The attacks on America sent many aftershocks: bankruptcy, unemployment, patriotism, spirituality and an international campaign against terrorism.
But the most far-reaching may well be widespread conversion to Islam.
The hijackers and their supporters used Allah and the Koran to justify their violence. But the vast majority of Muslims have denounced it, declaring Islam a peaceful religion. Jihad, they explain, is not a war against the West, but rather the inner struggle to surrender to God’s will.
These explanations are found in newspaper columns, community forums and TV specials. Kentucky Educational Television plans to rebroadcast the documentary “Islam: Empire of Faith.”
Last week, over 300 people gathered at the University of Kentucky to listen to a panel of Muslims distinguish between the perverted thoughts of bin Laden and the authentic practice of Islam.
Georgetown College hosted a Chapel Forum on “Islam and the American Experience.” The keynote speaker was an African American who converted to Islam in 1975. Our students, like millions around the world, are curious about this religion that claims more than 1 billion adherents.
This curiosity extends beyond the campus to the American public. Bookstores report a rush on books about Islam. Sales of the Koran are up 500 percent!
Such attention to Islam is unprecedented in American history. People may follow in the steps of the most famous convert of modern times, that one-time Baptist boy from Louisville who became famous, first as a boxer, then as a war protestor and finally as a mild-mannered spokesman for Islam–Cassius Clay, also known as Muhammad Ali.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam welcomes converts. All three religions are evangelistic faiths.
Christianity is the most aggressive in this regard. Many Christians believe conversion to their faith is essential for salvation, and most denominations have strategies for converting unbelievers. Roman Catholicism has a very structured, six-month process leading to baptism. Other Christians preach the urgency of immediate salvation, with baptism following within minutes.
Judaism is not as quick to accept converts. An unwritten rule says that any person seeking to convert must be turned away three times by the rabbi; this serves, they say, as a test of sincerity.
The road to Islam is simple and straightforward. A convert to Islam simply recites the confession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” There is no ceremony and no clerical assistance. This simplicity marks much of Islam’s practice.
The confession is the first of Islam’s Five Pillars. The second is prayer, scheduled five times daily. The celebration of Ramadan through a month-long fast is the third pillar. Giving alms to the poor and making a pilgrimage to Mecca mark the last two.
Islamic observance in the military is at an all-time high because of the Gulf War a decade ago. Americans fighting in the Middle East encountered Islam for the first time, and the result has been a slow but steady conversion to Islam among soldiers. In 1991, there were no Muslim chaplains; now there are 14. They serve an estimated 8,000 Muslim-American soldiers.
So, as Muslim scholars and clerics continue to articulate Islam, the most surprising shockwave of Sept. 11 might be more Islamic converts.
Dwight A. Moody is Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College, Georgetown, Ky.