Paul Sancya, Associated Press
DEARBORN, Mich. — For Caleb Carter, the road to becoming a Muslim took years. Sept. 11, 2001, was a turning point — specifically his high school teacher's hostile reaction to Islam that day.
"I was a junior in high school at the time, taking a class called Nonwestern World Studies," said Carter, who then lived in Columbia, Mo., but now resides in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, home to one of the nation's largest Muslim communities.
"For him, it was purely, 'This is what Islam teaches. We shouldn't be surprised.' He played the whole 'Islam equals terrorism card.'"
Carter, now 26, says he wasn't buying his teacher's opinions, nor was he "educated enough to judge it either way." Studying Islam and other world religions became his mission, and the son of parents with a Christian background converted to Islam in 2006.
Every American who converted to Islam since 9/11 has a different story: Stories of acceptance or rejection, of fear or suspicion about their new faith. A few who spoke to The Associated Press ahead of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 found their personal satisfaction as well as support from family and friends have outweighed the challenges.
Carter said he has not been personally criticized or confronted for his faith. Yet he's disturbed by disparaging comments made by lawmakers and political candidates, as well as critics who "blatantly misquote, take things out of context or makes things up" from the Quran, Islam's holy book — just as his teacher did a decade ago.
"The backlash has affected me — it's pretty scary as far as I'm concerned," said Carter, a freelance writer planning to go to graduate school.
Three years ago Carter married a Muslim woman of Iraqi descent, Abrar Mohammad. Mohammad, 25, said her husband "gets nervous" when they travel outside of their heavily Arab-Muslim area.
She wears a black abaya that covers her completely, and her husband has sometimes asked if she could "wear something more colorful" or "something not as Muslim-looking" on those trips.
She said she knows he "feels" the stares that she receives, something she noticed immediately after 9/11.
"It's the difference between people looking at you and going, 'Oh, weird, alien' (before 9/11) and looking at you and going 'I'm scared,'" she said. "Now I get a look of fear."
Caleb Carter said his parents were concerned at first about his conversion, given the story of John Walker Lindh: The American-born Taliban fighter is serving a 20-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2002 to supplying services to the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
"They were wondering, 'Is it a phase or is he really, sincerely doing this? What kind of Muslim is he going to become?'" Carter said. "They were cautious, but very accepting."
Even Carter is cautious when meeting other converts, wondering if they were attracted to the messages of extremists.
"I believe it's not a religion that promotes these things, but there are certainly people who do interpret it that way," he said.
Davi Barker, 29, of Fremont, Calif., also converted in 2006 after practicing what he called "a hodgepodge of neo-pagan religions." He said he comes from a diverse family of Christians, Jews, Baha'i and atheists, and his idea was "fitting them together and making them compatible."
"I found that Islam had already done that," said Barker, a writer and artist. "To convert, you have to testify to the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. Having believed those things, I just made the pronouncement."
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