Texans turning Muslim?

British documentary on Lone Star Islam has new life on Web

A 2004 British documentary called Turning Muslim in Texas has resurfaced in a big way on the Internet, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers for its account of white Texans who grew up Christian but now practice Islam.

Almost whimsical in tone, the 23-minute documentary portrays its handful of subjects as patriotic and politically conservative, and fond of pursuits that Brits associate with Texas – shopping, firing guns and going to football games.

But it also shows them praying in Arabic, attending a Dallas-area mosque and, in the case of the women, wearing the hijab (head scarf).

Among those in Turning Muslim in Texas are Eric and Karen Meek, a married couple from Lewisville.

“I run across people all the time who say, ‘Are you the guy in the video?’ ” said Mr. Meek, who planned to be a Southern Baptist minister until he began to study Islam while rooming with a Muslim at the University of North Texas.

Two British women shot the documentary in September and October of 2003. It aired the following January on Channel Four, one of the United Kingdom’s main noncable channels.

But apparently few outside the U.K. saw Turning Muslim in Texas until late February of this year. That’s when a Muslim group posted it to the Web site TurnToIslam .com.

Since then, the film has had more than 600,000 views, said Ameer Ali, site administrator. Word of mouth – or word of e-mail – appears to have been the key.

For example, Ms. Meek, office manager for the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said she had heard from a Virginia friend who had seen the documentary. That woman had been alerted to it by an Irish friend’s e-mail.

Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and author of books on Islam, learned about Turning Muslim in Texas from a student. He has encouraged others of his students to see it, and has been recording their reactions on his blog.

Dr. Khan credited the filmmakers with giving “a very smart spin to the general story of conversions to Islam” by focusing on white Texans who grew up Christian.

Emily Smith, the film’s co-creator, spent a month in Texas finding the subjects and filming.

She said she was unaware of the documentary’s new life on the Internet, but fondly recalled her time in Texas.

“Basically, I wanted to look into what developments there were in the Muslim community in Texas,” Ms. Smith said. “I was looking for something a bit different that would challenge stereotypes and perceptions.”

Mr. Meek, a transportation broker who grew up in the Dallas area, is shown cheering in the stands at a UNT football game, then making his way to the stadium shadows. There he kneels and prays in the direction of Mecca – something observant Muslims do five times a day.

“Islam is everything I wanted Christianity to be,” Mr. Meek says in the documentary. “It’s got such a magical attraction to it. It’s a way of life that chooses to worship an unseen God through a process of daily living.”

Later in the documentary, Eric and Karen Meek (who go by Khalil and Saffia in the Muslim community) take his mother for her first visit to a mosque. The older woman acknowledges on camera that she was devastated by her son’s conversion. She predicts he’ll come back to Christianity and even become a preacher.

In the next scene Mr. Meek says that while he loves his mother, he won’t return to Christianity.

Inevitably, the documentary brings up Sept. 11, 2001. In Turning Muslim in Texas, Mr. Meek says, “Whoever did 9/11 should be sent to hell.”

But he adds that one consequence of that day has been a greater curiosity by Americans about Islam, leading many to investigate it seriously.

Mr. Meek, who gives talks on Islam to church, school and civic groups, said in a recent interview that he and other Muslims are generally pleased with the documentary because it shows ordinary Americans who have thoughtfully chosen Islam.

Among those who have viewed Turning Muslim in Texas on the Internet is Dennis Cordell, a historian and Islam specialist at Southern Methodist University.

“I found it very interesting to hear the Arabic of the shahadah [the Muslim declaration of faith] with this incredible Texas accent,” Dr. Cordell said.

But he questioned the documentary’s assertion of “a new wave of conservative white Americans who have abandoned their strict Christian upbringing for Islam.”

“The bigger question is, ‘How common is this?’ ” Dr. Cordell said.

The documentary offers no statistics on how many white Texans have converted to Islam. It does assert that there are 400,000 Muslims in Texas, and that Islam is the United States’ fastest-growing religion.

But getting a handle on the Muslim population in Texas or the rest of the United States has daunted demographers, partly because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track religious affiliation.

Estimates of the country’s Muslim population range from fewer than 2 million to more than 8 million.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates that white Americans constitute about 1.5 percent of attendees at mosques in the United States. Last year, nine people classified as “Caucasian Americans” converted to Islam at the Dallas Central Mosque, a spokeswoman said

“I meet a lot of new Muslims, either Caucasians or African-Americans,” said David Hultsch of Caddo Mills in East Texas, another star of the film and a former Methodist who converted to Islam while in the Air Force. “Probably one of the largest-growing groups is actually Hispanic-Americans.”

Ms. Smith said her documentary was not intended to suggest that Texas was greatly outpacing other states in Muslim growth.

“I think it’s probably that there is a gradual rise in the Muslim population, and that any rise in Texas reflects that,” she said.

Along with its principal subjects, the documentary includes Texans who know little about Islam. One woman asks, “Do they believe in God?”

And a man, clad in a black cowboy hat, laughs when the filmmakers ask him whether it’s really possible to be both Texan and Muslim.

“I reckon you could,” he says with an accent any Brit filmmaker would die for. “A Texan Muslim. That would be a funny combination.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Dallas Morning News, USA
May 20, 2006
Sam Hodges

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday May 21, 2006.
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