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Converting to Islam: Understanding the Experiences of White American Females

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 Converting To Islam
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Islam is believed to be the fastest growing religion in the world, and it has been estimated that by 2025, approximately 30% of the world’s population will be practicing Muslims.1 The Pew Research Center has a slightly more conservative projection, estimating that by 2030, 26.4% of the world’s population will be adhering to Islam.2 These numbers indicate that there will soon be an estimated 2.2 billion Muslim practitioners worldwide.

Due to federal regulations against asking about religious affiliation during the US Census, the precise number of Muslims living within the United States is unknown; however, the Muslim American population has been estimated by a number of demographers who have suggested that on the low end, the Muslim American population is 2.35 million,3 and at the high end approximately 6–7 million.4 In the United States, it is anticipated that if current trends continue, the Muslim American population will increase by more than double in the next 20 years.5

A recent study published by The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (which tracks religions through a study every 10 years) found that Islam is the second largest religion in 20 American states,6 most of which are in the Southern and Midwest regions, though there are large pockets of Muslims throughout the country based on county.7

Some demographers believe that Islam may have surpassed Judaism as the second largest faith in the United States.8 Alternately, the Pew Research Center indicates that while the margins between the Jewish and Muslim populations have decreased, practitioners of Islam have not yet surpassed practitioners of Judaism.9 It has been estimated that between 1990 and 2001, the Muslim American population grew by 200%.10

Whether this increase was through immigration, increased birth rates, or conversion was not noted. A more recent study suggests that the Muslim population has grown by 1 million in the decade between 2000 and 2010.11 In 2008, it was believed that there were over 1,209 active mosques in the United States,12 and as of 2004, there were 300 ethnic Muslim associations, 200 Muslim student groups, 200 Islamic schools, 100 Muslim community media outlets, and 50 Muslim social service groups which operated within the United States,13 numbers which continue to grow.

While it may be the fastest growing religion in the United States, scholars are actively questioning whether Islam could soon become the fastest shrinking religious demographic in the United States due to intermarriage and assimilation.14

The American Muslim community can be separated into two parts: (1) immigrant and (2) American-born (or indigenous).15 Morey and Yaqin suggest that there are actually three categories of Muslims living in the United States: (1) Muslim immigrants, (2) descendants of African slaves, and (3) white Muslim converts.16 Contrary to commonly held beliefs, indigenous Muslims and converts actually make up the largest population of Muslims who live in the United States.17

 In reality, Arab-born Muslims make up only an estimated 20% of the Muslim population living in America, though many Americans still incorrectly assume that to be Arab is to be Muslim andthattobeMuslimistobeArab.18 This assumption about what it means to be Muslim and Arab was highlighted by Abdo who argued that Muslim Americans “live in the heart of America but they are often defined solely by Americans’ perceptions of Muslims abroad, whether they are insurgents in Iraq or Saudi oil tycoons in Riyadh.”19

Amongst the indigenous Muslim population in the United States, the largest group based on race is African-American, but Hispanic and Anglo percentages are increasing.20 Because societally we focus so much on physical traits (skin and facial features) for categorizational purposes, we frame Muslims as other outsiders and as part of diaspora communities.21 This leaves white converts to be overlooked. Caucasian-American conver-sion makes up approximately 3% of all American conversion rates, and this rate is increasing.22

Although Islam was present in the United States prior to September 11, 2001, most of the American population never paid attention to Muslims until after the terrorist attacks, and similarly many Muslim Americans pre-9/11 also did not feel as if they had to think about their Americanness.23 As Gaskew indicated,

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 served as a turn in the road for many Muslims in The United States, allowing various latent social conflicts to surface and challenge the current discourse on what it means to be a Muslim American in a post-9/11 world.24

Many Muslims feel that their religion was hijacked along with the four passenger planes during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,25 which (in the words of Gaskew) leaves Muslims being “torn between the realities of September 11, 2001, the incredible loss of human life and suffering, and the accusations that Muslims and their religion of Islam were responsible for this act of violence.”26

It should be noted that although Muslims and Arabs were targeted after other world events involving the United States – the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1971–1981), the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the Gulf War, the USS Cole bombing in 200027 – September 11, 2001 finds the most prominent position in the American collective conscious-ness because it had the highest level of destruction and was most shocking to the American collective psyche.

Huddy, Feldman, Lahav, and Taber found that after September 11, health researchers noted significant increases of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder amongst Americans, regardless of religious affiliation.28 For this reason, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are the primary starting point used in this book to mark a shift toward widespread social acceptance for Islamophobia.

Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there has been a dra-matic increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, as society has been marred by Islamophobia. Islamophobia has been defined by Morey and Yaqin as a “view of Muslim Cultures as monolithic, isolationist, threatening, prone to violence and inherently hostile to the west.”29

For the purpose of clarity, this book defines the term Islamophobia in a broad all-encompass-ing sense, encapsulating a social fear, distrust, and dislike of those who are perceived to be Muslim and a generalized rejection of all things and people associated with Islam,30 as well as the fear that leads to hostility, discrimi-nation, and hatred of not only those who are Muslim, but also those who are perceived as being Muslim.31


In qualitative research, one must remain aware that the researcher is the instrument and that the researcher’s life experiences can never fully be separated from the research itself.63 For this reason, it becomes paramount to this research that my own life experiences, particularly those which shaped my interest in this topic, be articulated.

My mother was the first daughter of a Jewish man who had, in his early life, studied at the Chabad to become an Orthodox Rabbi. After the death of a dear childhood friend, and later serving in WWII and being involved with both the first storm of Normandy and the liberation of a small Nazi concentration camp, he drifted from his religious upbringings. Although no longer actively practicing, he wanted his children to have a religious faith. He always found Orthodox Judaism to be too stifling and chose for his children to be raised within the Conservative movement.

After my parents were married in a Conservative Synagogue, they moved to rural New Hampshire where the synagogue of convenience was Reform. My mother, having been a professionally trained vocalist, became the Cantoral Soloist at this small Reform synagogue and they quickly found their religious home. By the time they adopted me at the age of five, they were well established within this religious community, although my father was not as active in religious life.

I was born to an unwed, nonpracticing Catholic mother who was incapable of raising me due to a series of health issues. In my very early life, she did her best to raise me with the help of her deeply religious Catholic parents, but I was soon placed into foster care. I was baptized Catholic as a baby but did not attend religious services or learn any religious doctrine during my years in foster care.

After being adopted, I regularly attended religious services with my adoptive mother. At religious services and at religious preschool, I learned the lessons of the Torah. At home, my mother did her best to teach me the stories from the New Testament so that I could understand various religious teachings. By the time I was six, I was presented with a choice of which religious faith I would like to pursue.

 I chose to convert to Judaism, probably less for the doctrine and more for the fact that it would bring a closer bond between me and the two people I loved more than anything, my parents. At the time, my grandfather feared that at some point later in life, others would try to revoke my status as a Jew or claim that my conversion was null,64 and he asked my parents to have me…


In the current academic literature, while the experience of discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, or other marginalized religious group have all been explored, there is a recognized void of research on the post-9/11 shared lived experiences of Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslim or Arab).65 That also means that there is subsequently a dearth in the literature exploring the shared lived experiences of what it means to be a white female American converted to Islam in post-9/11 America.

This research was designed not only to look at the ways of conflict that exists between white female American converts to Islam and their non-Muslim American counterparts, but also at the conflicts that they face within themselves as they navigate a successful integration of various aspects of their identities.

To date, the experiences of Caucasian female Americans who have converted to Islam since September 11, 2001 have been noticeably absent from the literature, and with the increasingly hostile social temperature toward Muslims, there is a social urgency in both exploring and understanding their shared experiences, including how they integrate, incorporate, and juxtapose the various aspects of their identities.

The lack of representation of these women in the literature meant that a thorough literature review prior to beginning this research included a systemic triangulation of literature already available regarding the individual identity statuses first. I recognize and accept that by speaking about what Muslim women need in terms of freedom from oppression – by discussing issues of grave importance to those who appear to be oppressed yet never inviting them to join the dialogue –Western feminists are violating a basic tenet of feminism itself.66

For this reason, this research was conducted in a respectful feminist-forward way so as not to further marginalize those who had already been on the receiving end of marginalization. This feminist-forward, feminist-driven methodology included identifying the specific needs of the demographic being studied and empowering them to join the conversion about their outcomes.


The purpose of this phenomenological study was to describe and understand the experience of Caucasian female Americans who have converted to Islam in post-9/11 America. Currently, the Caucasian…

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