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Islamic Family Values Simmer in a US Melting Pot

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Lamis Andoni / January 29, 1996



CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA

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.

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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.

"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.