Islam, the American Way (Part-2)

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. The concluding part of a two-part series on Islam in America today. The first part of this series was published in the March 2014 issue of Young Muslim Digest. Hijab as Litmus Test 


his 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 Qur’an. “It is the best guide.” But like all Scriptures, the Qur’an is subject to interpretation. Some Islamic scholars say it is acceptable to pay interest on a loan but not receive it. Others believe the Qur’an 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 says he “discovered a community-supported restaurant model which happened to fit with my morals.” 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 So Ho 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… 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.” 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% 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 teens haul out homework, while a fat-cheeked baby gets passed around. Almost everybody else is in their 20s and 30s, in college or in jobs. Their head-dresses 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.” There is an exchange of advice – tips on how to stay focused and hold 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 pre-supposes “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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