Stereotyping Rankles Silent, Secular Majority of American Muslims

by Laurie Goodstein – The New York Times
December 23, 2001

Khalid Pervaiz is an American Muslim, an investment banker in Los Angeles with two young daughters. On the door of his home is a Christmas wreath made by his 7- year-old, and in the living room is a Christmas tree with an angel on top. His daughters go to the mosque, or masjid, on Sundays for classes in the Koran, but Mr. Pervaiz himself goes once a year on the major Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr.

"I had the privilege of being exposed to other religions from the very beginning, so I wasn't so fixed on the idea that Islam is the only way to live," Mr. Pervaiz said. "Every once in a blue moon I will go for my Friday prayers, but I still think I'm a good Muslim. If I don't go and pray five times a day, I don't think I'm less of a Muslim. I'm just not a practicing, going-to-the-masjid Muslim."

In behavior and belief, Mr. Pervaiz is among an overlooked silent majority of Muslims in America. They call themselves moderates, but another way to describe them is as cultural Muslims, akin to the assimilated cultural Jews who identify as Jewish, eat gefilte fish and celebrate Passover, but are for the most part not observant and not affiliated with a synagogue.

The cultural Muslims may attend prayers in mosques once a year on Id al-Fitr, not unlike Christians who make it to church only on Easter or Jews who attend services only on the High Holy Days. They may fast intermittently in the monthlong holiday of Ramadan, but they do not pray regularly. And yet they consider themselves good Muslims.

In every religion, some people are devout, some are secular and some fall somewhere in between. But the cultural Muslims say they have been overlooked in the portrayal of Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks, with devout Muslims regarded as the norm, even in the United States. Cameras have homed in on women in head scarfs and bearded men on their knees facing Mecca.

Looking at those images, many American Muslims say, they cannot see themselves.

"The Muslims that I associate with are mostly the way I am, which is secular," said Zoovia Hamid, a doctor and writer in Larchmont, N.Y., who, like many other Muslim women, does not wear a head scarf.

"I'm not into rituals," Dr. Hamid said, "and I put more importance on deeds, on the work you do. And I can't get too excited about mosques, the group experience. I was a big fan of the Who, and I've gone to hear them, but that's about it as far as group events."

Unlike the new generation of African- American and white Muslims, who have the zeal of converts, these less ardent Muslims are usually immigrants or their American- born children. Many grew up in places like Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia or Turkey in families that did not find it necessary to be religiously observant or to express their Islamic identities because they lived in predominantly Muslim countries.

When Mr. Pervaiz, for instance, was growing up in Pakistan, his parents never pushed religion onto him and never prayed the required five times a day. He attended a Roman Catholic school in Lahore, where every Friday he went to chapel and knelt and prayed to Jesus.

So it is not surprising that Muslims like Mr. Pervaiz say they value the United States for keeping church and state separate, and they believe in assimilating into American society and culture. But on global political issues, they are just as likely as more religious Muslims to express solidarity with Muslims abroad over such issues as sanctions against Iraq or support for Israel.

"There are a large number of Muslims that hold on to their identity as Muslims, but choose not to practice, not to act out their beliefs in everyday life," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor and an imam at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., who helped write the report of a large study on American Muslims this year. "Most of them would not view the world through the lens of religion and basically have put religion to the side to a certain extent to function in the world. A large portion of the American Muslim community are in this group."

Just how many American Muslims fit this description is hard to gauge, but by one measure the number could be significant. The report that Dr. Bagby helped write, "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait," revealed that only a fraction of the Muslims in the United States attend weekly prayers in one of the nation's 1,209 mosques. Of an estimated four million to six million Muslims in the United States, the study found, only about 350,000 on average attend the Friday midday prayers — congregational prayers expected of men, though not required, and optional for women.

Perhaps the number is small because not every community has a mosque and many Muslims are used to praying on their own, wherever they are. In comparison, about 40 percent of Christians in the United States say they attend church regularly, and 27 percent of Jews say they attend synagogue regularly. Sometimes called Id (pronounced eed) Muslims, because they take part in the major Islamic festivals of Id twice a year, cultural Muslims are akin to the so-called cafeteria Catholics, as Roman Catholics who pick and choose the customs they observe are popularly designated. Dr. Hamid, for instance, said she fasted during Ramadan because she found it cleansing and meditative. But she occasionally has a glass of wine, which, like all alcohol, is prohibited in Islam. She prays on her own occasionally, but objects to covering her head, a requirement widely debated by American Muslims. She, too, has a Christmas tree — not apostasy in Islam, which recognizes the virgin birth and Jesus as a prophet, though not the son of God.

Moderation in religious practice is acceptable in Islam, cultural Muslims argue, quoting the Koranic injunction: "Let there be no compulsion in religion." And yet, they admit, there is pressure to conform.

A Muslim lawyer in New York, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said his family was "not that religious but had to pretend we were." He says he drinks alcohol, rarely prays and during Ramadan this year fasted only one day before Id.

"It's weird in our culture," he said. "People have to act more religious than they really are."

Yet living in the United States has permitted many Muslims to become more secular. Saima Makhdoom, who grew up in Oklahoma as the daughter of strict Muslim immigrants, said she began to question her beliefs as a student at Pennsylvania State University.

"I could pick my own rules," Ms. Makhdoom said. "My friends were all these great Catholic, Jewish, Hindu people who were just like me. These were people that were good people. So I had to re-evaluate myself and what I was taught."

Ms. Makhdoom, now a lawyer in Falls Church, Va., says she is "spiritual but not religious." She wears shorts in the summer, flouting the Koranic decree to dress modestly. But she said she was moved when she made the pilgrimage to Mecca with her family, and she plans to go again this year.

Since the terrorist attacks, Ms. Makhdoom has started wearing a necklace with "Allah" inscribed on it to make a statement that Muslims should not be stereotyped.

"I want people to know that there are so many different people who are Muslims," Ms. Makhdoom said. "People accept me as just another American woman, and I feel like saying, 'No, I'm also a Muslim.' "

Extracted from the New York Times


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