Angela Collins was among the millions of travelers inconvenienced a few weeks ago when British authorities announced the breakup of a conspiracy to destroy U.S.-bound airliners. The ban on passengers carrying liquids made her trip from South America “gross,” to say the least. “You can’t wash your face, you can’t brush your teeth,” she says. The incident also brought her more important concerns. At least two of those arrested in London were converted Muslims, like Collins herself. Yet their actions were so far removed from the religion she loves. “There are those converts who choose the extreme tract, which means they are angry about the way things are working in the world without Islamic law,” she says. “It’s the opposite of what drew me into Islam.” What drew her in, says the 30-year-old school director with pale blue eyes, was a religion that made her feel cared for, something she felt she missed growing up as a latchkey child. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates that some 20,000 Americans convert to Islam each year, with women outnumbering men approximately four to one. According to Georgetown professor Yvonne Haddad, coauthor of Muslim Women in America, some, like Collins, are inspired by the rules of the Koran, which they find empowering. Some are seeking a community that endorses a woman’s more traditional role as homemaker. Others are purely on a spiritual quest. “I think Americans should see them as women who have found themselves,” says Haddad.
A 1999 journey to India set Collins, then a film production assistant, on her path to Islam. She stayed with a Muslim family for 2½ weeks, drinking tea and talking. She converted after reading the Koran back home. “I was blown away,” she recalls, partly because she believed the Koran’s teachings filled a void that existed since her parents divorced when she was 5. “As I’m reading, I almost feel as if I am being parented.” It did not go well at first. One relative told her she would go to hell. In 2003 she married a Kuwait-born Muslim, but their marriage was rocky. They are currently going through a divorce, and she had to obtain a restraining order. “He wasn’t practicing the faith,” she says. Her own faith never wavered, however; today the Mission Viejo, Calif., resident works as the director of Al Ridah Academy, a Muslim private school.
Nicole Aeschleman, 25, an attorney in San Jose, Calif., converted to Islam in 2004 after emerging from a six-month partying spree—getting drunk and dating men who weren’t interested in relationships. “You just realize that you’ve done bad things to yourself,” she says. “It was not a good time.” To the rescue: Nabil Michraf, a soft-spoken Moroccan student she met during a summer law course in Strasbourg, France. They struck up a friendship, with Aeschleman, baptized an Episcopalian, sending e-mails and inquiring about his faith. “He never tried to convert me—which was one of the reasons why I eventually did,” she says. Aeschleman flew to Nice for a face-to-face meeting with her e-mail pal—and the two fell in love on the beach. “I just realized he was the most amazing man,” she says. She put her expertise as a family-law lawyer to work in drafting her own marriage contract in consultation with Muslim legal scholars—adding provisions that she can divorce Michraf should he ever try to forbid her from working, going to school, studying Islam—or should he ever take additional wives, as permitted by the religion. The couple wed in March.
With her conversion, Aeschleman has given up some cherished traditions. She no longer celebrates Christmas, saddening her parents, who were caught off-guard by her conversion. (Her father did not speak to her for a while, though they are now on good terms.) “They were in complete shock,” Aeschleman says. But she feels at home at her law firm, McManis, Faulkner & Morgan, where two other women wore the hijab before she was hired, and where they are allowed to use empty offices or conference rooms to pray.
Timna Valore-Schulze, 24, a receptionist from Bothell, Wash., wanted to become a nun as a young girl. Instead, after trying Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Buddhist and Hindu congregations, she converted to Islam in 2001, deciding “it was the most feminist religion I had ever seen” because of its support for women’s rights. Her conversion also met with family resistance. Her father didn’t want to talk about her religion, and her mother jotted down her friends’ phone numbers from her cell phone after the 9/11 attacks and reported them to the FBI as potential terrorists. She was refused service in a bakery because of her hijab, she says, and suffered insensitive questions about her background from former coworkers. She no longer wears the hijab. Her conversion was worth the small traumas, Valore-Schulze says. She married Russil Lansel, a former classmate, in October 2005. The groom, who had already been studying Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, adopted his bride’s religion. “For some reason we clicked,” she says. “They call it naseeb “—the Arabic word for destiny-“finding someone who is right for you.”
With headlines like those linking Muslims with terrorism in London, Valore-Schulze is concerned about a backlash that could lead to hate crimes—particularly living in a nation that suffered through the attacks of Sept. 11. “I think it’s the result of years and years of hate and war,” she says of those who use their faith as a justification for murder. “But there is nothing in the Koran that says it’s okay to kill an innocent person.”