American Muslims Struggle for the Soul of Islam
Posted Jun 15, 2002

American Muslims are at a crossroads after the Sept. 11 attacks. By and large, we had long been a docile and silent lot, content to let a few leaders and imams do the talking, keeping misgivings private. Not any more. Now, the soul of Islam is at stake. At mosques, homes, at a wedding celebration, on the telephone in these difficult weeks, fellow Muslims—moderates who find in Islam a balanced way of life—seem to be strengthening their resolve to win the day against those few who incite hatred and distort the faith. Now, everything from the power of imams, the role of women in the faith and the dissonance between immigrant Muslims and black American Muslims is being debated. Globally, these American voices will prove important in the way Islam defines itself in coming years.

American Muslims are at a crossroads after the Sept. 11 attacks. By and large, we had long been a docile and silent lot, content to let a few leaders and imams do the talking, keeping misgivings private. Not any more. Now, the soul of Islam is at stake.

At mosques, homes, at a wedding celebration, on the telephone in these difficult weeks, fellow Muslims—moderates who find in Islam a balanced way of life—seem to be strengthening their resolve to win the day against those few who incite hatred and distort the faith.

Muslims in America—including women - are used to speaking freely. The habit of comparing ideas—even religious ideas—surrounds them in schools and public forums.

Now, everything from the power of imams, the role of women in the faith and the dissonance between immigrant Muslims and black American Muslims is being debated. Globally, these American voices will prove important in the way Islam defines itself in coming years.

Mertze Dahlin, a founder of the South Bay Islamic Association of San Jose, Calif., embraced Islam more than 45 years ago. Of Finnish descent, Dahlin is not a spokesperson for any one ethnic group, but has worked with local newspapers and politicians against stereotyping since the l970s. Since Sept.11, Dahlin said, Muslims are debating theological issues and scrutinizing received political opinions they once took for granted. Even Friday sermons have changed.

“Before, the imams would talk about how to be good, to pray, and such stuff,” Dahlin says. “But we heard all this when we were children. Now they are talking about how Islam can help us cope with our day-to-day life in America. It is more relevant.”

One of the things imams now stress is not to hide Muslim identity, “no matter how tough it may get,” Dahlin says. Many Muslims are newly reaching out to their wider communities, where Islam may remain mysterious or be feared. “After 9/11, we became more visible. Many of us are visiting schools, churches and synagogues to explain Islam.”

For Dr. Khalid Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Education and Information Center in Newark, Calif., Friday sermons haven’t improved enough. Most imams remain silent on ethical and behavioral issues, he said, in part because they are poorly trained to explore such topics—Muslim religious schools, called madrasses, teach mostly by rote. Moderate Muslims must become “more vocal and blunt” about what they expect of their leaders and more vigilant against extremists. “We cannot say one thing inside the mosque and another thing outside,” Siddiqi says. “For any event inside a mosque, including the Friday sermon, we should invite people from churches and synagogues.”

But Siddiqi, too, sees a bright side after Sept. 11. At social gatherings, many who talked “mostly about stocks and fluctuations in their wealth” now speak about Islam and their responsibilities as Muslims.

Siddiqi’s daughter Hana, who is studying for a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies at New York University in Manhattan, was close to “ground zero” on Sept. 11 and still has nightmares about it. Typical of many American Muslim women in their 20s, Hana insists Muslims must “improve themselves” with regard to the treatment of women, who are “definitely oppressed.” She blames not Islam, but “men on power trips,” including imams and mullahs who quote unsubstantiated and out-of-context hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) to justify sexist behavior.

Such tactics will no longer work, she says, because the stakes have become too high. “We need new interpretation of the Quran and the hadith in the context of our times,” Hana says. “We are as qualified as the men for this task.”

Beena Kazi, a junior at the University of California at Davis, would start with basics. Often microphones don’t work in the women’s sections of some mosques, and carpets are old and stained compared to the men’s section.

Board membership at most mosques is entirely male, an unchallenged tradition that has no basis in Islam. Kazi is working to change that, encouraging women to run for mosque boards. Fellow students, Kazi observes, are scrambling to learn more about their faith since Sept. 11. “For two years there was this Muslim girl in my class who never visited the campus mosque. One day after Sept. 11, she asked me to take her to the Friday prayers. Other students had been asking her about Islam and she realized she had to learn about her faith herself before she could answer them. She felt accountable.”

Some of the discussion that shapes American Muslim thinking takes place in mosque open houses and interfaith dialogues. Dr. Anwar Hossain, an engineer from Dublin, Calif., said he has noticed more debate at such venues on issues such as democracy and Islam, something he said imams rarely speak about.

But Hossain says some still try to position Muslims vis-?-vis the West as “us versus them.” “We raise our families here, but claim American society is corrupt. This is hypocrisy,” Hossain says.

Soul searching among U.S. Muslims doesn’t end at debate about extremism, democracy or the role of women in the faith. Black Muslims are bringing their experience as a minority race and minority religion in America to the discussion.

Bilal Ibn Muhammad directs the All Muslims’ Islamic Communications Center in San Jose, which produces a weekly TV program on Islam. He sympathizes with the plight of Muslims being rounded up for questioning by the FBI, but regrets that immigrant Muslims are not coming to African Americans like him to learn about resistance in the face of racial profiling.

“As much as I hate to say it, it comes down to race,” Muhammad says. “Immigrant Muslims look down on us. They think we do not know enough about Islam.”

In Muslim America, there is tension, anxiety, questioning and impatience with dead-end dogma. And there is optimism—a new hope that out of the conflict of ideas will emerge the courage and strength to vanquish the extremists.

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