By Abe Levy
San Antonio Express-News
September 8, 2006
Jesus Rogelio Villarreal used to curse Muslims and blame Islam for inspiring the 9-11 terrorists.
He hoped to kill the Taliban overseas.
He's now a convert to Islam and among the first to enter local mosques for weekly prayers and the last to leave. He marvels today at how he could, as a baby, be baptized Catholic, hop back and forth between Protestant churches and then credit the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for an unforeseen conversion.
"I found my way in life," said Villarreal, 28, summing up the experience.
The morning of 9-11, he was headed to history class at St. Philip's College, searching for gangsta' rap on radio stations but finding only news reports about the first plane. Frustrated, he popped in a rap CD. Once on campus, he went to the cafeteria for breakfast tacos. He noticed a group huddled around TV sets.
He watched as the second plane hit.
Some people began to cry.
He let out an expletive and fumed inside.
That weekend, he and a buddy, both Marine reservists, signed up for active duty.
"Sept. 11 was like a button. I was like, 'Man, I'm gonna get those guys.'"
He studied books on Arabic and Islam. He wanted to know his enemy. In February 2002 he got up the courage to enter a local mosque. His friends thought he was crazy. His mother was afraid for him. She insisted he call afterward to make sure he survived.
He drove into the parking lot of the Islamic Center of San Antonio, the city's largest mosque near the city's hospital district that draws mainly Arab Muslims for daily prayer services. If threatened, he had a .45-caliber pistol in his car and a concealed handgun permit. As he approached the entrance, he felt uneasy.
"I had to reassure myself that I could do this," he said.
Once inside, he told an older man that he was there to learn about Islam. The man instructed him to remove his shoes and wait in the library.
In a few minutes, Abdullah Mohammad, the mosque's public affairs contact at the time, came in and fielded Villarreal's questions about Islam: What does it say about treating women, suicide bombers who cite the Koran as justification and the deity of Jesus.
For 14 straight days, he met with Mohammad and other members of the mosque. He read books on Islam provided to him and watched in wonder as men and women of different races and backgrounds prayed together.
Finally, after more discussions in the mosque library, he was asked whether he was ready to become Muslim.
He repeated in broken Arabic the declaration of faith in one true God and recognition that his last, true prophet was Mohammad. He stopped eating pork. He stopped going to clubs and parties. He lost many old friends. He grew out his beard, shaving off only his mustache, a custom among some Muslim men. And he also ended his military involvement.
"I felt relief," he said. "This made more sense than anything else I had heard in my life."
He now is a biology major at UTSA, dreaming of being a doctor. He's also the vice president of the Muslim Student Association. He still despises the 9-11 terrorists. But he's also strangely thankful.
"I have to say thanks to Osama (bin Laden) and Sept. 11, because without it, I wouldn't be Muslim."
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