Islamic Family Values Simmer in a US Melting Pot

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Lamis Andoni

AS last summer's Fourth of July fireworks burst above a Midwestern town, dozens of Muslim families were mixed in the crowd - gazing up at the explosions of color.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a town of corn and Quaker Oats, a place where the minivan is king and locals hang out at a neon-lit Donutland. It also has the oldest mosque in America, built by Lebanese immigrants in the 1930s. Most Muslim families in Cedar Rapids today are successful and assimilated, and prefer it that way. They play golf and shoot pool, and, as on that midsummer night, they take the kids to McDonald's after fireworks, where they succumb to urgent pleas for Batman cups.

While these Muslims see family in terms of the American dream, it is also a central part of the practice of Islam. In a secular culture, those two approaches are not always compatible. Marriage, raising children, gender relations, and community make special demands on the Muslim in America.

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"Family is one of the biggest challenges," says Jamal Tibi, a father and prayer leader here. "We are in a melting pot; but we don't want our identity to melt."

"I will have a huge problem if [my son] marries a non-Muslim," says an owner of a printing plant. "I will do everything I can to stop it."

Whether assimilated or newly arrived, many Muslims in America are returning to Islamic ideals of family. Devout followers of Islam or not, many desire a stronger sense of family and want to impart to their children the conservative social values they identify with a Muslim heritage.

For Muslims, family and identity are intertwined in ways that Americans, with a more individualistic bent, may not recognize. Yet the traditional Muslim family ideal is also creating strains among American Muslims, especially among those less well-off economically.

Imam balks at television

In Sharon, Mass., for example, devout Muslims at a rural Islamic center gather for a special family-values "forum." These Muslims are less at ease in America than those in Iowa; most have been here fewer than 15 years and their faces are those of working people. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the room as a white-robed imam from Yemen, speaking in Arabic, states that children should be kept from TV unless the programming is Islamic.

Many nod, but not all. Outside, a woman tells a female reporter: "These men are not bringing up children in this country. I'm not sure they know what we are dealing with."

One mother submits a written question to the imam (women are not allowed to speak) about sons who play sports instead of joining in the mosque activities. "They are outside playing basketball right now!" states the exasperated note.

No doubt, one of those on the court is Khalid. Age 13, Khalid attends the prestigious Boston Latin school and confides that he someday wants to be a wide receiver in the National Football League.

Khalid negotiates the strict beliefs of his family and the peer culture he lives in with some savvy. He follows, for example the developments of the two-career athlete Deion Sanders. He knows all about the star's jump last summer from the Cincinnati Reds to the San Francisco Giants, his batting average, and that Mr. Sanders played football for the San Francisco 49ers. "I think it's a good trade," he says.

Both liberal and conservative Muslims offer a family vision that sometimes seems like an Islamic Norman Rockwell painting. Muslims see family in ways similar to orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians. They set themselves against the sirens of popular culture. They are trying to build a support network that offers the best of what they remember in their home countries.

"In Jordan, my dad never sat with me and discussed Islam. We left the teaching to the culture," says Maher Sayyed, owner of an Orlando, Fla., marketing firm. "Here, I have to provide an atmosphere for my son. He will grow up seeing his father praying and mentioning God."

Much of the Koran, its interpretations, and especially the strong invisible hand of Muslim cultural tradition deal with family behavior. Muslims are fond of saying Islam is a "complete" religion; marriage, for example, is described by the Prophet as "half the faith." For devout Muslims, religious laws relate directly to prospects for life in the hereafter.

Familiar commandments

Muslim families accept the Mosaic Ten Commandments. Respect for parents, no adultery (or premarital sex), and other rules are familiar to many Americans.

Other demands are less familiar. Strictly speaking, a Muslim should not accept or charge credit or interest - which makes home buying difficult. Daughters should not marry a non-Muslim or live away from home in a non-Muslim setting until married - a problem during college years. Men and women should not date or go to parties that are mixed or where alcohol is served. The list goes on.

"In high school you were the ugly duckling," says a woman from a relatively liberal family. "What did you do about the prom? No dating ... you were under tremendous pressure."

The question is: How much accommodation can a Muslim family make? Because most immigrants came to America for economic reasons, the accommodations have been numerous. Some Muslims obtain rulings from scholarly councils that reinterpret them. Many ignore them.

Yet, particularly on male-female relations, it's safe to say that Muslims are always aware of a powerful set of norms, even if they do not adhere to them. "I worry about it all the time," says a devout Muslim at the Sharon, Mass., family-values event. "I have a daughter age 2. How can I send her to public school, where they talk about condoms? No way."

Experience shows that Muslim identity has a better chance of developing once a community is established. A new alliance between New York Muslims and Jews in Borough Park in Brooklyn makes the point. Muslims and Jews in that neighborhood share orthodox values, and they have worked together to drive out crime, drugs, and prostitution.

Despite the ideal picture Muslims often present of family, there is growing evidence of more divorce, marriage outside the faith, the ignoring of Islamic rules, generational anger, and sibling strife. Problems range from teenage "hell raising" to serious charges of adultery, incest, and spouse abuse - as with any group.

"Until recently, Muslims used to proudly talk to their non-Muslim friends about their strong family values," says Riaz Khan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "Regrettably, this is rapidly changing. The number of instances of domestic violence in many Muslim communities is steadily rising."

While Muslim numbers are growing and an Islamic awakening is under way, tensions are also rising in the Muslim community. Many women, for example, resist pressure to wear the hijab, a head covering.

"A lot more people are coming to Islam. But a lot are also leaving," says Anis Shivani, a young Pakistani economist who recently shifted from strict to liberal views of Islam."Many people don't want to put up with the family bickering, and don't want to make all the sacrifices."

Role of women

Perhaps the most sensitive family issue is the role of women - both in the marriage and the community.

In the US especially, Muslims encourage each other to marry. Partly this is to avoid temptations of alcohol and adultery. Many men still prefer wives who are obedient and who have not adopted Western attitudes. They go back to home countries for mates - or marry recent arrivals. "Less risk that way," says one.

In Islam, men and women are ideally equal - meaning wives must be provided for and do not have to work if they choose not to. In Islamic countries, this ideal has been interpreted by men to give them control. The man often decides that the wife will stay at home - though she often rules the roost, and her husband, with complete authority.

In America, such traditional views cause tensions. Women confide that it's a sign of status inside the community for a wife to "behave traditionally." This often means to cover the head, stay at home, and obey the man's decisions on family questions in a non-Islamic setting.

Sometimes male domination is machismo, sometimes genuine faith. But it can also be reinforced by the community. In one mosque, a political maneuver was being planned on the basis that two daughters of one leader had married non-Muslims. "He should lose his status in the community," said the planner.

Still, the male role is being challenged. Muslim women here participate more in the mosque, economic life, and family decisions. (Several attribute this to their non-Muslim sisters in America.) The more established a Muslim community, the more women participate. Women, for instance, are tending to take over the administration of Sunday schools.

"If Muslim women were treated only 50 percent of the way the Prophet asked, we would be making [more] progress," says Shireen Jaouni, a graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park.

But many Muslim couples feel the issue of inequality in marriage is a false one, imposed by a liberal American outlook. The idea that Muslim women are "slaves that only cook and make babies" is offensive to Sam Wahab, a businessman in Orlando. "There is more freedom for women in our houses than anything Americans understand. We let them rule the house. They protect us."

Taha and Aida Tawil's marriage in Cedar Rapids shows some of that dynamic. Taha is a local imam and father of four who says Muslims are returning to Islam because "they are sick and tired of drugs and violence. They want the father to sit with the children and the mother cooking and ruling the home."

Yet his wife, Aida, is hardly a homebody. Sharp, outspoken, quick with jokes, she goes to college part-time and wins most of the negotiations with Taha. "I admit," she says, "in America, women are getting their rights in a full sense; more than in the Middle East. In America, Islamic women are more aware of their rights - and their duties."

*Staff writer Suman Bandrapalli contributed to these articles.

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