The children of Muslim immigrants who
came to America in the '60s are coming of age. Both pious and modern, they
are the future of the faith
By Carla Power
In El Cerrito, Calif., Shahed Amanullah knows it's time to pray, not by
a muezzin's call from a mosque minaret, but because his PowerMac has chimed.
A verse from the Koran hangs by his futon. Near the bookcases--lined with
copies of Wired magazine and Jack Kerouac novels--lies a red Arabian prayer
rug. There's a plastic compass sewn into the carpet, its needle pointing
toward Mecca. At the programmed call, Amanullah begins his prayers, the
same as those recited across the globe--from the Gaza Strip to Samarkand.
In his goatee and beret, 30-year-old Amanullah wouldn't remind anyone
of Saddam Hussein or a member of Hizbullah, the sort of Muslims who make
headlines. He has never built a biological weapon, issued a fatwa or burned
Uncle Sam in effigy. "You think Muslim, you think Saddam Hussein, you think
ayatollah," says one Muslim-American twentysomething.
Not after meeting Amanullah. A native Californian, Amanullah grew up
running track, listening to Nirvana and reading the Koran. He is a member
of a burgeoning subculture: young Islamic America. The children of the
prosperous Muslim immigrants of the '60s and '70s are coming of age, and
with them arrives a new culture that is a blend of Muslim and American
Online and on campus, in suburban mosques and summer camps, young American
Muslims are challenging their neighbors' perceptions of Islam as a foreign
faith and of Muslims as fiery fundamentalists or bomb-lobbing terrorists.
That image problem may be this generation's biggest challenge in the New
World. Within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Muslims were
prime suspects. "You'll die," was one of the printable messages left on
mosque answering machines around the country.
America's Muslims are not only taking on stereotypes, they're taking
on the status quo. As it was for Christians and Jews before them, America
is a laboratory for a re-examination of their faith. America's Muslim community
is a quilt of cultures: about 25 percent are of South Asian descent, Arabs
represent another 12 percent and nearly half are converts, primarily African-Americans.
U.S. society allows them to strip away the cultural influences and superstitions
that have crept into Islam during the past 1,400 years. By going back to
the basic texts, they're rediscovering an Islam founded on tolerance, social
justice and human rights. Some 6 million strong, America's Muslim population
is set to outstrip its Jewish one by 2010, making it the nation's second-largest
faith after Christianity. Richer than most Muslim communities, literate
and natives of the world's sole superpower, America's Muslims are intent
on exporting their modern Islam. From the Mideast to central Asia, they'd
like to influence debate on everything from free trade to gender politics.
At home, it is a generation committed to maintaining its Islamic heritage
while finding a niche in the New World. America's 1,500-odd mosques are
spread from Alaska to Florida. Muslims pray daily in State Department hallways,
in white-shoe corporate law firms and in empty boardrooms at Silicon Valley
companies like Oracle and Adaptec. Last year Muslim organizations made
life miserable for Nike when the company marketed a shoe with a design
resembling the name of Allah in Arabic. After protests, Nike discontinued
the style and started sensitivity training for employees. In Washington,
the American Muslim Council lobbies on issues from school prayer to the
Mideast peace process. "We're learning to use our clout," says Farhan Memon,
a Muslim and 27-year-old partner in Yack!, a multimillion-dollar Internet
Clout doesn't come without confidence, says Manal Omar, a Muslim woman
raised in South Carolina. Tall and leather-jacketed, with a trace of Southern
drawl, she explodes any stock image of the crushed and silent Muslim woman.
In high school, she played basketball in hijab--the Muslim woman's head
covering ("my coach nearly freaked"); at college, she won national public-speaking
prizes. Friends thought she should become a stand-up comic. Instead, Omar
went into refugee relief. In her off hours, she's working on a series of
books for Muslim-American teenagers--"a sort of Islamic 'Sweet Valley High',"
If fighting stereotypes is American Muslims' biggest battle, it is women
who are on the front line. Raised playing touch football and reading Seventeen
magazine, women are returning to the Koran to discover whether Islam sanctions
the veils, seclusion and silence that many Muslim women endure. (Short
answer: no.) In Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, wearing a veil is the law.
In Savannah, Ga., or Topeka, Kans., it's a statement. "For some young women,
the veil in America works a bit like the Afro during the blackpower era,"
says Mohja Kahf, a professor at the University of Arkansas. Amira Al-Sarraf,
34, a teacher at an Islamic school in Los Angeles, explains: "I don't have
men flirting with me. I enjoy the respect I get."
At her wedding four years ago, Amanny Khattab wore an Islamic veil under
her translucent lace tulle one. She remembers the "living hell" of her
freshman year at Farmingdale High School on New York's Long Island. "The
week before school started, I bought all the cool stuff--Reebok sneakers,
Guess! jeans," recalls Khattab. "I wanted to look just like everybody else,
but with the scarf." It didn't work. But enduring all the cracks--"towel-head,"
"rag-head"--made her tough. "Non-Muslim women think I'm oppressed because
I wear too much?" says Khattab. "Well, I think they're oppressed because
they wear too little."
In Pakistan, tradition dictates that women pray at home rather than
at the mosque. In America, women not only go to the mosque--they're on
the mosque's board of directors. Saudi Arabian clerics have ruled that
it's un-Islamic for women to drive. But try telling a 16-year-old from
Toledo, Ohio, who's just gotten her driver's license that the Koran prohibits
her from hitting the road. She'll probably retort that the Prophet's favorite
wife, Aisha, once directed troops in battle from the back of a camel.
That willingness to challenge convention is revitalizing a religion
that many think has stagnated since the Middle Ages. Today a reformation
is afoot. Muslims worldwide are working to square a faith founded in Arabia
with modernity. Debates rage: Is Islam compatible with Western-style democracy?
With modern science? With feminism? American Muslims, wealthy, wired and
standing on the fault line between cultures, are well positioned to bring
a 13-century-old faith into the next millennium.
The United States is arguably the best place on earth to be Muslim.
Multicultural democracy, with its guarantees of religious freedom and speech,
makes life easier for Muslims than in many Islamic states in the Middle
East. It's an idea they'd like to export. U.S. Muslim social organizations
send money and medicine to beleaguered Kashmiris and Bosnians. The Web
site of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, an organization devoted to "promoting
the establishment of free trade and justice," has links to the Islamic
University of Gaza. "The U.S. Constitution describes the perfect Islamic
state," says Muhammed Muqtader Khan, who teaches American politics to Muslims.
"It protects life, liberty and property."
Growing Muslim-American political consciousness may be the surest sign
of assimilation. While their parents may have been happy to sit on the
sidelines and pine for the Old World, the new generation realizes that
to protect its rights as Americans--and Muslims--it has to speak out. Some
mosques educate their communities to be more politically assertive, registering
voters and holding programs on how to be an active PTA parent. Freshly
minted Muslim lawyers are joining other ambitious young politicos in Washington.
"When people say we'll never have elected Muslim-American officials, I
say, 'Hey, those are the same things they said about a Catholic named Kennedy
running for president'," says Suhail Khan, a 28-year-old congressional
staffer. Muslim and Arab groups have protested against airport-security
profiling, which they say unfairly targets them as potential terrorists.
Last month the American Muslim Council organized a fax-and-phone campaign
against bombing Iraq. The No. 1 foreign-policy concern is the Arab-Israeli
peace process. Recently, the Arab American Institute--which involves both
Muslims and Christians--took a congressional delegation to Syria for a
3 1/2-hour meeting with President Hafez Assad to discuss the issue.
In the 1996 election, three times as many Muslims supported Bill Clinton
as Bob Dole. The White House has not forgotten. Last month the First Lady
threw a Ramadan party in the marble-and-gilt Indian Treaty Room in the
West Wing. Hillary Clinton's talk--which touched on everything from peace
to democracy to the trials of being a beleaguered minority--drew fervent
applause. Long after the First Lady left, guests loitered, munched baklava
and hummus and took snapshots of one another. Having made it to the White
House, it seemed, they didn't want to leave.
With Nadine Joseph in San Francisco and Steve Rhodes in