'We Are Good Muslims, but Americans Too'
By Anwar Iqbal
The annual congregations of the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Circle of North America, two umbrella organizations, attract tens of thousands of people, mostly young.
These are people who pray, or at least try to, five times a day, read the Holy Qur'an and observe other religious obligations.
As a journalist, I often attended their meetings, particularly after 9/11, when I was working for the mainstream US media and was assigned to cover their activities.
In the very first such meeting that I attended, I noticed that Islam had a new dress code in America: scarves over short shirts and tight jeans. That's for women.
The men were a little more American. The trousers were tighter, some slipping down the waist, and the shirts funkier.
But their clothes and their American manners did not prevent those US Muslims from meeting their religious obligations. When called to prayers, they hurried along to a huge hall and prostrate before God, turning their heads toward Makkah.
This was the scene at Chicago's McCormick Center where an estimated 35,000 Muslims gathered over the Labour Day weekend for the annual ISNA congregation in 2003. I attended at least half a dozen such meetings after that and did not notice any change in the dress code or in their eagerness to say the prayers.
I also noticed that the scarves, and the prayers, did not prevent these American-Muslim girls from mingling with their male peers. They were like typical American teenagers, fun-loving, frank, stubborn, and sometimes, loud-mouthed.
Throughout the four-day event, there was an obvious tension between them and the older Muslims worried at the American manners of their progeny.
Half of the estimated 35,000 participants were between 15 and 30. Many came from other cities and stayed at nearby hotels. Some partied all night, though without alcohol.
The older participants complained that the youngsters had turned an Islamic convention into a dating game. The youngsters said they were not dating but saw nothing wrong in meeting "and even in finding someone interesting as a prospective partner," as one of them, Yasmin Shah of Ohio, said.
Her mother agreed. "What's wrong if they find someone interesting and marry? After all, they have to marry someone and we cannot have a typical arranged marriage as they do back home," said Rabia Shah.
But marriage was not what Yasmin had on her mind. "You do not marry someone in four days. It's a once in a lifetime thing and you need time for making such decisions," she said.
Such statements, of course, scared the elders, who feared that if allowed together, their boys and girls might commit the ultimate sin — sex without wedlock.
"Meeting someone is fine but do so with the intention to get married and pray to God that He protects you from sins," said Rabia.
Youngsters also spent a lot of time at the little bazaar the organizers had set up inside the McCormick Center. The bazaar, which offered a variety of Middle Eastern and South Asian goods – besides a host of books on Islam – also, was a major attraction for those not so young.
During the wrap-up session on the fourth day, an elderly participant pointed out that the bazaar was a distraction and kept people away from the prayers.
"If the bazaar was a distraction who were those thousands of people who filled the hall at every prayer?" asked Khalid Khan, a young Chicago Muslim. "We are as good Muslims as others but we are different. We are Americans, too."
And the visitors did not need to go far to see how American this Muslim congregation was. Halal hot dogs and halal Kentucky Fried Chicken drew more crowds than the Middle Eastern snacks, Indian curry or Pakistani kebabs.
"Please also try this," a mother begged her two daughters, Sara, 9, and Isra, 5, offering them Indian chicken curry. But their heart was somewhere else. They wanted pizza and that's what they ate.
After the convention, some Chicago teenagers took their out-of-town Muslim guests to lunch at a restaurant that served "real Italian pizza in Chicago."
And when a newlywed couple walked into a hotel, where some of the visitors were staying, they clapped instead of greeting them with " marhaba or mubarak" as leaders of the congregation asked them to.
"He is a good speaker, listen to him," said another mother to her teenage daughter, asking her to a seminar where a physician spoke on health science. Like many Muslim parents she wanted her daughter to become a doctor.
"But mom, I do not want to listen to him. I like another speaker," said the girl and walked away to another room where second generation Muslim journalists were talking about the media and filmmaking.
"This is as American as you can get," said Ziad Abdallah, an Iraqi-American from Detroit with a big grin on his face when asked to comment on the scene.
Some of these youngsters got very upset when their American identity was questioned.
"It is as upsetting as to hear that we are not Muslims," said Salman Ahmad of New York who complained that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, some of his American friends told him he was a foreigner.
"I was born and brought up here and I am as American as any Joe, Elizabeth or Tom. My name or the color of my skin does not take away my national identity," he said.
And they felt as strongly about terrorists and their activities as did other American citizens.
"The perpetrators of 9/11 were keys to the door to evil. Think of all the evils that came out of this single act," said Muslim scholar and orator Mohammed Omar Farooq, addressing a large group of Muslim students at the McCormick Center. "I cannot think of a single good that came out of that evil deed."
The message was received with cheers and applause by the crowd, which included several thousand teenagers born or brought up in the United States.
"Evil it was but it is important to remember that it pained us as much as it did other Americans. I know many Muslims who cried when they saw the planes hit the twin towers," says Mural Toor, a young Chicago resident.
And this was how most of the people who attended the four-day annual conference felt about terrorist attacks across the world.
The fact that most of those terrorists were Muslims upset them but they were not willing to go on a guilt trip for something they had nothing to do with.
"You cannot expect an entire community of more than a billion people to feel guilty about evil deeds of a few demented people," said Adam Carroll, an Irish-American Muslim who came from New York to attend the conference.
A little more than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, American Muslims – at least the young among them – were already prepared to leave the tragedy behind and re-establish themselves as true Americans, albeit with a different faith. Their message was loud and clear: they were Americans and they were here to stay.
And the message was heard, both by other Americans and by their elders, who came to America from the Muslim world and remained divided between their past and present.
And people of other faiths helped those Muslims in reintegrating with greater American society. Soon after 9/11, the American Jewish Congress sent a letter to the Islamic Circle of North America, expressing their support to American Muslims.
"We are most interested in the careful pursuit of possible areas of agreement and common ground – not because we think agreement will be easy to achieve but because continued tensions and hostility threaten both communities," said the letter sent to the ICNA.
Young Muslims welcomed such gestures but also complained that after terrorist attacks some people blame the entire Muslim community and demand a collective apology from them.
"Why don't they ask Christians to apologize for Timothy McVeigh? He was a Christian too," asked Toor.
This indignation stemmed from the feeling that terrorism had delayed the integration of American Muslims with other Americans.
While the demand for a collective apology or hints that Muslims were lesser Americans upset all Muslims, those born and brought up here hurt more than others.
“We are Americans and we know no other identity,” one of them told this correspondent at a recent gathering in Washington. “We are here to stay.”
At another gathering of young Muslim women, also in Washington, participants pointed out that a distinct American Muslim culture was being born here: being both American and Muslim. - Courtesy Dawn