Fall 2006, Vol. 9, No. 2

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From the Editor:
The Pope Provokes

Muslims in America

As We Forgive Those...

Polygamy Returns

At Cross Purposes in San Diego

The Passion of the DUI

Maybe the Center Holds After All


Muslims in America:
Feeling the Pressure

Andrew Walsh

    As Agence France Presse sees it, things have gotten pretty grim for American Muslims in the five years since the Al Qaida attacks on New York and Washington.

“Discrimination and harassment by law enforcement have come to plague American Muslims,” Mira Oberman reported from Dearborn, Michigan on September 3. “There have been suspicious looks, slurs, physical attacks, extra screening at airports and arrests on groundless charges. And it seems to be getting worse.”

The piece was triggered by a Council on American Islamic Relations report released in early September that indicated a 30 percent jump in complaints by American Muslims of incidents of harassment, violence, and discriminatory behavior between 2004 and 2005.

As the fifth anniversary of 9/11 crept up, there was also a remarkable surge in journalistic interest in the lives of American Muslims, with hundreds of stories published or broadcast by outlets all over the nation. In recent years, the only comparable outpouring came immediately after the attacks, when many American newspapers and broadcast outlets produced very ambitious series on Islam in America and in the world.

In September, for example, the Washington Post, the Denver Post, the St. Petersburg Times, National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Houston Chronicle all published or broadcast multi-day series on American Muslims, often calling them “9/11: Five Years Later.”

Little of this reporting mirrored the bleak tenor of the AFP dispatch. (In fact, Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle published a column on September 10 under the non-facetious-headline, “Why you should hug a Muslim.” Casey emphasized the loyalty of Houston’s large Muslim community and closed his column by quoting one local Muslim leader who said, “If a terrorist group gets active, you don’t think it will be Joe White Guy who will turn them in, do you?”)

The current situation is different from and more complicated than other war time moments, such as the broad attack on German culture and identity that took place during World War I, or the incarceration of Japanese-Americans that took place during World War II.

It took only a month, for example, for California newspapers to go from vouching for the loyalty of that state’s Japanese-Americans to universal endorsement of the practice of expropriation and preventive detention for the state’s entire Japanese-American population. By contrast, in five years President Bush has moved only from describing Islam as a “religion of peace” to the point where he argues that “Islamic fascists” have infected some portions of the world’s Muslim population.

And yet, it is clear that these are challenging times to be a Muslim in America. Pervasively, Muslims report a sense of pressure, tension, and suspicion. USA Today reporter Marilyn Ellis’ August 10 piece, for example, focused on the psychological costs of the situation. It ran under the headline, “USA’s Muslims are under fire; Harassment, discrimination rise after 9/11, leaving many feeling ostracized.”

Ellis began her story by describing the recent experiences of 28-year-old Motaz ElShafi, a New Jersey-born and bred software engineer, who opened an office email message from a colleague at Cisco Systems in North Carolina and found the salutation: “Dear Terrorist.” The message went on to condemn the terrorist bombing of commuter trains in Mumbai, India.

 “I was furious,” ElShafi told Ellis. “What did I have to do with this violence?”

From Ohio came similar reports. A Cleveland Plain-Dealer report on Arab-American life published on September 10 began with two teenagers’ account of their experiences of hearing the news of the attack on the World Trade Center. “It was during second-period science class,” Shady Herbawi, now 18, told reporter Robert L. Smith. “All I remember is all the faces turning and looking at me.”

Many in Ohio experienced a tremendous sense of loss in the period following the attacks on New York and Washington. “We were accepted, respected,” Naila Assad told Smith, noting that she spoke “as if recalling a former place.” Freddie Ahmad, a Palestinian-American pharmacist told Smith: “You worry. You worry. Every 9/11 you get an ulcer.”

The 9/11 bombings rattled him and many others, Sharihar Ahmed told Jerry F. Boone of the Portland Oregonian in a story published September 13. “Right after the bombings we were scared. I think every one of us was afraid in a different way.”

“If I went to the airport, I didn’t know how to act,” said Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque in suburban Beaverton. “I felt like everyone was looking at me. If I smiled, I thought they would think I was up to something. If I didn’t smile maybe they thought I was planning something. Should I make eye contact? Or not? Should I say hello or just be quiet?”

But an important part of Ahmed’s 9/11 experience worked in the opposite direction—the unexpected positive response of many Oregonians who wanted to reassure Muslims. “Members of other churches reached out to us, offering support and encouragement. Instead of feeling threatened, we felt protected.”

ElShafi, the Cisco engineer, told USA Today something similar. His company asked the emailing counterterrorist to apologize and ElShafi said that part of his 9/11 experience was the support of co-workers. “After 9/11 people would say, ‘Don’t worry Taz, we’ve got your back.’”

Law enforcement officials get a much weaker vote of confidence from Muslims, however. Among the most common complaints, especially among men, has been the way they have been targeted by various post-9/11 security regimes, especially at airports. Azhar Usman, a successful Muslim standup comic, told the St. Petersburg Times on September 16 that he needs to arrive at the airport a month in advance to get through preflight security. (The best joke in Usman’s Muslim schtick: “I’m a Muslim, but I am an American Muslim. In fact, I consider myself a very patriotic American Muslim, which means I would die for this country by blowing myself up.”)

Many other Muslim leaders told journalists of similar delays and problems at U.S. airports and borders. Others had harsher tales to tell, like 20-year-old, American-born Osama Abulhassan, the son of Lebanese immigrants, who told Agence France Presse that in July he was arrested in Ohio when he and a friend were reported to authorities for buying a large number of pre-paid cell phones. After a week in jail, they were released and all charges dropped.

“We’re still proud to be Americans and of our heritage, but you experience something like that it’s going to change you the way you see things,” he said. “It makes us feel, not hatred…I’ve lost confidence in the justice system in general and the way things are done here.”

In Oregon, Muslims remember the arrest of convert Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer who was arrested by FBI agents who told reporters that Mayfield’s fingerprints were found at the scene of some of the Madrid bombings in 2004. The government later released Mayfield with an apology after admitting that his finger prints didn’t match those found at the scene. “After Brandon was arrested people really pulled back,” Jamal AbuSneineh of the Bilal Mosque told the Oregonian. “Attendance at the mosque really fell off. It’s come back now, but people are still on edge.”

At the murkier end of things are government prosecutions that have led to terrorism convictions of American residents in Buffalo and Washington, among other places. In the Washington case, in particular, it was clear that federal prosecutors are taking a very aggressive stance against suspected terrorists, filing charges and pressing for very lengthy sentences against suspects long before any of them took concrete action.

Mary Beth Sheridan of the Washington Post anatomized one such case in a lengthy piece that ran on page one on September 3 under the headline: “Hardball Tactics in an Era of Threats: To the government, they were a terrorist risk in the Washington area. To local Muslims they were unfairly singled out for prosecution and severe sentences in a post 9/11 world.”

Sheridan’s story focused on Ali Asad Chandia, a 29-year-old third grade teacher from suburban Maryland, who was the 11th man convicted of being a member of a terrorist network constructed by a local Islamist imam named Ali al-Timini, now serving a life sentence.

Members of al-Timini’s circle at the Dar al-Arqam mosque in suburban Falls Church, including Chandia, spent time in Pakistan after 9/11, where they were connected with a Pakistani group called Laskar-e-Taiba, which aims to drive India out of Kashmir. After training with Laskar-e-Taiba, the Dar al-Arqam group was added the American list of terrorist organizations.

Chandia, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was never linked to any concrete plans to conduct any sort of terror against the United States. Instead, he was charged with conspiracy and other crimes for doing favors for Laskar operatives visiting Washington—picking them up at the airport, letting them use his computer, and, most of all, mailing 21 boxes of paintball cartridges (which might be used in military training) to Pakistan. He also had radical Muslim texts and compact disks in his possession when arrested.

Sheridan reported that federal prosecutors said they wanted to send a message “of zero tolerance for terrorism-related” activities. “Did we break something up? Yeah, we think we did,” an unnamed law enforcement official told Sheridan. “But we would not profess to say we have anything more than the potential for it.”

As punishment for potential terrorism, prosecutors sought a sentence of 30 years to life for Chandia, which left many Washington area Muslims aghast. Sheridan quoted Paul J. McCarthy, the deputy U.S. attorney general, as describing the “preventive prosecutions” as an alternative preferable to “awaiting an attack.”

The aggressive use of informers and trying to induce some suspects to testify against their colleagues in exchange for greatly reduced sentences are hardly new. Such tactics were used relentlessly to dismantle the Black Panthers, the Ku Klux Klan, and anti-war activist organizations during the 1960s and 1970s. But they have come as a shock to many Muslims. (Three of the men accused of going to the Laskar training camp were induced to plead guilty and testify against the others. They served three-year terms.)

“He mailed something. So what?” a woman whose sons studied in Chandia’s third grade class told the Post. “If this is how you deliver justice, you lose trust in the justice system,” protested her husband, Muddasar Ahmed.

Many journalists reported on these sorts of strains and fears among Muslims about American justice,
but several other broad trends also popped up.

American journalists were very interested in comparing the American Muslim community with those in Europe, given that Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Spain have all experienced some combination of terror bombings, acts of rebellion, or powerful disaffection among their Muslim minorities.

No one sees much activism in Muslim America. “It’s worth keeping in mind that America’s Muslim community is strikingly different from those in Britain and the rest of Europe,” Peter Skerry wrote in the August 21 edition of Time. “American Muslims tend to be university-educated professionals living in the suburbs,” not impoverished folk jammed into enclaves in European cities.

“The U.S. Muslim community is less likely to breed disaffection. In fact, it’s probably the most diverse in the world, haling from many parts of the globe, speaking numerous languages and practicing several different versions of Islam.”

“A major difference is that America is used to being a nation of immigrants, while Europe, for most of the 19th and early 20th century was a net exporter of people, mostly to the New World,” H.D.S. Greenway wrote in his May 20 Boston Globe column. “Europeans cannot quite accept that they are now a target for immigrants in the way the United States has long been.”

The Economist chipped in by pointing to America’s “aggressive tolerance of religious difference and of public displays of faith.”

It is also clear that American Muslims have responded to the post 9/11 atmosphere by drastically increasing their presence in the American public square—not that their pre-9/11 profile had been all that low.

In November of 2004, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported that Muslim organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations were successfully ramping up, noting that the organization’s Washington office had doubled its annual budget to $3 million since 2001 and that the number of state branches had increased from nine to 29 over the same period. Over the same period, the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council increased its budget from $300,000 to $1 million.

A September 8 story by Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Muslim Americans reassess how they portray their faith in public,” hit another note that sounded frequently in recent journalism. Members of a “diverse, reclusive, and largely immigrant community” were taking personal initiatives to show their neighbors who they are and what they believe,” Sahagun wrote.

“With people being arrested left and right and negative images of Muslims filling the news, I told my sons to keep a low profile,” said Zubeida Khan, a 49 year-old housewife and immigrant from India who lives in La Hambra Heights. But she decided that she herself had to become an Islamic outreach worker in community politics, participating in door-to-door campaigns for city council candidates, serving on a city budget advisory committee, and joining a local hospital board of trustees, as well as the Muslim Public Affairs council.

“In becoming more assertive in the public arena, I’ve made a statement about who I am at a time when a few unreasonable radicals have high-jacked public attention,” Khan told Sahagun. “We have to make it loud and clear to other Muslims and our communities that we stick to the principles of the Koran and the life of the prophet.”

In many places a pragmatic streak about what it takes to be successful in America is on display.

“As Muslims often put it,” Peter Skerry wrote in his Time column, “‘This is how America treats its minorities. But they overcame it, and so will we.’ In other words, Muslims never sound so American as when asserting their rights against government policies they consider unjust.”

“We need to stop being so isolated. We need to contact our neighbors and tell them we are Muslim,” Imam Abdul Wahid, whose Friday sermon was quoted on September 6 in the San Antonio News-Express. “We need to talk to our neighbors. There is an uncomfortable feeling that it creates when you remain isolated.”

Azhar Usman, the Muslim comic, agreed, telling the St. Petersburg Times that “9/11 was a wakeup call for me personally and for the American Muslim community to stop being lazy in terms of avoiding talking about the hard issues in our community.”

Among the hard issues felt in many American communities is the question of what will become of the second generation of immigrant Muslim-Americans. The general consensus is that many of this generation are feeling the tug of Islam, and struggling to find a way to live more fully as Muslims than many of their parents. (Not that this is something new under the sun for American immigrants—it was also common among Catholics in 19th century America.)

“A new generation of American Muslims—living in the shadow of the September 11, 2001 attacks—is becoming more religious,” Genevieve Abdo, author of the recently published book, “Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11,” wrote in the Washington Post August 27. “They are more likely to take comfort in their own communities, and less likely to embrace the nation’s fabled melting pot of shared values and common culture.”

Some of the more interesting reporting explored the terrain of choices for the young. For example, a news feature story by Tara Bahrampour of the Washington Post published on September 4 compared the experiences of two young Muslim men in the Washington area.

Amin Al-Sharaf, a George Washington University student and leader of the local Muslim Students Association, wants dialogue with American culture and thinks it is necessary to confront radical Islam. He described his parent’s generation as nervous about politics and said they point their children toward engineering or medicine.

“They say going into politics is dangerous, you’ll get corrupted, you’ll lose your religion,” Al-Sharaf told Bahrampour. He is now in law school after a summer working at the state department.

The other man featured was Basim Hawa, a 27-year-old software consultant and the son of Palestinian immigrants. He returned to strict Muslim observance after a foray into hedonistic American life during high school and college.

In those days, Hawa told Bahrampour, he “hung out with friends, went out a lot, went out to clubs, and dated, and partied… I never had doubt of my religion, but it just wasn’t on my mind a lot.” That changed when he signed up for a pilgrimage to Mecca sponsored by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in 2002. 

The experience of the haj, surrounded by 3 million other Muslims, was transformational. “I never stepped back into a club; I never stepped back into a casino; I never touched alcohol; I never dated or approached a girl.”

Another “issue story” that came up frequently in recent months focused on the Muslim practice of women covering their heads with scarves as an expression of piety and modesty. These scarves, it turns out, can be remarkably provocative to American non-Muslims and lead to surprising confrontations and even to what is often perceived as job discrimination.

In northern California, one Muslim woman told Genevieve Adbo that deciding to wear a hijab was part of her spiritual renewal. “After I covered, I changed. I felt I wanted to give people a good impression of Islam. I wanted people to know how happy I am to be a Muslim. But that’s not always the message that other Americans receive.”

In 2003, Adbo wrote, the woman was shopping in a supermarket and the man standing next to her in the vegetable section turned abruptly and said, “You’d be much more beautiful without that thing on your head. It’s demeaning to women.”

Jafumba Assad, a 32-year-old community college teacher in Tulsa, told Marilyn Ellis of USA Today of a far more frightening confrontation. In a Wal-Mart parking lot, “two men approached her and aggressively shouted ‘Y’all ought to be f---ing locked up.’ Pregnant at the time, she quickly backed away and then realized there were parked cars behind her.” She cowered there, worried that she was about to be attacked, but the men walked away.

National Public Radio’s Judy Woodruff found herself in the suburban Chicago living room of two young sisters after shopping for a brown head-scarf with the girls for her report, “The Inner Journey of Young Muslims in America,” broadcast on September 15. She asked the Boundaouis sisters how many headscarves they owned (110) and why they wear them.

The sisters said they each had made an individual choice to wear the hijab (their mother does, but her sisters don’t) and that they like to joke about what they call the hijab tax. “Because before we go out anywhere, like whatever, just going to the store, our mom’s always telling us, ‘You’re representing. You’re representing,’” Iman Boundaoui said. “You’re wearing the scarf. Everybody looks at you.”

Neil MacFarquhar, newly reassigned from the New York Times’ Cairo Bureau to a new beat covering American Muslims, produced a hijab story as one of his first efforts, headlined, “A Simple Scarf, But Meaning Much More Than Faith.”

The post 9/11 period has been most difficult for the small group of American Muslims associated with the strict and intense reform movement called Salafism. Ali al-Timini and Ali Asad Chandia of the Northern Virginia jihad network were Washington Salafis, but the movement is far larger than just the Islamist fringe. Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post wrote an excellent exploration of the crisis of the Salafi movement, published on page one on September 5.

“Salafis are the fundamentalists of the Muslim world,” Ihsan Baby, a professor of the Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky told her. “Just as Christian fundamentalists are focused on who’s going to heaven and hell, who’s the true believer and who’s the non-believer, Salafis are really focused on belief.”

Murphy opened her story by describing a debate among a group of seventh and eighth grade girls who go to the Al-Huda School of the Dar-us-Salaam mosque on the question: “Is a segregated, all-Islamic upbringing the key to protecting your Muslim identity?” Eight of the dozen agree that it was, reflecting the Salafi sense that true believers should live apart from the non-Muslim community as much as possible.

Murphy noted that most Salafis are apolitical and that Salafism was not merely the project of Islamists like al-Timini. The Saudi government had been vigorously promoting Salafism in the United States until it shut down a program in January at the request of the state department.

For Salafis, intense discussion continues about how compatible their brand of faith is with America. Murphy quoted the recorded lectures of Safi Kahn, the American-born imam of Dar-us-Salaam mosque in suburban College Park, Maryland, on this point.

“Young Muslims in particular must be aware of the dangers to their faith, Khan says, ‘because youth is the time when there are a lot of temptations…when all these Ivy League universities try to take you to brainwash you into the way they want you to grow up, the way they want you to think.’ It is the time ‘that all of America, all of the West, tries to concentrate on you…because once they control you…then they have you for the rest of your life, you think like them.’”

At the same time, there are powerful Muslim impulses to avoid Muslim fundamentalism.  Writing in the June 18 New York Times, Laurie Goodstein called attention to the work of two highly influential American imams Sheik Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zid Shakir—both American converts—who praise what they call “the rejectionist generation” of young Muslims who seek an authentic and cosmopolitan middle path between modernism and fundamentalism.

Based at the Zaytuna Institute in San Francisco, they preach a message that “both Islam and America have gone seriously astray, and that American Muslims have a responsibility to harness their growing numbers and economic power to help set them straight,” Goodstein wrote.

Yusuf and Shakir stand for an intellectualy rigorous form of orthodox Islam rooted in scripture study and in the sense that the faith preserves several diverse intellectual streams, Goodstein wrote. The Zaytuna Institute is an evolving Muslim educational center that stages very popular “mobile madrasses” that attract hundreds of young Muslim professionals on the West Coast and in cities like Houston and is struggling to build the first American Muslim seminary in Hayward, Calfornia.

Yusuf’s “diagnosis of the problem with Islam today is that its followers lack religious knowledge,” Goodstein wrote. “Islam, like Judaism, is based on scripture and law that has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and debated for centuries by scholars who inspired four schools of Islamic jurisprudence….Mr. Yusuf laments that many of the seminaries that once flourished in the Muslim world are now either gone or intellectually dead. Now, he said, the sharpest Muslim students go into technical fields like engineering, not religion.”

And there is still more ferment among American Muslims, including plenty of stuff to make Salafis and other conservatives batten down the hatches. Last year, Amina Haduda, an African-American Muslim woman who teaches Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led salat prayers in New York City, to great controversy.

Beyond the transgressing of traditional women’s roles lies the whole wild realm of North American hybrid culture. Over the summer, the Religion News Service moved a story about a search on the Internet by gay Muslim men interested in lesbian partners for marriages of convenience that would keep their families happy and keep other Muslims off their backs.

Then there’s “taqwacore,” the product of a “new breed of American Muslims,” described by documentary film maker Omar Majeed in the September 11 Montreal Gazette. It blends orthodox Islam and punk rock and is spreading in appeal among young North American Muslims.

According to Majeed, taqwacore (the root word means “God consciousness” in Arabic) springs from a popular novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, a 27 year-old  American convert educated in a Pakistani madrassa, whose novel depicts a world of “burqa-wearing feminists leading prayer, spunky mohawked punkers and holy pranksters.”

“Stories like these help me regain some of that childhood sense of integration,” Majeed wrote. “If punk and Islam can find a way to intersect, then maybe anything is possible. Out of divorced cultures may come new marriages.”




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