By John Austin
When I was eighteen, I stood in the quad at my university listening to another student emphatically protesting my atheism. I rolled my eyes dismissively as he, almost comically, pointed at a tree and explained how such a thing would not be possible without Allah. I listened, and watched, half interested for the next fifteen minutes as he repeated this exercise with everything in sight.
Even before I went through the formal process of conversion I was apprehensive and anxious. I was worried about what my Southern Baptist family would say. I knew that their views of Islam, while largely uninformed, were very much in line with mainstream portrayals. Fortunately these concerns were completely unwarranted. Unfortunately my struggle with myself, my society, and my religion had not yet begun.
I converted to Islam at an age when most men are struggling to make sense of the world, and find their place in it. Being a young black man in the United States, this struggle was fraught with a host of perils.
My conversion, at that time, served to further complicate issues of identity that I struggled with. Having grown up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, I was already battling issues concerning my own identity as a black man. Most of my friends until university were white or Asian. The few friends I had that were also black, I could see, were silently struggling with similar issues. They were as desperate to fit in as I was, and the subject of blackness was never a topic of conversations. Even if it were, it would have been like the blind leading the blind.
As I grew into adulthood, my concept of my own identity, my own blackness, was largely defined by a series of negative encounters. Being pulled over while driving my mother’s brand new Audi through the affluent DC suburb of Fairfax. Listening to my AP English instructor tell my parents that I should consider vocational school, despite receiving high marks on essays. Being asked repeatedly by other students why I didn’t dress more ghetto, or act more black.
It would be easy to lay the genesis of these identity struggles at the feet of white adolescent high school students. And it would be easier still to vilify white people for the purposes of this story. The issues I’ve had to contend with are as much, if not more, a product of discrimination from my own kind as any other. Which is not to say my interactions with other African Americans were frequently negative, but that on the rare occasion when I was told that “You are not black enough” or “You talk like a white boy,” it stung more. It always hurts more when faced with rejection from your own. Perhaps because there is a native kinship that exists amongst us, because we are bound inextricably to one another by a common experience.
The black experience.
I was now not only an African American man. I was also a Muslim. A new cross-section in me had been created that I had to reconcile with. More invisible tightropes had been strung for me to navigate upon. No reconciliation was required between my blackness and my Muslim-ness. But the sum of those two things was seeking balance with my changed reality.
Though I wasn’t looking for a wife at the time of my conversion, I did immerse myself in the religion. I went to Friday prayers with a close friend, falsely believing that I would find fellowship there. I engaged other Muslims on campus at University, with lukewarm results. My attempts at connecting with Muslim communities online were far less forgiving. I can only guess that some people, emboldened with digital anonymity, were comfortable with words like khala, abeed, and tawa. I had to consult the few Muslim friends I had to even figure out what those words meant. But the fact that I know what they mean now is a testament to how frequently I’ve heard them used. Engaging with other black Muslims was no less of a challenge. Their particular gripes with me hadn’t changed even though my religion had.
I had not traded one form of rejection for another; I had compounded them. Like taking bricks made of rejection and stacking them one on top of another until a wall existed between myself and those whom I longed to be in the company of. Black. Muslim.
And then 9/11 happened.
I can’t tell you that much changed for me, as an individual, at that time. I wasn’t viewed with any more suspicion than usual. Women continued to clutch their purses and cross the street when they saw me late at night, much as they had before the towers fell. I continued to be pulled over without cause, though with less frequency, a fact that I attribute to not driving a brand new Audi. I was only ever stopped once in an airport and that was because I had lost fifteen pounds while out of the country and the customs officer wasn’t convinced my passport photo was me.
I didn’t change my name when I converted, so to the powers that be, I was simply John. My African American-ness, my blackness had shielded me from the worst Islamophobia had to offer. And in some ways, this only served to alienate me further from my fellow Muslims.
I could relate, through the lens of my own experiences as an African American. I could recount tales of “driving while black,” being observed with suspicion in department stores, and wondering whether or not I didn’t get a job because of my race. But many of those people with whom I tried to relate to through my own experiences were not interested. They were not interested in solidarity through “other.” They either simply wanted it all to go away, or they were too firmly ensconced in their own pain and struggle to see what was really happening.
I write all of this, not to say that I haven’t had my share of beautiful experiences, with Muslims from a variety of different backgrounds. I have. A friend’s mother has been insisting, since my conversion, that she find me a wife. A woman once approached me with her daughter’s business card and insisted that I call her. I’ve been invited to Iftars and post Tarawih coffee. I write this to highlight the fact that my experiences as a black Muslim have been every bit as challenging from within as they have been from external forces.
In Islam, judgment is one of the gravest sins you can commit. The reason being that only Allah (swt) can see what is truly in the heart of a person, that in His omniscience only He can see all that we say and do. Just as important is the idea that all things in the universe are as He wills and the act of judgment questions this, and by extension, Him. If judgment is a grave sin, then what is pre-judgment? Pre-judgment can be said to be an even graver sin, because we have rejected that which God has made, without having an informed opinion of it.
What I discovered during my ongoing journey through Islam is that I am no less guilty of these sins. By being so affected by these encounters I was passively buying into the judgments that were being made about me. I wasn’t accepting myself, and by not doing so, I was questioning that which God had created. Once I got it into my head that acceptance was the only thing that made any sense, acceptance of myself and others, life became a lot simpler.
John Austin is African American/Japanese American. He converted to Islam fifteen years ago. He is a graduate of George Mason University and runs a small interactive design company in the Washington, DC, area. When not designing, he writes fiction and essays. Another essay on being black and Muslim appears in Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, available now from Beacon Press.