The Muslim Mainstream

The Muslim mainstream slam is growing fast in America, and its members defy stereotypes

                          BY JONAH BLANK

                          In the polished wooden pews of a white-steepled
                          New England church, the weekend congregants sit
                          with heads reverently bowed. The town of
                          Chelmsford, Mass., is Yankee to the core, and so
                          are most of its inhabitants. Like the sober,
                          strait-laced Pilgrims 300 years before them, the
                          worshipers here shun liquor, dress modestly, and
                          feel uplifted when they call out, "God is great!"
                          Unlike their Puritan predecessors, however, those
                          gathered here address their Maker in Arabic:
                          "Allah-u Akhbar!" they chant, in a call offered five
                          times each day by Muslims from Maine to Alaska.

                          Five to 6 million strong, Muslims in America already
                          outnumber Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and
                          Mormons, and they are more numerous than
                          Quakers, Unitarians, Seventh-day Adventists,
                          Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian
                          Scientists, combined. Many demographers say
                          Islam has overtaken Judaism as the country's
                          second-most commonly practiced religion; others
                          say it is in the passing lane.

                          Yet while Muslims make up one of the
                          fastest-growing religious groups, largely because of
                          immigration, they are among those least
                          understood by their neighbors. Over half the
                          respondents to a recent Roper poll described Islam
                          as inherently anti-American, anti-Western, or
                          supportive of terrorism--though only 5 percent of
                          those surveyed said they'd had much contact with
                          Muslims personally. And according to a draft report
                          scheduled to be released this week by the Council
                          on American-Islamic Relations, although the
                          incidence of violence and harassment directed at
                          Muslims declined 58 percent last year,
                          discrimination reports increased 60 percent.

                          In part, such statistics reflect attitudes shaped by
                          Muslims who live across the globe rather than
                          those who live across the street. Militant
                          fundamentalists such as the late Ayatollah
                          Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran (and a tiny minority of
                          American Muslims) come from an extreme wing,
                          rather than the more moderate center of the world's
                          1 billion Muslims. But TV cameras and international
                          showdowns raise the militants' public profile. They
                          overshadow the mass of American Muslims, who
                          tend to vote Democratic on issues like immigration
                          and affirmative action, veer Republican on
                          "traditional family values," including such topics as
                          abortion and sex education, and live comfortably
                          within the mainstream of society.

                          The statistics also suggest that the United States
                          must wrestle with a question that has challenged
                          France, Germany, and other European nations as
                          their Muslim populations have grown: Is America a
                          nation based on Judeo-Christian values or on
                          something more universal? Do we value cultural
                          diversity, or merely tolerate it? As the country
                          begins thinking about how the expanding Muslim
                          population might change the nation's sense of itself,
                          the challenge will be to see Islam as it really is,
                          rather than as people wish or fear.

                          One of the most widespread misconceptions about
                          Muslims here or abroad is that they are primarily
                          Middle Eastern. Fewer than 1 out of 8 American
                          Muslims (12.4 percent) are of Arab descent; other
                          Middle Eastern groups like Iranians and Turks
                          account for only a few additional percentage points
                          each. On a global basis, there are about 100 million
                          more Muslims on the Indian subcontinent alone
                          than in all Arab countries combined. The two
                          largest Muslim groups in the United States are
                          native-born African-Americans (42 percent) and
                          immigrants from South Asia (24 percent).

                          America's polyglot neighborhoods are home to
                          Muslims of every conceivable background: Malays
                          from Southeast Asia and Bosnians from southeast
                          Europe, Songhai from the Sahara desert and
                          Uighars from the Taklimakan desert. America is
                          seldom so truly a melting pot as in her mosques.
                          There is even a mosque on a Navajo reservation in
                          New Mexico: Islam has a small but long-standing
                          presence among Native American communities
                          from the Plains to the pueblos.

                          Islam, which stresses egalitarianism, has a special
                          appeal for the marginalized, but the faith draws
                          many converts from the white middle class: More
                          than 80,000 of America's Muslims are of West
                          European background. When Mariam Agah (nee
                          Mary Froelich) started questioning the faith of her
                          birth, she was not only white and middle class--she
                          was a Roman Catholic nun. At the age of 25, after
                          seven years as Sister Frederick, she gave up her
                          habit: "I was not convinced that Jesus was divine,"
                          she says, "and that's when I realized that I needed
                          to leave."

                          That was 28 years ago. Agah got a job at an
                          elementary school, and for a long time she taught
                          and she thought. She read her way through many
                          bookshelves of philosophy, and two works stood
                          out: the Koran and the Autobiography of Malcolm
                          X. "I continued my spiritual journey," she says,
                          "and it led me to Islam."

                          Jim Bates is another unlikely convert. In 1990, after
                          four terms as a Democratic congressman from San
                          Diego, he lost an election--and also lost his
                          marriage, his home, and his sense of direction.
                          Born and baptized a Catholic, raised Protestant in a
                          series of orphanages and foster homes, then a
                          loose follower of Unitarianism for most of his adult
                          life, at age 50 Bates found himself searching, he
                          says, for a truth that would never slip away. He
                          found it through the faith of Pakistani-American
                          friends he'd made during his tenure in Congress.
                          Now Bates spends much of his time consulting,
                          and the rest farming hay and raising quarter horses
                          on a ranch in Idaho.

                          Minister Louis Farrakhan, with his inflammatory
                          racial comments, may be the Muslim leader most
                          familiar to Americans. But he commands the
                          allegiance of only a fraction even of
                          African-American Muslims. His Nation of Islam
                          today boasts only 20,000 to 50,000 members, says
                          Prof. Sulayman Nyang of Howard University. The
                          charismatic Farrakhan can attract huge crowds, as
                          the Million Man March demonstrated, but few of
                          those in attendance actually convert.

                          Instead, the man who attracts the greatest following
                          among American Muslims--black, white, or
                          Asian--is a moderate who has left behind the
                          divisive doctrines Farrakhan upholds. Warith Deen
                          Mohammed, an imam--leader of prayer--and the son
                          and successor of the black separatist Elijah
                          Muhammad, has up to half a million solid
                          supporters, and perhaps 1.5 million followers more
                          loosely affiliated. He has championed unity among
                          Muslims of different races and made significant
                          headway, though desegregation is still a work in
                          progress. Two decades ago, he led most of his
                          father's radical Black Muslim flock into the
                          mainstream of moderate Islam, and into the
                          mainstream of everyday American life. "I've become
                          almost a fanatical supporter of the United States
                          government," he told U.S. News. "To me, the vision
                          of the Founding Fathers is the vision that we have in
                          Islam."

                          Shedding the past. Only a few months after the
                          death of his father in 1975, Imam Warith shocked
                          the faithful by renouncing many of the key tenets
                          preached by Elijah Muhammad. Racially
                          exclusionary rhetoric was jettisoned, as was the
                          proposition that whites were "blue-eyed devils"
                          created by an evil scientist named Yacub as a
                          laboratory experiment. Imam Warith tossed out
                          core Nation of Islam doctrines that are viewed as
                          heresy by the rest of the Muslim world: for
                          example, the belief that movement founder Wallace
                          Fard was a manifestation of God and that Elijah
                          Muhammad was his prophet. "He was like Dr.
                          Frankenstein," Imam Warith (born Wallace) says of
                          his namesake. "He picked up some dead pieces
                          here and some dead pieces there, put them all
                          together, and breathed life into the creature."

                          In 1985 Imam Warith disbanded the Nation of Islam
                          altogether, urging his supporters to attend any
                          mosque they wished without regard to the race of
                          the other congregants. Several splinter factions had
                          already broken away: One was led by Farrakhan,
                          who re-established the old Nation and resurrected
                          almost all of Elijah Muhammad's doctrines.

                          Wali Mutazammil, who had served as the Nation of
                          Islam's minister for public relations in Kansas City,
                          Mo., remembers setting aside his initial reluctance
                          and rejoining American society. A boxer who'd been
                          the Marine Corps champion featherweight of 1970,
                          Mutazammil had been drawn to the old Nation of
                          Islam partly by the example of boxing legend (and
                          Nation spokesman) Muhammad Ali. In 1976
                          Mutazammil and the rest of his Missouri
                          congregation followed Imam Warith's invitation to
                          enter the mainstream Muslim fold. Having already
                          studied some of the texts of orthodox Islam, he
                          says, he was glad to be part of a worldwide
                          community. Now Mutazammil runs a management
                          consultant firm with business stretching from East
                          Asia to West Africa. Three-time world heavyweight
                          champ Muhammad Ali also renounced the old
                          Nation theology in the late 1970s.

                          Westerners tend to regard Muslim attitudes toward
                          women as inherently discriminatory, but reality
                          often differs from the stereotype here as well. "In
                          the name of Islam, cultural habits have developed
                          that suppress women," notes Laila Al-Marayati,
                          "and this needs to be dealt with head-on." Born,
                          raised, and still living in Los Angeles, Al-Marayati is
                          a physician and past president of the Muslim
                          Women's League. Throughout the Muslim world,
                          she notes, women are denied equal rights of
                          marriage, divorce, and property. But such
                          discrimination, she and many other Muslims argue,
                          is a betrayal rather than a reflection of the true spirit
                          of the faith: "The challenge is to let Islam become a
                          tool for elevating women rather than for oppressing
                          them." The Dawoodi Bohras, a group of 1 million
                          Shiite Muslims spread throughout the world, seem
                          to meet this challenge. "It's a very matriarchal
                          community," says Shamim Dahod, an Andover,
                          Mass., physician. She notes that every Bohra
                          family in her New England congregation is a
                          dual-career household and says she has
                          experienced much greater sexism in her last
                          hospital posting than she has in any mosque.

                          Harsh image. Perhaps the most persistent
                          negative stereotype of Islam is that it is a faith of
                          violent extremists, represented by a masked
                          militant rather than the doctor or computer software
                          designer living next door. It is a stereotype that
                          stings: Muslims in America say they are more
                          likely to be the victims of crime than the
                          perpetrators. In a sense, American Muslims (many
                          of them refugees from the regimes with which they
                          are associated in the public mind) are held hostage
                          to the behavior of Saddam Hussein and Hezbollah:
                          Anti-Muslim violence in the United States rises
                          sharply when tensions peak in the Middle East. 

                          Sgt. George Curtis feels a special pride in having
                          defended the holy sites of Mecca and Medina from
                          the forces of Iraq. He is the commander of an M1A1
                          Abrams tank at Fort Carson, Colo., a veteran of the
                          gulf war, and also one of the 10,000 Muslims
                          serving in the U.S. military. He sees no
                          contradiction in his roles, noting that the Army has
                          provided special "halal" meals for him and has
                          relieved him of daily physical training requirements
                          during the fast of Ramadan. "Whether it's Iraq or
                          anywhere else in the world," he says, "my first duty
                          is to defend my country."

                          At a mall in Chantilly, Va., last January, all sides of
                          American Islam were on display. It was Eid-ul Fitr,
                          the festival that ends the fasting month of
                          Ramadan, and the crowd in attendance was as
                          multifaceted as any other mass of 15,000 people
                          one could find. The prayer leader delivered his
                          sermon in English--the only language virtually
                          everyone present could understand. Somali
                          immigrants in white robes and loosely coiled
                          turbans rubbed shoulders with Philadelphia B-boyz
                          in Kangol hats, Lugz jackets, and hip-sagging
                          Tommy Hilfiger jeans. Chador-clad mothers bought
                          their kids pink cotton candy and tried not to worry
                          about the competence of the carnies wearily
                          operating the miniature merry-go-round and the
                          ferris wheel. The longest lines were for a gyroscope
                          ride: Teenagers with scraggly beards and decorous
                          skullcaps were strapped in place, and they grinned
                          wildly as their world spun around and around. For
                          these kids and their friends and classmates, it was
                          just another all-American day at the mall.
 
 
 

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