Monday, August 23, 2010

Muslim Converts in America

"I have been asked so many questions randomly on the street. I have been insulted, but I'll correct their insult. I've been asked questions, and I'll be more than happy to answer." -- Hazel Gomez, a convert to Islam living in Chicago.

Hazel Gomez grew up in the gang-scarred neighborhoods of Chicago, in a Catholic family of Puerto Rican and Mexican-American immigrants.

Her interest in Islam began in high school, when she says she noticed that Muslim girls were being treated with respect by other students. She remembers that her family believed her fascination with the faith was a “phase” that she would grow out of when she went off to college.

Instead, her interest intensified. Hazel Gomez has been a Muslim for seven years now. She works for an Islamic community service group on the west side of Chicago called Iman, which helps former prisoners reintegrate into society.

American media often focus on Muslim converts who turn to violence, such as Colleen La Rose, also known as Jihad Jane. She was recently accused of leaving the United States to kill a cartoonist in Europe who had made fun of the Prophet Muhammad. The Pennsylvania native pleaded innocent to that charge in court in March and her trial is pending.

There have been many stories about other Americans who have turned to Islam and violence, hoping to join international terrorist groups.

But less often told are the stories about Americans who convert to Islam to make their lives better and to help others. Hazel Gomez says she has reassured her parents that her conversion does not mean she is turning her back on the family’s Hispanic heritage and the values they taught her. The Chicago native proudly calls her herself an American Latina Muslim.

Hazel Gomez has a simple suggestion for Americans who still have doubts about Islam: keep an open mind, and try to meet someone of good character who practices the faith, and make a personal connection.