Laura El Alam

Like many white people in the United States, I spent much of my life surrounded by people who looked and acted a lot like me. I grew up in the suburbs and attended Catholic schools for twelve years, and the majority of my family members, classmates,   and neighbors were white Christians whose lives and habits were very similar to my own.

Back then, if I had seen a woman walking down the street wearing a headscarf and long, loose clothing, I probably would have assumed that she was a foreigner. I hate to admit it now, but I likely would have made false assumptions about her lifestyle. Because of the media’s portrayal of Islam, I would have inferred that she was oppressed by her religion, that she was fundamentally different from me, and that she was not “liberated” like women in the West.

It’s interesting to note that for many years, I had been taught by Catholic nuns whose wardrobe — including a veil that covered their hair — was not so different from Muslim women’s attire. Not to mention the numerous statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary that depicted a woman in flowing robes and a headscarf. I had never thought that the nuns or Mary were oppressed, though. I understood their way of dressing to be a voluntary display of modesty and a firm commitment to God. We subconsciously interpret things based on our preconceived notions. It’s also worth pondering why, for Western women, wearing less clothing and revealing more of the body became synonymous with liberation.

It’s hard for me to admit how skewed my thinking used to be. Nowadays I spend a great deal of time as a journalist writing about how Americans should not stereotype or ostracize Muslims. However, coming clean about how the “old me” saw the world is crucial to my role. It reminds me that many of my fellow Americans feel negatively about Islam due to their lack of understanding of it and/or false narratives they’ve encountered. They’re not bad people — they are merely uninformed.

Despite the fact that our country is extremely diverse, many of us white folks haven’t grown up in multicultural environments. Our neighborhoods and schools are often homogenous bubbles, and we tend to spend time with people just like us.  As a child, all of my family’s friends were white. While I did make a couple of black friends in high school, I realize now that they made every effort to respect and understand my white lifestyle, but I did very little to honor or learn about their unique identities. And, while I must have encountered Muslims at some point in my youth, I didn’t really get to know one until I was in my twenties. Until then, in my inexperienced mind, they — along with many others– were filed into a category called “Not Like Me.”

When I decided to embrace Islam at the age of 25, my life changed drastically. One of the most beautiful and transformative aspects was the immediate widening of my circle of influence. My new brothers and sisters in faith offered a wealth of diversity and much-needed fresh perspectives to my life. Integrating in the Muslim community provided me a crash course in multiculturalism that broadened my horizons and enriched my life. It also served as a mirror, showing me for the first time how I looked to the rest of the world. I started to realize the various forms of privilege I had experienced as a white woman in America. For instance, I had never been discriminated against because of my skin color. Upon meeting me, people had always assumed I was an American and a native English speaker. They generally treated me with respect and did not make negative assumptions about me or my beliefs. When I started wearing a headscarf, however, my experience changed. My nationality was questioned constantly, and I had to work hard to prove I was “normal” to a world which suddenly saw me as an outsider. As a visible Muslim, I quickly developed a lot more empathy for people who faced daily discrimination because of how they looked.

Although I’ve faced some challenges over the past 20 years, I wouldn’t change a thing. Becoming a Muslim has given me direction, purpose, and peace. It has made me a more enlightened white person who recognizes that I still have anti-racist work to do. I am extremely grateful for my Muslim friends’ willingness to share their cultures, homes, traditions, and ideas with me. As a new convert, I was welcomed by a uniquely supportive and warm group of people who hailed from all over the globe: Malaysia, Pakistan, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Turkey, India, Mexico, and New Zealand — to name only a handful of their nationalities. While they came from different corners of the planet and all had unique personalities, customs, and viewpoints, they shared one faith and a common commitment to treating others with respect and kindness. They were my mentors and became my best friends.

I learned to appreciate the beauty that emanated from my sisters of all colors because their hearts and intentions were genuine and God-conscious. While racism and colorism sadly still fester in many Muslims’ minds due to cultural influences and the effects of colonization, Islam has a clear anti-racist stance. In his last sermon before his death, the Prophet Mohamad (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

Therefore, a true Muslim should disavow racism and treat fellow Muslims of any color as a brother or sister. These familial ties were a life jacket for me as I navigated the waters of change, and I became quite close to my new Muslim sisters. Spending time with them, I learned a great deal about Islam. I also got to sample exciting cuisines, savor the cadence of unfamiliar languages, and admire crafts, art, and clothing that were refreshingly different from what I’d always seen.

When you get to know people who were brought up in cultures different from your own, you have the opportunity to see life from other perspectives. You realize the way you and your family have always seen the world is not the only option, and it’s not necessarily the right one, either. You come to appreciate certain things that other cultures do differently: the way they show remarkably generous hospitality to guests, for instance, or the way they treat elders with respect, or the way they remove their shoes upon entering someone’s home. I eventually understood that the richness of Muslims’ diverse cultures is a true treasure, and the Muslims themselves are extremely valuable members of our communities.

Once I had gotten to know dozens of Muslims, I realized that they – whether immigrants or natural-born citizens – enhance this country in millions of ways. Among them are leaders, professionals, and friendly neighbors across the street. To have Muslims in our community is a blessing. To have them as friends and brothers and sisters in faith is truly magnificent. I will always feel indebted to them for enhancing my life and broadening my horizons.

If you’d like to broaden your own horizons, consider reaching out to your Muslim neighbor, friend, or colleague and asking them if they’re comfortable chatting about their faith with you. You can also call 877-WHY-ISLAM and speak with a friendly representative who can answer your questions.

Raised in a Midwestern Catholic family, Laura El Alam became a Muslim in 2000. She is a prolific writer whose work has been published in various magazines. Laura is the founder of Sea Glass Writing & Editing and runs the Facebook page The Common Sense Convert which aims to provide a beneficial online forum for Muslim women.