U.S. Freedoms Give American Muslims Influence Beyond Their Numbers

by Teresa Watanabe, LA Times Religion Writer
Friday, December 29, 2000

Omaima Bukhari is a precocious Muslim in Maryland. She's 20, fascinated by Islam, computer science and psychology. She discusses everything with her father, Zahid, who works at Georgetown University and counts as friends imams and sheiks from Al Azhar, the prestigious seat of Islamic learning in Cairo.

Last December, she attended an engagement party for relatives in Pakistan. The bride-to-be was sobbing in the next room. So Bukhari marched before the family elders and demanded to know: Did you ask for her consent to the marriage? No? You have to! This right is from Allah, conveyed by our prophet Muhammad!

The women were silent. The men were arguing. These were men with beards down to their chests. This was a small rural village. This was a place where women have only just begun to receive educations. But Bukhari was quoting the Koran. She was quoting a hadith (an account of the prophet's life). She was insisting that the villagers' treatment of women was based on cultural practices, not the faith of Islam. No one could argue with her sources.

Finally, the graying patriarch of the Bukhari clan delivered judgment: Omaima is right. Consent must be obtained. The fiancee eventually granted it. And, as Bukhari prepared to return to America, the old-world patriarch told his new-world descendant, "Granddaughter, you've taught me a lot." Far from the fatwas--the religious decrees--of hierarchies abroad, American Muslims are slowly but steadily carving their mark on the Islamic world.

Their relatively small numbers, young history and still fledgling organization would seem daunting barriers to wider influence. Of the roughly 1 billion Muslims worldwide, those in the United States are only a tiny fraction, numbering somewhere between 3 million and 10 million.

But a confluence of forces that has made those Americans among the freest, most educated, affluent and diverse Muslims in the world has given them an impact greater than their numbers. Helped by the growing use of English as a language of Islamic discourse and by the ever-spreading world of the Internet, they are self-consciously seeking to influence their religious brethren worldwide. Moreover, the spirit of the times may be on their side. "The guy with a turban and rifle is out," says Marcia Hermansen, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago. "The guy drinking a latte with a laptop computer reading Internet fatwas is in." 

Provocative Islamic thinkers are flourishing in the climate of America's unparalleled intellectual freedom. They are tackling taboo subjects such as spousal abuse and highlighting the aspects of their nearly 1,400-year tradition that embrace women's rights, human rights and democratic practices.

The sheer diversity of the community here is prompting efforts to promote Islamic models of pluralism. U.S. Muslims include American natives, mainly of African descent, as well as immigrants from more than 50 nations.

American Muslims also are expanding their influence by bringing modern education, business practices and economic development to their homelands through a mushrooming number of nonprofit organizations. More than 300 such groups now raise about $50 million a year for such causes as education and health care, according to Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Los Angeles-based Minaret magazine and president of the American Federation of Muslims From India. "Muslims all over the world are looking with high expectations toward the ummah [community] in the United States and Canada," says Murad Wilfried Hofmann, a retired German diplomat and Muslim jurist. "Its dynamism, fresh approach, enlightened scholarship and sheer growth is their hope for an Islamic renaissance worldwide."

Working against that hope are the community's weaknesses. American Muslims are divided and sometimes fractious. They struggle with discrimination and comparatively weak political clout at home. They are seen by Muslims elsewhere as generally lacking in the classical Islamic education that would undergird their authority. Some leaders worry that the powerful forces of assimilation, which homogenize most immigrant groups in the U.S. by the third generation, could weaken the American Muslim identity before it fully consolidates.

Key leaders across the ideological spectrum--from Sheik Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America to Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations--voice a common view that Muslims here must get their own house in order before hoping to have a major impact abroad.

But despite the problems, American Muslims present the Islamic world with a seductive new model of modernity, says Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African and Islamic studies at Howard University in Washington.

Until now, the main model in the Islamic world for modernization had been Turkey, which excised Islam from public life in the name of progress. America gives Muslims an alternative--an example of a society in which the faithful are free to be both modern and religious. Here, more women are voluntarily donning the hejab head covering as a mark of religious pride and identity--even rendering it hip with T-shirts touting it as "It's Good to be in the 'Hood." Nyang argues that the potent combination of modernity and piety demonstrated by Muslims in the U.S. could catch on in the Islamic world, offering a compelling alternative to extremism. The American faces of Islam belong to people like Dany Doueiri and Shamshad Hussain.

Doueiri is a co-founder of one of the world's most popular Web sites on Islam, www.islam.org. Every day, the Los Angeles-based site receives 140,000 hits. More than half the visitors are from outside the United States. They are shown an expanse of Islam that bypasses the divides of cultures, religious sects and schools of Islamic law that often separate Muslims from one another.

For instance, when numerous Bosnian Muslim women were raped by Serbian soldiers during the Balkans conflict, the site was flooded with queries on the Islamic position on abortion. Doueiri says his team presented without judgment two opinions from different schools: one holding that any abortion is forbidden, the other saying that the procedure is allowed for up to 120 days into the pregnancy, after which, adherents believe, the soul enters the body.

The neutral presentation of differing views within the vast Islamic tradition, though rare, is equipping Muslims worldwide to think through their own Islamic practices rather than simply accepting the rulings of the local scholar, Doueiri says.  "This site has brought so much happiness overseas, because people say they find a much more objective point of view than they get from their own scholars," he says.

The rise of the electronic fatwa, sometimes by self-styled experts, dismays some classically trained scholars. But experts say the trend is irreversible. The Internet, satellite TV and steady gains in literacy are prompting a quiet but dramatic shift in the source of Islamic authority throughout the Muslim world--from political and religious leaders to the common educated people, says Dale F. Eickelman, a Dartmouth College anthropology professor and co-author of the book "New Media in the Muslim World." Led by Muslims in the West, unprecedented numbers of believers are debating the fundamentals of their faith and practice in a new Islamic reformation, he says. "Nobody is controlling anymore," Eickelman says. "Even if you're not getting an increase in liberalism or a shift from authoritarianism, you're now getting large numbers of people who know what they're missing."

One pipeline of fresh Islamic views to younger Muslims abroad is the Iqra International Educational Foundation in Chicago. Iqra--the Arabic word for "read" and God's first word to the prophet Muhammad, according to the Koran--is pioneering American-produced, English-language Islamic textbooks. In the last few years, overseas demand has skyrocketed and the foundation now exports tens of thousands of books annually to 16 countries in the Mideast, Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Europe. The books' distinction, according to managing director Hussain, is that they promote the idea of self-study of the Koran and hadith and present the tradition's essence shorn of regional and sectarian differences.

The quest to crystallize Islam's essence, free of the overlays of cultural tradition, is perhaps most advanced here because America's diversity is forcing Muslims to strive for a common understanding. Doueiri's Internet group, for instance, represents Muslims from both the majority Sunnis and minority Shiites who hail from 30 countries. Doueiri, for example, is an African-born American of Lebanese ancestry.

American Muslims are producing the first modern "hajj model of community," says Agha Saeed, who teaches ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, referring to the annual gathering of Muslims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

American Muslims say they are striving to restore their faith to its essence of tolerance and pluralism. Two decades ago, the Islamic Center of Southern California was a pioneer in arguing for an American Muslim identity based on "finding ways in Islam to make bridges to 'the other' and live together," as center co-founder Maher Hathout puts it. At the time, his was an odd voice among Muslim leaders who were focused inward and viewed America as dar ul-kufr, or "place of unbelievers." Today, the concept is mainstream.

In Westwood, Michael Flemming represents the small but growing number of Muslims who are marrying cross-culturally. An African American graduate student in Islamic studies at UCLA, Flemming says his in-laws from India initially resisted his request to marry their daughter. But that resistance began to melt, he says, after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Still, the challenge of pluralism looms unmet for many. "Some African Americans get the feeling that even with our Muslim brothers, it's still 'us and them,' " Flemming says. "I think the youth, because they've grown up together here, will be able to overcome this." 

In the academic arena, striking American voices of Islam belong to people like Khaled Abou el Fadl. The UCLA professor of Islamic law is breaking intellectual ground with bold social critiques based on a blend of classical Islamic training and Western academic grounding. He trained in Egypt and Kuwait and at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.

Over the last four years, Abou el Fadl has published searing critiques on sexual abuse, wife-beating and other problems among Muslims, analyzing how Islamic tradition sometimes promotes such behavior. Without America's academic freedom, he says, such scholarship would have been impossible. 

Using case studies of mistreated Muslims, Abou el Fadl has admonished the tradition--and present-day imams--for the general silence on incest and sexual abuse. He has challenged divorce laws favoring men and concluded that expectations of blind obedience from women is immoral. So far, he has not been able to punch a doctrinal hole in the laws of apostasy, although he would like to: He says he is morally offended by the laws, which punish those who leave Islam with penalties of death or imprisonment in many countries.

His unflinching scholarship is controversial, but it is gaining notice abroad. Abou el Fadl has been asked to lecture in the Mideast, North Africa and Europe and has received e-mail from around the world. Some people chastise him, but he says the vast majority back his efforts to reinterpret the Islamic legal tradition. He has no patience for those who claim that Islam is perfect. "Instead of being brave and gutsy in confronting the flaws and shortcomings of the tradition, they are being apologists," Abou el Fadl says. "It is our moral obligation as Muslims to speak the truth."

American Muslims have even established an organization that counts gender equality as a core value. Jamal Al-Muslimeen was established in 1977 in Minneapolis and now has chapters in Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ghana, Britain, Germany and Canada, according to Ali Siddiqui, an imam based in Chino who is a member of the group.

Siddiqui tries to walk the talk, delivering sermons at area mosques on spousal abuse as a consequence of misplaced ideas of male superiority. When he marries couples, he tells them that Allah has made women and men equal. Sometimes, he says, he is challenged--especially by elders from remote areas.

Such experiences temper his idealism about the impact American Muslims can have in changing values both here and abroad. "We have a lot to contribute, but it's a very slow process," Siddiqui says. "Ideas take time to take hold, especially when people have been doing something for so long."

© 2000 Los Angeles Times


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