Monday, November 26, 2007

Muslim St. Louis

Since setting up a phone line in my apartment, I have received several calls, but none of them for me. A woman named “Betty” is slightly more popular than a man named “Jeffrey.” Some callers are more voice-perceptive than others, contributing just half an explicative to our conversations.

On Saturday morning, the phone rang when I was still in bed. I made a barefoot dash, trusting that the first call that I didn’t answer would be for me.

“As-salamu alaykum,” a woman said.

“I think you have the wrong number,” I said.

“Oh.” Click.

Before listening to St. Louis on the Air (90.7 KWMU) on September 26th, I hadn’t thought about Muslims in St. Louis. I knew about the large number of Bosnian-Americans living in the city, but I hadn’t met anyone from that community or considered their religious background.

Don Marsh’s program that day was called “Islamic Religion,” suggesting a religious genre rather than a singular faith.

“What’s the Islamic equivalent of a Catholic?” I wondered. “Or a Quaker?”

Marsh introduced the program with statistical data released on September 25th by The Pew Research Center. The results indicated that fifty-eight percent of Americans (actually, fifty-eight percent of the 3,002 individuals who participated in the poll) know little or nothing about the practices of Islam, a percentage that has changed very little since 2001.

A few weeks later, when I met with Melissa Matos, director of the St. Louis chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights advocacy group for Muslims in North America, I started the conversation with questions that I hoped were basic, but not misguided.

“Can you clarify the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim?’” I asked.

“Islam—that’s the religion,” she said. “A Muslim is the believer, equivalent to a Christian or a Jew. Islamic is what you would probably call an object or an action, but Muslim is just a person.”

“What’s your ethnicity?” I asked.

Melissa is Dominican-American. She was born in New York City and grew up in what she described as a “pretty religious” Protestant family, “which is unusual in itself for being Hispanic.”

“When I say ‘religious family,’ people might get the idea that my parents drove me out of Christianity or something,” she said, “but I was happy growing up in the Church.”

Melissa attended a private Christian high school, where she assumed leadership roles as class chaplain and student body president.

“When I got to college, though, I studied history and there were just some things that made me question [certain aspects of] Christianity and I became an atheist. I just felt like maybe everything was sort of made up and we’re here on this big blue ball and nothing really matters.”

“I started to study the Qur’an because I was interested in what other people believed. You grow up in a world, or at least I did, where you’re in your little ethnic enclave and you don’t really know anything outside of that.”

“When reading the Qur’an, I just didn’t think it could’ve been written by a person. And it made me believe that, ‘Wow, there’s a higher power, and I believe that this higher power chose to explain itself to us through several different prophets.’ I believed that and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a Muslim.’”

I asked Melissa how her parents felt about her conversion.

“It was difficult for them,” she said. “I think a lot of their understanding of Islam was nine eleven. That’s it. But over the past three and a half years, my parents have been extremely resilient. I have a very close relationship with them. I talk with them almost every day.”

Again, I needed clarification. Over four years into the United States military occupation of Iraq, I’m still struggling to grasp the superficial differences between the Sunni and Shia denominations of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar’s new book, What Do Muslims Believe?, explains that the schism occurred in 632 AD as the result of a succession conflict after the death of the prophet, Muhammad. Shia Muslims (or Shiites) believe in hereditary spiritual leadership, adhering to a lineage drawn from Prophet Muhammad’s extended family, and acknowledge the supreme authority of individual leaders, whereas Sunni communities are more autonomous in recognizing their own religious leadership.

A crude map illustrates the simple point that the majority of Muslims (eighty-five percent) are Sunni. Iran is unique for being overwhelmingly Shia (ninety percent) and having a theocratically Shia constitution. Iraq also has a Shia majority of about sixty-five percent, which suffered under the persecution of Saddam Hussein. The current government in Iraq is Shia-dominated and when the U.S. government and media talk about “insurgents,” they are referring to Sunni-Arabs, though the military focus appears to have shifted to Shia militias, such as the Mahdi Army under Muqtada al-Sadr, and their connections to Iran.

See Mother Jones for “Iraq 101.”

“I don’t identify with one [denomination],” Melissa said. “I do recognize that there are people who classify themselves as a Sunni or Shia or Sufi or something like this. The differences that they have are usually based on legal interpretation or who should be a leader, but the basics of the religion are all sort of the same.”

“I wouldn’t identify myself as any particular thing, and a lot of Muslims feel that way. You ask them, ‘Are you Shia or Sunni?’ They say, ‘I’m Muslim,’ but in other places it’s different.”

Sitting across from Melissa at a small Starbucks table, I realized that I had never spoken at any length with a Muslim woman. Feeling more comfortable after our introduction, I asked Melissa about her headscarf and she taught me the correct pronunciation of the term hijab. Basically, it’s he-jab, except that the j sounds like the s in confusion.

Melissa has, as she says, “covered” since converting to Islam three and a half years ago.

“The majority of Muslim women do not wear the head cover,” she said. “The idea in general is modesty for both men and women. So you have some women who don’t cover but dress modestly, and then some women who cover like I do. It’s a personal choice for every woman.”

Randa Kuziez, who had been a guest on St. Louis on the Air and is the treasurer of the national Muslim Student’s Association, started wearing the hijab outside of her mosque on her first day of high school. She said many people would approach her with questions, particularly when she joined the track team.

At one meet, a coach from a different high school approached her and said, “Hey, it looks like you’re wearing a big Band-Aid on your head. Did you just get out of the hospital?”

“It is frustrating sometimes,” Randa said. “Some friends I know that used to cover their hair took off their scarf because they felt like they were not being looked at as regular people. They felt they were just being looked at for the scarf, as Muslims.”

“With the increasing sentiments against Islam, it was difficult for them to know that everyone was staring at them, using their actions as an example for Islam, and this pressure unfortunately led some women to take off their hijab.”

“I often remind myself that this is our role in life—to please God, to practice our religion freely and it is nice to prove that just because I wear hijab doesn’t mean I don't have a personality. If someone thinks that, so what?”

Melissa, who describes the hijab as a “conversation starter,” is also familiar with the questions and occasional stares. Broadening non-Muslims’ understanding of Islam is part of her job. With thirty-three offices in the U.S. and one in Canada, CAIR promotes a balanced image of Muslims and their religion through inter-faith programs and supports victims of civil rights abuse, more often employing intervention and education strategies than legal action.

“[Our mission], first, is to educate Muslims about their rights—that they are here, that they have just as much right as anyone else to fair and equal treatment, to not feeling afraid, being able to do what they want, say what they want to say, just like anyone else has the right.”

“On the other side of that, we work with the St. Louis community at large to demonstrate that Muslims are part and parcel of this state, of this city, of this country, and are hardworking Americans that love America just like everyone else.”

According to Sardar’s book, there are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, approximately seven million of who live in this country.

“It’s funny,” Melissa said. “When people hear the statistics of Muslims in the U.S., they are usually really surprised.”

Melissa told me about an incident that occurred in Florida when she was working for the Miami chapter of CAIR, in which a Muslim family’s home was vandalized and set on fire. When the family surveyed the damage, they were perplexed to find anti-Arab epithets spray-painted on their walls, despite the fact that they were Bosnian.

“The majority of Muslims living in the United States are not Arab,” Melissa said. “The majority of Arabs in the United States are not Muslim. More than sixty percent are Christian.”

The Muslim population of St. Louis is composed of Bosnians, African-Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Arabs, recent refugees from Somalia and people of various ethnic backgrounds who have converted to Islam.

Until I met Dr. Mark Chmiel, professor of Social Justice at St. Louis University, I was using the phrase, “the Muslim community,” to describe this population.

“Communities,” he said. “It’s really the Muslim communities.”

Melissa invited me to attend the Friday service with her the following day at the Daar-Ul Islam mosque on Weidman Road, across from Queeny Park. Located in St. Louis County, this is the area’s largest mosque, serving a predominately Indian sub-continental population of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi-Americans. Depending on the time of year, the services begin at around one or one-thirty in the afternoon and constitute the week’s most formal gathering for worship.

I arrived at one-fifteen and took my time crossing the parking lot. Daar-Ul Islam is an off-white building with a bronze dome and a tall minaret, traditionally providing a high platform for the call to prayer. I sat on a small bench next to a fountain near the entrance. Many people, people that I had never imagined lived in St. Louis, walked past me looking more diverse in their dress and appearance than the members of my parents’ church. Some men had beards, others were clean-shaven. Many women wore head covers, others did not. I saw robes and business suits, kids in school uniforms and one teenager in a t-shirt.

“Would you like to come inside?” a man asked me.

“Oh, I’m waiting for a friend,” I said. “Thanks.”

Melissa arrived and introduced me to Aftab Ahmad, who teaches tenth-grade Sunday school at the Islamic center within the mosque and conducts trainings for local law enforcement on Islam and Muslim communities. Aftab would be directing me into the sanctuary, as women congregate on an upstairs balcony, separate from the men.

“Not because they are less than us,” Aftab later explained. “Of course not. In the eyes of religion, in the eyes of God, men and women are equal. But, even in the house of God, there is an uninvited guest, which is Satan. If there was a woman praying in front of me, then she would be uncomfortable. If there was a woman praying behind me, then I would be uncomfortable. So it’s best to keep us separate when we are here to worship.”

Aftab estimated that a thousand people were in attendance that day, which I could believe, standing before the expanse of footwear in the lobby. Having removed our shoes, Aftab and I entered the carpeted sanctuary. There were a few supporting columns throughout the room and the walls were bare, except for the Arabic script ringing the inside of the dome.

Hafiz Majid conducted the service from a simple podium. Hafiz is a title given to someone who has memorized the Qur’an. Every mosque community designates its own religious leader, or Imam, considered the most learned in regard to the laws and teachings of Islam, but anyone with sufficient knowledge and experience can deliver the sermon, which shifts fluidly between Arabic and English.

The congregation sat on the floor, except for a few elderly men who were provided chairs. At the back of the room, I was surrounded by a group of boys, probably between ages five and eleven, who restlessly poked and nudged each other in silence throughout the service.

After the sermon, the congregation stood in line formation, facing the pulpit, which is oriented to the Ka’bah, the holy site in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. Verses of the Qur’an were recited and the congregation knelt.

“The Qur’an is the absolute word of God,” Aftab would tell me, “from His lips to mankind. From His lips to Gabriel to Prophet Mohammad and then to mankind. So much so that not even a period, a verse, a chapter has changed from the day it was delivered to the end of time, because God says in the Qur’an, ‘I myself will protect this book.’”

“How he chose to protect it is not in the physical books, but in the hearts and minds of millions of people, generation after generation, that memorized this book from cover to cover, 114 chapters, over 6,000 verses.”

As Aftab later explained, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to pray, but it is in the Hadith, the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, a document of his words and deeds, that practices such as the five daily prayers are explicated.

Although I was in the last line, near the exit, I felt like an eyesore as everyone prostrated their heads to the floor and I was left standing. The experience was similar to Christmas services in my grandparents’ Catholic church, as the congregation made the Sign of the Cross and the desire to seek inclusion through mimicry tingled in my hand.

Another finding in The Pew Research Center’s poll was that seventy percent of non-Muslim Americans believe that their own religions are “very different” from Islam.

“From the Muslim perspective,” Aftab said as we sat together, away from the post-service mingling and the putting on of shoes, “we will say that Islam really comes from the time of Adam because the word ‘Islam’ means, ‘submission of your will to that of God’s through peace.’”

“So, from that perspective, all of the prophets submitted to the will of God through peace and are therefore, by definition, Muslim. Except that, of course, the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, being the last of the messengers of God in a line of 124,000 prophets, Adam being the first and then you know the names—Moses, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, David, Jesus, and so on.”

“Jesus is a prophet of God, not a son of God. We believe that he was born to Mary without any human intervention and that he did all of the miracles that the Qur’an says and similar things are mentioned in the Bible as well, but we don’t believe he was crucified and we don’t believe that he died on the cross. We believe that at the time when they came in search of him, God lifted him to himself. So he is alive in heaven and he will return towards the end of time and he will fulfill his mission then and he will die a natural death.”

“From the Muslim perspective, if we don’t believe in Jesus, then we’re not Muslim.”

Walking across the emptied parking lot to my car, I wanted to identify the elements that felt familiar in my experience at the mosque—a message of tolerance in the sermon or the atmosphere of excitement and, possibly, relief following the service as people greeted their relatives and friends, though I didn’t see donuts.

For Dr. Khaled Hamid, who had also been interviewed on St. Louis on the Air, the perception of difference expressed in the Pew Poll and the American public’s misconceptions of Islam are the result of willful deception.

“Do you think there are any terms or vocabulary that are essentially misunderstood?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah. A lot,” he said and laughed. “There is tremendous ignorance here, and you add to the ignorance all of the very heated and emotional issues of wars and terrorism, and all the weird exotic things that non-Muslims in the United States think they know about us that we actually don’t know about ourselves.”

“It’s very difficult to have a comprehensive discussion about this. It would take forever.”

Khaled did address the vocabulary that many Americans associate with Islam.

“The phrase ‘holy war’ has no root in Islamic culture,” he said. “The word ‘infidels’ has no root in Islamic culture. These two terms actually evolved and appeared for the first time as Christian terminology during the time of the Crusades and even later amongst fighting factions within Christianity itself.”

“The Qur’an uses a term for Christians and Jews collectively and it’s not ‘the infidels’ or anything that would translate close to that. It’s ‘the people of the book,’ referring to people who believe in divine revelation that came before the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him.”

Beyond language, I know from watching CNN and Fox News that images of violence have been linked with images of Muslims engaged in prayer, through visual montage.

“All the evils that we either know for a fact or are sometimes led to believe is done by Muslims, is it done because of the way they fulfill the religion or is it done because of something else?” Khaled asked.

“It’s not the religion issue. Whether it’s, ‘We want the Americans out of Iraq because they are occupiers,’ or, ‘We don’t like Israelis because we’ve been living in refugee camps forever,’ it is something else that’s motivating them.”

“I’m not condoning these things,” he said. “Civilians are definitely protected in the Qur’an and should not be a part of any war. Actually, even fighters at war, once they drop their weapon, you are obliged as a Muslim to protect them. Somebody can do very evil things against you and yet you cannot reply in kind. That is part of the commitment of any truly religious person.”

“That’s the part that is very mysterious for most people in the Western world.”

Less than a week after the June 30th bombing at Glasgow International Airport, reportedly perpetrated by medical professionals, Khaled participated in a panel discussion featuring local physicians in order to address the concerns of non-Muslim communities. Journalists from The New York Times, Public Radio International, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other local media outlets covered the event.

“One of the people there, a reporter, kept saying, ‘Muslims are not speaking up. Why aren’t you talking? Where are the moderates?’ and this is something echoed everywhere,” Khaled said.

The Muslim visibility campaign continued with a demonstration at the Daar-Ul Islam mosque a few weeks later, clarifying the stance of the Muslim community and its religious leadership on issues of terrorism. Though the press had been notified, the only journalist in attendance was Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who Khaled described as a friend.

“This is a fight that we unfortunately cannot win as a Muslim community or, for that purpose, any community that ends up in our situation,” Khaled said. “If there isn’t a hot issue, nobody wants to listen.”

Having met with four people who attend the same West County mosque, I wanted to speak with individuals from other Muslim communities.

Imam Muhamed Hasic moved to St. Louis from Canada in 1997, at the invitation of the Islamic Foundation, to help create a cultural and linguistic bridge between the established Muslim community and the newly arrived Bosnian refugees. Hasic had originally traveled to Canada for a three-month vacation, but had been unable to return to his country due to the outbreak of the Bosnian War. In 2001 he and a group of volunteers opened the Medina Masjid (or mosque) on the south side of St. Louis City.

“We didn’t get any grants,” Hasic said. “It was basically the local community—those people who work very hard, like jobs with seven or eight bucks an hour, and some of them were giving ten bucks, others two hundred. So we collected, at that time, around two hundred thousand for this place.”

When I arrived on a weekday afternoon, Imam Hasic welcomed me into an empty mosque. His desk and the shelves behind him were overwhelmed with books and paperwork.

“We don’t have many employees,” he said. “We don’t have many volunteers. We’re just struggling to keep the basic things.”

“How many employees do you have?” I asked.

“It’s only me,” he said. “I do the religious services. I do the administration. I do the social services.”

Citing education and employment opportunities as the main issues of concern for the community that he serves, Hasic explained that he hopes to provide more than just a setting for religious observance.

“They get the comfort,” he said, “the feeling like at home, but at the same time, they learn the [English] language and how the society around them works. They don’t lose their identity. You can learn and understand as a Bosnian or a Bosnian Muslim, but you can also be a decent and good American. Nothing is contradictory between these two. If you are a good Muslim, you are definitely a good American.”

Just before the entrance to the unmarked, single-story building, three men were in the process of constructing a massive minaret. The structure will become a prominent landmark along South Kingshighway Boulevard.

“It’s very exciting,” Hasic said. “It’s kind of symbolizing the freedom of religious expression in America, which is very important for the refugees. At the same time, giving people the pride for what they are. They’re building this identity and they feel they are part of the society.”

For the last stop on this many-week journey, I drove north on Kingshighway, past Forest Park and the Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, past the affluent neighborhoods of the Central West End, to an area in North St. Louis that I had never visited before. I noticed that the pedestrians and the drivers around me were mostly African-American. I parked in front of Better Bakery and met Imam Samuel Ansari just inside the door.

Imam Ansari serves a predominately African-American Muslim community that congregates at the Masjid Al-Mu-Minun Islamic Center on Grand Avenue. This community was originally established in the mid-1950’s as part of the Nation of Islam, but has functioned autonomously since the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, when his son, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, shifted the organization into alignment with mainstream Islam.

“Certainly we recognize the good that Elijah Muhammad did as a social reformer, trying to look at the conditions that African-Americans were subjected to,” Ansari said. “He used more of a reverse psychology to address that situation. I feel that it was very effective. It was not something that was designed to be continued on, in terms of the rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, in terms of the white man being the devil and that kind of thing.”

“The majority of the community there, on Grand, stayed and accepted the leadership of the son. The criteria is the Qur’an and the thing to be emulated is the example of Prophet Muhammad.”

As it was past five o’clock, the Better Bakery had already closed and I sat with Imam Ansari in the dining area as the sun set, dimming the room. He was still wearing his apron and explained that the bakery has been in business and associated with the Muslim community for over thirty years.

We talked about the divisions within the larger St. Louis Muslim community.

“You’ll find that there’s an agreement in language and principles,” he said, “but I think each community has their own unique situation and concerns.”

“The main thing that brings the community together across ethnic lines and language barriers would be the two Eids. Eid ul-Fitr, which is the celebration of the ending of Ramadan and Eid ul-Adha, which is connected with the Hajj [the annual pilgrimage to Mecca].”

“Other than that, the communities pretty much work on whatever their goals and objectives are. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. That’s the way life is.”

“As a country, we still haven’t been able to break down barriers that allow people to respectfully and genuinely mix. You find areas that have a diversity of people, but I don’t think there’s a real mixing of people, where they really feel that they’re interacting as people.”

In light of the ideological divisions that distinguish the major religions, Ansari sympathizes with individuals who may be more concerned with their financial stability than religious maxims. He believes that recognizing common principles and experiences is essential for any kind of social progress.

“My understanding is that all of the religious scriptures say that God rewards any good that people do. Any good. I mean, if you don’t even believe in God and you do good, you treat people respectfully and you try to help them to the best of your ability, God is going to reward that.”

“To me, Islam says that there is one humanity, and if what I believe does not recognize your freedom to believe what you choose, then I need to question my belief. God gives us this freedom.”

“I think we just have to come to grips with the reality that whatever we want to believe in or practice should enhance the decency and the integrity of every human being.”

Before leaving Better Bakery, I purchased two pies—sweet potato and bean. The bean pie consists of a sweet custard made from navy beans, sugar, butter and milk, and is associated with the Nation of Islam as Elijah Muhammad encouraged its consumption in lieu of richer foods. I drove home with the pair sitting heavy in my passenger seat and sampled both in my kitchen, struggling to remember what life had been like before tasting bean pie and meeting all of these people.


phil said...

Good work, ryan. Twas worth the wait!

Anonymous said...

Informative and attitude changing. Thank you Ryan for writing this piece. I know I know more...I know there is more to know.
Your biased Mom

katie said...

Wow Ryan, I really learned a lot and it makes me want to learn more. Just taking the moment to sit down and talk with different people of all backgrounds is so important. Thanks.

Dad said...

So informative and well written! Thanks for again broadening our view of the world we live in. Dad

Anonymous said...

"There is tremendous ignorance here"

I think that there is a lot of ignorance but Dr. Khaled Hamid is leading the march.

He should be directing his outreach to the huge number of apparently misunderstanding Muslims from Afganistan to Palistine to the Philippines to Britain to most of the Middle East who have shouted "Allah Akbar" before blowing themselves up along with fellow human beings.

Did he personally know any of his fellow CAIR officials which have been convicted of links to terrorism from Palestine to Pakistan?

He should be more concern that a huge number of his fellow participants in Islam have somehow gotten the idea that Allah commands that they should kill non-believers.

I don't know how it happened or really care but they should fix it!

sfcmac said...

Hey Ryan,
Your fluff piece glossing over the atrocities and terrorist roots of Islam, doesn't fly with those of us who know better. As an Iraq War vet, I've seen the results of the so-called "peaceful religion of Islam". Al Qaeda and Taliban are simply carrying out what is proscribed in the Koran. The two women you interviewed have yet to subject themselves to the oppression of Sharia Law, in any one of (pick one) the Islamofascist nation-states across the Middle East.
CAIR has already had a few of itd members covicted for terrorist activities. CAIR is a Hamas-funding accessory. It should be shut down, and its members jailed. If the FBI and Homeland Security don't have all of them in their crosshairs, they should, That they are allowed to operate within the borders of the U.S. is insane.

Anonymous said...

Ignorant folk such as sfcmac truly scare me. Before stating your baseless facts, sfcmac, please present us with some references

Anonymous said...

sfcmac and the guy who commented before him have to be the most annoying people ever. It's these kind of people who just drive me crazy. Your piece of writing in itself argues against any points they try to make.

Anyways it's a great piece and I really enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

AMEN. And, Jesus Christ is Lord, not a prophet.