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White Muslim

He was a blond, blue-eyed Californian obsessed with a female rocker and going nowhere fast. Then he moved to New York, watched the horror of 9/11 – and became a Muslim.
 
 
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How to Become a Muslim

Five days before 9/11, Charles Vincent bought his first Koran. Six weeks later, while smoke was still pouring from the remains of the World Trade Center, he formally converted to Islam in the mosque attached to the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street and Third Avenue in New York City. A blond, blue-eyed 29-year-old from Torrance, Calif., he readily admits that he chose an unlikely moment to fall in love with the world's most newsworthy religion. But in the three years since, his devotion to Islam has only deepened. Like a growing number of white Americans and Europeans, he has discovered that Islam is not just the religion of those "other" people.

"Every day I'm more surprised than the day before," he told me one evening in October, breaking his Ramadan fast in a harshly lit fast-food restaurant a few blocks from the 96th Street mosque. "The last religion I wanted to belong to was Islam. The last word that came out of my mouth was Allah. Islam pulled me out of the biggest hole I've ever been in."

Dressed as he is in an Islamic-style tunic and a white kufi, or cap, with an untrimmed ginger beard sprouting from his handsome, classically Californian face, Vincent may look unusual, but he certainly isn't alienated, or for that matter, alone. In the United States, there are estimated to be roughly 80,000 white and Hispanic Muslims, along with a far greater number of African American ones. In France, there are perhaps 50,000, according to a secret government intelligence report leaked to the French newspaper Le Figaro. (A Muslim resident of the racially mixed Belleville district of Paris told me that out of every 100 Muslims one sees there, 30 are former French Catholics.) The report stated that conversion to Islam "has become a phenomenon [in France] that needs to be followed closely." A recent study commissioned by Jonathan ("Yahya") Birt, a Muslim convert and the son of a former director-general of the BBC, put the figure in Britain at a more modest 14,000, and there are similar estimates for Spain and Germany. More people are converting on all sides of the globe – from Australia and New Zealand to Sweden and Denmark. At the moment the number of converts can only be called a trickle, but it is steady and gathering in power.

Becoming a Muslim is surprisingly easy. All you need to do is take shahada – say, La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah ("There is no true God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God") in front of a Muslim witness (or, according to some people, two witnesses) and, bingo, you're a Muslim. That done, you are required to pray five times a day, donate a certain amount of money to charity, fast between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, and, health and finances permitting, make at least one haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca during your lifetime.

Of course, there's the small matter of why a non-Muslim would first choose to convert to a religion increasingly associated with dictatorial governments, mass terrorism, videotaped beheadings and the oppression of women. One reason might be disillusionment with wall-to-wall entertainment, jaded sexuality, spiritual anomie and all the other ailments of the materialistic West. Another might be protest. A few days after George Bush's re-election, critic James Wolcott joked on his blog that, in tribute to the president's (and the Christian right's) victorious pro-religion agenda, he was going to convert to Islam, not least because "fasting during Ramadan should be wonderfully slimming, enabling me to get into the Carnaby Street paisley shirt that was a bit binding the last time I tried it on." A few days later he announced he was putting his conversion on hold following a long discussion with his editor, Graydon Carter, who had pointed out that another Vanity Fair writer was thinking along the same lines and two Islamic converts on the same perfumed masthead might be a bit much.

In fact, had one of the Vanity Fair scribes been serious about going down to the mosque to offer his services to Allah, no one at the mosque would have blinked an eye. Recently I was present as Heriberto Silva, a Catholic teacher of Spanish literature at the City University of New York, took shahada and became Abdullah Silva, Muslim, during Friday prayers at the 96th Street mosque. A frail 60-year-old bundled into an old parka, a thick volume titled "A History of the Arabs" tucked under his arm, he told me afterward that his conversion was due to three factors: a long-standing fascination with the Islamic world; the encouragement of his Muslim friends; and a desire to register a personal objection to the Iraq War.

"We see a president who is preaching about freedom and democracy, and it is not true! It is all lies!" he told me. "And then I am looking for something that is real truth, and I found in Islam that truth."

Vincent's conversion appears to have been a more muddled, emotional affair, but also a more dramatic one, since it took place in New York against the backdrop of 9/11. Like a lot of people who convert to Islam or any other religion, he did so after a particularly difficult period in his life in which he not only lost his "way" but also his job and his apartment, and, after a fight outside a nightclub, came close to losing an eye as well. He also had a good Moroccan friend – "the Mysterious Moroccan," as I've come to think of him, since he wouldn't speak to me – who strongly encouraged him to convert, and may even have insisted that he do so as a price of friendship.

Muslims are just as intrigued by Vincent's transformation as anyone else. "I was making prayer in this mosque during Ramadan in November 2001," he told me, "and I could feel the brother next to me stare. After the prayers, the first thing out of his mouth was, 'How did you become a Muslim?' That was very strange to me. I didn't know how to answer him. I said, 'What do you mean, how did I become a Muslim?' And he said, 'How did you become a Muslim? You have to have a story of how you became a Muslim.' And I realized he was right. There was a process I went through. Muslims know that it's not by chance that you come into this religion. I know that now too."

From Siouxsie to Allah

Vincent was born into a middle-class Catholic family in Inglewood and grew up in Torrance. He was the youngest of eight children – all boys. After "dabbling" in college, he took a job as a bellman at the Torrance Marriott, and worked his way up to the position of night-shift auditor, which he kept for five years. He enjoyed the responsibility, and the feeling of being awake in a hotel in which everyone else was asleep. But he often asked himself what he was doing with his life, and the answer came: "Didn't do anything today, didn't do anything today, didn't do anything today ..."

A sociable loner, he would end his shift at 7 in the morning, eat in a Taco Bell on Hawthorne Boulevard in Lawndale, and sleep until 3:00 in the afternoon. In his free time he worked out, went swimming or surfing, and hiked in the Palos Verdes. He had amibitions to be a stage actor and took part in a local production of Red River, but his passion was for music. His girlfriend was obsessed with the band Danzig (a band member pulled a gun on them when they broke into the grounds of his Hollywood house), and he, in turn, was obsessed with the spiky, aging lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees. He waited for Siouxsie outside her hotel when she played in L.A., asked her to autograph T-shirts and pose for photographs, and would stand in the front at her concerts so he could grab her leg onstage (she let him). One night, hanging around in the lobby of her hotel, he asked if she would pose for yet another photograph, and Siouxsie decided she'd had enough. "You have one minute," she answered in an icy voice. That was the last time he saw her.

When he thought about moving to New York, his brother Mike encouraged him. "Dude," he said, "you know what? You've already worked for Marriott for five years in this nowhere city, and now they're trying to make you work even longer hours. Just go." In 1999, Vincent went. Through Marriott, he arranged to take a job at the front desk of the Marriott in Times Square, while he himself lived in a hotel on James Street in the West Village. It was an old, musty, creaky place down by the waterfront whose main claim to fame was that the survivors from the Titanic had been put up there in 1912. In the room next to Vincent's was a transvestite. As New York beginnings go, it was classic.

But within a couple of years, Vincent was in trouble. He quit the Marriott and became involved in an ill-fated pet-care business venture, which was when he met the Moroccan, whom he hired off the street. It was a chaotic time, and they soon became best friends. They spent a lot of time partying, blew all their money, and by the summer of 2001 they were both out of work and had lost the apartment they'd moved into in New Jersey. For a few weeks, they were virtually homeless.

Things got even worse after Vincent and the Moroccan got into a fight with some guys outside a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Over the phone, Vincent's brother Mike told me he thought the brawl may have broken out because the Moroccan was harassing some girls coming out of the club. Vincent says the Moroccan had nothing to do with it; in fact, by this time the Moroccan was already rediscovering his Islamic faith and had begun to distance himself from Vincent, who would see him praying and feel bewildered.

Vincent's version of the story is that he and a friend from Las Vegas, Joey, saw a girl vomiting on the sidewalk outside the club. She was tiny, and she kept vomiting and vomiting, and they couldn't believe how much was coming out of her. Joey had a camera, and they decided to take a picture. When the flash went off, the girl's boyfriend looked up and said, "You think that's funny?" "Yeah, it's funny," Vincent replied. They got into a shouting match, and suddenly the boyfriend was standing in front of him, ready to fight.

It was late on a Saturday night in the Village, and hundreds of people were milling about in the street. Soon they were baying for blood. Several of the girl's other male friends joined in, and Vincent remembers being dragged across the street and pushed down by three men, when someone hit him in the eye. Joey had disappeared, but the Moroccan, who was down the block, heard the shouts and came running over. When he saw what was happening, he tried to defend his friend, taking on several men by himself. Eventually the police arrived, took one look at Vincent's face and called an ambulance: A blood sac had formed in his eye and was starting to protrude from it.

It was after being discharged from the hospital, wearing a big bandage on his eye, that Vincent saw a Muslim selling copies of the Koran on the street in Queens. Recalling some of the things the Moroccan had been telling him about it, he bought one, though he didn't read it straight away. A couple of days later he began to lose vision in his eye. It had become infected, and in order to prevent the infection from endangering the vision in his other eye, the doctors told him they might have to take it out.

Shortly before 9/11, Vincent ended up spending two nights at St. Vincent's Hospital on the west side of Manhattan, with both of his eyes bandaged, wondering if he was about to go blind. "All I could hear was the beeping of the machinery around me and the people and the nurses talking, and I guess in the darkness I had time to think about myself and my situation," he told me, recalling his frame of mind at the time.

"Where did I go wrong? I came from a good family in California – what led me to this? You know, bringing me all the way to New York to be sitting in a hospital. Here I am, I'm going to lose my eyeball. How did this happen? Why would this happen to me? And while I was covered, while I had the bandages on, that's when I prayed for the first time in my life. I asked God to not let this happen to me. And so I did a heartfelt prayer to God."

Vincent's prayers appear to have been answered. The following morning the doctors took the bandages off his eyes, and the vision in his bad eye had returned. He was then rushed into the operating room for some laser surgery. By 9/11 he was out of the hospital, though still wearing a patch on his eye, and staying in a house in Queens belonging to his Moroccan friend's cousin. The Moroccan's mother had come to visit from Casablanca, and so when the planes struck the towers, Vincent – unlike most Americans – experienced the day from the perspective of someone living in the bosom of an Arab family.

"All we had to do was look out our door to see the World Trade Center, all the smoke," Vincent said. "I remember being at a grocery store a block from our house, calming [the Moroccan] down. And he gave me the scenarios of how Islam was going to be the victim of this all. And again, not knowing anything about it, I said, 'OK, calm down, calm down, I know what you're saying ...'"

"Because he's Arab he knew a lot of Arabs, and the Arabs he knew I knew. They all knew exactly what had happened and the way it was going. They were more shocked than anybody, and they didn't know how to take me now. So the focus was on me. 'What do you think happened? What do you think about this? What do you think is going to happen?' I said, 'Listen, I don't know any more than you about this, so don't ... ' I couldn't answer any kind of question like that."

In the days after the attack, while New York's traumatized citizens stared at their television sets, watching endless replays of the planes slicing through the World Trade Center, Vincent read the Koran, becoming more and more enraptured by it as he went on.

"In the second chapter it says, 'In this book you'll find no doubt,'" he told me. "Meaning no contradictions. There's nothing that's going to say one thing here and another thing there. But as you read, you understand this was not written by a man. There's a clear, clear distinction between this book and others. What was also shocking was that it clarified the other book – the Bible. It's spoken of in the Koran, and spoken of highly in the Koran. So I was absolutely baffled that this book I had no idea existed was explaining my book for me.

"It was a very strange time to decide to come into a religion like this," he concluded, "but for me it was meant to be. It was meant for me to see this, and it was my time to see it."

Going Immigrant

I first met Vincent outside a small Bangladeshi mosque on First Avenue and 11th Street in New York's East Village. It was a Saturday night in October, and he was standing in front of the entrance talking to another Muslim, Raul ("Omar") Pacheco, a 43-year-old Spaniard who converted in his 20s and later spent five years on a scholarship in Saudi Arabia. Vincent wore the Islamic dress of many of the Bangladeshis who go to the same mosque, and the light above the doorway illuminated his pale skin and blond beard. The lines around his eyes seemed unusually pronounced for a man not yet 30. His face looked drawn, but he smiled broadly, displaying a glistening row of white, orthodontically perfect Southern California teeth. He said he drove a cab – like so many other Muslims. Laughing, he told me that he had converted just before 9/11 – "Great timing, right?" – though the next time I saw him he had subtly amended his story. I asked for his phone number, but he seemed reluctant to give it to me. His line was being tapped by the FBI, he said, like those of most Muslims. Instead, he gave me his e-mail address.

My impression that night was that Vincent took Islam very, very seriously, almost to the point of parody. That he drove a cab seemed a bit much – it was as if he were trying to replicate a certain kind of Muslim lifestyle in America down to the last detail, to become just another Yemeni or Pakistani driving busy Westerners around. It was the reverse of the old expat, colonial phenomenon of "going native." Vincent had "gone immigrant"; he'd expatriated himself inside his own country. There was something moving about his sincerity. Was he learning Arabic? Did he plan to go to Mecca? Was he still in touch with his old friends from L.A. and elsewhere? What did his parents think? Had the FBI talked to him? There wasn't time to ask. Explaining that he was working the night shift in his cab, he excused himself and disappeared into the darkness.

Pacheco, it turned out, teaches Arabic at the mosque on 96th Street, and he told me that for a while Vincent had been one of his pupils. (I later sat in on a class, which was made up of a white professor from Hofstra University who had converted to Islam and an African American couple, also converts, and their three boys, all of whom were laboriously copying down sentences from the blackboard in Arabic script.) Unlike Vincent, Pacheco was dressed in ordinary street clothes. Looking at him, no one would guess he was a Muslim. He looked like an ordinary Spaniard of the Almodovar generation, and had a Texan wife – also a Muslim. ("My wife is a cowboy!" he joked.) His own preference, he told me, was for the Sufi branch of Islam, which he believes is less doctrinaire, more poetic in its essence than the dominant brand.

And what did he think of Vincent? "I was like that once," he responded, adding that he also had worn the white kufi and Arab dress. But now he no longer felt the need to advertise his Muslim status. "Ninety percent of the Europeans who have embraced Islam went through a certain kind of crisis, of not being completely satisfied," he told me. "I was very indecisive and unfocused when I was young, and Islam brought me steadfastness, energy. It makes sense, Islam. There are many crazy people, of course."

Ten days after that first encounter, I arranged to meet Vincent outside the same mosque at around 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. Even allowing for the fact that it was Ramadan, the number of people filing in and out would have astonished a priest, who would have been overjoyed to have that many congregants in a week. There were plenty of churches, even cathedrals, in the neighborhood, but most of them were locked. Whereas there were about 100 people in the mosque, as many as it could fit, rows and rows of barefoot men listening to a pre-recorded voice intone prayers in Arabic.

At 1:45, Vincent pulled up in his cab and apologized for being late – he'd had to take someone to the airport. He was wearing dark, almost-wraparound glasses that made him look like a postmodern American ayatollah, a hip blind sheik. He was sniffling because of a cold and limping because of a back problem. On his wrist he wore a chunky Swatch wristwatch – a gift from the Moroccan. I asked if I could take his photograph, but he said he would prefer it if I didn't. (He later allowed photographs to be taken.) It's against the true Muslim's belief, he told me, as is shaking hands with a woman other than one's wife. Movies are now forbidden as well, along with music, because Muhammad said it was "of the devil." In his cab, Vincent either listens to the news or Arabic-language tapes. The last time he was in Torrance, he gathered up his entire music collection – CDs, records, rare LPs he'd hunted down on Melrose Avenue, videos of concerts, rock star posters, jars of ticket stubs from Lollapalooza and concerts by Siouxsie, Danzig, Ministry, Sisters of Mercy, Christian Death – and dumped the whole lot into an industrial-size garbage can in his mother's back garden. And felt really good about it too. It was as if he'd purged himself of a lifetime of Western culture.

"Why shouldn't you listen to music?" I asked.

"Because it takes up valuable space in my mind, space I need for the entire Koran rather than Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' or something nonsensical like that. These things are not going to benefit me in the hereafter, they will only be held against me."

Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of the Michigan-based Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA), a Sufi Muslim organization that has many white adherents and keeps tabs on fundamentalist Islam in America, calls that "a very hardcore, Taliban-style belief. I wouldn't say it's militant, but it's very extreme. The problem is it can often lead to a militant attitude in the future." According to the ISCA, the majority of mosques in the United States have been taken over by radicals who preach the dour, restrictive version of Wahhabi Islam financed and championed by Saudi Arabia.

"If you go to an ordinary Islamic country," Siddiqui told me, "they don't act like that. Most Muslims watch TV, take pictures, listen to music ... The same is true of a lot of the people who go to the mosques in America. The people who go to them are normal Muslims, but the people who run them are very strict. If a new Muslim comes, they will grab him and indoctrinate him."

Could something like this have happened to Vincent? In his study of Wahhabism, "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror," Stephen Schwartz discusses another Californian convert, the notorious "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan waging jihad against his country. "The speed with which [Lindh] succumbed to Wahhabi conditioning is seen in his peremptory rejection of music almost as soon as he began praying and studying – not just hip hop music, with its negative and arguably destructive character, but all music," writes Schwartz, who thought that Lindh's conversion was partly a product of his own superficial culture and existence. "Wahhabism filled the emptiness in Lindh exactly as 'militia' paranoia filled the void in homegrown American terrorist Timothy McVeigh," he argues.

Vincent denies that he has been manipulated by anyone in the mosques he goes to, or by his Arab acquaintances. On the contrary, he says that he and his Moroccan friend discovered – rediscovered in the latter's case – Islam and the Koran together. Nor does he think much of Sufism. "Be careful of that stuff," he told me in his kindly way when the topic came up during one of our first conversations, a frown furrowing his brow. "I'll just give you a little example of what I mean by that. The Prophet Muhammad, salla 'alayhi wa sallam [peace and blessings be upon him], anything that came out of his mouth was recorded, just like you're recording now. And he said this religion will break up into 73 sects, and all of them are going into the hellfire except for the one on the true path of true religion. So when it comes to Sufism, it's not anything I would consider to be ... For me, I can't consider that being any part of an article about Islam."

"So you consider yourself a Sunni Muslim?"

"I would say I was a Muslim following the one true path."

Islam Is a Way of Life

While Vincent worshiped inside the mosque, facing a wall decorated with a map of the Muslim world and five clocks displaying the different prayer times, a small, bearded man in traditional Islamic costume approached me on the sidewalk. His brown eyes were wide open, unblinking, consciously mesmeric, and a big smile lit up his face. Did I have any questions? Was there anything I wanted to know about Islam? He said his name was Hesham el-Ashry, that he was an Egyptian from Cairo, and he invited me to sit down with him on the mosque's carpeted floor to talk.

Nearby people were praying, sitting around, chatting quietly, even – in the case of one African American – stretched out asleep. There was a small curtained area for women to pray in, but I didn't see any women. Someone later explained that this was because women are not required to go to the mosque as often as men, and since the majority of Muslim immigrants are male, there are fewer women anyway. Nonetheless, the overall impression one receives in the mosques is that women are treated, if not as second-class citizens exactly, then almost as an afterthought. In fact, watching the men go in and out of this one little mosque – a thousand or so per day – you could easily mistake it for a kind of social club for men.

"Thanks be to Allah, that he made me Muslim," el-Ashry began, warming up with a brief homily on the "five pillars" of Islam. His English was good, if eccentric, and he had a honey-smooth voice. "We are not Muslims because we are wise, we are not Muslims because we are clever, we are not Muslims because we are so smart. Even when we worship, when we come to pray, when we fast, it is a blessing from Allah. He pleases us by making us Muslims, and by making us worship him."

"Why did you come to the United States?" I asked.

El-Ashry smiled. "The reason is coming to work, to stay here, to have a better life – like everybody. But then afterward I learned that my traveling from my home country to any other place should be, first of all, to make do'wa – to tell people about what is Islam, the truth of Islam, the reality of Islam. So I changed my intentions, and I made my main purpose [in] America to talk about Islam, and my second purpose, to work and make a living.

El-Ashry estimates that he has converted about 20 white Americans to Islam, though he believes that you don't "convert" to Islam, you "revert" to it, since we are all Muslim at birth – to become Muslim is simply to return to one's natural state. (As Vincent said to me, even dogs and cats are Muslim, since they behave exactly as Allah decrees.) The Americans he converted, said el-Ashry, had lots of questions about Islam, from why Muslims "kiss the ground" five times a day to why they encircle a black box in the desert. "So when I explained the truth and the reality about everything, then they found out things that completely changed their idea about Islam. They found out the truth about Islam, and about 20 of them asked, 'Can we be Muslims?' And I said, 'Well, you have to be Muslims.'"

I asked how many Americans he thought would convert to Islam in the future.

"Only Allah knows that. I wish all would be Muslims."

"How did you meet these Americans?"

"You see the way I met you?" el-Ashry replied. "People be looking at [me] with a critical eye, sometimes. Sometimes they stop me in the street, talking. Sometimes my neighbors. Sometimes the people I'm working with. Wherever I have a connection with people. And sometimes people come to the mosque asking questions, and I talk to them."

I asked el-Ashry about the way Muslims pray, the different positions they adopt – sitting, standing up, bending down with hands on knees, head down on the floor.

"We pray, or we are supposed to pray, in the same way the Prophet Muhammad prayed," he explained. "He said, 'Pray in the same way you see me pray.' So that's why we have to do every single movement according to what he used to do. He taught us where to look, how to stand, where to put your hands, how to open your legs or close your legs. Every single thing he taught us how to do. And this is not only in the prayers, because what people doesn't know about Islam is [that] it's not a religion."

"What is it then?"

"Islam is a way of life. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught us everything up to how to go to the bathroom. Even when you go to the bathroom, how to go in, how to go out, how to sit, how to wash, how to take a shower. [He taught us] how to eat, how to start your food, how to treat your wife, how to treat your children, how to wake up in the morning, how to put your slippers on, how to put clothes on, how to take clothes off, what to eat, what not to eat ... And everything had a purpose."

To read part 2 of White Muslim click here