I first became fascinated by Islam in the summer of 1994. I remember spending many afternoons in the university bookstore, lurking by the Religion shelves, at one point poring over English translations of key verses in the Quran.
I went to college across the country from where my family lived, so on the summer breaks, I would return home and take a class at the local university purely for my own interest. One year it was meteorology and weather. The summer after my junior year it was Islam and the Muslim world.
I’d had little contact with Muslims prior to taking this class, as there were few at that time in the area where I lived. I enjoyed the class and learned a lot but I hardly thought of the experience as life-changing... and yet, there I was regularly lurking at the bookstore to look at books on Islam outside of class.
My junior and senior years at college were a transitional time for me. My freshman year, I became significantly alienated by the new expectations around sex that I was encountering. But it was only in my junior year, when I moved out of the dorms to live in my own apartment for the first time, that I was really able to create an autonomous space for myself. Over the years, this would become my Fortress of Solitude, though I didn’t know it at the time. I also didn’t know that Islam would come to be an important part of the safe space I was creating for myself.
Despite my fascinations that summer in 1994, when I returned to college in the fall, my interest in Islam fell away as it seemed to have little to do with my life there.
Two years later, I found myself fascinated anew. By then, I was back in my home state and was pursuing a master’s degree at the same university where I had taken my summer classes. But grad school was very different than college had been, and my increasing alienation and isolation left me without a support system.
It was in the wake of grad school failure that I became interested in Islam again. As it had been the first time, my interest was intellectual. This time I was particularly fascinated by similarities between Islam and Judaism, particularly cognates in Arabic and Hebrew religious terminology. Even while I struggled with my classes, withdrew from my program, and then looked for a job, I would spend hours every day reading and learning about Islam.
Reading was a safe space for me, a place where I could explore the things I really cared about, instead of having to deal with other people’s expectations I didn’t understand and didn’t seem to be able to meet.
By the time I found a full-time job in 1997 and moved closer to home, I was spending much of my free time learning about Islam. I’d ranged far beyond my earlier interest in cognates and was delving into the religion and its sources.
As a religion, Islam made a lot more sense to me than Christianity ever had; I was brought up Catholic but my family were not particularly observant and I had dropped out of Confirmation class when I realized I didn’t and couldn’t believe in the Trinity. I’d been agnostic since then.
But Islam’s monotheism made sense to me. Reading about theology and mysticism from this perspective opened up whole new intellectual worlds to me. It seemed that there was always something new and fascinating to learn and I loved it.
In August 1999, I converted to Islam. In all this time, I had had only limited contact with other Muslims, all online (primarily through email discussion groups and forums). There was no mosque where I lived (one wouldn’t be established until 2002). When I converted, it was alone in my apartment. I recited the testimony of faith to myself then offered the ritual prayer for the first time. I began wearing the hijab a month later.
Because my journey towards Islam had been so intellectual and because I was by that time so isolated, I had given very little thought until after I converted about what other people would think of my new religion, a degree of sheltered naivety that I boggle at today.
Islam is not just any religion, you see. Even at best, most Americans know little about it and think of it as something “foreign”. At worst, and increasingly so since 9/11, they think Islam is inherently violent and fundamentally opposed to everything that they feel the U.S. stands for.
American converts to Islam often lose friends and become estranged from their families after their conversion. Even if the people close to them accept their new religion, as my family did, they may find themselves alienated from the larger society they used to be part of, which now sees them as Other.
For white converts, identification with Islam can be particularly complex because Islam in America is racialized. It is not simply that most Muslims are people of color, but that many white Americans believe that the foreignness and Otherness they associate with Islam makes it incompatible with whiteness.
Women who wear hijab often experience this dichotomy the most acutely. Someone who believes that “Muslim” and “white” are mutually exclusive may experience cognitive dissonance seeing a person who is phenotypically European-heritage white wearing a garment that is so strongly associated with Islam and with images of Islam as oppressive and foreign.
This cognitive dissonance may lead them to racialize the woman in hijab, often as Arab (most Americans think of Islam as specifically an Arab religion). I personally have experienced this on numerous occasions over the last 17 years.
From the relatively benign “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” questioning on a regular basis to job discrimination and various types of street harassment including a stalker yelling at me to “Go back to where you came from”, being asked “Are you one of the people that killed our people?” and even having “Sand [epithet]” shouted at me from a passing car, I’ve had a number of experiences that my white privilege had shielded me from previously. The transition to this non-normative whiteness has had a profound influence on my politics and other beliefs.
For many converts, the experiences of alienation and marginalization they face after publicly proclaiming a Muslim identity are too much to handle, especially if the transition was sudden or if they are also trying to make major changes in their way of life (for instance, giving up a party lifestyle or marrying a spouse from a different culture). The shifts in privilege can be particularly jarring for white converts. Some converts who find themselves unable to continue as Muslims leave the religion entirely; others drop out of Muslim communities and navigate their lives as if non-Muslim even while still believing in the tenets of the faith.
Only a minority of converts stick with the religion for the nearly 17 years that I have. In thinking about my journey of faith recently, I realized that there is a special resonance the religion has always held for me that is deeply rooted in my identity and is at the core of why I’ve never gone away from Islam.
Islam came into my life at a time when I was already significantly alienated, isolated, and marginalized from the larger society because of my asexuality. Those ties were already cut, those friendships lost. Feeling myself an outsider, an Other, I drew comfort from a faith that in my cultural context is also Other.
I do not believe that I would have become Muslim if I were not also asexual, if asexuality were not also queer. My Islam and my asexuality, my queerness, are part of the same experience, so intertwined that they could not exist without each other.
My Islam is queer.