Muslim Leader Tells Personal Story of Religious Conversion
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, is the university being sensitive to its students or playing favorites with religion? We'll hear one man's concerns.
But first, it's normally not a big story when a person takes over the helm of a local organization, but, then, there aren't many people in the position of Danette Zaghari Mask. She was recently named executive director of the Orlando chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It's a Muslim civil rights group. But what makes her stand out is that she happens to be white, a former Protestant and a convert to Islam.
She's with us today to talk about her interesting journey for our Faith Matters conversation, a weekly look at matters of religion and spirituality. And she joins us now from member station WUCF in Orlando, Florida.
Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. DANETTE ZAGHARI-MASK (Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Orlando Chapter): Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Danette, as I understand it, your family growing up, Protestant family. How did you become exposed to Islam? Did you know any Muslims growing up?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: I definitely did not know any Muslims growing up. I grew up in Winter Garden, Florida, which is a small town. It's a suburb of Orlando. There might have been Muslims but I never met them. I went to public schools all the way.
MARTIN: What was it like for you? I guess I'm just wondering, was it a gradual process? What were you attracted to? Was it a moment of revelation, if I can use that word? Was it a feeling of comfort like - was it something about finding a community that you felt comfortable in? Was it finding a way of living or an idea that made sense to you? Do you remember?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: I'd say I had an intellectual conversion and a spiritual conversion. I had the intellectual conversion. Muslims believe that there's only one God and they believe in all the prophets - Abraham, Moses, Jesus, peace be upon them all and up to Muhammad - and so I accepted that. And I read the Koran and I've acknowledged that the religion of Islam was the truth for me. But the spiritual conversion was more of a struggle, and it came later.
MARTIN: Was your spiritual conversion the moment at which you began to consider yourself a Muslim?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: It was definitely the point at which I considered myself a Muslim when - and that - and I can remember the day, you know, when that actually occurred. I felt very guilty about what I perceived at the time of turning my back on my family and my culture and the way that I was brought up, and worried about how that would be perceived.
MARTIN: What was that process like of sharing this with your family? Converting to a new religion, I can't imagine it's easy for anybody. What was that like when you shared this with your family?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Everybody in my family reacted differently. My father was very angry, my mother was indifferent, my sister was accepting, and my grandmother was devastated. So I had to deal - I had to confront everybody's, you know, emotional roller coaster. And I was experiencing a lot of my - I was even feeling guilt at the time that I was telling them that because I know how, as they said themselves, what an embarrassment that would be to have somebody who's doesn't fit the status quo inside of the family and how to explain that.
MARTIN: Is that right - embarrassment? Because I was going to ask you whether you converted at a time when - Muslims have been under scrutiny in the U.S. and not always in a favorable way, and I wonder whether the politics around Islam and some of the events going on in the world were part of the reason your family was concerned.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: They know me and, of course, I had the chance to tell them about my conversion. But certainly that would have entered into their mind, how that would be perceived. Unfortunately, you know, conflicts that happen overseas sometimes are visited upon Muslims here in the United States.
And I think part of it was their concern about how society would perceive me. If they have negative views about Muslims because of their exposure to the media, that that would translate into negative perception of me. And I think they thought it would get in the way of - or I know they told me that they thought it would interfere with success in my professional life, which it didn't. But those are fears that they expressed at the time.
MARTIN: What about in the other side of it, within the Muslim community? And I don't know what the demographics are of the Muslim community where you live in Florida, but I just wonder were you as a white woman different? Did you feel accepted?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: The American Muslim community is very diverse, you know, South Asians, African-Americans, Europeans, Iranians. I mean, the list goes on so…
MARTIN: But you go from, forgive me for, you know, but you go from being a white woman in the United States, kind of a…
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Yeah.
MARTIN: …plain-Vanilla white woman, sorry.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Mm-hmm. That's okay.
MARTIN: Where you can just roll in with the mix at the mall, right? You go to the mall, you just roll in with the mix.
Ms. MASK: Yeah.
MARTIN: To standing out in a way that you did not grow up doing. You did not grow up standing out unless you chose to stand out or, you know what I mean. And I just wonder what that was like.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Well that was really, really the hard part for me because I didn't grow up as a minority. I grew up in the majority. And we had, you know, like diversity training when we were in school and we talked about diversity issues but it was never a personal experience for me. It was something that other people confronted and dealt with.
So I became a minority overnight. And I didn't have the upbringing and my mother never talked to me about confronting bigotry and confronting hatred just because of who you are. I had to develop those skills on my own, and that was a big challenge.
MARTIN: Do you wear a headscarf?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: I do. I wear hijab.
MARTIN: Did you start immediately?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: No, no, I did not. And actually I kept my conversion to Islam quiet from my family and from my friends until the time that I decided to wear a scarf. And, actually, when I first put it on me, I still kept it quiet because I would wear like a hat or do some things that would be, I thought, was less conspicuous. I probably just looked like an idiot.
MARTIN: Well, I don't know. Maybe you looked like you just had a series of bad haircuts.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Yeah, you know.
MARTIN: You know, just had a lot of bad luck at, you know, the hair and…
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Yeah, and I think that was…
MARTIN: But why did you decide to wear a headscarf? All Muslim women don't wear headscarves.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: No, they certainly don't.
MARTIN: Why did you choose to?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: I believe that it's - in the Koran it says that so that she'll be known and not bothered. I felt that it was very liberating for me, personally, and that's why I was attracted to the concept. Growing up in a society where, you know, it's not enough for a woman to be intelligent and driven and committed to her community - she has to be a sexual symbol.
And I felt it very liberating for the first time in my life to shed that and be rid of it. So I don't think being a feminist is in contradiction with being a Muslim and being a Muslim who covers herself. I don't think modesty and feminism are at conflict with one another.
MARTIN: Of course, there are those who associate Islam, fairly or unfairly, with the subjugation of women. And they look at covering as part of the subjugation because men - although men are also commanded to be modest - don't seem to practice it to the same degree. And I think - and I just wonder how do you react to - do you even bother?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Yeah, I do. I mean, a lot of people know that, though, that the Koran actually - that men are supposed to also be modest in their dress as well as women. The first individuals to convert to Islam at the time of the last Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a woman, and she financed the Muslims when they were living in ghettos and when they were being ostracized.
But as far as culture, I mean, there are cultural practices that subjugate women, and that's all over the world and in Muslim societies, so that's exclusive of the Islamic faith. So I don't want to be a denier. I mean, there are clearly practices inside Muslim cultures that enforce the subjugation of women, but not Islam itself.
MARTIN: Let's talk about your work with CAIR. You took the post earlier this month. Why did you want to take on this position?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: I started volunteering for CAIR three years ago, when Parvez Ahmed, the chairman of CAIR, came to my local mosque to talk about issues facing American Muslims, in particular the civil rights issues. And I think Muslims are at a watershed moment. They're taking their place in history along with all of those who have struggled in these movements. I feel that I had something to contribute to that movement as an attorney, as a civil rights attorney.
MARTIN: Is it, in part, do you feel that you offer a different face of Islam in a way? And I wonder how you feel about that. Do you feel in a way perhaps your own ethnic identity, demographic identity might make your message easier to accept? And if that is the case, is that okay with you?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Well, I sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, hope that my Caucasian factor doesn't make my message more palatable as far as civil rights and, you know, equal rights of Muslims in this country. That would pretty much defeat the whole purpose of the kind of work that I do.
MARTIN: Would it, or is it just marketing? I don't know. I mean, it is what it is, I mean, it might be sort of painful to contemplate. But is it, you know, is it possible that your whiteness, your Caucasian-ness might make people see the issue in a different way that they might otherwise?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: That's not been my experience so far. Sometimes, actually, the fact that I'm a Caucasian Muslim actually enrages some people, and that's been my - the feedback from some people is that, you know, I've become a traitor.
MARTIN: People say that to you? People have said that?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Yes, yes. The recent Pew research polls stated that, you know, Muslim Americans are largely mainstream, middle-class, and very well integrated into the American society. But there are too many people who see Islam as a foreign element, and something that comes from overseas and not something that's indigenous, just one of the issues that I have to face as an American Muslim. But I think a lot of other Muslims have also had that experience.
MARTIN: According to CAIR's annual report, there's a rising number of civil rights complaints from Muslims. There were 25 percent more in 2006 than in 2005, and the report also suggested that hate crimes may also be on the rise. What are some of the things that you and CAIR are doing to address these issues?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Well, trying to have an open dialogue with law enforcement officials and other civil rights organizations such as the ACLU. We had a recent case last week that we held a news conference on to call on local law enforcement and the FBI and the state attorney's office to investigate it and prosecute it as a hate crime.
It was a situation where a member of the central Florida Muslim community was shopping in a children's place and a woman turned around and she heard his accent, she heard him talking, and she told them that this was America and he could go out and she knocked him to the ground.
And she called him a terrorist and there were witnesses that - independent witnesses who I spoke to who corroborated his statement of what had occurred. Unfortunately, when the police officers showed up, they refused to make an arrest. And they actually said that, you know, he was the aggressor. He scared her. So that's why she knocked him down.
MARTIN: Do you ever envision a time when a group like yours won't be necessary?
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: I hope we can come to that vision and, you know, of course, that is the goal. The Council on American-Islamic Relations does a lot of civil rights. It also promotes a great understanding of Islam, so I think that there will always be an occasion for dialogue. As far as the civil rights issues that we can fight - the hate crimes, employment discrimination, and the laundry list of the negatives that we confront on a daily basis - I do hope that that comes to an end. But I hope that we don't just start focusing and targeting on a new group and visiting all of that chaos onto them.
MARTIN: Danette Zaghari-Mask is the new executive director of the Orlando chapter of CAIR. She joined us from member station WUCF in Orlando, Florida. Danette Zaghari Mask, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Thank you.
MARTIN: And good luck.
Ms. ZAGHARI-MASK: Thank you very much. I had a good time.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.