Allah has sent you: How Max Klein Became Muslim

Only Max Klein helped the refugees in his small town. Then he decided to become a Muslim and follow strict religious rules.

Max Klein still remembers the first Christmas as a Muslim. He was 17 and was in a restaurant with his family. There were candles burning on the table, a waitress serving vegetables, chicken and roast pork. Max filled broccoli and potatoes on the plate. He didn’t touch the meat because Islam forbids eating pork. His grandmother looked at his plate, pushed the meat plate over to him and asked: “Max, are you back to normal?”

Since then grandchild and grandmother have never spoken again about his commitment to Islam. She doesn’t ask, and he doesn’t tell; because Max has not come back to what his grandmother calls ‘normal’. He still believes in Allah after two and a half years.

Max is 19 years old today. He lives in Lüchow, a small town in the Wendland region of Germany. As a convert, he is known locally, and he wants others to recognize him as such. Whenever he leaves his house, he covers his short-cropped reddish hair with a prayer cap. Some days he wraps himself in white linen clothes. If he greets a woman, he does not shake hands with her.

He has decided not to hide what he believes. And he wants to talk about it, even with journalists. He often uses the words “happiness” and “satisfaction”. And he speaks of faith “with all your heart” and a “life for Allah”. He says things like, “As a Muslim, I’m happier, happier.” And: “Everything that has happened bad has brought with it something good.”

It is this side of his story that Max likes to talk about, and sometimes compare to a salvation story. But as in all stories there is another side. It’s about lost friends. From a grandmother who no longer finds her grandson normal. And the feeling of being shunned as a Muslim. Max talks about it too. “Because a Muslim must not lie,” he says. And yet, in the end, he always comes back to the story of the happy convert. He says, “As a Muslim, I lost a lot, but won much more.”

Max sits cross-legged on the living room floor. As he speaks, he closes his eyes for a moment. “What should I describe best?” Life, says Max, feels very different as a Muslim: firmer, stronger. He now prays five times a day, goes to the mosque every night, and abstain from alcohol and sex. “I am now learning Arabic and studying the Koran.” Finally, his life has firm rules. The prayers, he says in a low voice, are “moments when I’m really happy.”

There was also happiness in his old life. His childhood was nice, says Max. His uncle taught him reading and how to make a fire without a lighter. He rode ponies, drunk beer at the village festival, and dreamed of becoming a police officer like his dad. Like other teenagers in the village, he started drinking beer and liquor and smoking marijuana. At some point he had his first girlfriend and sex for the first time. “An almost normal youth in the Wendland”, says Max.

And yet something was different. He calls it the “black hole”. Max does not know where he’s from. His parents adopted him as a baby. When he was six years old, they told him about it. “At that time I did not understand it”, says Max. But he couldn’t let go of the feeling that there was “something missing”. At 16, he began to search for his biological mother. He doesn’t want to talk a lot about that and just says that he met his sisters and that the meeting was good for him.

When Max talks about it, he does not show his feelings. Sometimes it seems that he is not talking about his own life, but about a stranger. He says, “Islam is about controlling yourself.” If you ask him whether the “black hole” could be a reason for his conversion to Islam, he waves off: “I do not know and I do not care.”

It was a shock to his mom

His path to Islam started in September 2015, in front of the gate of the Lüchow refugee shelter. Max had knocked there to offer his help. Two days earlier, the first refugees arrived in Lüchow. By the time the last left one the camp, he had been there almost every day, he says. He made beds and cleaned rooms, accompanied the camp residents to the doctor and the children to the playground. In the evenings they often sat together, drinking tea, talking about the war and fleeing, homesickness, family and faith. And then there was this question that changed everything. “You help so much,” said an English teacher from Lebanon to him. “Why do you not believe in God?”

Why I don’t believe in God? Max says he never asked himself that question. He had never liked the Christian God he knew, he could not do anything with the Church. But after every night at the camp he listened when the refugees spoke about Islam. He had watched them praying, wondering more and more what it would be like to beleive in God.

“At some point I woke up in the morning and thought: I’m converting now.” It was a Friday in the spring of 2016, he sat down at the computer and googled how to become a Muslim. After that he had dressed and cycled to the backyard building, which the Muslim community used as a mosque. There he introduced himself to the imam and declared that he now wanted to be a Muslim. He had already chosen his new name on the internet: Yafer, the helper.

Max cannot explain why he had decided on that day. “It was a sponatneous decision,” he says, “I’m a pretty spontaneous person.” Nor does he remember the feeling when he stood next to the imam in front of the congregation and recited the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. “I think,” he says, “I did not feel anything.” Many in the mosque had shot videos of the moment and put the footage on the Internet even before he left the building. Max published his shahada on the same afternoon on his Facebook profile.

Only a few minutes later, his mother spotted the message. She had just come home from work and had checked the Facebook app on her mobile phone. At the top of her timeline she saw what Max had posted. It was a shock, she says today. “I was angry, and I was scared that he would make bad friends and let himself be seduced by radicals.” When he came home and unlocked the door, she screamed at him.

Max says today that he should have talked to his mother earlier. About his thoughts and doubts and his desire to become a Muslim. At that time he was just angry.

At the time, Max and his mother had been living alone in an apartment building on Lüchow’s outskirts for a few months. After his parents split in 2015, they had to say goodbye to the house where Max grew up. He loved the garden and the forest at the back of the house so much. Now mother and son shared three rooms, kitchen, bathroom and argued even more frequently than they did previously. Especially after that evening. “Talking was really hard,” says Max.

In Max’s version of the story, his mother then cooked only pig for weeks. “That was her way to protest against my decision.” She remembers differently. At least two or three times she brought a pork sausage. “And not in protest,” she says, “but because he used to like to eat it and I did not have his new eating rules in my mind yet.”

Smoking a cigarette, she says “What do you say when your son converts to Islam at 17?” She was not against the faith. She was just scared for him, very scared. “Max is still a child, even now.”

Max couldn’t do much about his mother’s fear. He did not feel like a child, and he was convinced that he had always been ahead of others of his age. When she spoke to him, he often got angry, she says. “It’s not easy with Max when he gets angry.”

It had been easier with his friends back then, Max says. He told them that he was Muslim and that he had to stop partying and drinking alcohol. They just nodded, no questions asked, but at some point just stopped seeing him without saying much.

He would rather pray that “they, too, find the right way”. Max also prays for his father. And for his grandmother. For Allah, he says, is the one and only God. That sounds extreme to some, but Max does not consider himself an extremist. On the contrary, “If I find out that someone is radicalizing, I’ll report them to the police.”

Max calls himself an advocate of modern Islam. “An Islam that nevertheless follows the Koran,” he says. For his life, this means: He fasts even at 30 degrees heat and rinses his mouth with coconut oil to better endure the thirst. He only eats foods that are halal, that is, allowed by the rules of Islam. He washes his hands, feet, forearms and face before he enters the mosque. He is only interested in marrying a woman wearing a headscarf. And only if her parents agree.

And of course, the 19-year-old prays. At least five times a day, at the prescribed prayer times: “That’s my duty as a Muslim,” he says. Max also prays at night. And he prays daily at work.

He is now going to school for his second year to become a dental assistant. “My boss even set up a little corner for me to pray.” Max is convinced that would not be the case in every small town. “But I live in Lüchow-Dannenberg,” he says, “that’s my luck.” This is a place where people take to the streets to protest against nuclear power, where for decades artists and intellectuals have found a new home, and as a New Muslim he is just one of many. “This place is more open, more tolerant.”

And yet there are reservations in Wendland as well. Worried that Max, the convert, might one day turn up as a terrorist. He feels that, Max says, and sometimes people would say that in the bus or on the street. “We Muslims are under the microscope.” He explains that the suppression of women is not due to the Islamic faith, but to the cultural traditions and customs that have nothing to do with Islam. That violence in Islam is the last resort and only in self defense to save the lives of loved ones.

In the meantime, Max can also talk to his mother about these things. She says that at some point she talked to other Muslims about Max, whom she knew because she had also helped in the refugee camp. “They promised me to take care of him. That calmed me down at least.” The fear for him does not disappear. “But I have learned to trust him.”

After two and a half years as a Muslim, Max says that he can no longer imagine life without Allah, the mosque, the community, the community evenings. “That’s like family.” Here he has found new friends, people with whom he feels at home. After the evening prayer, they often sit together. He meets with the Sheikh of the community, the scholar, to study, “He teaches me Arabic and we study the Koran”. With another convert he drove to demonstrations against Nazis and Islamophobia, “in addition, we continue to educate ourselves”. For gaining knowledge, says Max, is the duty of every Muslim.

And then there are the rules that he appreciates, because they give him a grip in life, the mobile app Muslim Pro, which guides him through everyday life. It reminds him when to pray and where the qibla is, when to break the fast and where the nearest mosque is.

Max found his luck in Islam. That’s the story he tells himself and others. And now his mother believes in it. “The community is good for him, that’s different from our German culture,” she says. She does not believe that he will be what his grandmother calls normal in five years’ time. “That’s his thing,” she says, “and if Max wants something, he stays with it.”

Source: German newspaper ZEIT ONLINE