Argument

An Idiot’s Guide to Islam in America

A memo to the president-elect about the people he fears.

Children hold US flags as US President Barack Obama speaks in an overflow room during a visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, in Windsor Mill, Maryland on February 3, 2016.
Obama offered an impassioned rebuttal of "inexcusable" Republican election rhetoric against Muslims Wednesday, on his first trip to an American mosque since becoming president seven years ago. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Children hold US flags as US President Barack Obama speaks in an overflow room during a visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, in Windsor Mill, Maryland on February 3, 2016. Obama offered an impassioned rebuttal of "inexcusable" Republican election rhetoric against Muslims Wednesday, on his first trip to an American mosque since becoming president seven years ago. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

“Islam hates us.” That was a recurring theme of your campaign, Mr. President-elect.

And who can blame you? After all, your top advisors on Muslim affairs — Ann Coulter, Frank Gaffney, and Walid Phares — are card-carrying Islamophobes. Your incoming national security advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, wants Muslim leaders to “declare their Islamic ideology sick,” and your special advisor, Steve Bannon, has been accused of using his Breitbart News Daily radio show to instigate “fear and loathing of Muslims in America.”

But now that you’ve announced it’s time for America to “bind the wounds of division,” it might be useful for you to learn a little bit more about one of the most alienated segments of the nation you now lead: American citizens who also happen to be Muslims.

I get that you’re worried about what you call “radical Islamic terrorism.” I’ve been reporting on extremists who claim to represent Islam since I covered the first anti-American suicide bombings in Beirut in the early 1980s, so I share your concern. I’ve seen friends die and others waste away in captivity at their hands. And I’ve come awfully close to being a victim myself a few times. But I’ve also learned that Muslims come in many colors — literally and figuratively — and my doctorate in Islamic studies helped me understand that the religion itself is interpreted in many different ways. In fact, America’s 3.3 million Muslims, the other 1 percent, are developing their own take on what it means to follow Islam.

The jihadis are already rejoicing at your election because — their words here, not mine — it “reveals the true mentality of the Americans and their racism toward Muslims and Arabs and everything.” But what do they know?

When Bill O’Reilly asked you whether you thought American Muslims fear you, you replied, “I hope not. I want to straighten things out.”

So, in a similar spirit of good tidings, this memo about how good ol’ American values are influencing Islam in the United States might help make that whole straightening out go a little easier. Since it’s not likely that much beyond references to Islam as “a cancer” is going to make it into your briefing papers anytime soon, I thought I’d toss this out into the webosphere in the hope that you might trip across it late some night while prowling the net.

(It’s OK to just read the stuff in bold print.)

The Saudi, Egyptian, and Pakistani conservatives are losing their grip on American Islam. Those old-school clerics who espouse a Saudi-inspired brand of the religion and once had a significant presence in many American mosques are yesterday’s news for a growing number of American Muslims. If anything, the rise of the so-called Islamic State has only sped up that process.

“The light of Islam will shine from the West,” Farooq Khan of the Islamic Center of Long Island recently told me with pride in his voice. “And the reason is because we have all the constitutional protections. We have the freedom to write, freedom to speak, and freedom to interpret.”

If you were a Sunni Muslim in America in the 1970s and 1980s and wanted to study more about your religion, the odds are you ended up with a textbook written in Saudi Arabia. That was natural. After all, one of the Saudi king’s many titles is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” Translation: We call the shots when it comes to Islamic orthodoxy.

There’s no pope of Sunni Islam, the largest branch of the religion. But the chief clerics in Saudi Arabia and their counterparts at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University come awfully close. Or at least they did. That’s changing.

“We’re no longer talking about a group of Egyptian, Pakistani, or Iranian sheikhs who are imported here to teach Americans about Islam,” says Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. “More American Muslims want to have someone who articulates their vision of Islam with an American accent.”

A new generation of American Muslim religious leaders is making its voice heard. They are American-born or arrived young and grew up in the United States. Some are white converts, like Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, an Islamic university in Berkeley, California, and Suhaib Webb, who the Islamic State recently put on its hit list; others are African-American, such as Amina Wadud, who in 2005 became the first woman to lead Friday prayers in the United States (a woman also gave the call to prayer).

They are bridging what many American Muslims see as a huge disconnect in their religion. “The foreign imams make the mosques irrelevant for the majority of people who might otherwise go. They’re speaking a foreign language literally and figuratively,” argues Jihad Turk, the second-generation Palestinian-American president of Bayan Claremont, which offers graduate degrees to future imams. “We need to have a cadre of American Muslim religious leaders that were born and raised here, who get it, who can speak to the diversity, first of all, in our own community.”

Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, one of the most renowned scholars of Islamic law in the United States, says — counterintuitively — that American convert imams resonate even with immigrant Muslims. “The white guy that is all-American converts to Islam and then tells them Islam is wonderful, so it affirms to the immigrant that Islam is not all these horrible things that the public stereotypically believes in,” he explains.

Worldview, not just accent, is the key issue. Many of the old guard — and there’s plenty of them still around — wear what some in their erstwhile flock see as cultural and religious blinders. “A reinterpreted Islam is no Islam,” Jaafar Idris, a U.S.-based Sudanese cleric, preached more than a decade ago.

“Hogwash,” says Safi, the Duke professor. “This notion that Islam somehow dropped from heaven in a hermetically sealed envelope and our job is to simply preserve it can only come from somebody who doesn’t understand the way that history works and the way that religious traditions work.”

Even the conservatives among this new generation of American Muslim preachers agree that Islam can and should adapt to its time and place.

“American Muslims by and large do need to understand that the environment they’re living in is not 3rd-century Byzantium, nor is it 21st-century Saudi Arabia,” says Yasir Qadhi, an influential American imam who has more than 1 million followers on social media. “If you wish Islam to flourish in this land, you have to find and create local clergy; you have to bring about a new generation of scholars who are fully Western and fully in sync with the tradition of Islam.”

These new American imams are not (necessarily) anti-Saudi. Far from it. Many owe their expertise to clerics in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, or, in the case of Shiite Muslims, Iran. Qadhi is an example. Before completing a doctorate in theology at Yale University, he spent years in the holy city of Medina, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Arabic and Islamic theology, respectively. But these American imams are taking what they learned in those years in the seat of Islamic orthodoxy and putting their own spin on it.

Qadhi says this isn’t about “fixing” Islam to placate the anti-Muslim crowd, nor is it an overnight spiritual revolution. It’s a cultural evolution. “This is going to be an ongoing struggle, I believe, for at least another generation,” he says.

It’s not only those who grew up in America who are leading the evolution of the religion here. Many recent arrivals have also embraced the movement.

“A Muslim American has to understand his religion in American context — not in Arabian context, not in Sudanese context, not in Egyptian context,” explains Mohamed Magid, an influential Sudanese-born cleric who came to the United States in 1987 after studying in Saudi Arabia and now runs a network of mosques and community centers in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. “What it means for you to understand American history to celebrate American freedom.”

Manifestations of this new, “American” Islam can be seen in the removal of the walls that divide men and women in the mosque (though female imams, like their Catholic counterparts, are still forbidden); in the provision of social services and interfaith community engagement; and in heightened levels of political and social activism — whether on the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri; at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests; or this election’s get-out-the-vote drives.

It comes down to this, says lawyer Cherrefe Kadri, one of the first women in the United States elected to head an Islamic center: “What should Islamic centers be doing? Are we just some place to go and pray and grow a beard and five times a day open a door? Or are we more than that?”

An “Americanized” Islam does not necessarily mean a “liberal” Islam, but the reality is that most of this new generation of Islamic preachers are moving away from what Middle East scholar Vali Nasr describes as Saudi Arabia’s “very legalistic … very austere” and “very black-and-white” approach to Islam.

Yet drill below the broad agreement over the need for cultural adaptation and you quickly come up against the question of what constitutes reform and what amounts to heresy.

“Mainstream traditionalists, by and large, are not going to be willing to explicitly discard commandments that have been agreed upon historically, commandments that are essentially etched in what we would call textual stone,” explains Qadhi, who counts himself among the traditionalists. He draws red lines around issues like premarital sex, women leading prayers, and homosexual acts, although, regarding the latter, he adds, “We’ve essentially permitted and humanized the feelings, and we have forbidden the actions on them.”

Omid Safi represents the self-styled “progressive” wing of American Islam. He quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu’s line that “I will not worship a homophobic God,” calling it “powerful” and “truth-telling.”

Somewhere in the middle is Magid, whom anti-Muslim campaigners call “Obama’s sharia czar” for his role as a White House advisor. He chuckles proudly as he recalls telling Muslim parents that they need to give their teenagers space “as long as the girl doesn’t get pregnant,” which leads to horrified reactions.

“I say you need to deal with the situation with an American context,” Magid says he told the parents. “Religion is not about you feeling good. The social manifestation of Islam has to be completely American.”

Like so many who trained under the Saudis, Magid says he initially adopted their ultraconservative Salafi, or Wahhabi, ideology. “I don’t call myself Salafi anymore. I call myself orthodox,” he says, smiling. “Even the Salafis in America evolve.”

An American accent does not automatically mean someone is a good person. Anwar al-Awlaki is the poster child for that. Born in New Mexico, Awlaki grew up to become a leading ideologue and recruiter for al Qaeda, with a vast social media presence. It was that American accent that made him so compelling. Even though he was assassinated in 2011 by a U.S. drone in Yemen, online videos of his lectures continue to inspire a new generation of extremists. Awlaki is a reminder that the tiny subset of “homegrown” extremists is a very real threat and must be identified and distinguished from the vast majority of Muslims in America.

Of course, not all American imams ride motorcycles or play in punk rock bands like Saad Tasleem, who has his own clothing line and is an instructor at AlMaghrib Institute, which bills itself as a place that doesn’t “turn learning Islam into a snoozefest.” Many imams — from places like Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia — still hew to an approach more in keeping with the societies from which they emigrated. At the most religiously conservative (that’s not a synonym for political “extremist”) end of the spectrum, bodies like the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America are fighting a rearguard action with an approach that would be at home in the most fundamentalist Pakistani madrasa.

Emblematic is the organization’s recent “Recommendations of the Conference on Contemporary Dawah Issues in the West,” which included this ruling on the fiqh, or understanding, of the fundamentals of Islam: “Music that excites the desires and leads one to immoral acts is, by agreement, unacceptable. As for other types of music, there is a difference of opinion. The majority are of the opinion that they are all forbidden and that is the strongest view from a fiqh perspective. The least that could be said is that it is from the doubtful matters and it is safest to avoid it.”

But the graybeards of the old guard are losing their influence. Those advocating for an evolution of Islam in the United States say the emergence of a new generation of American Muslims — children of the immigrants of the 1980s and 1990s — raised on social media and hip hop, means that to be relevant, the cultural mores of the religion, though not the core values, must likewise adapt.

At the heart of this evolution of American Islam is the question of religious authority. Sharia, a dirty word to the Islamophobes, refers to the corpus of Islamic teachings, which includes the Quran, the holy book said to be the word of God; the Hadith, oral traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed; accounts of the prophet’s life; and the voluminous opinions from religious scholars through the centuries on the meaning and application of those words and deeds. At least in the modern era, the Saudis and Egyptians for the Sunnis, and Iranians for the Shiites, have traditionally seen it as their responsibility to determine the proper application of Islamic laws for the global ummah, or community of Muslims. Not everyone still agrees.

American scholars believe the day is coming soon when that religious authority will reside in the United States. “I do think that the scholars who are rooted in the realities and the complexities of America have increasingly more religious authority,” says Sohaib Sultan, the imam at Princeton University. “Knowing people’s customs and traditions is very important when making any sort of religious ruling.”

“Islamic authority has moved from around the world,” says Magid. “It was in Mecca, then it went to Medina. Then it went to Damascus, then it went to Baghdad. Then it went to Spain, then it went to Turkey. Now it’s in America.”

The United States is not alone in this attempt to shed the straitjacket of traditionalist thought. Journalist and scholar James M. Dorsey, who has tracked the flow of money out of Saudi Arabia, reports that Riyadh has spent up to $100 billion spreading its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam around the globe. Not all Muslims are happy about that.

In Indonesia, which has almost as many Muslims as the entire Arab world, the largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, launched an “Islam archipelago” campaign, arguing that Indonesians have as much right to determine religious interpretation as the Arabs. Likewise, in Pakistan, where Saudi money fueled the network of madrasas that have trained a generation of extremists, I’ve met plenty of Muslims who refer to Saudi Arabia as the “evil empire.”

Money talks, and Gulf money — particularly Saudi money — has played a major role in the expansion of Islam in America over the past two decades. A major wave of immigration meant that, between 1990 and 2010, the Muslim population in the United States almost doubled to what the Pew Research Center estimated to be 3.3 million in 2015. As a result, the number of mosques in the United States grew at about the same rate in the first decade of this century to more than 2,000, according to a 2011 survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Gulf money helped fuel that expansion (though the exact level of funding can’t be confirmed).

But that’s all changing.

“Saudi money is nowhere near as available as it was,” says Abou El Fadl of UCLA. “I’ve seen a very clear rolling back on the availability of funds and a great reluctance to bankroll blindly various organizations in the way that used to be in the ’80s and ’90s especially.”

The catalyst was 9/11. Various Saudi-funded charities, like the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, were accused of ties with al Qaeda; a Saudi-backed Islamic training center in suburban Virginia was raided by the FBI, and some of its clergy, who carried Saudi diplomatic passports, were expelled. The recently declassified “missing” 28 pages from the 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks alleged — without providing evidence — that at least one Los Angeles mosque was laundering terrorist funds. All this, coupled with the drop in oil prices that has led to severe belt-tightening at home, means the Saudis and the Gulf emirates have significantly reduced their largesse. Abou El Fadl of UCLA, who has close ties with members of the Saudi royal family, points to another reason behind the House of Saud’s parsimoniousness toward overseas religious projects. “They wish they could rid themselves of the Wahhabism all together, but they know that it’s impossible domestically,” he says.

Would-be American imams can still study for free in Saudi Arabia, but, Abou El Fadl told me, “they’re not going to have the type of easy power that comes from having the means of controlling the flow of money” like in the old days.

The Arab Spring has intensified the turn away from the traditional centers of Islamic teaching as leading religious figures in places like Egypt have become apologists for the authoritarian regimes that crushed the revolution.

“On a moral level, you have a big problem. The figures you were previously looking to for religious knowledge are now supporting political decisions that you think are very obviously terrible,” says Jonathan Brown of Georgetown University, author of the recent book Misquoting Muhammad. “One of the biggest changes in Islam, at least at an intellectual level, since 2013 has been that Muslim scholars in America have really been more and more on their own, which I think is good; they’re forced to think about things on their own.”

The growth of homegrown centers of Islamic learning means that tomorrow’s imams may not even need to leave the borders of the United States to get their religious education; institutions such as Zaytuna College and Bayan Claremont in California, AlMaghrib Institute and Bayyinah in Texas, and Chicago’s American Islamic College are providing those same opportunities.

Back in the traditional centers of learning abroad, there is a sometimes grudging acknowledgement that the baton is gradually being passed, even in Shiite Islam, where the Iranian ayatollahs play a role much more akin to that of the Catholic clergy in dictating orthodoxy.

“I speak to scholars there, and they say, ‘It’s up to you to come up with solutions to these things,’” reports Hadi Qazwini, a Shiite Muslim doctoral student at the University of Southern California who spent years studying at Qom’s Islamic seminary. “There is recognition, I think, slowly but surely that Muslims in the United States also have a developing authority to find solutions for the various challenges that they’re facing.”

To Indonesian-born Imam Shamsi Ali, who stood with then-President George W. Bush at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11 but ultimately ran afoul of the traditionalists for his dedication to interfaith dialogue, that’s very good news. “People around the world look to America as the superpower, and I think American Muslims can play an important role to balance the Saudis’ ridged interpretation of Islam,” he says.

Muslim clerics in America spend a lot of their time working to prevent radicalization. Whether in informal dialogues with youth groups or confidential chats with young people whose anger at their treatment in America or of U.S. foreign policy is spilling over, most American imams work hard to not just “talk the talk” about Islam being a religion of peace, on issues of Islamic doctrine or American politics.

“I have encountered some of the young that are really, really angry towards Donald Trump’s political rhetoric. There is truly a big responsibility on us to bring them back on track and provide the genuine Islamic stand on issues,” says Ali. “We try to let them know we can disagree on policy but doing something bad in the name of disagreement is certainly not American.”

Mr. President-elect, to sum it all up:

“People don’t like the word ‘American Islam,’ but this is Islam in America. It’s unique, it is very integrated, it’s holistic, it’s diverse — and it should be always tolerant and tolerated.” So says Mohamed Magid, the imam who used to advise Obama. He’s based out near Dulles Airport. I’m sure he’d be happy to stop by for a chat. Oh, wait. Breitbart, the news website once run by Bannon, your new chief strategist and senior advisor, alleges Magid “has deep ties to radicalism.”

I guess one memo isn’t going to change much. Can I interest you in some White House staffing suggestions?

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Lawrence Pintak is a journalist and scholar who has reported on America’s relationship with the Muslim world since 1980. He is a non-resident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent with a PhD in Islamic Studies, he is the author of several books on relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. “Islam for Journalists (and Everyone Else)” will be published on Kindle in March.

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