Islam, the American way (Part-1)

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.


istening 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 non-practicing Muslims fasted during Ramadan and celebrated Eid, in the same way that some non-observant 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.”


(To be concluded)

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