My name is Frank Estrada. I was raised a Roman Catholic. I was so devout; I even hoped to one day serve in the priesthood. I accepted the church’s teachings even when I didn't agree with them. I even took every chance I got to convert people in the hopes of bringing them to Allah.
While serving in the US Marines, I did two tours in the Middle East. In a short time, I developed a hatred for Arabs and Islam. After I left active duty, I took a job with a company as a network administrator in Iraq. I worked with a man named Ahmed. In the beginning, I didn't trust him simply because of his background. I'm lucky that he was patient with me.
Slowly, due to my ignorance, he taught me about the Prophet, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, and the Quran. He didn't teach me in words; rather, he showed me that Muslims are not evil through his actions. More than that, he taught me the truth of Allah's Message.
After I came home, I began to study Islam seriously. I took a world religions course at Mesa Community College. Though I found the course prejudicial to Islam, it seemed to push me closer to it. I met a young woman named Amal in the class. We would spend hours talking and debating about Islam and Catholicism. I found her arguments both logical and reasonable.
I started taking Arabic courses, so I could learn to read and understand the Quran properly. I still have a long way to go. I spoke to everyone I knew that was Muslim but, more than that, I watched them to see if their actions matched their words. I never saw any hypocrisy. I even went to the Masjid in Tempe, Arizona to talk to other Muslims and the Imam.
What finally brought me to my conversion though, was the Shahadah. I read it and tried to see how it fit with my beliefs. I compared it to the First Commandment and found them to be identical. It was at that point that I had an epiphany.
Catholicism, whatever else it was, was polytheistic. The realization was shattering to me. I knew at that point that I could not obey the laws of Allah and continue to praise the Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, as his son.
I talked it over with my wife. She was concerned, to say the least. We spent hours discussing what it would do to our family. She went with me to the Masjid where we spoke with a man named Muhammed. Not only was he able to sway her fears, she decided to convert as well!
Becoming Muslim was no doubt the right decision. My friends and family, save my parents, were very supportive. My father would not speak to me for the next three months. My wife's family, to this day, is still unsupportive. I do not doubt that Allah will soften their hearts in the future.
I thank Allah for all the people he has brought into my life to show me the truth. I thank Him for giving me a mind to understand the truth. More than that, I thank Allah for my loving and understanding wife who has come to the truth with me.
I shall end this paper as I began the day. There is no deity worthy of worship but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet.
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Two Muslim boys in Switzerland have declined, on religious grounds, to handshake with their female teachers. The school district says Swiss custom should override religion and is now threatening to fine the parents of the boys $5,000 if the boys continue to refuse to comply.
Some years ago, I worked with a male Muslim intern who refused to shake my hand for religious reasons. The experience challenged me to think more deeply about tolerance and diversity, and I think the lessons I learned are worth sharing.
In the summer of 2010, as Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, I hired my first Muslim intern, a young man named Muhammad. I was eager to move beyond studying Islam from a distance and to develop the project into an opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim Americans to collaborate together as partners on issues of shared concern.
I was impressed by Muhammad’s resume, which included a rigorous education at an excellent college that left him just as prepared to attend graduate school in Islamic studies or medical school (he has since done both). We had never met in person, as the internship had been arranged via e-mail. But on paper, he sure seemed like a rising star.
The first thing that happened when he arrived in Princeton to start his internship was that he refused to shake my hand. The shock was my initial response. I tried to hide how stunned I was, but it was difficult. He was absolutely gracious in declining. I felt angry when he refused to shake my hand just because I am female, but it was hard to be angry at someone who was so kind. It wasn’t even clear to me what or who the object of my confused anger was. He explained that it was due to his religious beliefs that he does not shake women’s hands. Was I, who had hired this intern to help with religious freedom work, going to reject his freedom to follow his religious beliefs?
I suppressed how baffled and worried I felt. I moved right along as if nothing had happened. I welcomed him to the Witherspoon Institute and began introducing him to the work we would be doing that summer. But inside, my head and heart were spinning.
I have zero patience—I mean zero—for misogyny. I’ve had boys in Yemen throw stones at me and another woman. I’ve been treated like a dangerous toxic substance by a Catholic priest who seemed to wish desperately that women just didn’t exist. “Misogyny” is a word I don’t use lightly, but there are times when it is the appropriate descriptor of some men’s attitudes. I could not help but wonder: was misogyny what I was experiencing? What I would be in all summer long?
Yet, because I recognized that I did not understand why this young man refused to shake my hand, I did not jump to conclusions. Instead, I took a “wait-and-see” approach. He was an American. A kid from the Jersey shore. His refusal was religious, not cultural. I realized that I knew almost nothing about this young man. Who was I to judge him? Moreover, I badly needed an assistant at work and had prepared a mighty long to-do list for him. I knew we needed to work together in a spirit of collaboration to get through the busy summer ahead. An antagonistic relationship seemed like it would only get in the way. I swallowed my fears and acted as nothing had happened.
But something had happened: my assumptions about my own tolerance had been jolted with a radical challenge. Was I tolerant enough and sufficiently appreciative of diversity—particularly of religious diversity—to live and let live, even if it made me feel slighted?
That summer with Muhammed, along with subsequent collaboration at the Witherspoon Institute with Orthodox Jewish men who did not shake women’s hands, taught me many lessons.
Lesson one: I was reminded concretely of something I knew abstractly: namely, that Muslims are diverse. This young man was from a particular interpretive school of Shia Islam with which I was not very familiar. In over twenty years of academic studies and professional work related to Islam, I had never met a Muslim who, for religious reasons, would not shake a woman’s hand. Well, here was one. And then I met Orthodox Jewish men who would not shake my hand. And here too I was reminded: Jews are diverse. Moreover, for religious reasons, some Muslim women and some Orthodox Jewish women do not shake men’s hands. Issues of modesty, chastity, and ritual purity can involve both men and women; this is not just an issue of male attitudes toward women.
Lesson two: the reasons some religious men do not have social physical contact with women outside of their direct families should not always be reduced to misogyny. Where there is actual misogyny, it is something to be taken seriously. But painting all males with a broad brush is neither fair nor accurate. Men should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain their own thoughts, intentions, and consciences.
Lesson three: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to a refusal to recognize that women have professional abilities. This intern had absolutely no problem having a woman as his boss that summer. He was eager to assist me, and he always listened attentively to directions I gave him. He consistently did an excellent job carrying out the tasks I assigned to him.
Lesson four: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to a refusal to recognize that women have intellectual abilities. That summer, starting from that very first day, this intern and I had fantastic discussions about some of the greatest minds in Muslim intellectual history. He asked me lots of questions about my dissertation and treated me as a person from whom he thought he might learn something. He gave me brilliant reading recommendations in modern Islamic theology, all of them profound and challenging sources. He never treated me as if he thought I was stupid. Never.
Muhammad was a fantastic intern. We were lucky to have him work with us that summer at the Witherspoon Institute. He was a delightful colleague for all of us at the Institute and, significantly, he treated all the women with respect.
While I do not know the particular reasons for the refusal of the two Syrian boys in Switzerland to shake women’s hands, I can’t help but think of my intern Muhammad. After his internship, he went on to do a Master’s Degree at Harvard in Islamic theology, and now he is in medical school preparing to serve others in society as a doctor. As an American, I feel my country is lucky to have such a talented man, who values public service, as a citizen. If these two boys are even half as talented and kind as Muhammad, the loss will be Switzerland’s if this family cannot stay there.
I can’t say that I genuinely understand why Muhammad won’t shake women’s hands, but having to live without fully understanding is something that I think comes with the territory of genuine diversity. Muhammad allows me the freedom to shake the hands of men who choose to partake of this cultural practice, and I allow him the freedom not to.
The principle of religious freedom demands that we allow space in our society for the difference. Genuine tolerance allows for the difference. Of course, this is something quite different from trying to pass off the imposition of the cultural norms of those who are in power as “tolerance” simply by labeling it so. I hope that the Swiss government is able to tell the difference between the two—not only for the sake of those boys and their families but for the sake of their own society.
Jennifer S. Bryson, PhD, is Director of Operations and Development at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.
[…] I was born to British parents in Darussalam in Tanzania in 1964. […]. I was educated at the famous Roman Catholic Monastic School […] and went on to study history in the London University. However, I left my education unfinished.
Currently, I am working with an Islamic media company based in England and engage myself in dawah activities [preaching] including lectures on Islam in London’s famous Hyde Park.
[…] I grew totally disillusioned with the British educational system. It was thoroughly Eurocentric and projected world history in a way that suggested that the civilization attained its full glory and apogee in Europe. Having lived in Egypt and seen some of the majestic ruins which only archaeologists have access to, I found the West’s interpretation of history totally fallacious. I began a private study of histories of other peoples of the world, various religious scriptures, and philosophy. I was practicing Buddhism for nearly three years though never formally embraced it.
The study of the Holy Qur’an immediately attracted me. Its message had a magical appeal and I grew convinced that it was a divine revelation. I believe only Allah guided me, none else. I don’t know what made me deserve Islam.
[…] I was dissatisfied with Christianity from the age of eight. The concept that was taught to us through rhymes such as Hail Mary! Was not at all acceptable to me. While on one hand, the Christians described God to be eternal and infinite they felt no compunctions in ascribing birth of God from the womb of Mary. This made me think that Mary must be greater than God.
Secondly, the Christians’ concept of the trinity was a puzzle for me. The similitude like Canadian Maple leaf being one despite three sections appeared utterly inapplicable.
The crunch came when an Egyptian started questioning me. Despite being confused about the Christian belief I was trying to be dogmatic as most white, middle-class, English Christians do. I was flummoxed when he led me to accept that God died on the crucifix, thus laying bare the hollowness of the Christian claims of eternity and infinity of God. I now came to realize that I was believing in as absurd a concept as two plus two is equal to five all through my adolescent years.
The West’s pre laid, programmed life intensely repelled me. I began to question if a person has to live a life merely to get strait-jacketed in a rigorous schedule. I found Europeans struggling a lot to enjoy life. They had no higher purpose in life.
The West’s capacity to brainwash its people became plain to me when I discussed the Palestine issue with Egyptians and Palestinians. […]
Egyptians were poor, suffered hardships, yet were happy. […] But in England I found people shallow, materialistic. They try to be happy but happiness is superficial. Their prayers combined songs, dances, clapping but no humility, nor intimacy with God.
I realized that popular opinion in the West was totally hostage to the Zionist-controlled media. The question of Palestine was one among these. My conversation with Palestinians revealed how the West had believed in myths about Israel. First among them was that the Jews had the right to return to their original homeland in Israel. Secondly, they conveniently described themselves as Semitic while the fact was that most Jews of the world were Slavs who had later converted to Judaism. Thirdly Israel’s economic miracle was theorized to create the economic and scientific myth.
The fact was that I never got to know the Palestinian side of the issue. I got convinced that the people of the West were brainwashed by the media. I found that the US was trying every trick to punish nations indulging in small violations of human rights in the third world but was itself sending death squads into Latin American nations to liquidate their leaders who refused to toe the US line. Such hypocrisy is never criticized by the US media.
[…] The Western psyche emphasizes one’s individuality. This is at variance with Islam. Any sincere Muslim feels disturbed. He or she is constantly bombarded by sex and sexuality. Most girls lose virginity by 13 and it is normal for girls to have three to four boyfriends.
The dilemma before Muslims in the West is as to how to integrate with a society so steeped in sex, drugs, drinks and sexual intimacy. And if no integration, then how to save themselves from ghettoization.
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