Five myths about mosques in America

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Edward E. Curtis IV
Sunday, August 29, 2010

In addition to spawning passionate debates in the public, the news media and the political class, the proposal to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York has revealed widespread misconceptions about the practice of Islam in this country -- and the role of mosques in particular.

1. Mosques are new to this country.

Mosques have been here since the colonial era. A mosque, or masjid, is literally any place where Muslims make salat, the prayer performed in the direction of Mecca; it needn't be a building. One of the first mosques in North American history was on Kent Island, Md.: Between 1731 and 1733, African American Muslim slave and Islamic scholar Job Ben Solomon, a cattle driver, would regularly steal away to the woods there for his prayers -- in spite of a white boy who threw dirt on him as he made his prostrations.

The Midwest was home to the greatest number of permanent U.S. mosques in the first half of the 20th century. In 1921, Sunni, Shiite and Ahmadi Muslims in Detroit celebrated the opening of perhaps the first purpose-built mosque in the nation. Funded by real estate developer Muhammad Karoub, it was just blocks away from Henry Ford's Highland Park automobile factory, which employed hundreds of Arab American men.

Most Midwestern mosques blended into their surroundings. The temples or mosques of the Nation of Islam -- an indigenous form of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad from 1934 to 1975 -- were often converted storefronts and churches. In total, mosques numbered perhaps slightly more than 100 nationwide in 1970. In the last three decades of the 20th century, however, more than 1 million new Muslim immigrants came to the United States and, in tandem with their African American co-religionists, opened hundreds more mosques. Today there are more than 2,000 places of Muslim prayer, most of them mosques, in the United States.

According to recent Pew and Gallup polls, about 40 percent of Muslim Americans say they pray in a mosque at least once a week, nearly the same percentage of American Christians who attend church weekly. About a third of all U.S. Muslims say they seldom or never go to mosques. And contrary to stereotypes of mosques as male-only spaces, Gallup finds that women are as likely as men to attend.

2. Mosques try to spread sharia law in the United States.

In Islam, sharia ("the Way" to God) theoretically governs every human act. But Muslims do not agree on what sharia says; there is no one sharia book of laws. Most mosques in America do not teach Islamic law for a simple reason: It's too complicated for the average believer and even for some imams.

Islamic law includes not only the Koran and the Sunna (the traditions of the prophet Muhammad) but also great bodies of arcane legal rulings and pedantic scholarly interpretations. If mosques forced Islamic law upon their congregants, most Muslims would probably leave -- just as most Christians might walk out of the pews if preachers gave sermons exclusively on Saint Augustine, canon law and Greek grammar. Instead, mosques study the Koran and the Sunna and how the principles and stories in those sacred texts apply to their everyday lives.

3. Most people attending U.S. mosques are of Middle Eastern descent.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that African Americans accounted for 35 percent of all Muslim Americans, making them the largest racial-ethnic group of Muslims in the nation. It is unclear whether Arab Americans or South Asian Americans (mostly Pakistanis and Indians) are the second-largest. Muslim Americans are also white, Hispanic, Sub-Saharan African, Iranian, European, Central Asian and more -- representing the most racially diverse religious group in the United States.

Mosques reflect this diversity. Though there are hundreds of ethnically and racially integrated mosques, most of these institutions, like many American places of worship, break down along racial and ethnic lines. Arabs, for instance, are the dominant ethnic group in a modest number of mosques, particularly in states such as Michigan and New York. And according to a 2001 survey (the most recent national survey on mosques available) by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, they represented the plurality in only 15 percent of U.S. mosques.

4. Mosques are funded by groups and governments unfriendly to the United States.

There certainly have been instances in which foreign funds, especially from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, have been used to build mosques in the United States. The Saudi royal family, for example, reportedly gave $8 million for the building of the King Fahd Mosque, which was inaugurated in 1998 in Culver City, a Los Angeles suburb.

But the vast majority of mosques are supported by Muslim Americans themselves. Domestic funding reflects the desire of many U.S. Muslims to be independent of overseas influences. Long before Sept. 11, 2001, in the midst of a growing clash of interests between some Muslim-majority nations and the U.S. government -- during the Persian Gulf War, for instance -- Muslim American leaders decided that they must draw primarily from U.S. sources of funding for their projects.

5. Mosques lead to homegrown terrorism.

To the contrary, mosques have become typical American religious institutions. In addition to worship services, most U.S. mosques hold weekend classes for children, offer charity to the poor, provide counseling services and conduct interfaith programs.

No doubt, some mosques have encouraged radical extremism. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheik who inspired the World Trade Center's first attackers in 1993, operated out of the Al-Salam mosque in Jersey City, N.J. But after the 2001 attacks, such radicalism was largely pushed out of mosques and onto the Internet, mainly because of a renewed commitment among mosque leaders to confront extremism.

There is a danger that as anti-Muslim prejudice increases -- as it has recently in reaction to the proposed community center near Ground Zero -- alienated young Muslims will turn away from the peaceful path advocated by their elders in America's mosques. So far, that has not happened on a large scale.

Through their mosques, U.S. Muslims are embracing the community involvement that is a hallmark of the American experience. In this light, mosques should be welcomed as premier sites of American assimilation, not feared as incubators of terrorist indoctrination.

Edward E. Curtis IV is millennium chair of liberal arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of "Muslims in America: A Short History" and the editor of the "Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History." He will be online on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 12 p.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

For recent Outlook coverage of the New York mosque controversy, see Matthew Yglesias's "Anchor babies, the Ground Zero mosque and other scapegoats," Neda Bolourchi's "A Muslim victim of 9/11: 'Build your mosque somewhere else' " and Karen Hughes's "Move the New York City mosque, as a sign of unity."

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