Converts to Islam say their choice wasn't made lightly
By ZAHRA AHMED, FOR THE CHRONICLE Published 6:30 pm, Thursday, September 8, 2011
Sarah Prucha and Christy Thephachanh were both spiritual seekers when the people around them who most lived their faith were Muslims.
Prucha was 25 and working at a downtown Houston bank when she noticed co-workers pausing five times each day to pray. Even things as small as saying Bismillah (In the name of God) before eating or saying Alhamdulillah, (All praise is due to God) after sneezing caught her attention.
Thephachanh first became friends with Muslims while in college. A few years later when she wanted to make faith a bigger part of her life, she decided to learn more.
Her parents, Laotian immigrants, had been Buddhists, but slowly fell away from their faith after moving to Corpus Christi where there's no real Buddhist community.
In the past year, both women - like 20,000 other Americans each year - took the Shahada, a creed declaring their conversion to Islam.
Prucha and Thephanchanh both said their conversion to Islam was about faith rather than politics. American-born or not, conversion to Islam at a time when political animosity is high isn't always an easy decision.
Since neither woman wears a hijab, or headscarf, outside of a mosque, there are no outward signs that they're Muslim. But like many Muslims they worry about how their faith community is perceived.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 28 percent of Muslim Americans report "being looked at with suspicion," and 22 percent said they'd been called offensive names. Their feelings of being subjected to intense scrutiny at airports, by police and in everyday life haven't changed since a similar survey in 2007.
Many of those who come to classes led by ISGH lecturer Mazhar Kazi are educated, from the upper middleclass and have studied many religions, he said.
"They're looking for something to make them happy," he said. "Many people who come in have emptiness in their life. They want to fill up that blank and find peace in their own personality."
Jamie "Mujahid" Fletcher, who runs a non-profit called IslamInSpanish in Houston, said two to three people convert every month at Houston's main mosques. "Sometimes, they have looked into a religion and they're not satisfied," he said. "They aren't finding straightforward, logical answers to their questions."
Fletcher, a former Catholic who converted to Islam three months before September 11, said many Americans are drawn to Islam because of what they hear in the news. Some, curious about the religion, learn that the Muslims living in Houston are not like those being portrayed in the media.