I was 15 when I first picked up the autobiography of the slain spiritual leader. It had an instant impact on me. That was in 1993. The years that would follow mirrored Malcolm's life. Like Malcolm, I became addicted to drugs and alcohol. I became a thief and a petty drug dealer. Before I knew it, I found myself in a rehabilitation center where my mother told me, "Every time you leave the house, I don't know if you are going to live or die."
I stayed clean after rehab, but I was still lost. Like both Malcolm and :Lindh, I began pointing fingers at the society around me. I isolated myself and read as many books as I could to confirm that America was evil.
I read the Communist Manifesto for the first time in my dorm room at Eastern Kentucky in the fall of 1997. Like many confused college kids, I believed every word. That year, Lindh read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" for the first time for a high-school assignment.
And while everything I've read about Lindh leads me to believe that his life was changing for the better in 1997, my life was beginning to spiral downward.
After I turned 20 in 1998, I had become frustrated with my study of revolution. Every book I read offered brilliant analysis of what was wrong with America and capitalism, but I'd found few answers. I sank into a great depression that lasted for several months.
One day, I called my brother and, in tears, told him I didn't want to live anymore.
Around the same time, John Walker Lindh was on his way to Yemen to study Arabic, the language of the Quran.
He had converted to Islam. I hadn't. I was still searching.
That fall, I started work at a hippie pizza restaurant in Roanoke, where I met a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. On busy nights, when we washed dishes together, I bombarded him with questions about Islam.
His answers were simple and sincere.
That winter, I went to a mosque and asked how I could become a Muslim. This is where Lindh's path and my path became different. It seems Walker used Islam to confirm all of his suspicions about America and his eventual rejection of much of American culture.
Like me, Lindh probably first heard of Islam on hip-hop albums. But after becoming a Muslim, Lindh threw away his CDs and began donning a white robe and turban. He grew a beard and changed his name to Sulayman.
At first, my path resembled Lindh's. I, too, threw away many of my CDs, but later kicked myself for tossing out some of my favorite songs. A sheik gave me the name "Abdur-Rahman," but it never stuck. The name Taylor has a history and I was reluctant to change it. I was urged to go abroad to study, but I just couldn't rationalize that. Maybe it's the arrogant American in me, but I've never really wanted to live anywhere else. I did get talked into growing a beard, but the long brown and orange hairs made me look more like deep-woods lumberjack than a dedicated Muslim.
One night over dinner, my mom asked me about my beard. She wasn't critical, just curious. But she said something that made sense. "I've always thought religion should be more of an inside job," she said. It took me back to why I'd become a Muslim and why I think many other American converts become Muslims.
We're lost. But we're searching. I'd tried Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, agnosticism and praying to "whatever's out there." Islam was what I'd been looking for. And I am ecstatic that I found it. But I almost lost it by changing my appearance and subtracting my culture.
Prophet Muhammad said the best path is the middle path. I don't need to catch a plane to another country to be a Muslim. There's plenty of learning left for me to do right here.
I'm 24 now. I don't drink or use drugs. I'm going to graduate from college soon.
Many people have rushed to judge John Walker.Lindh They say he hates America. They say he's a traitor. But I could never say those things. I don't know what's in his heart. I can only tell my own story.
I'm an American. And I'm a Muslim.
It's taken me many experiences to understand and appreciate both of those identities.
And I disagree with people who say the two can't coexist.
Today, I love my country. I love Americans and I love being an American. Maybe this is what separates me from Lindh. I remain optimistic that, despite its flaws, America can become a true democracy, a nation that values diversity. And I pray that one day Americans will become willing to recognize our differences and then rise above them. STaylor Loyal is a senior at Western Kentucky University and staff writer for the university's student newspaper, College Heights Herald.
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