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Cover Story

Islam, the American way

Islam in America: A new generation of Muslim Americans separate what is cultural, what is religious, and what is American, finding that the 'straight path' isn't the same path for all.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent / February 16, 2014

Football practice at 1 a.m. at a Michigan high school during Ramadan. Islam and the Muslim American way is the cover story project for the Feb. 17 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine.

Paul Sancya/AP/File

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Flint, Mich.; and Alexandria, Va.

Listening to immigration attorney Muna Jondy talk about growing up in Flint, Mich., it's easy to imagine her as a teenager, eyes ablaze, hands on hips, confronting her Syrian-born parents with her all-American attitude. A petite woman with a strong, expressive face, she sits cross-legged on her couch and leans forward to recount the day, at age 13, that she wanted to go to the movies with a friend.

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Ms. Jondy says her mother, a devout Muslim, responded "like I had asked to snort cocaine." She was incredulous, and Jondy recalls her asking: "Did you just ask that? Did you just say that out loud?"

Jondy had already started to cover her hair with a head scarf out of modesty. She never questioned the family's dietary restrictions. She prayed faithfully, and during Ramadan she fasted. But not go to the movies at the mall with her female friends? She balked: "Really? Is that Arab or is that Islam?"

Going to the movies is "just for loose people," her mother replied.

"Maybe in the Middle East way back in your day," Jondy thought.

She might be Arab by ethnicity, "but this does not define me," Jondy told herself. And ever since, she has parsed family beliefs, separating cultural expectations from religious tenets.

In this respect, Jondy is typical of the largest and fastest-growing demographic of Muslim Americans: the 59 percent who are between the ages of 18 and 39. This includes many who have come of age in the United States and are as culturally American as the 37 percent of adult Muslims who, like Jondy, were born here and are, in turn, raising American-born children.

Nevertheless, the perception of Muslim as "other" – and a dangerous or suspicious other, at that – persists, stoked by post-9/11 insecurities. One of the reasons is that most Americans know little about Islam and, in many cases, don't know a Muslim personally. When they do, stereotypes fall away, revealing a diverse and dynamic population that is doing what Americans have historically done: figuring out how to be themselves.

'Freakishly normal'

Lively and popular, Fatimah Popal didn't regard community service as an onerous requirement when she was in high school. She enjoyed spreading cheer in a local nursing home, organizing interfaith programs, and being part of trash pickup crews in parks.

But after "the horrible attacks of Sept. 11," her head scarf, or hijab, didn't just mark her as different from her predominantly Christian neighbors in rural Pennsylvania. It marked Ms. Popal – then a sophomore – as suspect. "Are you bin Laden's wife?" a schoolmate hissed at her in the schoolyard.

The slur was an isolated and minor incident, she says, but no less alienating. And statistics show that, far from dying off, this and worse kinds of Islamophobia have persisted, fueled by the acts of an extremist Muslim fringe that uses radical interpretations of Islamic Scriptures to justify the murder of Americans as enemies of Islam. They include some US-born Muslims such as Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist whose shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 left 12 dead and 31 wounded. To extremists worldwide, they are heroes. To the majority of Muslim Americans, they are what Popal calls "wackos."

According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 89 percent of Muslims in the US said that individuals or small groups were never justified in targeting and killing civilians, significantly more than the 71 percent of Protestants or Roman Catholics who thought this. Muslims were also the least inclined to think such acts were even "sometimes justified" – 11 percent compared with 27 percent of Catholics and 26 percent of Protestants.

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