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It’s been two decades since academic and author Jeffrey Lang made the passage from atheist to devout Muslim, yet he remains as passionate as ever about his conversion.
Born to a Roman Catholic family in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1954, Lang spent his early years questioning the existence of God and finding no satisfactory answers.
“I rebelled against all the institutions that society held sacred, including the Catholic Church,” Lang said in a recent talk to Toronto’s Forum for Learning, where he spoke from the heart about his passage from questioning to conviction and from bitterness to belief.
His abusive home life, with an alcoholic father, led to more bitterness, so at 16, Lang publicly declared himself an atheist.
In 1982, at age 28, Lang accepted Islam, based primarily on a chance reading of the Qur’an.
As Lang became a practising Muslim he also experienced the challenges of being a convert, both from within and outside the community.
“It’s lonely being a convert to Islam,” he said in an interview following his talk. “I felt vulnerable and disconnected from the host community and needed support.
“The Muslim community was somewhat critical that I wasn’t conservative enough and that there was no physical change in my appearance…but I didn’t become Muslim to enter into a community — I already had a family. I wanted to be accepted as I am and this was a challenge.”
To address these challenges, Lang wrote Struggling To Surrender — Some Impressions Of An American Convert To Islam, in which he also tackled the rigidity of the mosque culture.
“At first I used to attend mosque for the five daily prayers and I loved going there, but once I got married and had girls, they were not welcome at the mosque,” he wrote.
“I would like to see mosques being more family friendly — presently they are like a men’s club.”
Lang has three daughters ages 17, 16 and 14. “Without me, my girls would lose their only link with Islam and I don’t want that to happen.”
After the book was published, Lang received hundreds of e-mails, letters and phone calls.
“Mostly from atheists, converts and second-generation Muslims (living in the West) who also feel alienated from the mosque culture.”
His latest book, A Call For Help From Within The American Muslim Community, is based on the feedback he received from second-generation Muslims.
And it illustrates that Lang has grown increasingly concerned about the future of young Muslims in America. He says many do not feel welcome at the mosques and are falling away from the faith.
He suggests that the mosque should be a place for spiritual education and bonding and “cultural traditions that are nonessential need to be removed — mosques should not become a cultural asylum.”
In the recently published book, Lang has offered solutions.
“Take back the mosque,” he says, “don’t give it up or smother Islam — that will keep our children away. Make it user friendly, let women become an essential part of the mosque.”
His wife is on the board of directors for their local mosque.
After his talk in Toronto, as Lang was autographing books for his audience, a young man came up to him and said, “Dr. Lang you’ve made a believer of me — I was an atheist but now I want to revisit my faith.”
Lang had a very positive experience in Canada and upon his return to Kansas, wrote to say, “Many Muslims from around the world have expressed to me their hopes that the U.S.A. Muslim community will lead the way toward Islamic reform, but I keep responding that my hopes are in Canada.
“This latest trip has left me all the more convinced that Canada is where to look for an Islamic reformation.
“I only hope our community in the U.S. gets dragged along.”