Though Will Caldwell was born, raised and college educated in Georgia, he is uncomfortable praying there.
He has felt that way since a clear summer evening in 2007 at a nondescript gas station off a nondescript interstate somewhere between Savannah and Macon. He was on his way home to Saint Simons Island from Emory University, where he had just finished his junior year. Caldwell had pulled his red Mini Cooper into the rest stop because the sun was starting to set and, since he had converted to Islam one year earlier, this meant that it was time to pray.
In the empty field next to the gas station, he found a discrete corner, laid out his mat and began to recite the verses of the Qur’an, first standing, then bent forward, then on his knees with his head to the ground. He noticed two people looking at him, secretively peering out from behind their truck.
Uneasy, he rushed through the ritual, folded up his mat and got back in the car to leave. As he pulled away, he could see in his rear view mirror a cop car pulling into the parking lot. The people who had been staring were flagging down the police officer and pointing at Caldwell. He drove on at an intentionally moderate pace, and the cop did not follow, but he has not riskedpraying publicly in the South since.
Caldwell is soft spoken. He pauses thoughtfully before talking and sometimes between sentences. He wears a plaid button down shirt, slacks and small, round wire-framed glasses. His wide-set green eyes gaze out earnestly from his creamy white face. One quickly gets the sense that he is a kind and spiritual person. Perhaps this is his fatal flaw.
Political Percept

After growing up in the Episcopal Church, Caldwell rediscovered his spirituality in Islam and decided to convert. Now, less than a hundred miles from where he was raised, onlookers see Caldwell’s prayer as a potential threat. Why might this be?
“The political context we are in is so charged with anti-Muslim rhetoric that it’s almost impossible, I would say, for that conversion not to have some kind of political ramifications even if the convert in no way intends it,” says Brannon Ingram, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University, who specializes in Islam and Sufism.
In July of 2013, Fox News correspondent Lauren Green interviewed religion scholar Reza Aslan about “Zealot“, a book he just had written about Jesus Christ. She repeatedly questioned his credentials and asked him to explain how a Muslim could write about Christianity. In 2013, a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study found that 45 percent of Americans believe that Muslims face ”a lot“ of discrimination.
Negative sentiments about Muslims most often link to an association of Islam with radicalism and terrorism. A 2007 document by the New York Police Department entitled ”Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” says, ”Jihadist ideology is the driver that motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out an ‘autonomous jihad’ via acts of terrorism against their host countries.”
Because of these beliefs, the police instated surveillance over New York City’s mosques and Muslim communities using informants, neighborhood mapping, photos and video footage. When the American Civil Liberties Union caught wind of this policy in June of 2013, they sued the NYPD.
The Impacts

Muslim converts have received extensive media attention. Katherine Russell, the widow of one of the notorious Boston Marathon bombers, began practicing Islam after meeting her husband. Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the “White Widow“ after her husband’s 2005 suicide bombing in London public transit, is among the suspects implicated in the Nairobi mall massacre in September 2013.
She, too, is Muslim convert. Nicholas Brody, a main character of the popular television show “Homeland”, becomes a Muslim while he is imprisoned by Al-Qaeda in Damascus, Syria. Once back in the United States, he collaborates with his captors to plot and execute terror attacks.
Karen Danielson, Director of Outreach at the Chicago chapter of Muslim American Society, says that any event that brings Islam into the public consciousness – for negative or positive reasons – generates interest. ”After 9/11, for example, there was a large influx of converts. Sometimes people come forward hostile, but then even they end up converting because of what they discover,” she says.
“They investigated, they read the Qur’an, and it answered a lot of questions that they had before.”
Danielson herself found Islam in 1983 when she was a young adult. She has worked in community building for Muslims ever since and has interacted with hundreds of converts and support groups.
Despite their powers of attraction, these terror-infused portrayals are very problematic for converts, says Iqbal Akhtar, a professor of Islamic Studies at Florida International University. New Muslims are forced to view themselves as outsiders in their own culture and are not given the opportunity to reconcile the different parts of their identities.
“Even if in day-to-day interactions you can pass for being American or not being differentiated, you live in a society where the media is constantly defining the Muslim as an ‘other’”, says Akhtar. ”All these things fit into how you define yourself.”
Why We Choose Islam?

Converts to any faith seem increasingly abnormal as the United States gravitates farther away from religion. According to a Pew Research study, the number of Americans who do not affiliate with a religion has gone up by 5 percent in the past five years, from 15.3 percent in 2007 to 19.6 percent in 2012.
Yet the number of Muslims in the United States is increasing. In the seven years that followed the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Muslim American population grew from 1,104,000 to 1,349,000, according to the 2012 census. And in a study of that same time frame, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 40 percent of Muslims in the United States were not raised with the faith, but joined it as adults.
This anomalous increase in religious practice may be because conversion to Islam is quick and very simple.
“It really just requires reciting a formula called the Shahadah (Declaration of Faith) in front of a number of witnesses,” says Ingram. He translates the verse to mean, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.”
And that’s it. There’s no training, no test. You just recite the creed. Ingram attributes the successful global spread of Islam to the ease of this process.
To be continued…