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Americans who converted to Islam after 9-11 share stories of acceptance, fear of rhetoric

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DEARBORN, Mich. - For Caleb Carter, the road to becoming a Muslim took years. Sept. 11, 2001, was a turning point — specifically his high school teacher's hostile reaction to Islam that day.

"I was a junior in high school at the time, taking a class called Nonwestern World Studies," said Carter, who then lived in Columbia, Mo., but now resides in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, home to one of the largest Muslim communities in the U.S.

"For him, it was purely, 'This is what Islam teaches. We shouldn't be surprised.' He played the whole 'Islam equals terrorism card.'"

Carter, now 26, says he wasn't buying his teacher's opinions, nor was he "educated enough to judge it either way." Studying Islam and other world religions became his mission, and the son of parents with a Christian background converted to Islam in 2006.

Every American who converted to Islam since 9-11 has a different story: Stories of acceptance or rejection, of fear or suspicion about their new faith. A few who spoke ahead of the 10th anniversary of 9-11 found their personal satisfaction as well as support from family and friends have outweighed the challenges.

Carter said he has not been personally criticized or confronted for his faith. Yet he's disturbed by disparaging comments made by legislators and political candidates, as well as critics who "blatantly misquote, take things out of context or makes things up" from the Qur’an, Islam's holy book — just as his teacher did a decade ago.

"The backlash has affected me — it's pretty scary as far as I'm concerned," said Carter, a freelance writer planning to go to graduate school.

Three years ago Carter married a Muslim woman of Iraqi descent, Abrar Mohammad. Mohammad, 25, said her husband "gets nervous" when they travel outside of their heavily Arab-Muslim area.

She wears a black abaya that covers her completely, and her husband has sometimes asked if she could "wear something more colourful" or "something not as Muslim-looking" on those trips.

She said she knows he "feels" the stares that she receives, something she noticed immediately after 9-11.

"It's the difference between people looking at you and going, 'Oh, weird, alien' (before 9-11) and looking at you and going 'I'm scared,'" she said. "Now I get a look of fear."

Caleb Carter said his parents were concerned at first about his conversion, given the story of John Walker Lindh: The American-born Taliban fighter is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2002 to supplying services to the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

"They were wondering, 'Is it a phase or is he really, sincerely doing this? What kind of Muslim is he going to become?'" Carter said. "They were cautious, but very accepting."

Even Carter is cautious when meeting other converts, wondering if they were attracted to the messages of extremists.

"I believe it's not a religion that promotes these things, but there are certainly people who do interpret it that way," he said.

Davi Barker, 29, of Fremont, Calif., also converted in 2006 after practising what he called "a hodgepodge of neo-pagan religions." He said he comes from a diverse family of Christians, Jews, Baha'i and atheists, and his idea was "fitting them together and making them compatible."

"I found that Islam had already done that," said Barker, a writer and artist. "To convert, you have to testify to the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. Having believed those things, I just made the pronouncement."

Barker said he lived in Saudi Arabia and the Maldives for a few years as a child and knew "Muslims in Muslim countries," so he didn't believe that the religion was to blame for the terrorist attacks. He said he "saw the propaganda campaign going on" against Islam, something that continues to this day.

He said he hasn't faced direct hostility "other than trolls on the Internet," but he's "startled" by the "anti-Muslim rhetoric" he reads and hears.

"I think it's very challenging, frankly," he said. "You're talking about an American population which is very diverse: You still have people talking about Allah as the moon god of the Arabs, and you have people who go the other route, the interfaith-dialogue people.

"You have two groups that are not unified upon any opinion trying to negotiate coexistence," he said.

Zahra Billoo, Barker's wife of two years, is an American Muslim whose family is from Pakistan. She said 9-11 spurred a desire in her to pursue a career as an advocate for social justice, a passion she shares with her husband. It's a theme of his writing and art, and frames her work as executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Francisco Bay Area chapter.

It's a challenge in what she describes as the "stress of a post-9-11 reality."

"The issues we're involved in are incredibly personal and come home with us," she said.

A newer convert to Islam is Jeff McDermott, an Irish Roman Catholic by birth who attended private schools in Dearborn but always had Arab-Muslim friends. McDermott, 33, looked beyond differences of ethnicity and religion when he met Shadia Amen in 2009, and converted to Islam before their July wedding.

He said neither was diligent in their respective faiths before marriage, but he felt it was important to convert.

"I did it out of respect for the family, so I could marry Shadia the right way in the eyes of the family," he said, but added it was his own decision and not one made under duress.

He said he's more observant than when he was Christian. He's given up pork, attends lectures at the mosque and even tried to fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He failed in his first attempt but plans to try again.

Before making the decision to convert, he said he had lengthy discussions with his future father-in-law and brother-in-law. They wanted to make sure that he was comfortable saying he was a Muslim and standing up for the faith.

"I said I would never hide the fact that I did convert," McDermott said.

He said Dearborn's diversity provides some shelter from hostility and ridicule, but he also acknowledges that they have kept a fairly low profile. That could change this fall, when they are expected to be featured a series on cable network TLC called "All-American Muslim" that focuses on five Muslim-American families in Dearborn.

McDermott said his wife was impressed by his willingness to convert to Islam, though he knows it will take a long time for his practice to approach anything close to perfect.

"I'm a rookie, wet behind the ears right now," he said. "But I'm going to ... try to do things right by the religion," he said.

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Jeff Karoub can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub

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