American Islam

The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

By Paul M. Barrett
Farrar Straus Giroux. 304 pp. $25
Friday, February 16, 2007


Muslims in America

A visitor to the home of Mustafa and Sadaf Saied is promptly recruited by daughters Zaineb, seven, Sameeha, six, and Mariam, four, to read and discuss a colorful Disney book about the Little Mermaid. Enthusiasm and volume levels are high. The children, who attend public school in their hometown of Hialeah, Florida, wear jazzy American clothes. Asked for a favorite television program, they extol Blue's Clues, an educational show starring a puzzle-solving puppy.

Sadaf, the girls' mother, is in the kitchen preparing an aromatic feast of broiled salmon and chicken curry. She wears the Islamic hijab, or female head covering, and a concealing ankle-length turquoise wrap. Her husband, Mustafa, relaxes in the living room in denim jeans and a University of Tennessee football jersey. He explains cheerfully how his knowledge of college and professional sports helps break the ice with potential customers of the family company, All State Engineering & Testing. Mustafa's parents, visiting from India, keep an eye on Layla, the youngest Saied, born only a few months earlier.

Mustafa and Sadaf, who are in their early thirties, seem at ease as Americans, without having cut themselves off from their Muslim faith. He came to the United States from India in 1990 to attend college and then decided to stay. She is the American-born child of prosperous Pakistani immigrants who settled in South Florida decades ago. The couple has decorated their living room wall with a large, framed rendition of Quranic verse in ornate Arabic calligraphy. Sadaf prays five times a day; her husband, less often. He takes the children trick-or-treating on Halloween, and they join school friends in celebrating Christmas. On Sundays the girls attend Islamic religious classes, but Mustafa has declared that the minute he hears anything about "infidels," he will keep them home. "I will stop it, cold turkey," he says. "I just want them to have a normal American life."

What, for Muslims, is a normal American life? That's a question many Muslims in this country are seeking to answer. Given the times, it's something that all thoughtful Americans ought to ponder. I had the question in mind when I set out after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to learn about Muslim life in the United States. My interviews took me from university campuses to maximum-security prisons, from elite corporate offices in midtown Manhattan to the fruit groves of Northern California. I spoke with hundreds of Muslims from a wide range of backgrounds about their startlingly varied American journeys. Much of the time I sat and listened as Muslims talked and debated with one another. I tagged along when they went to the neighbors' for dinner and to the mosque for Friday prayers. Just being there is often the best way to get your arms around someone's story. Some of the stories I gathered make up the chapters that follow.

Even after 9/11, assimilation remains a major theme in the lives of most American Muslims. Surveys show that as a group they are more prosperous and better educated than other Americans. Increasingly they are involved in local and national politics. Given a chance to explain why they have come here, immigrant Muslims usually stress economic and educational opportunity, but also the constitutional protection of free speech and religion, ideals not upheld in most predominantly Muslim lands. In many ways, Muslims are an American immigration success story.

But there are subthemes to this story that are less reassuring. As a student at the University of Tennessee in the 1990s Mustafa Saied was drawn into a radical Islamic group that endorses suicide bombing and preaches hatred of non-Muslims, especially Jews. For a time he reveled in this extremism. By his own account, Saied's recruitment by the Muslim Brotherhood-in Knoxville, Tennessee, of all places-offers an illustration of the tension and flux within American Islam. Muslims in the United States represent an intricate mixture of creeds and cultures: immigrant and native-born, devout and secular, moderate and radical, integrated and isolated. Even as many American Muslims thrive in material terms, pockets of fanaticism fester.

Saied's excursion to the ideological fringe and then back again, to which I'll return, offers one illustration of the unease and conflict that mingle with the sunnier aspects of American Islam. The life and career of Osama Siblani, a Lebanese-immigrant publisher of a bilingual English-Arabic newspaper in Dearborn, Michigan, provide a different but equally instructive perspective. Siblani belongs to the heavily assimilated elite in Dearborn, the unofficial capital of Arab America. He lives in a comfortable home and drives a large black Mercedes. A courtly, registered Republican, he helped organize Arab-American support for George W. Bush in 2000. But the president's "war on terrorism" left Siblani feeling that his adopted country has turned against Muslims. He passionately opposed the invasion of Iraq and has even expressed sympathy for some homegrown Iraqi elements of the anti-American insurgency.

Large majorities of American Muslims, both Republicans and Democrats, disagree strongly with American policies in the Middle East, especially U.S. support for Israel. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacerbated this estrangement. But the domestic fallout from 9/11, beginning with the arrest and detention of twelve hundred Muslim and Arab men in late 2001 and the subsequent interrogation of eight thousand more, have played an even larger role in making many Muslims feel insecure and unwelcome. Certainly some Americans regard the Muslims in their midst with hostility. Opinion polls in 2004 showed that about a quarter of those responding held a negative stereotype of Muslims: that Muslims value life less than other people or teach their children to hate "unbelievers." Nearly half said that the U.S. government should limit Muslims' civil liberties. Many Muslims report that they encounter disrespect from fellow Americans. According to one survey, nearly three out of four Muslims knew someone who had experienced religious prejudice since 9/11 or had suffered abuse themselves. Many American Muslims have doubts about whether they are accepted as "real" Americans.

The complexity of Islam in the United States only deepens when African-Americans and their painful history are added to the picture. A cleric named Siraj Wahhaj leads a predominantly black mosque in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where he is hailed as an antidrug activist and preacher of personal responsibility. Wahhaj's spiritual migration has taken him from the Baptist Church of his youth, where he was known as Jeffrey Kearse, through the racially separatist Nation of Islam, where he was known as Jeffrey 12X, to an understanding of the religion influenced by Sunni authorities in the Middle East. Today he represents two intertwined components of African-American Islam: a constructive do-for-self philosophy and a conspiratorial antagonism toward government and the white establishment. He has dined as an honored guest at the U.S. State Department and has given talks at some of the country's most prestigious universities. But he refuses to condemn Osama bin Laden for the attacks on Washington and New York. Does Wahhaj embody black Islam's arrival and acceptance in mainstream America or its lingering attachment to radicalism-or, somehow, both?

A few preliminaries: Most American Muslims are not Arab, and most Americans of Arab descent are Christian, not Muslim. People of South Asian descent-those with roots in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan-make up 34 percent of American Muslims, according to the polling organization Zogby International. Arab-Americans constitute only 26 percent, while another 20 percent are native-born American blacks, most of whom are converts. The remaining 20 percent come from Africa, Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere.

Muslims have no equivalent to the Catholic pope and his cardinals. The faith is decentralized in the extreme, and some beliefs and practices vary depending on region and sect. In America, Muslims do not think and act alike any more than Christians do. That said, all observant Muslims acknowledge Islam's "five pillars": faith in one God, prayer, charity, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims are also united in the way they pray. The basic choreography of crossing arms, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating oneself is more or less the same in mosques everywhere.

The two major subgroups of Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, are found in the United States in roughly their global proportions: 85 percent Sunni, 15 percent Shiite. Ancient history still animates the rivalry, which began in the struggle for Muslim leadership after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632. Shiites believe that Muhammad intended for only his blood descendants to succeed him. Muhammad's beloved cousin and son-in-law Ali was the only male relative who qualified. Ali's followers became known as Shiites, a derivation of the Arabic phrase for "partisans of Ali." Things did not go smoothly for them.

The larger body of early Muslims, known as Sunnis, a word related to Sunnah, or way of the Prophet, had a more flexible notion of who should succeed Muhammad. In 661, an extremist assassinated Ali near Najaf in what is now Iraq. Nineteen years later Sunnis killed his son, Hussein, not far away in Karbala. These deaths permanently divided the aggrieved Shiite minority from the Sunni majority.

Sunnis historically have afflicted the weaker Shiites, accusing them of shaping a blasphemous cult around Ali and Hussein. At the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Michigan, a large mural depicts mourning women who have encountered the riderless horse of Hussein after his final battle. "You see our history and our situation in this," says Imam Husham al-Husainy, a Shiite Iraqi émigré who leads the center. In Dearborn, Shiite Iraqis initially backed the American invasion to depose Saddam Hussein, who persecuted Iraq's Shiite majority. Most Sunnis in Dearborn condemned the war as an exercise in American imperialism.

Sufism, another important strain of Islam, is also present in the United States. Sufis follow a spiritual, inward-looking path. Only a tiny percentage of American Muslims would identify themselves primarily as Sufis, in part because some more rigid Muslims condemn Sufism as heretical. But Sufi ideas crop up among the beliefs of many Muslims without being labeled as such. Sufism's emphasis on self-purification appeals to New Age seekers and has made it the most common avenue into Islam for white American converts such as Abdul Kabir Krambo of Yuba City, California. Krambo, an electrician who grew up in a conservative German Catholic family, helped build a mosque amidst the fruit arbors of the Sacramento Valley, only to see it burn down in a mysterious arson. Once rebuilt, the Islamic Center of Yuba City was engulfed again, this time by controversy over whether Krambo and his Sufi friends were trying to impose a "cult" on other worshipers.

Although there is a broad consensus that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the country and the world, no one has provable numbers on just how many American Muslims there are. The Census Bureau doesn't count by religion, and private surveys of the Muslim population offer widely disparate conclusions. A study of four hundred mosques nationwide estimated that there are two million people in the United States "associated with" Islamic houses of worship. The authors of the survey, published in 2001 under the auspices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, employed a common assumption that only one in three American Muslims associates with a mosque. In CAIR's view, that suggests there are at least six million Muslims in the country. (Perhaps not coincidentally the American Jewish population is estimated to be slightly below six million.) Other Muslim groups put the number higher, seeking to maximize the size and influence of their constituency.

Surveys conducted by non-Muslims have produced much lower estimates, some in the neighborhood of only two million or three million. These findings elicit anger from Muslim leaders, who claim that many immigrant and poor black Muslims are overlooked. On the basis of all the evidence, a very crude range of three million to six million seems reasonable. Rapid growth of the Muslim population is expected to continue, fueled mainly by immigration and high birthrates and, to a lesser extent, by conversion, overwhelmingly by African-Americans. In the next decade or two there probably will be more Muslims in the United States than Jews. Worldwide, the Muslim head count is estimated at 1.3 billion, second among religions only to the combined membership of Christian denominations.

American Muslims, like Americans generally, live mostly in cities and suburbs. Large concentrations are found in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But they also turn up in the Appalachian foothills and rural Idaho-the sites of two of the stories that follow-among other surprising places. Often the presence of several hundred Muslims in an out-of-the-way town can be explained by proximity to a large state university. Many of these schools have recruited foreign graduate students, including Muslims, since the 1960s. In the 1980s Washington doled out scholarships to Arab students as part of a campaign to counter the influence of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Some of the Muslim beneficiaries have stayed and raised families.

In New York, Muslims are typecast as cab drivers; in Detroit, as owners of grocery stores and gas stations. The overall economic reality is very different. Surveys show that the majority of American Muslims are employed in technical, white-collar, and professional fields. These include information technology, corporate management, medicine, and education. An astounding 59 percent of Muslim adults in the United States have college degrees. That compares with only 27 percent of all American adults. Four out of five Muslim workers earn at least twenty-five thousand dollars a year; more than half earn fifty thousand or more. A 2004 survey by a University of Kentucky researcher found that median family income among Muslims is sixty thousand dollars a year; the national median is fifty thousand. Most Muslims own stock or mutual funds, either directly or through retirement plans. Four out of five are registered to vote.

Relative prosperity, high levels of education, and political participation are indications of a minority population successfully integrating into the larger society. By comparison, immigrant Muslims in countries such as Britain, France, Holland, and Spain have remained poorer, less well educated, and socially marginalized. Western European Muslim populations are much larger in percentage terms. Nearly 10 percent of French residents are Muslim; in the United Kingdom the figure is 3 percent. In the more populous United States the Muslim share is 1 to 2 percent, depending on which Muslim population estimate one assumes. It's unlikely that American cities will see the sort of densely packed, volatile Muslim slums that have cropped up on the outskirts of Paris, for example.

America's social safety net is stingy compared with those of Western Europe, but there is greater opportunity for new arrivals to get ahead in material terms. This may attract to the United States more ambitious immigrants willing to adjust to the customs of their new home and eager to acquire education that leads to better jobs. More generous welfare benefits in Europe allow Muslims and other immigrants to live indefinitely on the periphery of society, without steady jobs or social interaction with the majority. Europeans, who for decades encouraged Muslim immigration as a source of menial labor, have shown overt hostility toward the outsiders and little inclination to embrace them as full-fledged citizens. Partly as a result, violent Islamic extremism has found fertile ground in Western Europe.

The July 7, 2005, bus and underground train bombings in London, which roughly coincided with the end of my reporting for this book, were in some ways as unsettling as the 9/11 attacks that sparked my research. The London bombers weren't strange non- Westerners raised in insular Islamic lands. They were Muslims born and bred in Britain yet willing to murder their countrymen. This undeniable confirmation of a threat from within Islam in the West demands reflection on both sides of the Atlantic.


© 2007 Paul M. Barrett