RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
KAREN DANIELSON: Islam is not about converting culture; it's about converting faith and spirituality and understanding. And I can still be American through and through even if I'm wearing a headscarf and even if I'm dressing in what might appear to be something foreign.
MARTIN: Karen Danielson converted to Islam three decades ago, when she was just 19 years old. Her experience is not as unusual as it may seem. Some 20 percent of American Muslims are converts, and they've come into the public eye recently. Two weeks ago, a Michigan woman, and a Muslim convert, was killed in fighting in Syria. And the alleged mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlin Tsarnaev, was married to a Muslim convert. Leaving one religion for another can be a complicated process for anyone. But in the United States, converting to Islam can mean making some especially difficult personal choices - at least for some people - and that was the case for Karen Danielson. She was raised Catholic and then later became a Baptist and enrolled in a Baptist college where she picked up the Quran. Karen Danielson is our Sunday conversation.
DANIELSON: I had taken a Quran with me because I had chosen my missions to be the Middle East. And I was planning on going to the Arab world.
MARTIN: As a Christian missionary.
DANIELSON: As a Christian missionary. And during my free time at the college, my first year, I began reading the Quran and it struck many chords in my heart. And so I became a Muslim.
MARTIN: When you discovered the Quran and you found inspiration in that book, you could have taken that and left it at that, left it as perhaps a dimension of your own spirituality. Why did you decide you wanted to convert and live a life as a Muslim, which would require changes to how you lived, changes to your culture that you had grown up with?
DANIELSON: What made me believe is I had a prayer. I sat in my dorm by myself and I kneeled on the ground and I picked up the Quran. And I said, God, if this is what you want me to follow, it better be easy for me. You know, I can't have any doubt. And I put my head down in prayer and I began crying. And I lifted my head up and I felt calm and at peace and cool. And that was my sign. So, and I just moved forward knowing that the Quran was going to be my guide.
MARTIN: What was your family's reaction when you did tell them?
DANIELSON: I think the biggest problem with them didn't really occur until they saw me dressing with the hijab on.
MARTIN: This is the head scarf that Muslims use to cover their heads.
DANIELSON: Right. This is when they got very concerned. And when I introduced them to my husband, who is Palestinian, again, they were more concerned. Even at one point my mom had kicked me out and said don't ever come back to this home again dressed that way. I never want to see you like this. But I kept calling her and I did that because I discovered in Islam that the duty to parents is very important. And then eventually, as the birth of my first son took place, my mom opened up, came into our home.
MARTIN: What were the public perceptions to how you were then living your life? I mean, you had friends, I imagine, a community, and one day you are Karen Danielson, wayward Catholic who does not wear a headscarf and then, you know, another day you are a devout Muslim woman who wears hijab.
DANIELSON: It was a really difficult time. My closest friend, she tolerated me up until my wedding day and then just didn't show up for my wedding day, which was, you know, a big blow because none of my family members showed up either. So, I kept looking at the door, is somebody coming, and nobody came. That was a difficult thing.
MARTIN: What about public reactions? Did people treat you differently?
DANIELSON: I had the gamut of reactions, depending on what was in the news, I guess you could say. So, in the '80s, it was, like, what are you wearing, you know, and aren't you hot in that and, you know you're an American, now you don't have to dress like that anymore, to go home, you sand n-word. Nine out of 10 times I can contain myself but that 10th time, I, you know, I had to turn around and respond like, you know, where do you want me to go? This is my home. There were some scary times as well. I remember after 9/11 - I'm from the Bridgeview community here in Chicago in the southwest suburbs. We were under attack. There was a mob forming outside our neighborhood, outside the mosque neighborhood. And the police asked us to stay in our homes and we couldn't leave because they were marching at our - excuse me. It was a difficult time. But I did receive some of the most beautiful phone calls: we know you can't go out. Can we go and buy you a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk? What does your family need? A woman drove up into my driveway and opened her trunk and - total stranger - and her trunk was full of flowers. And she's like, I just want to deliver these flowers to Muslim homes. Could you point some out for me? She gave me a small pallet of flowers and that was amazing. You know, and that shows how beautiful America actually is. It was what sustained us through those times, knowing that there were people who did not hate us.
MARTIN: Obviously, after the Boston bombings, it emerged that the older of the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlin, had married a white Christian woman who had then converted to Islam for him. What was your response when you first heard that? Do you just zone out these news headlines?
DANIELSON: I just felt totally sorry for this woman because I knew the media was going to have a field day with her, and they did. And it was really sad. And I just pray that God, you know, keeps her patient and strong. I purposely did not follow every news clipping about her. I don't like the stereotype. I don't like to be grouped in that stereotype. I've had people come up to me, say things to me like you're not supposed to be driving a car. What are you driving a car for? Your religion forbids you to drive a car. And I'm like what? You don't know what you're talking about. That's the furthest thing from the truth. You don't have any clue. And I have met women who weren't Muslim and they've married a Muslim man and they've ended up converting. But it's a rare bird who just does it for her husband's sake.
MARTIN: We talked a little about the resistance that your immediate family and your friends had when you converted. I wonder what the response was from the Muslim community.
DANIELSON: They look at American converts as something quite utopian-like and amazing. You know, oh my God, you accepted this religion coming from such a distant cultural background. And so that's why I think converts tend to form support groups 'cause we really need each other. And so we have to support each other and direct Islam to become part and parcel of the American scene, not just this foreign element in America.
MARTIN: What's your relationship like now with your family?
DANIELSON: Both my parents have passed. My father passed over 10 years ago, and he was quite proud of me. And my mother as well was very proud to have me as her daughter and would ask me to read Quran to her and pray for her when she was going through her illness. In regard to my brother and my sister, I have a somewhat cordial relationship with my brother and a very distant relationship with my sister. But there's still hope.
MARTIN: Karen Danielson. She converted to Islam 30 years ago. Karen, thanks so much for talking with us.
DANIELSON: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.