(Photo: Nelson Books)
In 1992, Naeem Fazal, a recent immigrant from Kuwait of Pakistani descent, encountered Jesus in his brother's apartment just weeks after arriving in the United States. Fazal, who grew up Muslim and who once threatened to kill his brother after the elder sibling converted to Christianity, spoke recently with The Christian Post about his terrifying conversion story, Kuwait's "caste" system, and his family's passion for CrossFit. An overview of the book is available here and the second part of this interview will be posted on Thursday.
Fazal and his wife Ashley are parents to a son and daughter and currently live in Charlotte, North Carolina where he pastors Mosaic Church.
CP: What was it like growing up in Kuwait?
Fazal: There are so many things about it. My son, who is 10, he's reading the book Ex-Muslim right now and he came up to me yesterday and he was like, "Hey dad, did you really make a drink from Pepsi and milk? That sounds disgusting." And he starts asking why Pepsi, why no Coke. Growing up in Kuwait was so different. Before the gulf war in 1990, there were no Coke products there. I think Coke was banned or something for some reason. Pepsi was the only product there.
I grew up in a metropolitan, kind of a mix of cultures, international melting pot, it seemed like. Kuwait — at the time, even now I think — 60 percent of its population is made up of immigrants. And so, I grew up with Filipinos, Indians and Arabs from different countries and Pakistanis, everybody was international.
I also grew up where racism and class systems were very true in real life. If you stand in line in the grocery store, if a Kuwaiti comes in, he gets in front of the line regardless. No one was against it. No one was shouting about rights or anything. It felt like it was a privilege for us to be in the country and they kind of knew that. Every immigrant has got to be sponsored by a Kuwaiti to be in the country; if the Kuwaiti sponsor has issues with you, he just won't stamp your visa the next time. It was a lot of people-pleasing.
My family was Pakistani. I was born and raised in Kuwait, so I did not experience the Pakistani culture —only one that my mom and dad created. We were conservative Muslims and my mom and dad, they wanted us to have a better education, and so they didn't enroll us public school system. If I would have enrolled in there, I would primarily speak Arabic and not English; and they did not put me in a Pakistani school, they put me in Indian school.
In Indian school you had to learn Hindi, the curriculum was in English, and you had to learn Arabic, and then obviously my parents spoke Urdu at home so I kind of had a crazy childhood learning all these languages and I wasn't really good at any of them.
It's not a third world country, it's a first world country, so it's not like images of people that are extremely poor; that wasn't the case. There were people that had a lot of resources and people who didn't. There wasn't a lot of begging or homelessness, partly because you couldn't really be homeless. The government had all the Kuwaitis on an allowance. They were all on welfare. The immigrants, if you didn't work, you wouldn't be sponsored.
CP: What was it like being Muslim but not Kuwaiti?
Fazal: It depends on what race you're from. It was a serious caste system. The highest at the time, before the Gulf War, I mean everything changed after the Gulf War. If you were Palestinian, Kuwaitis liked Palestinians. They were like the number one Arab.
There were different classes. Number one, if you were Muslim you were in a different category. For instance, if I was a Pakistani Christian, I would be in a different category. Indians were in a totally different category. They were kind of like the Latinos or the Mexicans even in terms of Kuwait. They were cheap labor, they were from south India, they were pretty much slaves. Pretty much. They would bring the women in or the men in and make them work their villas and do whatever with them. They were earning money and sending it back home and they needed to stay. They knew it was either this or go back to a third world country.
Me being a Pakistani Muslim helped because I was Muslim. You had the Palestinians, Egyptians, most of the Arab races first and then Pakistanis, because we're kind of in the middle. We are obviously to the subcontinent and India, but there's much Arab in our culture. Obviously, Pakistan is a Muslim country, so we were treated a little better.
CP: What types of experience did you have with Christianity as a child?
Fazal: I didn't really hear about or realize Christianity. I knew America. I knew America from "Night Rider" and I thought it was a cool society, cool culture, a lot less rules. People look different, acted different, I thought it was great. I just knew that we would never be that. My sisters covered up the entire time so my sisters didn't look like the girls on TV. My mom didn't look like that. My friends didn't. So I never thought I would be that.
I just wasn't really tuned into Christianity. My brother was probably more a spiritual seeker, I was just out there. I was like, whatever. I heard of Christianity when my brother went to the States and got accepted to college in South Carolina. When he came back that's when I started hearing about Jesus.
CP: Were you intrigued or did you just write it off as something your brother was interested in?
Fazal: I was interested a little bit. The first year he came back and he was a Christian. He didn't tell us that, now I know, but he would just want to talk about spiritual stuff. He brought a Bible and mom and dad just thought that's America, that's probably going to happen. We were used to having Kuwaitis having immigrants and them having their religious festivals.
I celebrated Diwali with my immigrant friends. I went to their functions. I had Catholic friends. I actually did communion as a Muslim. It's crazy. I just said okay, I didn't want to be left out.
So the second time that my brother came back was when he basically told us, as in me and our brothers and sisters, that he was a Christian and that's when I flipped out. I tried to kill him because he was going weird on us.
CP: From the book, it sounds like all your brothers and sisters have become a Christian.
Fazal: Yes they have.
CP: You ended up immigrating to the United States. How did you encounter Christianity here?
Fazal: I came here knowing that my brother had turned weird and religious. For me, it was very different because Islam is a nationality, in some regards, to Muslims, and so when you convert — that's why they call us traitors — there's a sense of you betraying your country and the nation of Islam.
I knew that he would try to talk to me about Christianity, he was pretty aggressive, but he did not talk to me. The only friends he had were Christians. They used to go to Fellowship of Christian Athletes group and I stayed with him.
I went to my brother's in the U.S. because I, in fact, got a visit visa, because after the Gulf War, Kuwait was pretty devastated and I was probably in the ninth or 10th grade, and he was like, "You gotta do something. You need to stay in Kuwait and start working or you can try to go American and make it happen."
I just got a visit visa and my dad was like, "Don't come back. Do whatever you can, just don't come back. There's nothing here for you." I knew that I had to get here, put up with my brother, get into college, get legal, get some kind of status. That was my goal, and so the thing was I had left everything. Everything. I think I was 17, 18.
When my brother invited me to come and hang out with his group, I didn't know anyone. I started going to FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and that's when things started changing. I got exposed to Christianity and the message, the Gospel of Jesus and thought it was nuts, and that led to the encounter that night and that kind of changed everything.
CP: Can you talk about your encounter?
Fazal: I was in the States for about three weeks by then and I was going to FCA. I went there just to hang out with people. My brother was like, "There are blonde girls there," and I was like "I'll go." I kept on hearing about this personal God, personal relationship with Jesus, his son, and in Islam it doesn't make sense because if God becomes personal, then He no longer becomes almighty and all-powerful in Islam.
But I kept it all going. And then one night they shared a movie about the rapture, and that intrigued me and that was interesting. Before that movie my brother and I were walking, it was late at night, we were walking the streets of Charleston and we got into a spiritual argument and I just told him: "This whole thing is ridiculous. It sounds so stupid and I can't believe you actually believe it; you're a smart guy. Basically, what you're saying here is, if I were to ask Jesus, God, whomever that is there, he'll come down." And my brother replied, "He will."
I was like, "You're smoking something. What are you doing?" That conversation, it was very intriguing because my brother is not the confident type.
Honestly, when he said that, I thought: "That is something different." And then the rapture movie intrigued me, so that night during FCA when they closed in prayer, I just prayed. It was sincere, but it was very short. I said, "I don't know if something's out there, if you're real show me. I don't think is true, honestly. I think I'm lying to myself." And that's it, pretty much.
Later, I was trying to fall asleep in my bed and that's when things got crazy. I was alone in the room reading a book. When I put it down and shut off the lights and got to my bed to shut off the lamp light, and as I was trying to get to it, I notice that the room started to turn evil and it felt like death had walked in and I was just trying to figure out what was going on.
As I was doing that something grabbed me from my shoulders and dragged me and pinned me to my pillow. I was just flipping out, like what is going on? I tried to react and tried to get up and something sat on my legs and paralyzed me. I couldn't move and the only thing I could move was my neck, and I started looking around and just kind of saw, but not physically saw, but saw some crazy things going on in the room and I knew that I had entered into a crazy dimension.
I thought I was dreaming, I thought my brother had given me drugs. I was like, what is going on? I didn't even get to go asleep. I was about to. I just started screaming.
CP: A natural thing to do?
Fazal: Natural. I realized I couldn't hear myself so I was like "Oh" and I did it louder for some reason. And finally the door opened up and I thought my brother heard me and in walks this thing. And in Islam, we don't really focus on demons and angels. We have these things called jin which is pretty much like ghosts, but we're not really into vampires and werewolves — we're just not into that.
So this thing walked in and I just sort of instantly knew it was a demon and it started speaking to me. It said, "I'm going to kill you. You're going to die tonight."
I believed it. I was flipping out, thinking, "What the? I'm a Muslim man. You've got the wrong room. You've got the wrong religion. I'm not part of this."
My body was reacting. My heart was pounding. It was serious. This guy is walking and all of this is going pretty fast and I started thinking, "I ticked off Jesus. This is Jesus. This is really Jesus. I just ticked off the God of Christianity because I was rude and disrespectful and just mocking my brother.
As I was processing is, my internal dialogue was saying, "This can't be it." And then I thought, "This is Allah."
In Islam, one of the greatest sins is to doubt. Doubt is a serious offense. So when you're going to FCA and attending Christian meetings throughout the week, this is serious. Having conversations and praying that prayer, I was asking, "Is this is Allah getting back at me." Only it wasn't that either.
So then this thing got closer and I yelled, "Someone help me." I joke about how I was praying to Allah, Buddha, Oprah, someone, anybody.
It reached my bed and disappeared and whatever was holding me let go and the room still felt weird and I was lined in shock with what had just happened, realizing that the experience was over but it was not really over. That there was something going on that, something that had just gotten started. I ran out of the room and woke up my brother and asked him "What did you do? What's going on?"
I told him what happened. I said, "What is this?" He told me about demons and angels. I never read the Gospels. I didn't know that Jesus was a like a Ghostbuster type of guy. I didn't know anything about that. I just assumed that the Bible was different set of rules than like Koran. I didn't realize it was just stories of what Jesus did, especially in the New Testament and all that, so when my brother starts telling me this, I was like "Okay this is true."
I was scared beyond myself and he started telling me about the Gospel and Jesus and salvation and I was like "I don't need forgiveness. Here's what I need. I need someone who can take on whoever there is that is trying to get me because I can't even believe that I'm saying this, that there's an invisible demon, that there's something trying to kill me. Someone's going to kill me. I'm going to die if I don't get him."
Then he was like, "Well the only one I know that has authorities over demons and angels is Jesus," and I was like "Alright then. Let's get to know him. Let's figure it out. What do I need to do?"
He said, "Well you need to come to Christ and give your life to him and I can pray with you."
I said, "Yeah, but I wanna pray." I don't know why I did that because I'm not used to praying to God. We had rituals and prayed on a mat. My prayer was "Jesus I don't know who you are so I can't call you the Lord of my life. I don't know anything. I can't say that I love you or that I'm grateful because I don't know you. But if you can save me from this, I'll give you my whole life."
I prayed for that and my brother prayed for me. He told me to go back in the room and I was like "No way" and we argued about that and finally gave me a Bible, it's comical he gave me a small Gideon Bible, a pocket one, and I was like "This is crazy."
I went back in the room and started reading it for what felt like a couple of hours. I was scared to death — you know when you're scared and everything makes a sound. I finally got so fed up and was like this is not happening. There's no way that I left Kuwait to come here in a foreign land and trying to assimilate to everyone here and I don't know if I've ever going to see my friends and now I'm attacked by invisible demons. Like really? I went through a war. I can't even tell people these problems. I don't want to be a Christian. I don't want any of this. Just leave me alone. So I went and shut off the lights and looked up and said "Jesus if I die tonight it is your fault." (Laughs)
So I put the covers over my head and I got into the fetal position because I didn't want to be pinned down and the whole time I was thinking, "Don't' open your eyes," because I didn't want to see anything. Because even the room I felt like I saw stuff that just didn't make sense to me but it was weird and scary.
So the next thing I know someone's trying to wake me up, like shaking me and I was like, "Oh no. Oh no. Here we go. Oh no."
Initially, I think it's my brother because it's a dark room and "I'm like, no. This is round two." The next thing I know I'm sitting on my bed with my eyes opened starring into the presence of Jesus. So powerful. So intoxicating. So surreal. Just so real. He said, "I'm Jesus and your life is not your own." It was the weirdest, beautiful thing. I couldn't keep my eyes off of Him, but I couldn't keep my eyes opened either. He literally put me to sleep. My body couldn't stand in his presence. I was trying so hard to look and be in that moment and I couldn't. He put me to sleep.
Next morning I got up and I had this download: So I'm supposed to be in ministry. My life belongs to Him. I don't know what that means. I don't want to be a priest. I didn't know anything. But that started the journey of really pursuing what God had and figuring out everything — learning about denominations and the Bible and the Gospel.