Yahya John Scaccia Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Embracing Islam at the young age of 15, American Muslim Yahya John Scaccia is hoping to become the true face of those who embrace Islam, removing perceived misconceptions that often associate them as future radicals.

Scaccia told his story as part of New York University’s (NYUAD) second annual TEDx event held on Sunday, which also saw eight other speakers share their stories of hardship, hope, and inspiration.

“A week before I left for NYUAD I received a package in the mail from my grandmother, and I thought perhaps the package would be a congratulatory message from my grandmother for my university acceptance. However, I was wrong. When I looked inside I saw newspaper clippings about a local teen suicide bomber, and other articles of this white American who embraced Islam who left the west in order to join Daesh.

“Apparently she found out through the internet that I had embraced Islam and that I was going to go and study in the UAE. At the time I was very upset and angry that she made the association of me with terrorism,” Scaccia recounted.

After joining NYUAD, Scaccia had the opportunity to travel to several different Arab countries as part of his studies, an experience Scaccia encourages many others to do.

“They say travelling breaks down stereotypes and I have been able to travel the world thanks to the university, and in all my experiences and travels to the Arab world I never encountered anyone threatening me or showing me hostility for being an American.

“When I was teaching in Palestine last summer in the city of Hebron, the people were always welcoming and open to me. I remember walking down the old city streets and the local residents would ask me where I was from and when I told them that I was an American, they would without hesitation ask me if I needed anything, and they would open their homes to me, making sure that I as an American was safe in their country, and all this despite living under a military occupation,” he said.

With many stories coming out on westerners embracing Islam and joining groups such as Daesh, Scaccia said that it was important to dispel notions that cast suspicion on such people, saying that the radicals did not represent the true story of westerners who embrace Islam.

“We hear stories about people going off to the Middle East to fight a jihad, and in my own way I am fighting my own jihad, which is simply a word that means ‘struggle’. I am learning, I am teaching, and I am discovering the many cultures of this world. I am the unheard voice of those embracing Islam,” he said.

“I don’t fit the orientalist description of new Muslims, which has been given a stigma, which is that if a person embraces Islam they have given up on their country and their family. The truth is that the vast majority of such new Muslims care about their local community, and the whole great community of humanity, and this is what we need more than ever in the current climate to tackle the greater issues.”