Islam in America

In the first of a three-part series of the Islamic movement in America, Lynn Neary interviews American Muslims living in Indiana. An estimated five million Muslims have already emigrated to the U.S.

BOB EDWARDS, Host: This is Morning Edition; I'm Bob Edwards. When most Americans hear the word Muslim they think of Arabs but, in the United States, the immigrant Muslim community is a rich mix of people from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The largest number of immigrants come from South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan. The influx of immigrant Muslims to the United States is one of the reasons for the rapid growth of Islam here. It's estimated that at least five million Muslims live here and not all of them have settled in the big cities of the East and West Coast.

Today we begin a three-part series on American Muslims. NPR's Lynn Neary prepared this report on Islam in Indiana.

VIDEOTAPE EDITOR: All right, now, OK, start and let's see how it goes.

NARRATOR FOR PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: [voice-over on videotape] If the way you dress expresses-

LYNN NEARY, Reporter: At the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Indiana, a videotape editor works on a public service announcement that shows three attractive women wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf.

NARRATOR FOR PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: [voice-over on videotape] These are American Muslim women and their dress reflects their faith and their belief in modesty. This message has been brought to you by the Islamic Society of North America. ISNA, your American Muslim neighbors.

LYNN NEARY: This media campaign is part of ISNA's effort to educate Americans about Islam. ISNA is one of the leading Islamic organizations in the country. An outgrowth of the Muslim Student Association which was founded in the Midwest in the 1960s, ISNA settled in this Indianapolis suburb in 1977 but, at that time, the residents of Plainfield didn' t think Muslims would be good neighbors.

Dr. Said Muhamed Said [sp] is secretary general of ISNA.

Dr. SAID MUHAMED SAID, Secretary General, Islamic Society of North America: There were two objections that they had among themselves against our being here. Number one, that there will be, if Muslims come to this place, there will be a lot of violence here. Number two, that the price of land in Plainfield come down. Now, imagine, during the last 20 years exactly opposite has happened. There has never been any violence in this area here.

LYNN NEARY: ISNA says Dr. Said is accepted in Plainfield now and he believes Americans are becoming more familiar with Muslims, despite persistent negative stereotypes. Certainly, he says, there has been a lot of progress since he first came here as a student in the 1970s. Dr. Said was part of the last great wave of Muslim immigration to this country. A quarter million young Muslims came here in the '60s and '70s to study. It was just after the end of colonialism in many Muslim countries and the students were rediscovering their Islamic identity.

Dr. SAID MUHAMED SAID: So it was here in the universities of America that Muslims from Indonesia would interact with Muslims from Nigeria; Muslims from India, Pakistan, would interact with Muslims from the outer world. So this was here that they were becoming more and more conscious of their historical oneness of the Muslim world and, naturally, the binding force that is Islam itself.

LYNN NEARY: Many Muslim students took their renewed enthusiasm for Islam back home, but many stayed in the United States. They settled in communities all over the country, communities like Indianapolis.

Dr. SHAHED ATTAR, Physician: Good afternoon, John, how are you?

JOHN, Patient: Just fine, Doctor.

Dr. SHAHED ATTAR: It's been several weeks since I have seen you.

JOHN: That's right.

LYNN NEARY: Dr. Shahed Attar [sp], a physician in Indianapolis, came to this country as a student in 1969. An Indo-Pakistani, he has been a U.S. citizen for 18 years, but Dr. Attar says his strongest sense of identity is as a Muslim.

Dr. SHAHED ATTAR: Islam is my nature. Islam is a gift. Without Islam I cannot live. Islam give me my life, you know?

LYNN NEARY: Although some Muslims have thoroughly assimilated into the American culture, Muslims like Dr. Attar work hard at preserving their religious heritage.

[excerpt of study group in session]

LYNN NEARY: Every Friday night Dr. Attar and his family join other Pakistani-American Muslims for a halga [sp], a Koranic study group. The children take turns reading passages from the Koran in both English and Arabic.

MUSLIM CHILD: [reading] Only if you believe a wicked person comes to you with any news, as certain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly, and afterwards-

LYNN NEARY: Activities like this are important to the children of immigrant Muslims, says 19-year-old college student Arusa Jawad [sp], who also attended the halga at Dr. Attar's home.

ARUSA JAWAD, College Student: The kids that grew up here should know a psalm just as well as the kids living, you know, in Pakistan or whatever, so you have to- it's- it's really, you know, it's a really big problem because a lot of kids are like, `Oh, well, you know, we' re living here so we can do this and we can't do that,' so the basics should be the same wherever you are.

LYNN NEARY: Muslim teenagers from traditional homes are not allowed to date or smoke or drink. The girls must cover their heads with scarves. Some families, fearful of the temptations of a permissive society, react by withdrawing from it. Dr. Attara is one of a growing number of Muslim leaders who are urging Muslims to become more involved in America's political life.

Dr. SHAHED ATTAR: Many Muslims who complain about the quote, unquote, the `social insult of society,' they are wrong because they are living in a society. Everything is going to affect them whether they are part of it right now or not, so they must feel an obligation to be part and show their presence, you know? We are Muslims and we are Americans.

LYNN NEARY: Another issue is that Muslims with the same ethnic background tend to stick together. Frequently one ethnic group will dominate the local mosque. This presents a problem because Islam is a universal religion and ethnic and racial differences are not supposed to be emphasized. Muslims in Indianapolis have worked to overcome such differences.

[Muslims gathered together and talking]

LYNN NEARY: The Pakistani-American Muslims who gather for the halga every week encounter a more diverse community at their local mosque, the Mosque Jedel Fahza [sp]. At the Friday prayer service they kneel side by side with Muslims from many different backgrounds.

[Muslims in prayer session]

LYNN NEARY: Muslima Mustafa [sp] is the principal of the Islamic school at the Mosque Jedel Fahza.

MUSLIMA MUSTAFA, Principal, Mosque Jedel Fahza School: I feel like this mosque here in this city exemplifies what Islam is. You see doctors and lawyers, you see teachers, you see laborers, you see black, you see white, you see Indian, you see Malaysian. You may not find that across the country.

LYNN NEARY: Ismail Abdul Alim [sp], the assistant emom [sp] at Mosque Jedel Fahza, says both immigrant Muslims and American-born Muslims came together to build the mosque. They shared a common goal and were united by their belief in Islam. Even so, they had to learn to work with each other.

ISMAIL ABDUL ALIM, Assistant Emom, Mosque Jedel Fahza: In order for people to get along everybody has to be strong. If there's one group that dominates the situation then that creates tension, so if the African-Americans feels like they have contribution and the Asian and African community feels like they're making a contribution, then we can get along together, and that's what we try to do, to make sure that everybody is heard.

LYNN NEARY: Sometimes those who grew up in countries where Islam is the dominant religion assume they know more about their religion than those who are new to it, but Hamad Ulmar [sp], a Pakistani-American who helped in the planning for Mosque Jedel Fahza, says he has learned a great deal about his religion from the Americans.

HAMAD ULMAR, Helped Plan Mosque Jedel Fahza: My Islam has been enriched by knowing the American Muslims because they bring almost a new energy to Islam. They don't take things at face value, they question everything, and makes me question where my sources are, so they, in fact, clean Islam for me. It's almost an experiment of trying to go back to the roots of Islam that makes me very excited and- and when my relatives visit me they sense that Islam has much more purity here than what we have seen in any of the Muslim countries.

LYNN NEARY: Muslims are not immune to the tensions that mark the ethnic and racial landscape of America, but many point out the Koran teaches that God create nations and tribes so that they might know each other, not despise each other. America, they say, provides the opportunity to live out this teaching in a real way. I'm Lynn Neary reporting.

BOB EDWARDS: Tomorrow our series continues with a report on the growth of Islam in the black community.