BOSTON (RNS) Like a lot of other people in the haze and confusion of the 9/11 attacks, Johannah Segarich asked herself: “What kind of religion is this that could inspire people to do this?”
She had studied other religions, but never Islam. So she bought a copy of the Quran, wondering if her notions of Islam as a patriarchal and now seemingly violent religion, would be confirmed.
Then she got to the first chapter, with its seven-line message about seeking guidance from a merciful creator. She finished the Quran a few weeks later, then started reading it again. About half way through, barely 10 weeks after 9/11, “I came to the realization,” she said, “that I had a decision to make.”
Segarich began studying Islam more intensely, and within a few months, the Utah-born music instructor made her Islamic declaration of faith, or shehadah, at the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge.
“It seemed kind of crazy to do. I was a middle-aged professional woman, very independent, very contemporary, and here I was turning to this religion, which at that point was so reviled,” Segarich recalled.
Indeed, it seems counterintuitive that Americans would consider joining a religion that many associate with terrorism and violence—especially after 9/11. But there are more than a few people like Segarich who, compelled by curiosity, became converts.
The majority of post-9/11 converts are women, according to experts. Hispanics and African-Americans, who were already converting well before 9/11, are the most common ethnic groups to convert.
Though exact numbers are difficult to tally, observers estimate that as many as 20,000 Americans convert to Islam annually.
Some conversions make headlines, such as Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted in 2003 after being held captive by Taliban; Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; or the rapper known as Loon, who converted last year.
Angela Collins Telles grew up in southern California but had a travel bug that took her to Egypt and Syria, where she made friends and found most people generous and compassionate. When anti-Muslim rhetoric flared after 9/11, Collins Telles felt a need to push back.
“I saw my country demonizing these people as terrorists and oppressors of women, and I couldn’t think of anything further from the truth,” she said, “and I felt a need to stand-up and defend them. But then I realized that I couldn’t argue without knowledge.”
Like other converts, Collins Telles said some Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity and priests as intermediaries to God—had never quite seemed right her.
“The concept of God was the most beautiful thing, and that concept fit with what I believe,” said Collins Telles, who converted a few months after 9/11.
Chicagoan Kelly Kaufmann had a similar experience. When relatives chastised her for volunteering for President Obama’s presidential campaign because they believed, erroneously, he is Muslim, she felt a need to study religion. When she came to Islam, her beliefs finally seemed in sync.
“Once I realized that’s where my beliefs aligned, I had that big uh-oh moment that a lot of people have when they realize, `Uh-oh, the (religion) I align with is the big fat scary one, as treated by the media, and understood as such by the public,” she said.
But after nearly a year of study, Kaufmann could find nothing wrong with Islam. She decided to convert after confronting a man at a public lecture who said Muslims hated peace.
“That’s when I realized, if I’m taking this personally, I think I must be ready,” she said.
Because of a slow but steady number of converts, many mosques have launched programs to help them with learning the essentials: prayer, basic beliefs, and proper behavior.
Vaqar Sharief, who was tapped to create a program for converts at the Islamic Center of Wilmington, Del., estimates his mosque gets four or five converts every month.
Despite their enthusiasm, some converts worry about how friends and colleagues will react, or whether they are exposing themselves to harassment or attack.
“I guess it will always be a concern until the rhetoric changes a little bit,” said Kaufmann, whose family has been supportive—except for an uncle who now forbids his daughter from seeing Kaufmann. “What are they afraid of, conversion by proximity?”
Trisha Squires hasn’t been a Muslim for even a month, following her July 31 declaration of faith, and has told only a few people, with mixed results.
Among the disappointing reactions was a close friend who said, “The godmother of my children is going to be a Muslim?” Squires hesitates to wear a headscarf to work, unsure what her employer might think.
Others, however, don’t worry at all.
“I never cared about being accepted,” said Collins Telles, who now lives in Brazil with her husband, who also converted after meeting her. “I knew that I had found God, and that’s all I ever wanted.”