Drew Marshall could have been any of the dozen or so university students studying and sipping coffee at a Newark cafe.
About 6 feet tall, with a close beard and a light blue shirt, not much about him stands out.
Until he offers an Arabic greeting.
Marshall, or Ahmad, as the 23-year-old white American from Hockessin now calls himself, converted to Islam two years ago.
Wearing a dress shirt and slacks, carrying his school bag like a briefcase, Marshall looks more like a member of the faculty than a college senior.
People show him more respect when he dresses this way, he says. Changing his appearance along with his name was just another way to distance himself from his old life.
A senior majoring in international relations with a minor in Islamic studies, Marshall quotes hadiths and verses from the Quran, seamlessly switching between English and Arabic. Arabic is like a mathematical formula, he says, so it’s not hard to learn.
Six years ago, as a senior in high school sitting in the cafeteria during his free period on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, learning Arabic was the last thing on his mind.
Like most everyone in America, Marshall remembers watching the Twin Towers collapse, recalls the fear, confusion and anger.
“I remember after 9/11 saying it was going to be World War III, and let’s go get Bin Laden,” he said. “I was on the bandwagon of revenge, definitely. We all blamed it on Muslim terrorists — that’s the default culprit.”
That act of terror put thousands of Americans on the path to Islam.
“People want to know more about what they didn’t know about before, and 9/11 piqued that. So as a result, people are becoming more aware, and perhaps getting to the point they realize there’s something in Islam for them,” said Ismat Shah, University of Delaware associate professor of physics and material science, and adviser to the Muslim Students Association.
Despite or perhaps because of Sept. 11, conversions to Islam have increased, making it the fastest-growing religion in the world, said Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware. About 23 percent of American Muslims are converts, about half of which turned to Islam before age 21, according to a May report from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
“There’s a curiosity about Islam today,” Khan said. “Islam has become the major thing everyone in the world is talking about.”
According to the Pew report, there are an estimated 2.35 million American Muslims, about 35 percent of whom were born in the United States. About 850,000 are under age 18.
But there are certain challenges American Muslims, especially new converts, must face, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations.
It’s fairly common for them to be accused of betraying their race or background, or rejecting their friends or family, when they accept Islam, said Hooper, also a convert.