Before September 11, devout Muslim Uzma Nur was a lapsed Episcopalian who had never read the Koran. The 38-year-old Berkeley psychotherapist had been exploring religions for years, but had never really been interested in Islam. Now she is a practicing Muslim and has adopted an Arabic name meaning "great light."
Back when Nur still went by her English name, the Islamic Center of Alameda was a small community that met in a nondescript building in suburban Alameda. Members quietly came and went virtually unnoticed by neighbors. "Before, once in a blue moon someone would call if they had a paper to write," said Aiesha Balde, teacher and administrator at the mosque. Now the small parking lot outside the Islamic Center is crowded with people and cars, and the phone will not stop ringing. Membership is growing by the week.
"Every center you talk to will tell you that people have come in," explained Dr. Mohamad Rajabally, vice president of the Islamic Society of the East Bay in Fremont. "People are reading the Koran, attending seminars, and, amazingly, accepting Islam. They've separated the good guys from the bad guys -- they read about the tolerance of Islam, the inclusiveness of Islam."
In the past year, a lot has changed for Bay Area Muslims. Formerly all but ignored by the larger community, the group was catapulted into the spotlight by September 11. At first many Muslims hid in the shadows, staying in their houses and avoiding Muslim dress, since the stares and comments were too often hostile. But now the initial fear and shock has softened, and non-Muslims are turning to local Muslims to help them make sense of the confusing spiral of events that began September 11. Colleagues and acquaintances are asking Muslims about their beliefs. Schools and churches are inviting prominent Muslims to speak.
As a result, mosques throughout the East Bay are reporting higher attendance and conversion rates, suggesting that many, like Nur, are finding something in Islam that the media have not. Since most mosques don't keep regular attendance and conversion figures, it is hard to say whether the increase is a continuing trend, or whether September 11 accelerated Islam's growth. Regardless, East Bay mosques are busier than ever.
"People are joining almost every week, almost one per week," said Mahboob Khan, assistant imam, or prayer leader, at Masjid al-Iman in Oakland. "There are more converts now than before." Musa Balde, imam at the Islamic Center of Alameda, reports his conversion rates have "quadrupled."
After September 11, Nur began to wonder about the religion that was being discussed on every news show and opinion page. She began her own research: touring local mosques, surfing Islamic Web sites, and meeting local Muslims. To her surprise, she found the message she was seeking. "Something clicked inside me," she said. "People in the mosques were clinging to their faith. I learned that Islam is really about peace and tranquility."
A few months later, Nur embraced Islam as her faith. She now prays five times a day, and attends weekly Sufi prayer services. She attributes her conversion to the events of last year. "I wouldn't have become a Muslim if it hadn't been for September 11," she said.
Lewis Rambo, professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and author of Understanding Conversion, explained, "Most converts feel a profound sense of conviction that the religion is true. For some, this conviction emerges when there is a confluence of religious perspectives and a person's life experience -- it fits and thus feels true. For others, it is an intellectual question that may explore many religions and finds that a particular religion is comprehensive, compelling, and coherent."
Ann Swidler, UC Berkeley sociology professor, theorizes that a non-Muslim's conversion after 9/11 may have even deeper roots. "There is the possibility that those who felt alienated by the patriotic euphoria of September 11 sought out Islam to affirm their sense of separateness from the mainstream," she said. "And some of those who wanted to express solidarity with Muslims who were targets of discrimination after September 11 may have learned more about Islam and converted as an extension of that empathetic solidarity."
September 11 not only attracted converts, it also pushed practicing Muslims to reconnect with their faith. Mahera Silmi, a 29-year-old Muslim store manager from Castro Valley whose family was threatened and harassed after September 11, took a class on Islam at Chabot College to learn more about her religion. "I wanted to make sure that everything that my parents taught us is true," she said. "I want to have intelligent things to say about Islam."
Silmi is not alone. "I have noticed a recent increase in students who are interested in the major and who often cite Islam as one of their interests," explained Dr. Laurence Michalak, vice chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley.
Leaders at mosques are using the newfound interest in Islam as an opportunity to rectify misconceptions.
"It bothers me that they [the media] try to label us," Khadijah Ali, a community relations specialist from Oakland, said. "But now there is a new openness, people ask questions. They ask things like, 'Do you feel oppressed when you wear your headscarf?' It's a very positive way for me to educate."
While the recent openness about Islam may have made daily life easier for Bay Area Muslims, fear remains.
"Since September 11, I think Muslims have been terrified," Michalak said. "They read about how people are being arrested without access to a lawyer, without their names being released. Muslims are proud to be Muslim and they are standing up for their rights, but a lot of them are keeping a low profile."
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