JOHNSON CITY – Years after taking the decision to revert to Islam, former Pentecostal Christian William Rhew sees himself far from the Muslim stereotype usually pictured in media.
“I don’t look like what people fear,” Rhew told USA Today on Tuesday, March 29. “I don’t have a beard, I’m not Arab.”
Rhew, a 21-year-old senior at Johnson City’s East Tennessee State University reverted to Islam in 2012 during his senior year of high school.
Finding many unanswered questions in Christianity, he learned about Islam from a high school friend, a Muslim girl named Sophia. She referred him to Taneem Aziz, a founding member of a local mosque in Johnson City.
Aziz was the gate that opened his way to Islam.
“(Taneem) is responsible for most of my learning about Islam now because what I didn’t learn from him, he gave me the resources to learn from, such as (websites on) and books, and a copy of the Quran,” says Rhew.
For him, he was attracted the religion because of the “simplicity of who is God. I figured out that God is God. … I found that really beautiful. (Another) thing I find beautiful … is that Islam encourages you not only to be pure in heart and mind, but to be presentable, to look nice. (And) we have the original Holy book — we can see what was written.”
Two months only after starting his study of the religion, he took the shahada or declaration of faith to become a Muslim.
“Many of my friends who have converted have spent three or four years studying Islam before they even considered to convert,” Rhew says. “Although it was a bit hasty, I did put a lot of effort into researching the religion before I jumped into it.”
The scariest part, he says, was “realizing that everything you once were religiously is now (thought of) as wrong or partially wrong, and you have to come to terms with the fact that some things have to be relearned.”
“I remember the day I did it. I sat in a Food City parking lot for 45 minutes and contemplated what I had just done and how it was going to affect my life,” he added.
Though keeping his new faith a secret from his family and friends, they noticed a change in his attitudes.
“They had known something was kind of different when I began to not eat pork, (though) I never had a thing for alcohol, I never drank. (But) they noticed my patterns … were a little different. I was waking up at an odd time early in the morning, doing something they weren’t sure (what it was), which was prayer. And they saw who my (new) friends were,” he said.
His mother said Rhew’s decision to revert to Islam would not affect their relations.
“I want Wil to always make a choice for himself and know it’s the right choice,” says Rhew’s mom, Rebecca Rhew.
She and his father, Nathan Rhew, have lived in the area for some 20 years. She supports Wil, she says, and what he “believes in his heart,” because he’s her son.
“Wil may believe differently from what we want him to believe, but I would not debate him or put him down,” she said.
“It’s hard to know about different cultures. You have to learn and take into consideration what the other person is thinking. I don’t put down someone else’s religion (even if) I don’t accept it myself. It’s not my place to judge them. (And) I think one of the things Wil has showed me is you can’t push (religion) down; people have to believe it for themselves.”
Rhew now serves as the president of the Muslim Student Association’s ETSU’s campus chapter and attends the local mosque at least once a week.
He got married last year to a Muslim student from Bengal.
Being far from Muslim stereotype, he has never witnessed a problem with bigotry on campus. The case was not the same for his wife who encounters people staring at her or looking him down because he converted.
The media was creating more troubles from Muslim by highlighting negative examples only.
“I wish the voices of normal Muslims would be heard over that of the extremists’,” he said, “because, unfortunately, the more extreme voices yell louder.”
He urged people to take the time to speak with Muslims instead of making generalizations.
“Assumptions are very dangerous,” Rhew said. “Assumptions are what have us in the state we are in now. … Don’t prejudge us from what you see or hear.”
“Diversity is nature’s beauty,” he believes, and when he meets people of different faiths, he wants to know more about them and their religions.
“I’ve always had an interest in religion and culture, and I think in part that attributed to my becoming Muslim — I was willing to learn about it.”