My conversion was largely circumstantial. Might I have become Buddhist had fate knocked differently? Actually, I read about Buddhism in high school and found it interesting, but I didn’t meet any Buddhists then. I did, however, meet Muslims at the natural foods store where I worked during high school.

They were among the kindest, most loving and sane people I had ever met. They related, moreover, to the psychedelic drug experiments I had been conducting, although they insisted that their spiritual path could cultivate an even greater awe and without the chemicals. “Cool,” I thought to myself.

Never were they preachy. I was sufficiently curious and always had questions for them. My shifts at the store became occasions rich with philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, God, relationships and personal transformation. It turned out that God wasn’t a bearded man in the sky. Nor was “He” male for that matter.
God became more than a dogmatic myth. It was a verb, a presence — entirely me and not me, simultaneously. God was the ultimate paradox, profoundly fascinating, but Islam and this “God” figure were not only captivating conceptually. My newfound spiritual path also penetrated my heart and awakened something that had been there all along. At eighteen, I had stumbled upon a holistic system of personal transformation — a religion — that made sense.

Paul Simon wrote, “After changes upon changes we are more or less the same,” and his words ring true for me. No one else in my family has converted to Islam, but since embracing the faith, I feel closer to my family than ever. The divine force that flows through every atom, every soul and every particle of light — a force that I call God — has inspired a pluralism in me, not an exclusivist ideology. Islam has granted me problem-solving tools to understand myself and to relate to nature and other humans. Paul Simon is right, because I am still an extension of who I was. Islam simply gave me a new framework.

Undoubtedly, my reflections on the transformative power of religion could apply to any number of systems that encourage personal development: Christianity, yoga, Alcoholics Anonymous, an aerobics class. Although the ten years since I converted have certainly given me occasion to identify things that Islam uniquely offers, that does not preclude the existence of other effective avenues for personal growth. Plus, there’s great social value in treating one another with respect and magnanimity despite religious diversity.

I’ve discussed the pluralistic worldview that Islam encourages for me and the great effect it has for me psychologically, and I might even have spoken of “tolerance.” However, tolerance is a poor word choice if we really mean “understanding.” Let’s think about it. What does it mean to “tolerate” something? We tolerate bad weather, slow lines at the grocery store and messy roommates, but these are things that are unpleasant should we give our attention to them. With religion, however, is it really tolerance we desire? Do we want to tolerate our Muslim neighbor, or would we rather get to know her and judge her according to her character and individuality, rather than the myopic lens through which we’ve decided to see her? Therefore, I suggest we avoid religious tolerance at all costs. Instead we should focus on understanding.

Anyone who has developed a skill knows quite well that learning is often challenging, and so is religion. This does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t try to understand, especially because America has a history of scapegoating: we’ve done it to African Americans, Japanese, Jews and to too many other groups to mention. Now it’s Muslims. Are there Muslim terrorists? Sure, but what about the vast majority of Muslims who are not? Shall we lump them into the same pile of xenophobic rubbish?

According to some polls, many Americans have never met a Muslim. No wonder people live in fear! I understand. I used to fear asparagus; then I gave it a chance. I don’t know how much asparagus you’ll find on campus these days, but there are plenty of Muslims. I’m not suggesting you eat them with hollandaise sauce, but do know that the Muslim Student Association holds weekly meetings every Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Middle East Resource Center in the SRB, and all are welcome. We spend each meeting discussing a social, political or religious topic, followed by informal socializing.

So, do I scare you? I certainly don’t want to scare you. But, if you are scared of Muslims, let’s work together. You do a better job of taking responsibility for your prejudice, and I’ll do a better job of encouraging my fellow Muslims to actively participate in society and demonstrate that they’re good citizens and good people. I’ll also encourage my fellow academics (many of whom are also Muslim) to appeal to larger audiences, beyond the academy.

We must confront our fears unless we desire to regress as a society by recreating hideous practices that have marred this great nation in its sometimes dark history. In the process, remember your privileged life in America. Appreciate it. Travel. Meet Muslims. Buy asparagus when it’s on sale. Whether you embrace Islam or Humanism, or any other method for cultivating love and personal growth, I look forward to extending my hand and heart to you in the process, so that we might learn from each other.