The first time Waimea resident Joshua Wagner heard the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, he knew Islam was the right path for him.
After nine months of intense study of the faith, Wagner took his shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, at a masjid. He moved back to Hawaii shortly afterwards. Since then, because of his new faith, life hasn’t always been easy.
While visiting Oahu with his mother, Wagner was attacked. He defended himself, then was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Those charges were eventually reduced to assault in the first degree. After nearly a year, Wagner was acquitted of all charges.
As a Muslim on Kauai, he said, it’s difficult to maintain daily obligations such as the five daily prayers and breaking fasts in community. He says it’s difficult not having other brothers to talk with, both about the faith and everyday life.
Do you like working at the fruit and vegetable stand?
You know, yeah, I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and get to hear a little bit about their stories and where they’re from and what brought them here.
Tell me a little bit about your background. You converted to Islam?
“Converted” I don’t know is the right word because I’m sure as you’ve read in the Sunnah, we’re born Muslims, but we just forget our way until Allah brings us back on the path. My belief is when I was hit with the infliction of depression in my teenage years, I was always searching for something greater than myself, searching for purpose in life. I was born with this innate desire to help people regardless of who or what they may be. I’ve always had that drive. So growing up there’s always been that struggle being the nice guy. A lot of people think you’re the pushover and I’ve had difficulty with that. So when I was first introduced to Islam, I fell in love right away. I knew pretty much automatically this was the thing for me, that this was how I was going to go about serving a higher purpose.
How did you feel the first time you heard the adhan? What was that like?
I can’t describe it. Honestly I can’t. It was like I had an out-of-body experience. Literally. Just captivated. I knew Islam was for me.
Where did you go from there? How did you make it to the point where you took your shahada?
Studying, for one. I was always into comparative readings. I used to do that with the Bible, the Christian Bible. I always used to do comparative readings with that, different translations. So when I started wanting to learn about Islam, I started doing the same thing but with the Quran, and what I noticed is that the Quran and the Bible are different in this regard and this regard alone: the Bible is man’s interpretation of what God has told us. The Quran is directly God’s word to us. There’s no middle man. There’s no, “This is my interpretation of what He told me,” no. This is Mohammed reciting what the Angel Jibril told him and that’s powerful.
How long did it take you through your studies to take that final leap?
About nine months or so. It felt like I should have taken it sooner.
Tell me about that experience. Tell me how you felt when you finally took your shahada?
Somber in a way. It was strange. I knew that I was doing this for myself, for my own growth as a human, but I knew it would have a huge impact on the people around me. I knew that my mother would be affected negatively — at least in the beginning she was — but I knew there would be a lot of tension when I came home. So it was pretty somber after I left the masjid (mosque). I was thinking, “What have I done?” But I recognize it was just the whispers of the shaytan (devil) giving me doubt.
How did your friends take it?
My friends, on the other hand, took it stellar. I became the poster child for the left, kind of breaking through. My friends saw my reversion to Islam as my own unique way of kind of rebelling against the system, which was cute, I thought, but at least they were supportive. That’s the thing. They maintained a positive mentality about it.
It must have been difficult coming back to Kauai after reverting because there’s not a huge Muslim community.
I’ve always been a hermit, to be honest with you. I’ve always tended to kinda isolate myself and I think that has more to do with my mental health and the way I deal with the PTSD, the depression, anxiety. I just like to have quiet. I can’t deal with very noisy environments, I can’t deal with drunk people. It just gets overwhelming. I get frustrated. I can feel the anger building up. That’s just because of the trauma I’ve undergone. I try to make sure they understand that. I emphasize that. It’s not me, it’s out of my control.
Tell me a little bit about the experience you had on Oahu. What happened?
Halloween night is not a night you want to go walking about in that city. I made the mistake of just thinking it was going to be like any other night. I knew that people were going to be out drinking, doing drugs and just enjoying all the things this world has to offer them. I knew that they were going to try and have fun. I wasn’t going to be an active part of it, but I was going to sit on the sidelines and watch. People watch. I was walking down the road that night, my mom texted me and asked me to look for a parking spot for her because she was going to try to come and park and stay with me for a little while and she was going to be my ride, we were going to go back to our friend’s house and what-not. Found a spot, almost got ran over by this meth-head, and later on that night this same dude who almost ran me down with this car, I was getting into my mom’s van and he just straight-up attacks me. I was walking towards this man and all of a sudden this man comes barreling towards me, “You’re a dead haole,” saying this sort of stuff. In that moment I was only thinking about whether or not I could defend myself. I was only thinking to myself about the height advantage this guy has and that he was inebriated, that he was obviously high as a kite, taking that into account, could I actually flee from this guy? You have to think, these things click millisecond by millisecond when you’re in a survival situation, you have to rely on your instinct, that’s just automatic, and so I ended up stabbing this guy. Just once, but to defend myself. I had to suffer the consequences of that decision for almost a year after that point.
I was arrested, sent to prison for attempted murder, and I fought my case. They changed my charge from attempted murder to assault in the first degree, which is still a felony, I could have still gone to prison for 15 years, but I ended up being acquitted by a jury of my peers. Allahu Akbar. It was because my mom had purchased a dash-cam video recording device for her car that just happened to catch the whole thing. We totally forgot until before the trial.
So he was definitely in the wrong?
It was proven in court that he was in the wrong. It took almost a year just going back and forth, courthouse, jail cell, courthouse, jail cell, courthouse, jail cell. It took me about a month, month and a half to work up the money to get bailed out, so I did have time out on bail throughout this whole trial period, but I was stuck on Oahu having to deal with the legal system.
Going to court and trying to fight my case. That experience definitely was not fun. In any regard, it was not fun. I’m just glad that the system works, at least it did in this instance. There’s plenty of instances where innocent people have gone to jail for much less, so I feel very fortunate that the truth has set me free. It’s what I was praying for.
Do you think he attacked you because of your faith?
I suspect that had something to do with it because I did have an over-the-shoulder pocket Quran; I like to wear shemaghs (traditional headwear), it’s comfortable, it keeps me warm.
There’s just small things, if you’re in the know you know, if you don’t know, you don’t know. I think he’s one of the guys who knows because in one instance, a couple of months have gone by, I’d just gotten bailed out. I went to the prosecuting attorney’s office to see if I could try to press charges myself against this individual.
He happened to show up, “You f****** Muzzie, what are you doing here?” No one calls someone else a “Muzzie” unless they know they’re a “Muzzie.” I’ve been called a lot of things by all manner of people since my reversion.
What is it like to be Muslim on Kauai? What has your experience been?
There are way too many cons for it to be worthwhile being Muslim here. I’m actually in the process of saving up as much money as I can because I want to move me and my family to the Mainland because I think we’d be better off.
So you haven’t had a good experience being Muslim on Kauai?
The exact opposite. I choose to look at it as a challenge. Challenge accepted. I’ll be the stick in the mud. I’ll be the odd guy out. Fine. I don’t care because I am who I am. If I can’t be true to myself than what good is pretending to be anything that I’m not? It doesn’t make sense to me. Why should I have to change who I am just to make you happy? So if people don’t like me for who I am, they make judgment calls on me, that’s fine, but they’re the ones who don’t know what they’re doing, so I just say, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I’ll just quote the words of Isa. I try to be positive about it.
If there’s one thing you want Kauaians to know about Islam, what would that be?
I think it would be the same thing that any Muslim would want people to know about our deen (religion), you know, is the people they hear about on Fox News is not who we are. There are bad apples just like in any other group, but it’s a very small minority. These Wahhabis, these Salafis, they’re only like a minority of a minority of a minority within the deen, so why paint everybody with one broad stroke of the brush?
Why? That’s what I would like them to know. It’s just for them to see. If they see a sister walking down the street with a hijab, there’s no reason to single her out. She may look different, she’s a human, just like the rest of us.
Bethany Brunelle Freudenthal, TGIcourts, crime and county reporter, can be reached at 652-7891 or bfreudenthal@ thegardenisland.com.