This first appeared in the print edition of Weekly Trust on November 11, 2006.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
What is the state of Islam in America in the age of the “war on terror”? How have the September 11 attacks affected Islam in America? These are some of the concerns that some readers of this column wanted me to address.
I don’t pretend to be in a position to do justice to these questions since I have only been to about 16 states out of the 50 states in this country.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that the September 11 attacks both hurt and helped the growth of Islam in this country. In a rather paradoxical way, 911 at once expanded and constricted the social distance between Islam and Western ethos by simultaneously inviting attention to Islam from those who had never given it a thought and by outright repulsing others.
Those who were invited either found surprising doctrinal affinities between Islam and Christianity and had a reason to convert—or at least be more sympathetic— to Islam or had a reason to reinforce their prejudices against Islam.
For instance, I have a white American female friend who converted to Islam in the aftermath of 911 while trying to find out what drives Muslim resentment against the West. She decided to study the Qur’an to get a sense of the doctrines of Islam, which are believed by some to be the inspirational springboard for Muslim hatred of and violence against the West.
In the process of her search, she not only disproved her presuppositions; she was enthralled by the message of the Qur’an. And after deep ruminations and inner battles, she converted to Islam. There are many like her.
The September 11 attacks, of course, also provided a rich rhetorical staple for hatemongering against Muslims by people who resent Islam, not out of ignorance of its teachings, but out of a visceral aversion to anything that has been socially constructed for them as different; anything that dislocates their habitual perception of reality and that upsets their settled certainties. People with that kind of mindset exist in all regions and religions of the world.
But these are not the only effects of September 11 on Islam here. The backwash of the attacks has also inspired a lot of self-censorship among some Muslims. Many Muslims, afraid of being unfairly profiled because of their faith, routinely conceal their Muslim identity. This concealment often takes one of two forms: outright name change or the twisting of Muslim names to make them sound Western—or anything but Muslim. This appears to be more common among certain Muslim immigrants than among indigenous American Muslims.
I remember my experience with a Sierra Leonean Muslim in Washington, D.C. in 2003. He worked as a clerk at a hotel where I lodged. While he was checking me in, he introduced himself to me (and other guests at the hotel) as Mo Abby. However, when he saw my first name, I noticed that he took an unusual interest in me.
After a while, he came to my room to ask if I was a Muslim. When I answered in the affirmative, he then told me that he was also a Muslim. He said his actual names are Mohammed Abbas, but that he changed his names after September 11 because he didn’t want to be stereotyped— and perhaps fired from jobs.
His example is not an isolated one. I have heard of many Rayans who changed their names to Ryan, Faruks who changed their names to Frank, Bilyamins who introduce themselves to people as Billy, etc.
However, while there are occasional cases of extreme Islamophobia (that is, the irrational fear of or aversion to Islam and Muslims, which can sometimes manifest in violent acts) many Muslims in America, at least from my experience, basically enjoy wide latitude to practice their religion without molestation.
There are several beautiful mosques in many major cities. And many people, including Samuel Huntington (that man who predicted a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West), say that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Of course, some non-Muslims contest the accuracy of this claim.
Especially from the period President Bill Clinton became president, Islam has also been steadily enjoying official recognition in ways it never did previously. All Muslim festivals are now accorded presidential recognition. A postal stamp with Arabic inscriptions to honor the end of the Ramadan was approved by the U.S. Postal Service last October. Many cultural and religious conservatives who are scandalized by this gesture are campaigning for a boycott of the stamps, but the stamps are in circulation nonetheless.
Again, Muslim prayers are now said in many formal governmental occasions. Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad’s son that I talked about earlier in this series, became the first Muslim to give the invocation in the U.S. Senate. In 1993, he also gave an Islamic prayer during the first Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service of President Bill Clinton, and in 1997 at the second Interfaith Prayer Service.
W.D. Muhammad (as he’s popularly called), by the way, is still alive and now heads a well-respected Muslim organization called The Mosque Cares, which is a mainstream Muslim group that propagates the message of Islam to America. He and Louis Farahkan recently embraced in public and settled their age-long differences, but Farakhan remains married to the doctrines of the Nation of Islam.
This concludes this series.
From my mailbox
Because of the constraints of space, I have decided to reproduce only two of the responses I have received to this series. I am reproducing these two because of their informative content.
I read an article you wrote that I really liked titled “Islam in America (II).” I read your article on one of the Islamic yahoo groups, kanoshia to be exact.
Please forward me any further articles on the subject as well as any past articles and/or webpage where there are more of your articles. I am living in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
I was born in America and have been a Muslim for 23 years. I remember the different stages of Islam in America as I was growing up but would love to know more about Islam prior to and in addition to the Nation of Islam.
To my knowledge, it was the NOI [that] introduced the masses of black people here in America to Islam, even though it wasn't true Islam. Prior to that, most Americans (especially black) had never heard of Islam.
There [were] the followers of Nobel Drew Ali prior to the NOI but that was only a handful of people and not widely known. I first came to know of Islam through Malcolm X and the NOI, then from various black nationalists who broke off from various secular movements to become Muslims after Malcolm left the NOI.
I then saw these Muslims practicing the concepts of piety and charity that really touched my heart...
Mikaeel Abdu Al-Wadood (email@example.com)
I read your article on “Islam in America.” I really appreciate all the evidences you provided therein. They are all accurate. I would suggest to you to visit Boston Port in Massachusetts.
There you will find the ship that brought the first African slaves to this country. On the ship, they wrote their names in Arabic. They were all Muslims. There was a will left by one of them, which he wrote in Arabic, and he concluded it with chapter 110 from the Holy Qur’an!
Mustapha Maikudi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Oklahoma City, USA.