family. Until my late teens, not a single person would have described me as religious or as having the slightest interest in religion.

In college, after reading the Quran for a class and doing a great deal of subsequent research, I converted to Islam. This change – this new identity, was overwhelming at first. When financial factors collided with the struggle to navigate my old life as a new Muslim, I withdrew from college. During the time I was out of school I got married to a Muslim man, moved to the Middle East, and had a child. If we stop the story there, if we fail to shade in the picture with context and detail, mine could easily be a tail of tragedy, brainwashing, and Not Without My Daughter levels of drama.

But what if we told the story of a girl who joyfully and thoughtfully found her spiritual home after years of floating nebulously through a sea of religion she did not believe in? What if we told a love story about a young, mouthy American woman who falls for a handsome, reserved, Egyptian and fights tooth and nail to get his family to accept her?

What if we told the story of a woman full of wanderlust who, having always dreamt of following in her parent’s globe-trotting footsteps, jumped at the chance to live in the Middle East and loved every moment of her time there? And what too, if we told the story of a woman who finished her bachelor’s degree while living abroad, returned to the United States – baby on hip, scarf on head – and received a Master’s degree from an Ivy League university, is currently a doctoral student at an Ivy League university, and lives a rather idyllic, if not hectic, life in the suburbs with her wonderful and supportive husband?

Context matters, context always matters. What makes Katherine Russell’s life disturbing and tragic is not her conversion to Islam. Russell’s life is disturbing and tragic because she was married to an abusive, deranged murderer. No one but Russell knows the circumstances that led to her religious conversion, or if she will remain a Muslim in the future, but it needs to be clear that monolithically synonymizing the act of converting to Islam with mental instability is xenophobic, offensive, and outrageous.

Each night when I kiss the chubby cheeks of my five-year-old son I think of the beautiful, bright eyes of Martin Richard…and of Krystle Campbell’s freckles, and Lingzi Lu’s smile – and I pray that the victims are in a place of utter serenity, and I pray that their families find sources of comfort and hope amidst the abysmal pain and loss…and now too, I pray for Katherine Russell and her daughter, for what, exactly, I’m not sure.

Grieving Boston Muslims

Boston, Muslims, grief, attacksSaddened by the killing of innocent people in deadly bombings in their city and fears of linking the attacks to their community, Muslims in Boston are living in immense grief.

“What will happen to us if they arrest someone and that someone turns out to be a Muslim?” Imam Talal Eid, a chaplain at Brandeis University, told The Boston Globe.

Twin bombings rocked Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, killing at least three people and injured scores.

No one had claimed responsibility for the attack.

US investigators said they have spotted a suspect from security video taken before the two blasts ripped through the city.

No arrests had been made, and the suspect in the video had not been identified by name.

The attacks have drawn widespread condemnations from Muslims inside the United States and around the world.

But the bombings have also left Muslims, feeling the brunt of the 9/11 attacks, worried about a backlash.

“I am still worried,” Talal Eid.

He recalls the anti-Muslim hysteria that followed the 9/11 attacks, which kept many Muslims remain in their houses out of fears of attacks.

“We are still labeled,” the imam said, recognizing that the situation has improved since the 9/11.

“Muslims may be out of the red zone, but we are still in the yellow zone, not the green zone.”

Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, many Muslims have complained of facing discrimination and stereotypes in the society because of their Islamic attires or identities.

Our Country

Muslims say the attacks that hit their city are filling them with immense grief.

“I’m proud to be a Bostonian,” said Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston.

“The way our community has bonded together has been an amazing feeling inside this tragedy.”

Suhaib Webb, the imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Culture Center has also condemned the attacks.

“We’re Bostonians – we mourn with the city,” said Webb, the Oklahoma-born imam who leads the congregation.

“We stand in support with the city, with the victims. We’re hurt, equally shocked and equally pissed off.”

Though no information is yet available about the perpetrators, Boston Muslims are preparing for the worst.

“We have to figure out a narrative,” Ibrahim Rahim, imam at the Yusuf Mosque in Brighton, said.

“We’re talking about a unity service on Friday if it turns out to be what we hope it isn’t.”

Rahim and other Muslim imams will make it clear that Islam is against terrorism and violence.

“We do so much interfaith work, we apologize so often for many of the things that do not reflect Islam,” he said.

Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to from 7-8 million Muslims.

An earlier Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans Muslims are loyal to their country and optimistic about their future in the United States.

US Grieving Muslims Seek Spiritual Healing

Saddened and shaken by the latest attacks, Boston Muslim congregants returned to their mosques, seeking spiritual healing for the grief and rage that bewildered them after the Marathon bombing.

“We come [together] after a horrendous tragedy has befallen our city,” Imam William Suhaib Webb, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, was quoted by Boston Globe on Saturday, April 27.

“Our sacredness has been violated. And a week later, we find our own community under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Webb added in his sermon at the city’s largest mosque, capturing the sense of lamentation, bewilderment, and indignation his congregation felt.

At least three people were killed and scores injured when two explosions rocked near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 14.

The attacks have drawn widespread condemnations from Muslims inside the United States and around the world.

Friday was the local Muslim community’s first opportunity to come together for Friday prayer since the bombings.

A week before, a manhunt forced a citywide shutdown, precipitating an almost unheard-of cancellation.

Congregants sought healing during Friday prayer at the Roxbury mosque following the Marathon bombings.

Many Muslims said they found a new tension in the air.

“You’re kind of getting those looks again,” said Omar Abdelkader, a 23-year-old student at Northeastern University.

Webb spoke of the powerful emotions experienced by community members — the surgical resident who rushed to help the wounded; the badly wounded Saudi woman who almost lost her legs; the foreign student who confided to Webb, “I just think the whole world is against me.”

But, the imam said, “the dark clouds that are so intimidating, they bring with them the gift of rain.”

Same Message

A similar message of support was conveyed at different Islamic centers.

“Today, we insist to our neighbors that we Muslims are people of peaceful covenant,” Imam Ibrahim Rahim of the Yusuf Mosque in Brighton told his congregation.

“As our neighbors, your blood is sacred, your lives are sacred. No one has a right to kill any one of us for any reason!” he said.

“We are against senseless hate and violence, as is Allah, Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the Holy Qur’an.”

And at the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, Ismail Fenni, an assistant imam, told the 100 or so people gathered that God would offer grace to those who respect the sanctity of life and deliver his harshest punishment to those who destroy it.

“As we live through this difficult and trying time after the tragedy that has touched us all, we must remind one another of the need to come closer and the need to help and care for one another,” he said.

At Roxbury Islamic center, Imam Webb pointed to the 100 or so supportive e-mails he said he received from neighbors, as well as others around the country.

He also thanked clergy of other faiths who had stepped forward to support the local mosques, including Rabbis Ronne Friedman and Jeremy S. Morrison of Temple Israel and the Rev. Burns Stanfield, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

“We stand with you — we are one Boston,” Friedman told the congregation.

Touching many of the emotions they have encountered last week, Webb’s sermon moved some congregants into tears.

“This is the first time I’ve come to the ISBCC and seen people not having big smiles,” tearful Passant Ahmed, a dentist and mother of two children from Arlington, said referring to the Roxbury mosque.

“I can feel the sorrow. People are grieving.” (HSH)


1. International News Agencies.



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