Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims
Surveys Show That A Majority Of Americans Have An Unfavorable View Of Islam. With This In Mind, Our Writer Set Out To Explore The Religion As It’s Lived In Our Own Community.
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As a journalist, Lisa Suhay understands the importance of trying to keep an open mind in unfamiliar situations. But she freely admits that this wasn’t always easy for her—especially when it came to Islam.
“I was not Muslim-friendly for a lot of years,” she tells me during a recent conversation. The experience of covering 9/11 for The New York Times accentuated those feelings. “I’ve also been to Saudi Arabia [on assignment], but even when I was there, I never set foot in a mosque.”
The opportunity was always closer at hand: The 52-year-old Norfolk resident lives less than a mile from the Islamic Center of Tidewater. But for a long time, she’d regarded it with skepticism.
That all changed in November after the election of Donald Trump. Alarmed by the anti-Muslim statements she’d seen and heard during the campaign, she decided it was time to rethink her attitudes. When she saw a Facebook post about an open house at the Islamic Center, she decided to go see for herself what it was all about.
Deeply touched by the warm reception she received there, she quickly took the next step and began attending Friday services.
“I went from being concerned and edgy about what was in the mosque to being concerned and uncomfortable about what’s outside the mosque,” she says. “I’ll be in the middle of prayers and hear a noise outside and feel an immediate spark of fear that someone might try to do harm to all of the women and all of the children whom I’ve come to know as sisters and friends. And I think—wow—all of the things to fear are outside the mosque; there’s nothing in here to be afraid of.”
When we meet for coffee and conversation, Suhay wears a headscarf, and I ask whether she has actually converted.
“I’ve thought about it,” she says, although she adds that she continues to attend Sunday services at Larchmont United Methodist Church.
“I guess you could say that, religiously, I’m double dipping,” she says.
Her reservations about actually converting were fueled in part by remarks people would make about her headscarf.
“I’ve always loved wearing scarves on my head, wound around in different ways,” she notes. “My family is from Russia, Poland and Romania, so early on, I was enamored with the whole gypsy vibe. I also went through my Stevie Nicks phase and had a drawer full of scarves. But one trip to the mosque, and I started getting religiously stereotyped. It hit me hard. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re a Muslim now.’ I’ve had intelligent, college-educated women in my neighborhood just go at me in such a venomous way, saying thinks like, ‘Are you going to start walking behind your husband?’”
She feared that if she did convert, the remarks would only grow worse and more frequent. The struggle deepened her conviction, however, that her personal exploration of Islam was a kind of calling.
“Maybe God, or Allah, or whatever name you want to use, had this game plan all along for me—as a kind of bridge.”
Increasingly, she talked with people who said they would never set foot in a mosque for fear that the people there would try to convert them. Some women, moreover, feel that to do so would be a betrayal of feminism.
It cuts both ways. The Islamic Center has become more open to the community as it has undertaken efforts to aid refugees, but she’s encountered some Muslims who have reservations about inviting people from churches to volunteer for fear that they’re going proselytize.
“When I tell them that I’ve heard Christians express the same fear, that gets their attention.”
The effort to integrate the Islamic Center more fully into the community has continued, and the women there have been especially instrumental.
“They’re breaking down their own barriers,” Suhay says, because they’ve come to realize that “in order to be safe, they need to normalize Islam in the community.”
As for life inside the mosque, Suhay says that she actually likes that women pray in a separate room from men.
“I love that there’s tons of hugging on the women’s side,” she says. “In a way it’s much more feminist than in any church. The women are all supporting each other.” Many of them, she adds, are accomplished professionals—among them, a doctor at EVMS.
Still, when we talk, Suhay fears that she might not be “strong enough” to actually convert.
“These people are living in terror,” she says. “People who have lived here their whole lives and are American citizens. I know a woman who is petrified to drive her car for fear that she might get pulled over for some minor infraction by a policeman with the wrong mindset. I’ve also heard stories of people being followed by trucks with Confederate flags, honking because the driver of the car is wearing a scarf on her head. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m going to be the first Methodist shot outside a mosque because I’m wearing a scarf that nobody differentiates.”
A few weeks after our conversation, I send Lisa a Facebook message to let her know I’ll be attending another service and ask if she’ll be there.
“Yes,” she responds. “In fact I’ll be doing Shahada.”
At the time I didn’t know what that meant. After I arrive, I learn that it is a conversion ceremony. The growing sense of family that she’s found at the mosque, and the appeal of worshipping there, has caused her to set aside her fears and take the leap.
“It was very emotional on the women’s side,” she says. “There were lots of tears. Strangers were coming up to me and saying, ‘Welcome home.’”
Muslims don’t actually use the word “convert,” she adds. They say, “revert.” “Everyone is brown Muslim,” she writes in a message, “but some people are born into different cultural circumstances and must find their way ‘home.’”
As part of the process, she even chooses a Muslim name: Safeera.
“It means ‘ambassador,” she says. “A human bridge.”
Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 1 and Part 2, Judaism, Buddhism and Transcending Religion.