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.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
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.
Sources: Pew Research, Gallup/Graphic: Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

Yet the stereotype of Muslims as violent extremists lives on, says Mahmoud Abdel-Baset of the Islamic Center of Southern California, because everybody is fascinated by "the sheer outrageous nature of the things [terrorists] do. In the news, you only see the shocking things."

One reason is that it sells. Witness the ongoing success of "Homeland," a Showtime series in which Islamic extremists plot the demise of Americans. A stark contrast to that is the reality TV show "All-American Muslim," in which five families plod through everyday life situations. Fouad Zaban coaches high school football and wrestles with how to keep his team fit when most players are fasting for Ramadan. (Answer: Schedule practices after sundown.) The Amen family is divided over the prospect of unmarried Suehaila pursuing a career away from home, while snazzy Nina Bazzy dreams out loud of opening her own nightclub. The series lasted only one season, partly because its protagonists, as a New York Times reviewer put it, came "across as almost freakishly normal."

Indeed, a 2011 Pew Research Center study found that Muslims don't differ much from the general US population. They tend to be younger, less likely to divorce, and more conservative when it comes to such things as homosexuality. But overall, Pew statistics show that the country's estimated 2.75 million to 7 million Muslims mirror general American traits and attitudes:

•55 percent of Muslims are married, as is 54 percent of the general US population.

•26 percent have a college degree, as do 28 percent of their fellow Americans.

•20 percent, like 17 percent of all Americans, are self-employed or own small businesses.

•American Muslim predilections are about the same as the general population's in such areas as watching TV (58 percent of Muslims versus 62 percent of the general population), following sports (48 percent versus 47 percent), and playing video games (18 percent versus 19 percent).

•90 percent of Muslims in the US agree that women should be able to work outside the home, and 68 percent feel gender makes no difference in political leaders (versus 97 percent and 72 percent in the US generally).

•Weekly mosque attendance (47 percent) is comparable to Christian church attendance (45 percent), and a majority of Muslims (63 percent) and Christians (64 percent) see no conflict between being devout and living in modern society.

•35 percent of Muslims along with 30 percent of Christians believe their religion is the only true path; this is slightly higher (38 percent) among US-born Muslims but significantly lower than evangelical Christians (51 percent).

•49 percent of Muslims identified first with their faith over nationality, as did 46 percent of Christians.

Moreover, Muslims run the gamut in occupations – from doctors to software gurus, grocers to taxi drivers, engineers to entrepreneurs. Ethnically, they are Arab, African, South and Southeast Asian, African-American, Hispanic, European, even East and Central Asian. Though most are Sunni (65 percent) and some Shiite (11 percent), the sects and schools of thought in and outside these branches can be as distinct as Southern Baptists are from Catholics.

As one might expect with any population, the level of practice is also mixed. While researching "Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity," anthropologist Shabana Mir found that members of Muslim Student Associations ranged from the highly devout to women who drink alcohol, go clubbing, and date. By the same token, many nonpracticing Muslims fasted during Ramadan and celebrated Eid, in the same way that some nonobservant Jews participate in Passover seders or some Christians show up at church only for Easter services.

The American-ness of diversity

This very diversity is, in and of itself, American.

"The only thing all Americans share is their citizenship," as Abdullahi An-Naim, author of "What is an American Muslim?," points out. A professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta, Mr. An-Naim says that he has far more in common with his liberal colleagues than with fellow Somali Muslim immigrants.

It used to be that, politically, African-American Muslims were "more concerned about civil liberties, minority rights, and those kinds of things," says Muslim Republican political strategist Mohammed Alo. Muslim immigrants, though, cared more about foreign policy.

But, as the immigrants' American-born children experience discrimination, they are increasingly finding common ground with their African-American peers. And as both groups raise families in the only home they have ever known, they want better schools, improved infrastructure, fair taxes, "pretty much what all Americans care about," Mr. Alo says.

Thus the concerns of Nasrin Rahman – a native of Bangladesh who has lived in Baltimore for 30 years – coincide more than ever with those of African-American convert Makéda Abdullah. They have never met, but they echo each other as they tell of raising daughters in a culture in which dating and tank tops – unacceptable to both – are the norm.

Today, only one of Ms. Rahman's daughters wears a hijab; the other, like Ms. Abdullah's child, has decided not to.

"It's between her and God," says Rahman.

Independently, the mothers say that they would never press their daughters on this issue – as long as they, says Rahman, "take the straight path."

Hijab litmus test

This is not always easy, and determining what is the straight Islamic path is ultimately highly individual. When chef Ismail Samad moved from his native Cleveland to his wife's hometown of Putney, Vt., for example, he had to figure out how to raise money to open a restaurant. The son of African-American converts to Islam, he is "100 percent Muslim," he says, weighing every decision in light of his faith. "We have a book," he says, referring to the Quran. "It is the best guide."

But like all Scriptures, the Quran is subject to interpretation. Some Islamic scholars say it is acceptable to pay interest on a loan but not receive it. Others believe the Quran only condemns usurious practices, while yet others say it prohibits all transactions involving interest.

After much study and reflection, Mr. Samad sided with the latter. So, he pursued no bank loan. Instead, he discovered "a community-supported restaurant model which happened to fit with my morals," he says. He shares ownership of The Gleanery with two non-Muslim partners who did, however, insist he accept credit cards. Samad asks forgiveness with every swipe.

In all other aspects, however, his restaurant conforms to his understanding of Islam. "My partners went in knowing that we could be making a third more on each dining room ticket if we served alcohol," he says. Instead, they agreed to a BYOB policy, and Samad gives them the corking charge proceeds "so that my share will not come out of those types of sales."

Also, there is no pork on The Gleanery's menu, only meat Samad considers halal along with produce from nearby farms' surpluses, which the restaurant also cans and sells. "A core principle of Islam," Samad says, "is you don't waste food."

Back in Cleveland, his parents are very proud of their son's choices, but they don't agree on everything. Samad, for instance, does not join them for Thanksgiving. He believes the prophet Muhammad instructed followers only to celebrate the Eids that mark the end of Ramadan and the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca.

Jondy, the Detroit lawyer, has also come to different conclusions from those of her siblings. As a community activist and indefatigable volunteer in Flint, Jondy's older sister wears a full-length robe known as jilbab and demurs from shaking hands with men, adhering to Islam's injunction not to touch anyone one could legally marry. Jondy, however, felt "not crisp" stepping before a judge to argue a case in the loose-flowing jilbab.

"Obviously it would be more modest to wear a tent," she says, "but Islam does not require us to look foreign." So Jondy kept the hijab but wears conservative suits. She also shakes hands with men. Refusing an extended hand, she believes, can send a hurtful signal, and for her "that is not Islam." But she avoids hugging men, signaling through body language that she prefers not to.

In Hamdan Azhar's world, the choices are different. He is 26, works in Manhattan, and, with his short-cropped beard and trendy glasses, looks very much at home in a popular coffee shop in New York's SoHo district. In college, he says, he was "more rigidly observant," carving out a teetotal alternative to the campus party scene.

Today, he works as a statistician, but he also blogs and freelances for print and radio. He is active in the Muslim Young Professionals ("Muppies") and is one of the Muslim Hipsters (or "Mipsterz"). So what happens now when friends and colleagues go out to a bar? He joins them. "But," he says, "I still don't drink. We all have ... lines we don't cross."

Since there is no overt sign that Mr. Azhar is Muslim, people might assume he just doesn't like alcohol. Women who cover, however, are obviously Muslim. When Sarah Ali meets colleagues she's dealt with via e-mail and phone, they're often taken aback. Born in Texas and raised in St. Louis, Ms. Ali speaks her mind and is quick to laugh, sometimes with delight at the effect she is having. "You're Sarah?!" colleagues exclaim, not expecting a woman who loops a scarf over her head, Pakistani-style.

An economist at the US Department of Agriculture, Ali, too, has had surprises since moving to the East Coast. At a professional gathering with fellow Muslims, she was taken aback when bearded men – her signal for conservative – extended their hand to shake hers. Or when, on Facebook, she noticed women who cover – hijabis – supporting same-sex marriage. She'd unconsciously assumed fellow hijabis would share her belief that homosexuality is a sin. Instead, she reports that some say, "No, I don't think it's a big deal; I think it should be legalized."

She also discovered that some women who don't cover their hair are as devout and as committed to Islam as she is.

"Now," she says, "I never use [the hijab] as a litmus test." Ironically, though, many eligible Muslim men seem to. Some privately admit that they assume a hijabi might feel uncomfortable talking to an unrelated male, so they don't initiate conversation. This is proving so frustrating, says Farah Ali, Sarah's sister, that she occasionally debates shedding her head scarf. A professor of Spanish at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, she wonders if this might render her more approachable – but would it make it more difficult to attract a devout Muslim man?

And would she feel guilty? Not too long ago she went to hear a renowned Islamic scholar speak. In answer to a question, the scholar said that it was OK for a woman to travel alone if she were doing it for work. But, "he also said it's probably best for women to avoid that line of work," Farah Ali adds. "I felt a pain." She and her sister like taking trips without the protective presence of a male relative, though they always stay at the homes of relatives and friends. "So am I going against my religion?"

Suddenly visible after 9/11

In African-American communities, "Muslim people, we were always the good people – the family people, who were praying, who were law-abiding," says Aisha Samad, mother of the Vermont restaurateur and member of the executive board of the Cleveland chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "People always respected you. But once 9/11 happened," she says, "everybody [saw us as] these enemies."

Previously, African-American Muslims and institutions focused mostly inward, working to counter the effects of racism and poverty on their inner-city neighborhoods. Now, in response to a rash of detentions and profiling, African-American Muslims have often taken the lead in speaking out for all Muslim Americans.

A shift also occurred in institutions founded by the immigrant community. In an effort to preserve their cultural and linguistic heritage, most deliberately remained insular.

"9/11 was a wake-up call," says Iranian-born Bahar Bastani, president of Dar-al-Zahra mosque in suburban St. Louis and professor of internal medicine at Saint Louis University. Al Qaeda's attack drove home the need "to be open to the society at large, be more visible, do more community service, and be more part of interfaith discourse," he says, because, as a minority, if things go wrong and people don't know you, "you can be easily stigmatized as those 'others.' "

Mosques began hosting community drives, and groups like the Islamic Society of North America stepped up their outreach. In St. Louis, Dr. Bastani and other Muslim physicians approached two Protestant churches in underserved, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. For five years now, they've hosted weekly Salam Free Clinics manned by doctors from Sunni and Bastani's own Shiite mosques. "We wanted to give back," says Bastani.

Many scholars believe that Muslim Americans will gradually integrate just as other religious minorities have before them. But some, such as Jen'nan Ghazal Read, associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University in Durham, N.C., disagree. She has done extensive research on the Muslim American community and argues that 9/11 and the ensuing war on Islamic extremism have significantly complicated Muslims' journey in the US.

"There were always historical circumstances that made a group be 'other,' " she says, but these circumstances came and went. Today, Islamic extremism lingers as a threat worldwide and, at home, such things as "Homeland" continue to fuel negative stereotypes.

As Ms. Mir notes, "When people get stereotyped they begin to think there is a dichotomy between being an American and being Muslim."

Stereotypes typically invoke honor killings – which are culturally, not religiously, based – or stoning and lashing included in Islamic law (sharia). Most Muslim countries don't use these harsh punishments and, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance, Muslim Americans don't support them, either.

Beyond mosques: a new Islamic 'third space'

Zia Makhdom, an imam who until last year led a youth group at a Virginia mosque, says he worries about "some ultraconservative Muslims in America who, coupled with cultural baggage, have a very narrow understanding of Islam" incompatible with life in the US.

Like many others, he fears that the resulting marginalization leaves some young people vulnerable to the persuasive rhetoric of extremist leaders. The real threat, Ms. Read adds, does not reside in US mosques. It lurks in the harder-to-patrol space of the global Internet.

Far from posing a danger, Read believes that the country's 2,100-plus mosques (up by 74 percent since 2000, according to CAIR) can provide a vehicle for Muslims' integration, "similar to how religious institutions have helped other immigrant communities adapt to life in a new land," she says.

While some mosques are making a concerted effort in this regard, many of those under 40 regard them as little more than sites for weddings and convenient places to pray. When it comes to figuring out how to knit together their Muslim and American identities, they do not always find mosque leadership and message relevant, and many women chafe when required to pray hidden behind a partition or wall.

These issues generate lively discussions through publications, blogs, e-zines, and talk shows, not to mention animated conversations in social groups and in social media. No subject is left untouched, from fashion, food, and education to mosque politics, gender equality, domestic abuse, views on modest dress and polygyny (which occurs rarely and, when it does, mostly in the African-American community). When Mipsterz made a video featuring lithe models in hijabs skateboarding and strutting to the soundtrack of Jay Z's "Somewhere in America," everybody, pro and con, weighed in.

At a more formal level, changes are also afoot. There are a growing number of Islamic community centers, youth programs at mosques, and what many call "third spaces," alternative forums like MakeSpace in Alexandria.

Established a year ago, MakeSpace stresses openness, dialogue, and exploration to "put the unity back in community," as its website states. Friday prayers take place in the banquet hall of a local restaurant, and religious discussion groups known as halaqas convene in a borrowed office space. Imam Zia often leads the service, and his wife, Fatimah Popal, runs the women's halaqa, which on a recent Friday evening attracts some 45 women. They perch on chairs, share a couch, sit on the floor. Two tweens haul out homework, while a fat-cheeked baby gets passed around. Most everybody else is in their 20s and 30s, in college or in jobs. Their headdresses range from tight-fitting hijabs to loose scarves, some in solids – blue, purple, black – some in floral patterns. A handful are bareheaded.

In welcoming the group, Ms. Popal reiterates MakeSpace's only rule: "No judging," she says, smiling. "When someone shares a story, don't judge, or if you do, keep it to yourself. And with time, inshallah [Allah or God willing], you'll do some self-reflection."

The evening's theme is prayer, and after the speaker is done, comments and questions flow. "Prayer is like fiber," Popal chimes in at one point. "It makes you feel full." When some express guilt at not living up to the demand to pray five times a day, Popal again pipes up: "Just a reminder that Islam is not an all-or-nothing faith. It's like if you're failing in math, should you just not even try to do well in social studies? So I'm not wearing a hijab or I just drank yesterday at the club, or I have a boyfriend," she shrugs and smiles. "So we're weak in one area. Doesn't mean we should not try in another."

There is an exchange of advice – tips on how to stay focused and fold prayers into the workday – and the occasional gripe.

One woman says she feels judged at mosques because she is not dressed just right. "Or you're 30 and unmarried, I get that a lot," says another. Meanwhile, outside the mosque, they sometimes feel like anachronisms. "When other Muslims ask, 'Why are you praying? Why are you wearing a scarf?,' that's frustrating," says the economist, Ali, for whom this is a first MakeSpace gathering. "I have enough trouble with non-Muslims."

One of the motivations behind MakeSpace is to get beyond petty points of etiquette and set aside sectarian divides in order to help Americans be better Muslims. This is very much in line with the approach of the Islamic Center of Southern California, considered one of the country's most progressive mosques.

"The Islam we're taught is for all times," Imam Zia says. "If you have to totally isolate yourself from the larger society, that flies in the face of the argument that Islam is for all times and for all places."

Azhar and many of his peers prefer not to think in terms of assimilating, which presupposes "letting your original identity be supplanted," as Azhar says. Instead, he speaks of himself and other Muslim Americans devising ways of "feeling comfortable and fully part of the social fabric of the US." They are doing this with what Samad calls the "American edge. Growing up in America," he says, "we know, 'go, show who you are.' "

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