Paula Miller began wearing her hijab in the classroom this spring.  She wants her students to see her as a Muslim American. Photo by Sarah Mercier.

Despite her conversion, Paula did not go to the mosque for the rest of the year. Instead, she tried to learn to pray on her own by reading books about the basics of Islamic practice.

“I was actually pretty close trying to do it on my own,” she says. “But then I got to the point where I realized that I needed help in learning how to pray correctly. I needed to watch how people do it.” So, in January of 2003, she went to the Islamic Center in Tucson, Ariz. for the first time.

But Shajia did not have to learn about Islam from a book. She was brought up practicing Islam. Although her parents were not very pushy, her mother did remind her when she forgot to pray.

When Shajia went to college, however, she found it harder to maintain her Muslim identity.

“I pray a lot less than I did when I lived with my family,” says Shajia. “I don’t think about my faith on a day-to-day basis. I don’t feel that Muslim identity as much as someone who is in a community organization or goes to the mosque on Fridays or Sundays.I don’t worry about it. But I also realize there is something that I need to be doing — but I’m not doing.” Something, she says, she has lost.

But this sense of loss doesn’t seem to be felt by Shajia’s Christian friends, whom she spends more time with in her college town of Iowa City. She reports she is amazed by the latitude they enjoy regarding the practice of their religion.

“As a Muslim, you are supposed to pray five times a day. It really interrupts your day-to-day life,” says Shajia. “For a lot of my Christian friends, maybe they don’t go to church, but they say that they are Christians. There’s nothing else that they do other than believing in their faith.”

The demands of Islam do not go unnoticed by Paula’s children.

“I think [praying five times a day] would be time-consuming,” says Fred, Paula’s 14-year-old son. His sister Giullietta, a shy redhead with a pretty smile, agrees with him. “In Christianity, they just pray at the end of the day when they’re going to bed,” she says. “But when you’re a Muslim, you pray at certain times [a day].”

Giullietta enjoys watching her mom pray. When she was little, she used to follow Paula into her bedroom and beg “Can I watch you pray?”

“It’s really amazing that they can keep it up. But then when you’re in there, you kinda understand why they do it so much, because it’s really calming…they probably like to do it,” says Giullietta.

Paula likes to do it because she “finds peace” in praying and in reading the Quran. But her new-found religion also has a political edge to it.

“A lot of actions were very vindictive,” says Paula. “It seems like Christians, at least the hard core fundamental Christians are much more willing to send the country into war when it really wasn’t a good idea. I think it was that kind of attitude which turned me off from Christianity.”

In contrast, Paula says, “I have found most Muslims to be very kind, open-minded, gentle people more concerned with where they stand in the judgment of God than with the superficial judgment of other people.”

When Paula picks Giullietta up from the school, Giullietta’s classmates ask her about the hijab. “They’ll ask what religion is she in. I’ll tell them Muslim. Most of them are pretty nice. They’re my friends and they just understand,” says Giullietta. “They are like, ‘it’s her religion, it’s what she believes in, and it’s nothing to make fun of.’”

Shajia has also felt her Iowa City community to be welcoming. But when her family moved to Iowa from Houston in August 2001, it was a little unsettling. “I never considered myself a minority. But when I came to Iowa — BOOM — you are a minority,” she says.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.