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Tailor Muslim practices to fit life in America

By Ahmed Nassef / August 4, 2003


Omid Safi wanted to go the extra mile to make sure his children experienced an Islamic environment. So he and his family made the one-hour drive to their nearest Islamic Center in Syracuse, N.Y., every week, and he enrolled his son in Sunday school there.

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Only men were allowed to use the grand main entrance to the mosque. "Women have to use a back entrance right next to the trash dumpster and go down to the basement," Mr. Safi remembers. "It felt fake for me to go through the front door and for my wife to have to use the back entrance. After a while, I could not justify to my conscience continuing to go and sending my children there."

Safi, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Colgate University and author of "Progressive Muslims," stopped attending the mosque, and now counts his family and a small group of students as his spiritual community. His experience is not unique among Muslims in the United States - a population estimated at more than 6 million and often cited as the fastest growing religious group in the country.

This gulf between the highly conservative nature of most Muslim American institutions and the liberal views of many Muslims born and raised in America is reflected in issues such as the role of women and literalist readings of religious texts. It has sown the seeds for a progressive Muslim movement that is reinterpreting much of what the faith means and how it is reflected in daily life.

What Muslim Americans are going through is no different from the experiences of other faith communities that preceded them here. The success of the Conservative and Reform movements in the US as alternatives to Orthodox Judaism, for example, has transformed the meaning of the faith for millions of Jewish Americans.

Similarly, the increasing number of native-born Americans who are adopting the faith (constituting about one- third of the total Muslim American population) and Muslim Americans from recent immigrant backgrounds - so many of whom are far removed from their parents' and grandparents' immigrant experiences, with their particular cultural interpretations of Islam - are looking for an Islam that reflects their lives in America.

Increasingly, this is translating into a disengagement from existing Muslim institutions in the US and a search for alternate communities.

Practically all American mosques are led by people who have no academic training in Islam, or who have received their training from overseas Islamic academies. Most of these have been taken over by highly conservative elements aligned with the extremely conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam championed and funded by the Saudi Arabian monarchy. But progressive Muslims in America are taking their inspiration from Islamic scholars trained in Western universities who tend to be critical of authoritarian interpretations of Islam and who treat the real diversity of Muslim societies more inclusively.

Today, American mosques and advocacy groups, whose representatives are most commonly called on by the media to speak for Muslim Americans, reflect only a fraction of the larger Muslim American community.

A study on US mosques conducted in 2000 by four of the main Muslim American national organizations showed that 2 million of the estimated 6 million Muslim Americans attend Muslim religious institutions at least once or twice each year, and of those, just 411,060 attend mosques regularly. Even allowing for possible exaggeration and duplication - because the survey relied on mosque representatives for its information - the results still raise issues that most Muslim American organizations are afraid to tackle. The most obvious one is that two-thirds of Muslim Americans don't publicly participate even in the most minimal cultural manifestations of their faith (like a Roman Catholic who celebrates only Christmas Mass or a Jew who attends synagogue only during the High Holy Days).

In fact, America's traditional Muslim institutions are isolated from the daily reality of life in America.

For one thing, they continue to systematically exclude women from participation. Not only do practically all US mosques shut women out of the top leadership position, fully half of them either officially forbid women from serving on their governing boards or, in cases where there is no such specific prohibition, where women have not served on these boards over the past five years.

Women who do attend mosques and who aren't willing to fulfill traditional roles find it hard to participate actively. For Farah Nousheen, a young Muslim American filmmaker who just completed "Nazrah," a documentary on Muslim American women, her alienation reached such a level that, after searching through mosques in the Chicago and Seattle areas and finding the same stifling atmosphere, she decided to stop attending altogether. "My experience had a lot to do with being a woman in an environment where almost all the leadership were men. At prayers, women sat in a separate area with all the crying kids. It made me feel less important," says Ms. Nousheen, "There are a lot of people out there who feel like they don't belong."