If you were to pass me on the street, you would never suspect I’m a Muslim: I don’t wear hijab. I have platinum blonde hair and blue eyes. And I am heavily tattooed. I grew up in Texas and was raised Southern Baptist. I use the word “y’all” a lot—and not ironically. But I am Muslim. I also speak Arabic and hold a Master’s degree in International Security with a focus on terrorism and the Middle East.
Several years ago, I realized that although I had long studied, analyzed, and written about Islamic political theory and how jihadist ideologues like Osama bin Laden use the Qur’an to justify their heinous acts of violence, I had never actually read the Qur’an. So I read it—and what I found in its pages changed my life. I found answers to questions about faith and belief and morality that had been plaguing me since my youth. I found the connection to God I thought I had lost. And seven years ago, I converted to Islam.
Just to be clear: I detest the twisted interpretations of Islam espoused by the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS just as much today as I did before I converted—in fact, probably more so, since now I see it not only as a sick bastardization of a beautiful religion, but a sick bastardization of my beautiful religion.
When I read the Qur’an, I find a God who is beneficent, who is merciful, and who cherishes mankind. I find a religion that encourages independent thought, compassion for humanity, and social justice. The jihadis claim to love these same things about Islam, but have somehow decided that the best way to share God’s message of mercy and compassion with the world is to blow up mosques and behead humanitarian aid workers. Great plan, guys.
Three years ago, the hashtag “#MuslimApologies” began trending on Twitter. The hashtag was a tongue-in-cheek response to those—such as right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham—who, in the wake of the beheadings of Westerners by ISIS, have questioned why Muslims have not been more vocal about denouncing terrorism carried out in the name of Islam (except that many have). Tired of constantly being asked to apologize for the acts of a few vile individuals who twist Islam to justify their barbarism, Muslims on Twitter decided to take a humorous stand—by apologizing for everything: the Twilight saga, World Wars I and II, that Pluto is no longer a planet, and, my personal favorite, that Mufasa had to die in The Lion King. Some also used the hashtag to sarcastically apologize for the important contributions Islamic culture has made to the world, from algebra to coffee to the camera obscura.
Of course, I wanted to get in on the fun. After tweeting my sarcastic apology for the terrible ending of the television show LOST, I decided to tweet something a little more serious: a 140-character summary of my conversion story.
After sending my tweet, I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my humble little tweet had been retweeted numerous times and I had picked up dozens of new followers. Several people—almost all Muslims—had responded expressing their happiness for me and welcoming me to Islam. So, that was nice. I also got a few trolls, of course: people telling me I was brainwashed, trying to convince me that the CIA created ISIS, or asking me if I had engaged in female genital mutilation yet. That was less nice, but to be expected; it is Twitter, after all.
Then things took an unexpected turn. My tweet went viral—at last check, it had been retweeted more than 11,300 times—and I soon began to notice a disturbing trend: of the thousands of people who were retweeting and following me, many of them had the black flag of ISIS as their Twitter profile photos. Others had pictures of themselves holding swords, standing in front of the black ISIS flag. Uh-oh.
Then the Saudis showed up: men whose profile pictures showed them in traditional Saudi dress (sometimes behind the wheel of a swanky SUV or insanely expensive sports car) started replying to my tweet and asking to speak to me in private. One guy told me how beautiful I would look in hijab. Another just straight up asked me to marry him.
So I’m famous. In Saudi Arabia. Great.
Not that I have anything against Saudis, of course. I’ve known plenty of perfectly lovely Saudis, and I would be making the same mistake as American Islamophobes if I painted all Saudis as Islamic fundamentalists. But there is no denying that something is rotten in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The ruling al-Sauds have given a lot of power and influence to hardline Islamic fundamentalists within their society in order to secure their rule. Among the results of this dubious bargain is that Saudi-funded Salafi-Wahhabi madrassas around the world preach hate and the Saudi state has beheaded far more people in the last several months than ISIS has—for crimes ranging from adultery to apostasy to “sorcery.” So it’s still a little disconcerting that I’ve suddenly become a big hit in Saudi Arabia.
It’s clear that my tweet about becoming Muslim struck a nerve with a lot of Muslims, both here in America and in the broader Muslim world. Non-Muslims sometimes don’t realize how much hatred and negativity gets thrown at Muslims and how utterly soul crushing it can be to have to defend yourself and your beliefs on a daily basis, and it’s really nice to see someone saying something positive about Islam.
At the same time, though, it’s precisely the actions of ISIS and their followers and the words of intolerance emanating from the Salafi camp that provoke this reaction against Muslims. And I, for one, do not appreciate having my conversion story used to attract more people to a repugnant ideology that spawns suicide bombings and beheadings.
(Jennifer R Williams lives in Washington, D.C. and is a foreign editor at Vox.com. The article first appeared in All America Muslim blog)