Last Friday, shortly before the end of Ramadan, Zakariyya Twist took the day off from his job in the office of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, and headed to the Masjid al-Iman mosque, near the city’s working-class border with Berkeley. Inside was an impressive ethnic and racial cross-section of the San Francisco Bay Area: African-Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis; worshipers from the Middle East, and white American converts like Twist, many with dreadlocks running down their backs.
After the Friday prayers concluded, Twist, 28, waited outside the mosque “to talk to some brothers I haven’t seen in a while.” He wore a long, flowing robe draped over his tall, narrow frame. He and his friends, a mixture of other whites and African-Americans, greeted each other with hugs and salutations — “a salaam alaikum” — as they checked their pagers and made plans for the upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr celebration to mark the end of Islam’s holiest season.
It is impossible to talk to Twist without thinking about John Walker Lindh and the road not taken. Like Walker, this white Muslim convert was raised in a liberal family in the Bay Area — Twist in the heart of San Francisco, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from the Walker-Lindh family in Marin. Like Walker, he had roots in Catholicism, attending Catholic school in San Francisco where he says he was “kind of a know-it-all.”
And like Walker, Twist was drawn to Islam in part by his love of hip-hop music and his reading of the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Twist’s parents encouraged their son’s spiritual and intellectual exploration, buying a Quran for his birthday while he was still in high school. And just like Walker, Twist’s initial curiosity about Islam seems rooted in an affinity for the politically contrarian.
“I remember reading an article about the time of the Gulf War saying now that Communism is over, the next big evil is going to be Islamic fundamentalism,” he says. “So that kind of drew me to it right away. I wanted to find out everything I could about it.”
Unlike Walker, of course, Twist stayed tethered to his American life after his conversion — including his job, family and many of his old friends — and he did not take up arms against his country. But he says he feels sympathy, sadness and befuddlement about the young Muslim convert whose path took him to Afghanistan.
The Bay Area Muslim convert community is so diverse it’s almost impossible to generalize about it. But since Walker’s capture nearly three weeks ago, it has been scrutinized by people looking for clues to what made the young product of Marin County privilege take up arms with the Taliban. The widely publicized story has also made the local Muslim community scrutinize itself. Is there something in their religious experience that estranges these young converts from their own country?
Like many Americans, Twist is fascinated by the Walker case. He is aware of how similar their life trajectories have been, with the important difference that, for all his searching, he never wound up in Afghanistan fighting against his country. And he is just as puzzled as anyone else about why Walker ended up there.
“I think John Walker probably got tripped out when he was in Yemen. Maybe he linked up with some people who said ‘Come to Pakistan,’ and maybe those people had a political agenda. But maybe not. There are good scholars in Pakistan. The media makes it sound like those schools are just a bunch of jihad training camps. Maybe he ended up there with good intentions and just got caught up.”
After weeks of interviews with Twist and other white Bay Area converts, it’s clear that anyone examining this community with preconceived notions about what produced John Walker will find exactly what they are looking for. Those who blame California liberalism run amok — like conservative social commentator Shelby Steele, who blamed “wispy relativism,” “post-’60s cultural liberalism” and “White American guilt” for Walker’s fall — will find left-wing America-hating misfits raised by permissive parents, a collection of confused potential traitors, if not John Walkers-in-waiting. Defensive California liberals will find peaceful, spiritual multiculturalists engaged in a search for meaning that is quintessentially American, evidence that Walker was a tragic, freakish anomaly.
But even before Walker was discovered in a squalid Mazar-e-Sharif prison three weeks ago, the federal government was scrutinizing Bay Area Muslim converts. Shortly after Sept. 11, FBI agents appeared at the door of Hamza Yusuf, founder of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, to talk to with the Islamic scholar about a controversial speech he made on Sept. 9 in which he said America faced “a great, great tribulation,” which seemed to foreshadow the bloody attacks two days later.
But Yusuf, a white convert who was born Mark Hanson, was not around to take the FBI’s questions; he was meeting with President Bush at the White House.
Yusuf, a guru to many converts, was one of a handful of American Muslim leaders picked by the administration to meet with the president and condemn the Sept. 11 attacks as against their religion. “Islam was hijacked on that Sept. 11, 2001, on that plane as an innocent victim,” Yusuf said at the White House. When he returned home from his trip, he dismissed his Sept. 9 remarks as “tragic timing” having nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, and authorities believed him.
But Yusuf’s moment in the spotlight also illuminated contradictions and tensions within the Muslim convert community, in the Bay Area and nationally. While their attachment to Islam is spiritual, for many it is also political, and it often leads them to take stands that put them at odds with American policy and opinion, especially post-Sept. 11.
Yusuf, for instance, straddles the world of Islam and America, too soft on the West for many Muslims, and too hard on America for many Americans. While his Sept. 9 speech in no way predicted or condoned the coming terror attack, it did warn that America “is facing a very terrible fate” because “this country stands condemned. It stands condemned like Europe stood condemned because of what it did. And lest people forget that Europe suffered two world wars after conquering the Muslim lands.” While Yusuf identifies with the plight of the Palestinian people, and understands why there is so much anger in the Arab world directed at the United States, he has come out aggressively against the attacks, and is adamant that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Some critics of Islamic leadership say anti-Americanism and anti-Israel passions are too often entwined with clerics’ religious teaching, so Muslim converts have a hard time separating the political from the spiritual. “Many converts to Islam find their politics are affected by their conversion and many get swept up in politics,” says Daniel Pipes, director of the pro-Israel Middle East Forum.
Certainly Walker is an example of someone who got swept up in those politics. As he is held prisoner inside a shipping container on board the USS Peleliu off the coast of Pakistan, he has become a political Rorschach test for commentators back home. Liberal San Francisco Chronicle columnist Louis Freedberg wrote that Walker’s biggest crime was that “his search for identity intersected precisely with the World Trade Center attacks.” The president, he advised, should allow Walker to come home “and let him get his life back on track. We’d want nothing less for our own children, who could easily have found themselves in a similar mess.”
Surprisingly, former Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, scourge of moral laxity, takes a similar, sympathetic line. Starr told the New York Times on Thursday that he saw Walker as “a young kid with misplaced idealism” who appeared to have wandered off into the Islamic world in search of enlightenment, not to wage war on his native land.
But former President George Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have suggested that Walker should be tried for treason and executed — or thrown to the mercies of an angry American public. “I thought of a unique penalty,” the former president told ABC. “Make him leave his hair the way it is and his face as dirty as it is and let him go wandering around this country and see what kind of sympathy he would get.”
The current President Bush is apparently inclined to be more forgiving, calling Walker a “poor fellow” and suggesting he may be treated with some leniency. Prosecutors are reportedly preparing to charge Walker with violating a new anti-terrorism law, shying away from a treason case, which could have carried the death penalty.
But while the government ponders his fate, the questions remain: What made Walker take up arms against his own country? Is there anything in the Islamic conversion experience of Walker that helps explain his extreme response?
No one knows exactly how, where or why Walker made his transformation from a shy, quiet kid who posted to online chat rooms using the moniker “doodoo” — was it a secret in-joke, a cry for attention from a kid who felt like shit? — into one who, according to Newsweek, now claims he was a member of al-Qaida, that he met bin Laden and that he was trained to carry out terrorist attacks. For many California converts, the worst case scenario is that Walker might have fallen under the influence of a violent Islamic sect here at home, though that seems increasingly unlikely.
Still, that’s just one of the many unanswered questions surrounding John Walker Lindh, a young man who started life so mainstream American that he shared a bedrock Anglo middle name (his mother’s maiden name) with his president, George Walker Bush (eventually the young man took Walker as his chosen surname). The emerging narrative is one of a teenager lost, an awkward kid who never really fit in, who wrestled with his parents’ divorce, and ultimately found meaning and community in Islam. Walker lived in Maryland until he was 10, when his family relocated to the leafy suburbs of Marin County. In California, Walker, like many teenagers, lost interest in his father’s religion, Catholicism, and began a spiritual quest. His mother, Marilyn Walker, a convert to Buddhism, tried exposing him to that religion’s philosophies, but it didn’t seem to take.
“He wanted something pure, and he was definitely questing at an early age,” his father, Frank Lindh, an attorney for the utility company Pacific, Gas and Electric, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We encouraged him to look.” Around the same time, his parents’ marriage was crumbling. At 16, Walker read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” a book that his father said started his move toward Islam. Some media observers have speculated that it was Frank Lindh’s own personal transformation at the time that drove his son to seek the structure and solace of the new religion. “It would take a specialist in family issues to map the constellations of feelings and problems that would describe John Walker’s path toward Islam in 1997, but sources close to the family say the father’s turn of life from married man to modern gay man startled and flustered the 16-year-old,” wrote San Francisco Examiner columnist P.J. Corkery.
There’s something in the Walker family story to unnerve every conservative pundit — from sexual identity alteration to racial confusion. It seems likely that Walker, like Zakariyya Twist, got his initial exposure to Islam through the pop music of the late 1980s and ’90s, when a black power movement within hip-hop often evoked Islam. Performers including Public Enemy, Eric B, Rakim and Brand Nubian all put references to Muslim themes and teaching in their lyrics. Most of these musicians were involved with the Nation of Islam or Five Percent Nation — neither recognized as official branches of Islam, but still a pathway to the religion for many African-Americans. Public Enemy’s 1988 hit, “Bring the Noise,” lauded the Nation of Islam’s controversial leader: “Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you ought to listen to.”
Using his “doodoo” moniker and posing as an African-American, Walker crafted rhymes of his own, which have been circulated online. “Our blackness does not make white people hate us, it is THEIR racism that causes the hate,” he wrote. In an angry response to another apparent impostor, Walker wrote, “That … line alone leads me to believe you’re one of those white kids who thinks that if he eats enough collad greens, watermelon, and fried chicken, and sags his pants low enough, he’ll attain the right to call himself ‘nigga.’” Another post ended with this line, from the movie “Shaft’s Big Score”: “Stay away from black honkeys with big flat feet.”
Of course, Walker himself was the posturing “black honkey,” the white kid yearning to be a hip-hopper, and soon his identity quest led him to Islam, by way of Malcolm X. Instead of posting to newsgroups about rap lyrics, his queries began musing about Islam: “I’ve heard recently that certain musical instruments are forbidden by Islam. There is nothing in the Qur’an that I can find relating to this matter, and the Hadith that I’ve read were fairly vague. My question is this: are in fact certain musical instruments haram, and if so, which instruments or types of instruments are they? Thanks in advance to anyone who can help.”
Walker began to study at a local mosque in Mill Valley, but soon ventured into San Francisco to receive more Islamic teaching. His curiosity eventually took him to two San Francisco mosques, the Masjid Darussalam mosque on Jones Street and the Islamic Center of San Francisco on Crescent Street. The San Francisco Chronicle speculated that his quest toward Islamic fundamentalism, which ended with the Taliban, began at those San Francisco mosques, which the paper described as hotbeds of anti-U.S., pro-Arab politics. But FBI spokesman Andrew Black told the Chronicle that Walker was not recruited in San Francisco, that “there were [no] cells or groups that told him to go over there and fight.”
Still, the Jones Street mosque, which attracts mostly immigrants, has a reputation for being more political than other mosques in the city, and the Islamic Center across town on Crescent Street is indeed a center of the Islamic revivalist movement known as “Tabligh Jamaat.” Walker reportedly attended an annual convention of Tabligh Jamaat worshippers in Santa Clara, near San Jose, before he left for Pakistan.
Zakariyya Twist attends both San Francisco mosques occasionally, and insists that neither would have encouraged Walker to take up arms against the U.S.
“I go to the Jones Street mosque sometimes. I wouldn’t characterize it as political, necessarily. They may be more concerned on an outward level with the Muslim community — how they’re doing and what they’re doing. What are their problems and tribulations. Looking at what the political landscape is like — I would say the Jones mosque is more like that. Maybe they’ll talk about how the Muslims are having trouble in Iraq or something. They might mention these things more so than the [Oakland] mosque.”
And while the Crescent Street mosque is indeed a base for Tabligh Jamaat fundamentalism, this movement does not seem to have political aims. “The members of the Tabligh Jamaat confine themselves to the ritualistic elements of Islam with a special emphasis on calling lapsed Muslim males back to worship in the mosques,” wrote University of Indiana professor Steve Johnson in his 1991 essay “Political Activity of Muslims in America.” Johnson described the group as a separatist movement that opposes Muslim participation in American politics because the American system of government “cannot give rise to an Islamic state.”
Twist, too, discounts the notion that Walker was politically radicalized at the center. “The Crescent mosque is very apolitical. And mainly the guys who are there are the Tabligh Jamaat — it’s a movement of guys who are talking to Muslims and help them remember their religion and encourage them to abide by it. So if they see a Muslim running a liquor store, they’d say, ‘Hey brother, alcohol is prohibited in Islam. You should come back. Allah is watching you,’ or whatever. Any claim that they’re political is nonsense. They just want to speak to Muslims on a spiritual level.”
But Souleiman Ghali, and official at the Jones Street mosque, says it may have been the same radical group at the Crescent Street mosque that lured Walker to Pakistan. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, anybody going to Pakistan is going to hook up with the Jamaat,” he told the Associated Press. “You don’t reserve a spot in the Hilton. You’re part of a connected group, and that’s the Tabligh Jamaat.”
Still, questions about the intersection of Islam and anti-U.S. politics dog Muslim converts, especially in the wake of Sept. 11 and Walker’s capture.
Hamza Yusuf’s outlook is typical of that of many American Muslims. While Yusuf has taken pains to distance himself from Islamic extremism, his critical views of U.S. policy would cause many of his fellow citizens to question his patriotism.
Yusuf, who converted to Islam at age 17 after a traumatic car accident, has emerged as one of the West’s most prominent Islamic scholars. His Zaytuna Institute is one of the spiritual touchstones for many Bay Area Muslims, in particular for converts. Cassettes of his lectures are widely circulated around the Muslim community. The practice is not unlike the intricate network of tape trading that goes on among Grateful Dead fans, swapping copies of their favorite performances. Yusuf’s travels take him across the globe to speak about Islam — in fact, he could not be interviewed for this article because he was on an international speaking tour. Although he is now a voice for tolerance of other cultures and religions within Islam, he once was more radical.
Yusuf once said, “The Jews would have us believe that God had this bias to this little small tribe in the middle of the Sinai Desert, and all the rest of humanity is just rubbish. I mean, that is the basic doctrine of the Jewish religion and that’s why it is a most racist religion.” He has since disavowed those statements, saying he has grown spiritually since then.
But some still question his Sept. 9 speech, when he said the U.S. was headed for “a great tribulation” that he seemed to be hinting was deserved. Yusuf told the San Jose Mercury News that he “spoke in general theological terms — this is the Koranic tradition, and I think it’s also biblical. It’s about iniquities and how if people don’t change — we say in English, ‘What goes around, comes around.’ It’s the Hindu law of karma. And it was said in that context, that we have done many things around the world if we don’t make amends, there is a price to be paid. But to apply that to Sept. 11, that would be an egregious and arrogant mistake.”
Muslim convert Jeffrey Lang says Yusuf’s critique of American politics is not uncommon among Americans who turn to Islam. “Muslims believe very much in the brotherhood and the sisterhood of Islam. This is one of the major planks of the religion. So therefore, it is assumed that you are going to identify with all Muslim causes and all Muslim political decisions, whatever they may be. These things vary from one place to another, but there are certain political views that are almost universally held, and one of the major planks is that the West and America in particular is somewhat hostile to Islam, and that a lot of Muslims around the world are suffering because of the American government’s foreign policy.”
Lang says the conflation of the brotherhood of faith and political brotherhood can be daunting for new American converts. Drawn to a faith, they soon find themselves in a political camp that is opposed to their country. “I’m not saying these critiques aren’t correct — I think that our foreign policy sometimes hasn’t worked out so well for Muslims in various parts of the world; other times it’s worked out quite well,” says Lang. “What I am saying is that suddenly you’re confronted with entering much more than just a religion.”
Like Walker, Lang also came from a Catholic background, but says he rejected the faith when he was 16. Lang, a former mathematics professor at the University of San Francisco who now teaches at the University of Kansas, became a Muslim when he was 28. While in San Francisco, he befriended a Muslim family and began asking questions about their faith. Eventually, they gave Lang a copy of the Quran.
“One night, I was sitting in my apartment up in Diamond Heights, and I had nothing to read, and I just started reading it. As I did, I became fascinated with what it had to say about the purpose of life and the meaning of human existence. So I got kind of hooked on the Quran. By the time I was finished, I had come to gravely doubt my atheism. So I decided to go over to the mosque at the University of San Francisco. It was a small mosque in the basement of St. Ignatius Church to accommodate Muslim students. I went over there, and I told myself I wasn’t going to do anything stupid like become a Muslim that day, and I talked to some students there for a little while, and I walked out a Muslim. And then the hard part began.”
In his book “Struggling to Surrender: Some Impressions of an American Convert to Islam,” Lang discusses his personal path to Islam, which like Walker and Twist, was wrapped up in his dissatisfaction with American society. Lang cites “our society’s unrelenting greed and neglect” as part of what sent him down the path toward Islam, “a journey from individualism to traditionalism, from learning to illumination, from the sensible to the unseen from reason to intuition.”
But Lang’s path did not lead him into the anti-American politics of so many of his fellow Muslims. Instead, his dissatisfaction evolved into a spiritual quest. Now Lang is a convert praised by Daniel Pipes for integrating Islam with being American. “[Lang] really makes an effort to disaggregate his faith from the politics that comes with it. By and large converts don’t make that effort.”
While Yusuf has maintained a critical stance toward the U.S., he is often attacked within the Muslim community for being too accommodating to the country of his birth. Anti-American sentiment permeates many mosques around the world, Yusuf says, but Muslims often overlook problems that exist in the Islamic world, focusing instead on the shortcomings of America and the West.
“Many people in the West do not realize how oppressive some Muslim states are, both for men and for women,” he told the London Guardian last month. “This is a cultural issue, not an Islamic one. I would rather live as a Muslim in the West than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the West is closer to the Muslim way. A lot of Muslim immigrants feel the same way, which is why they are here.”
Through his books and his lectures on college campuses around the country, Lang has become a controversial figure in many Muslim circles. He tries to draw lines between religion and culture and politics that many converts find hard to locate, including himself in the early days of his spiritual transformation. “It was confusing and difficult, and at times I think I, like a lot of American Muslims, didn’t know whether I was entering a culture or a religion. I started adopting all these cultural practices because people told me they were necessary, and it really got me studying. I wanted to find out which of these things were really essential and which were just cultural habits.”
Lang says he sees Walker as someone who plunged into the cultural and political aspects of an extremist brand of Islam along with his embrace of the Islamic faith. “It is an extreme case, but it is a frightening case. This has been my campaign the last 10 or 15 years, trying to explain to the rest of the Muslim community that something’s wrong here when converts have to go through an experience like this. When you embrace this religion, you’re sort of submerged in this Middle Eastern culture that’s very different than yours right away. And you’re told that this culture is essential to the religion. This culture has its own politics, its own history that you’re not a part of. So you feel a lot of pressure to adopt the views and the habits and the ways of thinking of a culture that’s very foreign to you because you grew up in the West.”
Even Pipes, while often critical of Islam, notes that Muslim converts have a lot in common with their Christian and Jewish cohorts, who often turn to religion out of a dissatisfaction with materialistic, atomistic Western society. A certain number of people in all these faiths become radicalized by their conversions — whether they are Orthodox Jewish converts who move into the armed Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, or born-again Christians who turn to radical antiabortion politics.
“There are a variety of different routes to Islam,” Pipes notes. “African-Americans have a very different route that has to do with black nationalism. Whites don’t have that — they convert on an individual basis; there are no structures like Nation of Islam to bridge them between Christianity and Islam. In some cases it’s a spouse who is Muslim, in other cases it is the Sufi route, which tends to be more apolitical and very spiritual.
“And then there are the people who are dissatisfied with the United States in some fashion, and Islam offers a way of saying, ‘No.’ I’m not saying that’s the only way, but if that is your reason, then Islam is ideal.”
Lang agrees that many people’s conversion to Islam starts with a critique of American society. “Converts tend to be people who come from sort of liberal backgrounds,” he says. “It didn’t surprise me when I saw John Walker’s father speak on television about his background, I thought that would be the type of background that would be inclined to become curious about Islam. There is that critique of the West and America there, and the type of people who become interested do have some questions and problems with the U.S. government’s policy.”
In Lang’s case, this disaffection was sparked by the Vietnam War. “I was a teenager back then, so, coming from that era, I had a lot of doubts about this government. I had a lot of skepticism when it came to U.S. foreign policy. I’m a big fan to this day of people like Ralph Nader. I seem to always vote third-party candidates to express my disenchantment with the popular candidates, and that’s the way I was back then. Maybe one of the things that drew me to Muslims was the fact that they were quite critical of American foreign policy, and they made some good arguments.”
Traci Tokhi, a 30-year-old Bay Area social worker who became a Muslim in 1995, initially disputes Lang’s and Pipes’ political analysis of why white Americans turn to Islam. In fact, she says, her liberal feminism initially made her wary of the patriarchal religion. “I was a very strong feminist, pretty progressive-minded in college,” she says, as her two children Hakim and Jamil play with toy dinosaurs at her feet. Islamic society’s treatment of women, she says, “definitely was an issue.”
Tokhi says she turned to Islam for spiritual reasons, describing a vague religious awakening in college after being raised in an atheistic home. Her journey toward Islam began in earnest when she moved to San Jose and met many Muslims, including Daud, the man from Kandahar, Afghanistan, she would eventually marry.
Today, there’s a poster protesting the war in Afghanistan on the wall of her living room, but she says that has more to do with her general pacifism than with an “Islamic interpretation” of the current U.S. military operation. Still, she notes that particularly since Sept. 11, her family has been a little suspicious of her political beliefs and how they coincide with her adopted faith.
“My mom’s recent question has been, ‘When did you become like this?’” referring to her daughter’s opposition to U.S. military action in Afghanistan. “‘Is this something you learned in college, or was it something that happened after you were Muslim?’ And my response to my mother is that she and my father really raised me to be this way. So it’s interesting that my parents really see this as something that I’ve possibly been brainwashed into or been influenced into either by academia or these Muslim scholars who, with their charisma and influence, have taught me to be this way. But it’s really a piling up of my whole upbringing.”
Twist readily confesses that his left-wing politics brought him to Islam, which he felt was demonized in America after the Gulf War, a U.S. military action he opposed. His curiosity about Islam was first piqued, he says, when he joined his mother on a trip to Senegal in his early 20s. After flirting with Islam for years, he finally converted in a Berkeley mosque during his lunch break from his job in a record store. Even now, while he deplores the Sept. 11 attacks, Twist echoes fellow convert Hamza Yusuf in seeing American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, as part of the context for the terror assault.
“It was real difficult for the Muslims in America, especially,” he says of the Sept. 11 attacks. “We were dealing with all the same issues that Americans were dealing with — the tragedy and witnessing that — and all these other things that are relevant to our understanding as Muslims. For example, we’re very familiar with the transgressions of the United States in Muslim countries, in Iraq and Palestine. The Muslim world is so hurt about what’s going on in those places, it’s really agonizing to watch. For example, we bomb Iraq like every other day and it doesn’t even make the headlines any more. People are starving as well.”
Twist’s exaggerations about the frequency of U.S. bombing notwithstanding, he insists he’s no fan of the Baghdad regime. “I’m not down with Saddam Hussein in any way shape or form, but he’s being turned into a hero because he’s standing up to America. People are making that mistake, there’s always this idea that things are black and white, good and evil. There’s a polarization that’s going on. People don’t think you can condemn the United States and condemn the extreme Muslims. You have to choose a side. And I refuse to choose a side.”
Refusing to take sides, people like Twist and Tokhi are forced to straddle two worlds.
When he answers the phone at work in Mayor Jerry Brown’s office, where he works as the community services coordinator, Twist uses his given name, underscoring the fact that he lives in two separate worlds. In the wake of Walker’s capture, Twist admits to even more soul-searching about the links between Islam, anti-Americanism and violence, but he concludes that the intersection in the case of the “American Taliban” is accidental. And he blames the media for over-hyping the connection between Islam and war.
“There are a lot of people who have a really good heart and who want to sincerely learn and have a proper understanding, but the media I think has had a real different approach,” he says. “The subtext in of a lot of the media portrayal is ‘These Muslims, this insane religion. Look how they treat their women.’ So that’s been frustrating. The media has been reporting in a way that’s subconsciously giving people these ideas, I think. The pictures they show and the words they use, it’s sensationalist. [Journalist] Andrew Sullivan, he wrote a terrible article. It was so bad, he was saying that this is a war between Islam and the West and why Islam is intrinsically at war with the West and how bin Laden is actually a true representative of Islam. There’s been a lot of that stuff bubbling around.”
Tokhi is also in a questioning mood lately. While she was never drawn to Islam’s political agenda the way Walker was, she admits that her own conversion experience led her to reject who she was and create a new identity, much the way Walker did. “When I did actually convert, I was really gung-ho. I kind of jumped in the deep end. I was ‘The Muslim,’ and I was nothing else. I began to reject a lot of my own background, kind of just went headfirst into it. I was covering my hair, I was not really engaging in my cultural holidays. I was sort of going in a direction that was really like I had gone from one extreme to another. That was how it felt.”
Unlike Walker, however, Tokhi was finally able to find a balance. “I eventually took a step back. I was doing things for reasons other than connecting with my creator. I had the very difficult task, as most converts do, of balancing my own family and my friendships outside of the Muslim community. Now there’s a very strong need for me to maintain who I am.”
Tokhi says she still wrestles with certain aspects of Islam — she wavers on covering her hair, for example. But she seems to have made peace with being both a Muslim and an American. In her home, there are two cloth Ramadan decorations hanging on the wall, each marked with one of her children’s names, each with 30 squares counting off the days of the holy month with suns or moons. It’s borrowed from the concept of the Advent calendar, counting off the days until Christmas, she admits, happy with the hybrid between her birth culture and her adopted one that she’s passing off to her children. “That’s just my own little thing I do for them, I guess it’s a way of sort of blending cultures,” she chuckles.
Lang says stories like Tokhi’s are the rule among Muslim converts. “I’ve seen some that don’t want to take that step back. I’ve seen some in the United States that are still very extreme. But I would say for the most part, with most American converts, you see a mellowing out over time.
Finding a way to more effectively blend Islam with Western culture has become a 15-year struggle for Lang, a mission that he shares with younger American converts like Tokhi and Twist. John Walker ended up going in the opposite direction. But depending on how the government disposes of him, he might very well get another chance.