The Muslim mainstream
Islam 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.