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Correction Appended: March 24, 2003
John's infatuation blossomed into a deep commitment when he met followers of Tablighi Jama'at, a group that performs missionary work and preaches a strict interpretation of the Koran. While nonpolitical, it looks forward to the rejuvenation of an Islamic caliphate. In November 1997 John joined the group at a gathering in Santa Clara, Calif. Says Hateem Bazian, an Islamic-law scholar in the Bay Area acquainted with John: "The Tablighi Jama'at are best at providing, giving a hug to a person who comes in." For perhaps the first time, John was surrounded by people with whom he shared a bond.
He began to spend weekends at the Islamic Center of San Francisco, where many of the missionary group's followers gathered. His weekends were quite unlike those of his former high school classmates. At the Islamic Center, John and his colleagues would pray, eat and set out on missions to area mosques. "John Walker was in desperate need of having Allah in his heart," says an elder of the congregation who gives his name as Mohammed. "God said, 'You come to me walking. I come to you running.'"
In 1997 John told his parents he wanted to travel to the Middle East to become a serious scholar of Islam. He announced he planned to go to Yemen to study a pure form of Arabic and be immersed in Islamic culture. Now, years later, people criticize Frank and Marilyn for poor parenting, for letting their boy set off for a hostile place overseas without knowing what he was in for. Marilyn says they didn't let him go just "willy-nilly." She did some research online into the Yemen Language Center (YLC), where he planned to register. She was aware of tribal kidnappings and other perils. But she put on a brave front. "As a parent, you want your kids to follow their heart," she says. "To be honest, I would have liked for him to stay home." Frank says much the same: "When kids get a certain age, you let them go. You wish them well, and you help them, and you support, and you never stop loving them, but you let them explore the world and find themselves." Frank also found comfort in the Islamic custom of hospitality for fellow believers. And he always tried to appreciate his son's faith, one day telling John, "I don't think you've really converted to Islam as much as you've found it within yourself; you sort of found your inner Muslim."
For John Walker Lindh, Yemen had the promise of an Islamic Shangri-La, a country within the Dar al-Islam (Realm of the Faith), on the same peninsula as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a land where some of the oldest wellsprings of Arab culture could be traced. He introduced himself as Suleyman al-Lindh and arrived dressed in what he believed was the proper attire. "I remember him the first day he arrived," says Rizwan Marwan, a Canadian Shi'ite now living and studying in London. Lindh was wearing the clothing worn by devout Muslims from Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent.