On June 22, the Justice Department indicted a Texas man of threatening a Tennessee mosque that is currently under construction. According to the indictment, last September, Javier A. Correa left a message on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's phone allegedly saying: "On Sept. 11, 2011, there's going to be a bomb in the building." This is just the latest salvo in a long battle fought by opponents of this mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Opponents of the mosque worry about radical Islam and Sharia law: "We don't want Shariah law. We don't want a Constitution-free zone in Rutherford County [Tennessee]," said attorney Joe Brandon, Jr., to National Public Radio.
Yet the fight in Murfreesboro is nothing new. Muslim communities across the country have had to deal with angry opponents of the construction of mosques in their communities. As Kathleen Foley of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding writes in her report on the American mosque: “Many myths have emerged regarding mosques in the United States, including that they are sources of radicalization among American Muslims, that they are led by extremist clergy, and that they host practices that border on the occult.”
Yet these claims are just that: myths, and all one has to do is look into the mosque to see the truth for oneself. In 2011, researchers conducted a comprehensive study of mosques across America. The second of their reports was released in May, and it showed that mosques are a force for good in the communities in which they reside. Among the survey's findings: 63 percent of mosques conducted outreach activities in the past year, such as open houses for neighbors; 79 percent are involved in interfaith activities. Contrary to the perceptions of many, the overwhelming majority (70%) of Friday sermons are conducted in English.
The vast majority (88%) of American mosque leaders say domestic abuse should be addressed. A majority of mosque leaders (71%) agree that their mosque is working for social justice, and African American mosques are even more likely (87%) to be active in social justice. What's more, mosques compare favorably to other houses of worship in terms of social services. Surveys show that only 26 percent of congregations of other faith traditions are involved in providing some type of health programming, as compared to 45 percent of mosques. Only 29 percent of other religious congregations are involved in community-organizing activities, while 47 percent of mosques are involved in these types of activities. (The full study can be read here.)
The study offers a view of the mosque from a "macro" level. In Wajahat Ali and Zahra Suratwala’s All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim, however, we can see the mosque at the ground level. A collection of personal reflections on being a male American Muslim, this volume is the second in the "I Speak For Myself" series, wherein, as the co-founders Suratwala and Maria Ebrahimji describe, “people can make themselves heard and . . . everyone's voice has a place."
I must admit that I was quite surprised by the diversity of the contributors' backgrounds. Some I know personally, but many others, had I passed them in the street, would never have struck me as Muslim. Yet that is the crucial point: the American Muslim community, the community that frequents the mosques all across our nation, reflects the diversity found in this book. And this diversity is not only in ethnicity and national origin; it is also in viewpoint and religious philosophy.
Many of the contributors to All-American are converts to the faith, and they came to Islam from a variety of walks of life, which enriches the mix of Muslim experience recounted in this book. The conversion narratives, such as that of U.S. Army attorney Jason Moy, are always a treat for me to read. They give me—a Muslim born into and raised up in the faith—a window into what it is like to find Islam after years of spiritual search.
Born to non-Muslim parents in San Francisco, Jason converted to Islam while studying at the University of Southern California. After studying the world's religions, Jason writes that he gravitated toward Islam due to “its fierce monotheism, easily digestible definition of God, and compatibility with our understanding of science and human observation.” That, however, was shortly before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Rather than leave the faith, Jason openly proclaimed his belief to others, and this caused some to react as if he had “caught an awful disease . . . as if [he] had befallen some sort of terrible fate — doomed and contagious.” He also adds that “9/11 didn't help either.”
As a result, Jason became defensive, and writes that he put on his “cloaking device . . . amongst non-Muslims. I felt many of them did not want to know what I discovered in Islam, but only wanted to learn how to avoid catching the plague.” This cloak of invisibility, however, had to be taken off whenever he made the ritual ablution before prayer, called wudu. Once he took off his uniform in order to wash, Captain Moy explains what comes next: “Once the footwork was complete, it was go time. Wash the hands, normal; face, normal; rinse out the mouth, normal; then the nose—abnormal; Arms, hair, ears—mostly normal. Then the unsheathing of the foot—definitely abnormal.”
I have this exact same feeling whenever I have to perform the ablution in a public bathroom. When reading Jason's story, I realized that I frequently have a “cloaking device” on myself, and he gives me a lot to think about when he writes: “I would rather gladly be stared at and experience twinges of embarrassment, than miss the joy of teaching someone the wonders of Islam and watch as they embrace it.”
Yet, even some Muslims who were born into the faith also recount their “conversions” to Islam. These include Haroon Moghul, Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, a Michigan-based think tank. He writes: “I was washing dishes in the kitchen when I stopped believing in God. . . . What if I could sin, because sin wasn’t sin? And then—what if He didn’t care what I did, because He wasn’t?” His feelings stemmed from his harsh condemnation of himself, mostly, for not being sufficiently “Islamic.” There are many Americans of all faiths, I am certain, who have this same struggle of faith in today's world. Thus, Moghul rejected God completely.
Yet soon after his rejection of God, he realized that his problem was not God, but his misunderstanding of God and faith. Even though he did all the right things, Moghul says: “My knowledge of Islam did worse than paralyze me—it defeated me. I mean altogether wrecked me. Islam left me crumpled in otherworldly exhaustion, the spiritual effort to be Muslim wearying me like no physical exertion ever could. Beyond those occasional days filled with a passion for God—there was nothing. Not the least inclination to have anything to do with Him. And, after enough of that, I wanted out.”
He realized that it was his own perception of God that was the problem, recounting Islamic tradition: “we read that God told Muhammad, 'I am as My servant thinks of Me.' If we think of Him as angry, He’ll be angry with us. Soon my rage at an implacable God bounced off of Him and stuck to me. Anger. Envy. Frustration. A hatred of myself and my desires, and a flood of negative energy that, religiously and psychologically speaking, I could only direct against my God or myself. If I couldn’t meet the challenge He’d set for me, then why was I even alive? And, of course, when faith leads one to turn on oneself, then not surprisingly it becomes easier to choose deicide over suicide.”
His lack of faith was cured when he realized that Islam was a journey: “It would’ve been nice to have known that my spiritual anguish didn’t mean I was rejecting faith, or being rejected by the object of my faith. Such anguish might be a purging; God nudging us to reject something in ourselves, an error in our acts or our aspirations. But I was never taught Islam as a journey, even though I came from a religious family.” In his story, I see my own struggles as a Muslim growing up in America, and in his story many readers will also see themselves as well. And that's one of this book's greatest points: in the stories of Moghul and Moy, it comes out so very clearly how American these (and all the other) contributors are. In fact, these men are fully Muslim and fully American, and they feel no contradiction in being both. Indeed, some didn't feel that way in the beginning, but in the end, they all come to that conclusion.
As Amer Ahmad, Comptroller for the City of Chicago (my hometown), writes: “we [American Muslims] are made up of diverse, culturally-rich, and storied communities that are proud of our American heritage.” Jason Moy writes: “But for every nasty or disapproving look I received, I can think of a time when I was able to communicate to others the love I have for Islam. My colleagues knew of my faith and also realized that I was a normal dude who liked Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Lost, and video games.” Blogger and medical physicist Dr. Aziz Poonawalla remarks: "The simple truth is that America is the greatest Islamic country on the face of the earth, and as an American and a Muslim therefore I am doubly blessed."
An important theme of All-American is how the faith of these men has inspired their work and desire to do good. At the end of his essay, Dr. Poonawalla thus prays: “As a good Muslim, a good citizen, and a good father, husband, and son, may I be beneficial and beloved to my American family, and an example to my own children in that regard, insha'Allah (God willing).” Hollywood screenwriter and director Kamran Pasha, who is currently working on a film about Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, writes: “As a Muslim artist, I am waging a sacred struggle—a jihad—to remind Muslims that God's gift to Islam, His greatest miracle to the world, is art.”
These men, my brothers in faith and our brothers in country, are doctors, writers, comedians, poets, activists, politicians, and spiritual faith leaders. They are our neighbors, coworkers, teammates, and golf buddies. As the essays show, they love their faith and love their country, and they are committed to making their world a better place not only for themselves, but also for everyone else.
A recent poll says that nearly 60 percent of Americans say they do not know a Muslim, and this lack of personal relationships that provide knowledge about Islam—along with a near-constant barrage of negative images and news coverage—has led to an increasingly negative feeling about Islam and Muslims. Yet, as co-editor of All-American Wajahat Ali writes in the introduction, “How do we get to know a people, really? Even in America, we often say, ‘Hey man, tell me your story.’ So, here are forty-five American Muslims telling their story.” You will not be disappointed.
Hesham Hassaballa is both a practicing pulmonary and critical care physician and a writer in Chicago. His latest book is Noble Brother: The Story of the Prophet Muhammad in Poetry (Faithful Word Press). His writings can be found at www.drhassaballa.com.