American converts to Islam defy stereotypes

Protesters for and against the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero have clashed in New York on the anniversary of 9/11. Despite recent tensions in the US, some Americans are choosing Islam as their religion.

On Saturday about 1,000 people gathered near Ground Zero to support the construction of the mosque, AP news agency reported. Another group of several hundred demonstrators opposed to it rallied nearby.

There have also been reports of copies of the Koran being burned near Ground Zero, and in other American cities on the ninth anniversary of the tragedy.

At odds with the controversy are the thousands of Americans who make the choice to convert to Islam each year.

I converted last year, on the first of Ramadan,” says Katelynn Billings, a 22-year-old American who was raised as a Christian by her family. “My mother was afraid that I was going to marry someone that was going to beat me. She was crying a lot. She thought that I was betraying her because I was changing my religion to something that she didn't know about.”

Backtracking to almost a decade ago, to the day Islam became a household word in America, one may easily recall then-President George W. Bush’s words:

Our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of very deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.”

That was when the “War on Terror” began. President Bush’s tactics included targeting extremist Muslims who were labeled as terrorists.

Many Americans like Katelynn Billings remember that time in the United States quite well.

I was 14 when September 11 happened, so I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't really know if that was Islam. People said it was, so I believed it just like everybody else,” Katelynn.

However, as Katelynn grew older, she decided to learn about the religion on her own, which led her to the Mustafa Center – a mosque just outside of Washington DC, which has become a haven for many Americans who, like Katelynn, have found Allah.

A recent poll found that almost 40 per cent of Americans believe that Muslims should carry identification cards. Despite such hostile public opinion, however, almost 20,000 Americans decide to convert to Islam every year. These converts say they do not regret their choice at all.

For many, it is a choice they are frequently reminded of. Ever since September 11 attacks, Muslims around the world have struggled with bans of their religious clothing. They have also faced profiling in airports and discrimination in their everyday lives.

People that I knew since I was very small think that I've changed personalities because of this,” Katelynn says, referring to her religion. “They don't see past the scarf. They just see the fact that I have changed.”

After joining a class to learn more about Islam, Carl Dodge also decided to become a Muslim.

“One of the big jokes I've always made is that before I actually joined the class and opened the Koran, everything I learned about Islam I had learned from CNN, and a lot of people are like that,” Dodge believes. “So there were some negative reactions.”

In mainstream media the depiction of Americans who have converted to Islam has been somewhat extreme. First, there was John Walker Lindh, the Californian who converted, joined the Taliban and ended up fighting with them in Afghanistan.

A more recent case is “Jihad Jane,” the blond-haired, blue-eyed convert who allegedly recruited people to wage violent jihad.

“It does upset me a little bit, because there are a lot of preconceptions that people have,” confesses Carl Dodge. “And until I actually took the time to open a Koran and see what was written, my only impression of Islam was what I had seen on TV.

I just had somebody ask me the other day: ‘Are you against America now?’” he says. “I'm a US veteran, I served in the US navy and I do believe in this country. I volunteered to defend this country. I volunteered to stand up for what the constitution says.”

Katelynn Billings believes that the existence of Islamophobia in the US is illogical.

It's the right to practice your own religion – that's what this country was founded on,” she asserts. “People that started this country were fleeing religious persecution.”

No matter what unfolds around her, Billings says she is proud to be a Muslim.

If no one in the world wants to talk to me and be my friend, I still don't regret it,” she maintains. “I am completely happy right now, happier than I've ever been in my entire life.