Refugees attracting Americans to Islam


Influx of Muslim immigrants, refugees attracting Americans to Islam

BY JASON KEYSER

Associated Press Writer 

Ohio News, Ohio.com

Monday, November 27, 2000



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Each time the plain, wooden door to the Omar Ibn

Kahttab mosque swings open a man from another part of the world walks in. 



India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco. They line

up in rows just before the evening prayer and bow under humming fluorescent

lights in a small, plain room that used to be a Jehovah's Witnesses hall.

Women gather in a separate room. 



As a man from Saudi Arabia sings from the Quran on a crackling microphone,

two thick-bearded men from yet another part of the world bow and pray.

Brian Clouse, 35, and Andrew King, 22, are white Americans from Columbus

who converted to Islam a few years ago. 



Both men are among the thousands of Americans who convert each year to

Islam, a religion that's becoming more mainstream in the United States. 



An influx of Muslim immigrants and refugees to central Ohio from places

such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in Yugoslavia

is attracting an increasing number of Americans -- among them whites,

blacks, Asians, Hispanics and others -- to explore Islam. 



``Americans are accepting Islam at all levels of age and profession,'' said

Musa Qutub, president of the Islamic Information Center of America, in Des

Plains, a Chicago suburb. ``They are high school students, attorneys,

doctors, common workers, you name it. Every day you have newcomers, every

day.'' 



Over the last decade, about 15,000 Muslim refugees have come to Columbus,

according to Interfaith Refugee Services. Of the 800 refugees the group has

resettled in the city this year, 99.9 percent of them are Muslim. 

There are about 25,000 Muslims in Columbus. Nationwide there are from 6 to

8 million Muslims.

Based on anecdotal accounts and interviews, the refugee service estimates

that nationwide there could be as many as 18,000 converts a year, or one

convert per mosque per month. 



Muslims don't actively seek converts, but a concept called dawah encourages

sharing information about their religion with others. 



Yvonne Haddad, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for

Muslim-Christian understanding, said there are two main Muslim ministries

-- in prisons and on college campuses -- which differ in approach. 



``One is appealing to intellectuals and is focusing on the absurdity of the

trinity -- that is the classical way that Muslims undermine Christian

thought,'' said Haddad, a Syrian-born Christian. ``The other ministry is

focusing on rebuilding the individual and focuses on black and Latino

power.'' 



------ 



After the evening prayer at the Omar Ibn Kahttab mosque, one of five

mosques in Columbus, Brian Clouse and Andrew King talked with friends. One

of them, Mohammad Abdelazeez, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student

from Egypt, said he learns a lot from converts like Clouse and King. 



``Most converts are better Muslims than the people who were born Muslim,''

he said. ``You can learn a lot from them when they look at what's in your

hands as a precious gift. And I realize that they've spent a long time

searching for truth; and I realize that it's been in my hands.'' 





Andrew King and his wife converted to Islam two years ago. Both were

strong believers in Christianity. But as they further explored

Christianity, both ended up with more questions than answers. 



King began studying about other religions, talking with rabbis and reading

books on Buddhism. He also stumbled upon a Web page about Islam. 



``I didn't even think to consider Islam. I had thought Islam was about how

to use an AK-47,'' he said, laughing. But as he read about the religion,

King questioned the stereotypes and began to feel that he had found what he

was searching for. 



``It sounded right,'' he said. ``It felt right, that there was only one

God. It was something easy to accept mentally.'' While he was still a

student at Ohio State University he began talking with Muslim students and

learning more about the religion. 



After King converted to Islam he began teaching English to Muslim refugees

and helped run an after-school program for their children. 



Working with Muslim-born newcomers, he said, helps strengthen his

connection to the religion. 



He remembers an 8-year-old Somali boy who lived near him. The boy had

memorized the longest chapter of the Quran, ``The Cow.'' ``That gives me

motivation to work harder at the religion,'' King said. 



King is among a growing number of American converts who are working to help

the community of Muslim refugees. 



------ 



Ramadan Abdullah Badi Islam, 46, runs a safe house for Muslim women and

children who are fleeing domestic abuse or are searching for housing. He is

a black American who in 1992 converted to Sunni Islam, the religion's

largest sect. 



The smell of cooking tomatoes filled the second floor of Al-Maun, the safe

house on the city's east side. A Somali woman -- her head covered by a blue

scarf -- was cooking food and feeding her baby. She's been staying at

Al-Maun for nearly three months. 



Soon after Islam converted, he began working with ex-offenders, ex-addicts

and battered women. 



``I found there were a lot of Muslim women and children caught up in the

mix,'' he said. ``That to me was just devastating, that our sisters and

children had to turn to nonbelievers for support.'' 



So, Islam, who also runs a food pantry, repaired a burned out building that

now gives shelter and food to as many as 10 small families at a time. 



Islam speaks passionately about his religion. His first contact with the

faith was as a teen-ager in the Nation of Islam. 



``The Nation of Islam taught me strict discipline,'' he said. ``The root of

the teaching was to dignify yourself. As a young black man in 1969, I had a

lot to be desired. The Nation of Islam was the initial wake up call for

blacks who are practicing Islam now.'' 



Over the years, he drifted away from the group, pushed away in part by

rhetoric that sought to divide the races. He said it was his conversion to

Sunni Islam that eventually cleaned up his life. 



Islam went from mosque to mosque and talked with Muslims from different

backgrounds, learning what he could. 



------ 



Many American converts are learning about Islam from Muslim immigrants and

are visiting mosques and contacting Muslim groups to ask questions. 





Nicol Ghazi, a 33-year-old woman who was raised Jewish, grew up in Toledo,

a city with a large Muslim community. 

``I kept coming into contact with Muslims over and over again. I think

that's how my conversion came about,'' she said. ``I had a lot of respect

for the Muslims I met and that drew me toward the religion.'' 



Women seem to be converting to Islam in larger numbers than men, though the

perception that Islam oppresses women can be a major hurdle. 



Ghazi said that the oppression of women in some Muslim societies is

cultural, not religious. 



``Islam is liberating,'' she said. ``It recognizes women in a legal sense;

you can sign a contract, own property. You have the right to refuse a

marriage proposal. You have a right to determine your own fate so to speak.

You can hold official positions.'' 



Ghazi said these rights don't sound extraordinary these days, but at the

time of Islam's birth in the seventh century they were unheard of. 



As she sat in her living room, a call to prayer sounded from a

mosque-shaped alarm clock. Five times a day it plays a recording of someone

singing from the Quran. Her husband's parents, who live in England, bought

the clock at Harrod's department store. 



Ghazi, who now lives in Columbus, became a Muslim three years ago, after

meeting and becoming friends with Muslim women, including an Algerian. 



``She would read -- chant -- the Quran in Arabic. She had a beautiful voice

and a talent for explaining things,'' she said. 



Ghazi married a man from Pakistan a year ago and has just given birth to

twins -- a boy, Hamza, and a girl, Hana. She said 10 years ago she would

have thought twice about giving her children Muslim names that might have

made them the target of teasing or harassment. 



``Now people are more comfortable seeing more cultures here,'' she said.

``Islam is more mainstream.'' 

In fact, Ghazi says, sometimes it seems women who were born Muslim are more

curious about her than the Americans who hardly ``bat an eye'' at her

Muslim dress. 



------ 



Zakiyah Al-Husaam, 41, who is from Panama, said she and her husband, Abdul

Kariym, who is a black American, are sometimes mistaken for African Muslims. 



The two, who were Christian, met in a class about Islam in Panama, where

Abdul Kariym served in the U.S. Army. They both converted to Islam in 1982,

before moving to the United States and later to Columbus. Both said that

Islam had answers for them that Christianity didn't. 



They lived in Saudi Arabia from 1995-97, where Abdul Kariym translated

telecommunications software into Arabic. He said the Saudis admired

American Muslims and converts. 



``They would tell me, 'You people in America are the real Muslims today.''' 



He said the role of American converts should be to bring the message of

Islam to America and to strengthen the conviction of Muslim-born immigrants. 



``We are showing that this religion has no boundaries,'' he said. ``The

second generation of Muslim immigrants are learning what Islam is from

blacks, whites and Hispanics.''





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