More in Hawai'i turn to Islam
|||Muslim women say head cover is liberating|
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion Writer
Less than three weeks after terrorists struck New York City and Washington, Heather Ramaha stood among a group of women at the mosque in Manoa and recited the shahada in Arabic:
Bruce Asato The Honolulu Advertiser
Heather Ramaha, a Navy petty officer, is among those in Hawai'i who have converted to Islam since Sept. 11.
Bruce Asato The Honolulu Advertiser
She was testifying that "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah (one true God), and Mohammed is a prophet of God."
By doing so, she became a convert to the Islamic faith, extending a recent national trend.
Some Muslim clerics across the country say they are seeing a fourfold increase in conversions since Sept. 11, when stories about Islam jumped from the back pages of the religion section to front pages worldwide.
Hakim Ouansafi, the president of the Muslim Association of Hawai'i, said that prior to Sept. 11, there had been an average of three converts per month.
In the two months since then, there have been 23.
And oddly enough for a religion that is often perceived as one that cloaks its women from head to foot, the newly converted Westerners tend to be female. Ouansafi said the national ratio of converts is 4-to-1, women to men. Here, he said, it's closer to 2-to-1.
Most Mainland converts are African-Americans, who make up about a third of U.S. Muslims, some of whom found Allah while they were in jail or in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
On the West Coast, the men are mainly military, said Ouansafi, and most of the O'ahu converts are former Christians. One's even a single cosmetics saleswoman.
More people are looking into his religion and liking what they see, he says, despite the relentless media coverage of Muslim terrorists.
"Know you find bad people in every religion, and that religion should not be judged by that extreme minority," he said.
One thing Sept. 11 did was remind people that life is too short: "If I'm going to die, I want die a Muslim," a convert told Ouansafi.
Cromwell Crawford, chairman of the religion department at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, echoed that: The effect of Sept. 11 on the national psyche made all Americans aware of the transience of life.
He described the mood of the country as changing: Singles seek to bond; family members hang together more tightly; and, by extension, the nation's people reach out to one another.
"People are turning to religion both in the institutional sense and in noninstitutional ways," Crawford said, adding that the fallout also is benefiting other religions besides Islam.
Why overwhelmingly women?
"In the expression of this mood, women are moved more readily and more deeply than men," he said. "Go to any church and you'll find more women than men."
He also finds the female students in his classes often show greater insight into ethical issues.
"Women are the more religious of the genders for various reasons," Crawford said. "... Women give birth and so they are in touch with the life process, caretakers of the life cycle by virtue of their biology."
Converting or "reverting," as Muslims call it since they believe everyone starts life as a Muslim does not take much besides a sincere belief there is one God, and only one God.
"We believe, as Muslims, once a person reverts to Muslim, all his past sins are forgiven by God," Ouansafi said. "Starts just like a baby that was born."
The conversion ceremony itself is fairly simple, he said. A convert tells of the converting of his or her own free will; then explains the five tenets of faith.
For the ceremony, two witnesses watch as a convert agrees that Jesus was among the great prophets (Ibrahim/Abraham, Mohammed and Moses are among the others), but not God, then speak the same two sentences that Heather Ramaha recited.
Now, Ramaha is incorporating her Islamic faith into her life as a Navy petty officer stationed at Pearl Harbor since July. She doesn't wear her hejab to work as a dental hygienist, but she does wear her head covering when attending services at the mosque. While her husband, a Marine, was away recently, she couldn't quite recite the five daily prayers, all said in Arabic, without his help.
But Ouansafi said the Islamic faith is supposed to be practiced to the best of one's abilities: It's forbidden in the Quran, for example, for pregnant people, travelers and people with diabetes to fast at Ramadan, if fasting means harming oneself.
On a recent Friday the Islamic equavalent of the weekly Sabbath Ouansafi spoke at the prayer services about the role of women in Islam, and talked at length in an interview at his office with his wife, Michele Ouansafi, herself a convert, about what draws women to a faith some have called oppressive.
Women are revered in their faith, the Ouansafis said. The wearing of the hejab is for a women's own protection they are away from the lascivious looks of men. The women pray in different rooms and behind the men so as not to be a distraction when worshippers kneel and place their foreheads to the floor.
"Women are in back because we are the stronger of the two," said Michele Ouansafi with a laugh.
And all the major texts of religions the Bible, the Torah, the Gospels "in the Quran, women have more rights," her husband said.
He noted that in the Quran ("the word of God, descended directly on the prophet through Gabriel," said Ouansafi), Eve and Adam were equally at fault for leaving the Garden of Eden. Eve wasn't the seductress. Many of the passages in the Quran are gender-neutral.
And, in Islam, Ouansafi said, the money a man makes goes for the family. The money a woman makes is hers, he said. Women are not obligated to work.
The first feminist was a Muslim known as Khawlah, Ouansafi said.
Khawlah argued with prophet Mohammed, taking issue with how easily her husband could divorce her. All a man had to say was, "You are to be as the back of my mother," which was held by pagans as freeing the husband from any conjugal responsibility but didn't leave the wife free to leave his home or remarry.
Khawlah went to Mohammed to plead her case. He told her to be patient, but she kept arguing. Finally, she took it to a higher authority, and Allah heard and agreed with her.
"Women not only have the right to speak, but to argue with the great prophet," Ouansafi said.
Michele Ouansafi converted after meeting her husband-to-be when he tutored her in Rhode Island in 1986, but she said he never asked her to convert.
"Ours is a faith of attraction, not promotion," said the French Canadian woman with an MBA who works at Earth Tech, an environmental firm, as a contracts administrator.
For those women who see their place in the home, the Islamic faith can be very attractive, said Tamara Albertini, a UH philosophy professor who specializes in Islam and grew up in an Islamic country. The man is responsible for taking care of the earnings, and the woman rules the home.
"The main problem with Islam is: If things don't work out, there's no place to go," she said, noting that a woman needs very strong reasons to leave a marriage. However, if a Muslim man leaves the faith, she can divorce him.
Although Ramaha's husband, Mike, is a lifelong Muslim and a Palestinian who grew up in San Francisco, he was not the reason for her conversion, she said.
"Mike never once tried to get me to convert," the 24-year-old 'Aiea resident said. "He said, 'If you want to do this, you can research it yourself, but I'll love you either way.'"
Ramaha has been searching for a way to explain her new faith to her family in California. She notes that most of their information about Islam comes from the TV movie, "Not Without My Daughter," a story about an American woman, an abusive Iranian husband and a subsequent fight over their child.
"I haven't been able to find a way to tell them without them flipping out," she said. "I haven't told Dad. I tell him I go to the mosque, but I haven't told him I converted yet."
To people who ask her why she would choose a religion that some consider oppressive to women, she responds that they're mixing religion with culture.
"Growing up in the U.S., Islamic faith doesn't have the culture mixed into it," she said.
Ramaha was the first in her family to join a church. At age 5, she befriended the daughter of a non-
denominational pastor and became a Christian. The rest of the family joined later. Her mother is still a churchgoer. But Ramaha said she struggled with the Christian view of the Holy Trinity. In March, she took an online world religions class through a California university.
"I'd been a Christian for 18 years," she said. "There are so many loopholes in that religion. (Islam) opened up so many ideas. ... I felt that in my heart this was the right (one) for me."
As a follow-up, she took an introductory class on Islam in Hawai'i after Sept. 11, she started reading the Quran, and "something clicked." She converted soon after.
"I've always felt drawn to something out there, (otherwise, there's) an emptiness," she said. "The only way I feel complete is when I have a religion, a God to pray to."