But You’re Not White…: An Interview with “New”… Muslims

What does a Muslim look like? Bearded, veiled, brownish maybe. In February, the TMV sat down with Liam Dalquen — MSA Students’ For World Justice Director- and Nora Fathalipour –TMV staff writer- to talk about their experiences converting to Islam. Nora and Liam are both from the Middle East, Nora from Iran and Liam from Palestine. They relate their experiences as invisible converts, unwelcoming MSAs, building communities and the importance of finding your place amongst the madness.

What lead you to convert to Islam? What religion did you convert from and what resources did you use to facilitate your conversion?

Liam: This was a long drawn out process and I originally wanted to convert since I was about 13. I’m from a half British — half Palestinian background and I decided I wanted to find more about my background. My family speaks Arabic and I always wondered what they were saying so I started to look into it and realized that the majority of Palestinian people are Muslim. So I started to read about Islam around the end of grade 8 and began to like it and became interested in it. My mom’s family is from an Orthodox Christian background, but I never really believed in Christianity, I just did it because everybody around me believed in it. From then on I decided I wanted to become a Muslim. I converted because I believed in the religion, that’s it.

And how old were you?

L: The first time I said that I wanted to be Muslim I was 13. But then it was a long process of wanting to convert but never actually getting around to it. I think this was mainly because on my dad’s side of the family there is no one really there; it’s just my dad and his mom. However my mom’s side of the family is huge and they’d kill me if they knew, like I’d never speak to them again. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. [I] finally converted when I was 18 years old -in February- and it kind of just happened and it wasn’t a big thing.

So you had Muslim friends?

L: Yeah, I had Muslim friends. To be honest, what facilitated it was reading and not really me communicating or talking to other people. It was almost entirely just reading.

Did you visit any masjids?

L: One.

Did you talk to any imams, stuff like that?

L: No, I didn’t talk to anybody, not my mom, not my dad, not anybody, and not any of my friends either. No one.

And Nora?

Nora: Ok, so when I was growing up as a teenager I think the environment I was brought up in was very important in shaping me. Like all of us we were teenagers in the aftermath of 9/11 and so because of that I had a pretty negative view of religion in general, but not really of Islam in particular. I thought that people who were very critical of Islam tended to be very racist and I thought it was less about the religion and more about the people. So I was never anti Islam but I wasn’t very fond of Islam either. I also didn’t know anything about Islam I just had a general and generic idea of [what it was]. I’d never met any Muslims, which is weird because I had family members that were Muslim but they lived very far away so I saw them very infrequently

L: So you were very neutral about it.

N: More or less, yes I was, I didn’t do anything, in fact I was quite ignorant. And then I moved to London, UK [from Norway] to do my undergrad and I remember we had this new lunch thing with all the new undergrads and the first person who sat down next to me was a Muslim girl and she was the first Muslim person I’ve ever really had a lot of contact with. This was the first time a Muslim had ever really spoken to me. She was a really great person and she ended up becoming one of my really good friends and that was my first real contact with Islam, through people.

L: Do you mind if I ask what religion you converted from?

N: Well I was an atheist.

L: And you said your family is from Iran?

N: Yes. And then I remember at the end of my first year and beginning of my second year, it was Ramadan right before university started and I decided to stay with my friend during that time and I thought I wanted to try Ramadan because, how hard could it be? So I started trying it and I thought, “this is actually really great”. I started it as a joke but then I figured that this is a really great practice so from that I was going to take some courses on Islamic law while I was at university, and learn a bit more. So I took up an Islamic law course and that really set the foundation for me because in Europe, there’s a big deal about Islamic law and “sharia”. And a lot of my friends at that time were Muslim and they were always asking when I was going to convert and I was always laughing, like ‘I respect this religion, but I don’t believe in it’. And then I remember I was going on a holiday to Canada and the airline I was flying with, they had a documentary about hajj and I was not watching it, but my mom was watching it and she was listening to it, I couldn’t listen to it I could only see it, but it was about Spanish Muslims going to hajj. And I was crying and I was like, I want to be Muslim. In that airplane I was like, I want to be Muslim right now, and then I was thinking, no wait I can’t. I was going to Canada, my cousin, my family, I can’t deal with it, I can’t become Muslim. So I left it. And then, a year later, I continued reading and everything. And then a year later I went to visit my grandmother in Iran and it was during Ramadan so I thought I want to try fasting the whole month this time because I thought it was a really great practice. And I bought a Quran before I went because I thought, I was going to be bored waiting for fajr so I’ll have something to read. So I took it with me but I didn’t read it, I didn’t open it at all until the last 10 days of Ramadan. Then I was like, I’m really bored and I need something to do. I opened it and I read the first chapter and I was like wow, okay. And then I continued reading and I was like, that’s it, I’m Muslim. And that’s basically how I converted.

Nora in Iran

So what’s interesting about the both of you is that you’re not visibly converts. Liam, you look Arab, Nora you’re Persian. Not only that, but you also come from countries that are part of the Muslim world. Granted, Palestine and Iran contain more religions than Islam, but there is the idea that, upon first glance, you’ve been Muslim your whole life. So what I want to know is whether your experience has been affected by this lack of conspicuous conversion. Was it harder?

N: Well, in some ways yes. My friend is part Jewish and part Mexican, and looks very “white. Wherever we went she would get a lot of attention and people would be all excited that she was a convert and it was very funny. I would just stand there laughing and she found it really uncomfortable. But at the same time she got access to a lot of knowledge and material through that extra attention that I didn’t. No one would turn to me and know I was also a convert. And often, she would know more than me because she’d been studying Islam for longer than I have, but people would turn to her more and kind of fawn over her.

Yeah, I’ve noticed people really baby converts. They assume you know absolutely zero about Islam before you make this very huge life choice.

N: Yeah, and for that reason I am kind of happy for that camouflaging. But then I assume people are also used to the idea of ‘born again Muslim’. The one who was born into a Muslim community and strayed form the religion and then found there way back. So I think people think I’m that.

Being Persian, would you say you came from a sort of Muslim culture that wasn’t rooted in religion?

N: Well, Iran went through a sort of intense secularization process, so I knew nothing about Islam. But there are things that I know now, when I see it in my home that I’ll recognize and think ‘that’s totally a Muslim thing’. Like, my parents have this obsession with washing their hands before and after they eat and I just look and think ‘sunnah!’ So it’s not completely divorced from that larger culture. But then again, I had to learn so much about Muslim culture to not stick out. Because otherwise you feel like a bit like a traffic light, you’re just totally new.

Would you say there were any benefits to this anonymity?

N: Yeah! I mean, my friend experienced a lot of watchful eyes on her all the time. Like, whenever she made wudhu she had to make sure to get everything right because there were all these people here, watching ready to correct her immediately. I didn’t really have to go through that. But then again, sometimes when you say you’re a convert, and this is not related to the visibility, but sometimes there are things that I don’t know. And sometimes when people hear you don’t know one thing, they think you don’t know anything. And I just wanted one answer, nice and quick.

And they explain the entire religion in one sitting.

N: Yeah! I just had one question, not an existential dilemma. But my greatest struggle is with Muslims who, maybe, aren’t so practicing. Because I don’t wear a headscarf, people often assume I’m a part of that camp. And sometimes I can have these awkward moments where I’ll be there and they’ll whip out alcohol and I’m not okay with it. But then they look at me and do “oh, but you don’t look like you’re practicing”. It just isn’t okay.

L: I get both experiences. Without my beard, I look pretty white. And at the very beginning, when I didn’t have a beard –I was around 18- and I would just get looked at. They wouldn’t try to help me or anything, they would just look at me. But now, with my beard I never get any extra attention. It’s more my name that causes confusion, like it clashes with my beard. A Muslim Liam with a beard that prays. It confuses people at every masjid I go to.

They make a spectacle out of it.

L: I always get weird looks when they hear my name. They’re like “Leeyaam?” No. Just Liam. But I guess they can call me whatever they want. Laughs

N: Haha, it’s like they’re asking, “are you mispronouncing your own name?”

L: Yeah!

N: I get that too, I get people calling me Noora. And I’m just like, okay…

Liam, when you came to U of T, I guess your Muslim network expanded. How did the growth of your community affect your Islam?

L: Oh definitely, completely different. It’s nice having Muslim friends. It’s nice going to jumma. It’s nice being the jumma guy. It’s nice having a community. Without U of T, I would have, like, three Muslim friends from back home. And my non-Muslim friends, who are amazing and understanding, sometimes want to do things I can’t exactly participate in. It’s not as fulfilling. It’s awesome because we can pray together and that’s actually a big deal. It’s nice knowing people that have the same beliefs as you.

Liam, MSA SWJ Director 2014–2015

Nora, how did you go about finding Muslim friends?

N: Well, six months after I converted, miraculously my friend called me up; she said we should go make cupcakes or something. This was in third year. So {I agreed and went] and she looks at me and she says, “I have to tell you something…”

Did she know you were Muslim at this point?

N: No. And so she says, “I think I’m Muslim”. And I was like “What! Me too!” And instantly we had this sort of [little] community of us.

A community of two! Honestly, sometimes that’s all you really need.

N: Yeah! We didn’t really keep in touch during second year and had different interests and separate friends. I never thought we’d be able to stay connected as close friends. And then suddenly this happened.

It brought you guys together.

N: Yeah! I can’t imagine not being friends now. We support each other, and we both changed a lot from that experience. We went to prayers together. I mean, everyone else went to prayer, did their thing and left and we were standing there so clueless all the time. We didn’t always want to ask people, we didn’t know how to ask and we were also weary of people wanting to push their own opinions on us. So we just did stuff together, and her friend’s sister worked at a Muslim charity, it was kind of this Muslim third space for young Muslims where they worked on building community. They had access to a Sheikh in London, they would have jummas there and we would go every single week. And I have to say, getting to know that third space, getting to know that Sheikh –more indirectly, attending his classes and listening to his talks- helped tremendously. He had so much knowledge, and so much experience with converts and [how to understand the situation] we were in, and that was just great. My greatest regret is that I won’t be able to go there again. It was the hardest thing to leave in London. Every time I think about returning, that’s the place I think of. I still get their [weekly newsletter in my] email! I still want to know what’s happening. [That place] completely changed my entire perspective on what it meant to be in a Muslim community! I almost think it was too good to be true.

Did you meet any new people there?

N: Yes! I met a lot of people outside of my university friends. And when I moved to New Brunswick and I was completely alone, that was my lifeline. That was what connected me to Islam. I didn’t have any family or friends, I didn’t have anything. It was just me and my frozen pizza. I would skype my friends, listen to lectures online. And through those lectures, I figured ‘if I’m listening to this lecture happening in London from New Brunswick, there has to be more out there. And that’s how I found out about the ICNYU [the Islamic Centre at NYU] and I started listening to that, and through them I heard about the Muslim Chaplaincy at U of T. And I decided I wanted to move to Toronto.

The Chaplaincy made you move?

N: Yeah, it was one of the main reasons I moved. I mean, I wanted to move to Toronto anyways, but it was the reason I moved a year earlier than I’d planned to. I wanted to be where I had access to the Chaplaincy. I tried to get involved with the MSA in New Brunswick but it was only the brothers and it was only for Arabs so I couldn’t join. I mean, I would email them about their events and ask if I could come to them and they’d be like “do you speak Arabic?” And I didn’t so I didn’t go. And then they would [read and talk about the] Quran, and I’d ask to come along too, and they’d tell me it was just for brothers.

If it was me I’d grab my Quran and just sit there.

N: I wish, but they would be speaking Arabic the whole time.

But there are university students…I assume they speak English.

N: Well, yeah.

But the Arabs.

N: Exactly. So I couldn’t have a community there.

You know, sometimes I think we’re a little spoiled here with our MSA. Everything is so open and friendly.

N: Yeah, in fact this MSA and the fact that it’s tied to the Chaplaincy was one of the reasons I moved. Because, as I was deciding to leave London, knowing there was something like this here made me feel like it was okay to move to Canada. Everything was going to be fine.

But is everything fine? The Muslim community is meant to consist of every race and tribe, incorporating every shade of white, brown, black and everything in between. In order to create the kind of community that is welcoming to newcomers, we must try our best to exhibit kindness and generosity amongst ourselves. Smile at everyone you meet at the mosque, take some time out to talk to people you don’t know. The point isn’t to find converts, but to create the kind of environment that is comfortable for everyone. The next time you see someone who looks like they might need a helping hand, don’t be shy to extend it.

Interview Conducted by Nimo Abdulahi

TMV Content Editor

Title Illustration by Seema Shafei

Interview shortened for length

Originally published at tmvmagazine.tumblr.com.