Being a Muslim convert means you’re almost constantly balancing this strange in-between world, living neither here nor there. On the one hand, you have your old life: your family, friends, habits, and actions that were around prior to you accepting Islam. On the other hand, you have your new life: a life of God, brotherhood, mosques, imams and worship. And to each you are, in a way, an oddity.
The old life
With your family and friends, you’re no longer the same you that they have known all your life. This can be both good and bad; if you’ve been known to be a bit of a jerk all your life, becoming a Muslim gives you the opportunity to change yourself for the better. It can also mean that you’ve been a well-to-do’er all your life, and becoming a Muslim made you an uptight extremist that doesn’t even shake hands with non-Muslims. And regardless of who you are and who you’ve become, there will almost always be people who shun you and criticize you and leave you. Things that you once did—be it certain holidays or food or going to the bar with your friends—suddenly become off limits. These aspects of your life become amputated, sometimes along with the people you shared it with, and while it’s for the better, you still feel the ghost-itch of that missing limb, calling you back every now and then.
The new life
With the Muslim community, you are sometimes neglected. Everyone cheers and shakes your hand when you say the shahada, but you’re forgotten soon after. They don’t know just how much of a struggle lies ahead of you. You’re brought into a world that you can drown in, and without people to keep you afloat, you are at risk of losing yourself. And sometimes the people that try to keep you afloat just tie weights around you with “don’t do x” or “y is haram” without teaching you how to even swim properly. And tragically, if a new Muslim decides they want to leave Islam, it often has nothing to do with theology; instead, they “apostate from the community” as imam Suhaib Webb (also a convert) puts it.
Converts are often at risk of going to extremes, and more often than not it’s to the extreme of radicalism. Because they’re impressionable, they’re often targeted by extremist groups. After all, if this guy is telling you that being Muslim means you have to go and murder people for ISIS for the “glory of the Caliph” and he’s been a Muslim all his life, what right do you—a 10 week old Muslim—have to question him? But extremism doesn’t just exist in terrorist groups and mass killing. Extremism can also become a way of life. If the sheikh is telling you to abandon your family and friends just because they aren’t Muslim, well, he’s a sheikh so he knows more than you, right? And your name, well, no—tell me what your “Muslim name” is, you can’t use your old name anymore. And the saddest part is that all of the above are not part of Islam, but extremist and poisonous ideologies masquerading as Islam. The simple problem is that new converts just don’t know any better.
The danger of swinging violently from one world to the other can be damaging to the convert’s psyche. Being a Muslim convert means navigating this in-between. It means being a part of both worlds. You can’t change where you came from, and neither can you amputate it entirely. You should not give yourself entirely to one world at the expense of the other—the world of your past or present life, Muslim or non-Muslim—but as with all things in Islam, you need to find that balance. You need to find peace in that in-between. Some find it relatively quickly. Others take years to find it, and only after struggling through hardship.
But being in the in-between allows you to see things objectively, from the outside looking in. You see things in society that you would have otherwise not noticed because you were engrossed in them—the self-destructiveness of “YOLO” lifestyle, rampant consumerism, vanity and entitlement. You also see things in the Muslim community that others don’t notice because they are engrossed in them—cultural practices passed off as Islamic, a venomous attitude towards people, even disregard for the core tenants of Islam.
And for that reason, I feel that converts have the potential to be the greatest agents of change. They can be the ones to help people understand what Islam is, rather than media outlets like FOX. They can be the ones to help Muslims understand why people in this society act the way they do. Having that experience of living in both worlds allows converts to have a unique perspective. And in doing so, they can be the bridge, connecting two worlds over the in-between.