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The New Islam

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

Photo from Newsweek

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 institutions.

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 publishing business.

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'," she says.

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 Chicago



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