Muslim in America: With some 6 million U.S. followers, Islam is one of the nation's fastest-growing faiths


by Marc Ramirez

Seattle Times staff reporter

Born in Pennsylvania of Greek descent, Maria Al-Haddad of Everett distinguishes herself by wearing the head scarf worn by many Muslim women to comply with rules of modesty. But when she goes shopping with Muslim friends who don't wear one, Al-Haddad says, salesclerks often either ignore her or single her out for identification checks.

In Tukwila, Aziz Junejo says his white, American mother, also wearing traditional Islamic dress, was chased in a parking lot after the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's federal building with taunts of "You Muslim - go home!"

In Redmond, the Palestinian parents of 7-year-old Amir Shabaneh say his classmates last year waved their lunches in his face during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, unable to understand why he was fasting.

And in Seattle, Umar Cook - who accepted Islam while in military service in the Gulf War - is suing his former employer, claiming the company violated his civil rights when it answered his request to attend important Friday prayer gatherings by firing him.

Instances like these represent the emerging, sometimes rocky relationship between greater American society and Islam, a religion whose 1 billion-plus adherents make it the world's second most popular after Christianity. With an estimated 6 million U.S. followers, Islam is also one of America's fastest-growing faiths. Nevertheless, it remains misunderstood, often associated with terrorism, ethnic stereotypes and images of veiled, subservient women.

Aside from Ramadan and - to the dismay of those who see their faith as one of peace and justice - acts of war and global terrorism, media exposure is virtually nonexistent. As a teacher at the Islamic School of Seattle says of the infrequent media calls: "Usually something blows up and they want a comment."

But even with the incidents of misunderstanding and bias, Islam's growth in Washington state has been relatively peaceful. Over three decades, the Muslim population here has blossomed into a maturing community of about 25,000, by some estimates - the vast majority in the Puget Sound region.

They represent a quilt of nations, neighborhoods and schools of thought whose binding thread is the holy book, the Koran. Immigrants make up 90 percent of this expanding quilt. They are Arab, Indonesian, Pakistani and Bosnian, East and North African, Southeast Asian, and American.

The once-adequate Eastside Islamic Center, a two-story former office building, now bulges with 200 people for Friday prayers, their cars spilling over into the adjacent Mormon church parking lot. Elsewhere, from Everett to Olympia, Muslims cram into houses or storefronts designated as mosques.

Not far from a bank and a Plaid Pantry gas stop, Iraqi Muslims gather in a former tailor shop off busy Everett Mall Way. In the early 1990s, they came by the planeload, refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime. The community now numbers nearly 2,000, and a hundred kids show up on Sundays for instruction in Islam as well as Arabic, the language of the Koran.

One evening in January, shoes were lined up outside like cars at a drive-in movie while, inside, the faithful gathered cross-legged on the carpet, men on one side of the room, women on the other. Butcher paper spread out before them, the group broke its all-day Ramadan fast with a meal of dates, lentil soup, and rice with chicken and raisins.

In their native country, the men ranged from illiterate farmers to architects and agricultural engineers, but now they are assembly workers, gas-station operators and mechanics; the women, once teachers, seamstresses and housewives, are now primarily housewives.

"We're lucky to have the freedom to practice our religion here," says Al-Haddad, who came to Islam through her work with the refugees. "You just wish people had a little more tolerance. We're going through the same thing all new communities go through. You're the new kid on the block. You're going to get beat up a few times before you're accepted."

Just a few families, at first

Nazeer Ahmed knows he's not in Kansas anymore.

"Have you been to Kansas?" he asks in wide-eyed wonder. "It's flat."

The son of Indian immigrants, Ahmed, 27, has the fidgety manner of a puppy. A computer consultant and acting editor of the Islamic Journal, he earned his master's degree in software engineering from Seattle University but started his college career at Wichita State.

During Ramadan, the monthlong celebration of the Koran's seventh-century revelation to the prophet Mohammed, Muslims fast from dawn to sundown. Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, the celebration begins 11 days earlier every year. Having it fall during winter in Seattle (Dec. 20 to Jan. 19) was quite convenient, Ahmed admits. Summer in Kansas was a different story. "One time it was 16 hours between sunrise and sunset," he says. "Dang, it was long. Going without water was hardest."

The Islamic Journal is run by volunteers out of a Central Area cubbyhole of an office. In 1994, the paper polled the community and published an Islamic phone directory with the results. The overall population was estimated between 15,000 and 18,000, with Indonesians and Pakistanis comprising nearly a third.

Now Ahmed pegs the number at more than 20,000, although others say it's closer to 12,000 to 14,000. But consider: Nearly 6,000 people, mostly adults, packed Mercer Arena Tuesday for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, and it's likely they had children waiting at home.

The community started with just a few families 35 years ago. Aziz Junejo was a child then - the only one, he says, among those early families. At first, they met at a house in Ballard; then, as handfuls of University of Washington students from Egypt and Iraq and Syria joined, they moved to the basement of a University District church.

Junejo, now a suave, well-known community figure who hosts a public-access cable show called "Focus on Islam," was only 6 at the time - but he fondly recalls those gatherings for their cosmopolitan flavor. "I really feel like this is my community," he says. "I'm the first Muslim kid who grew up here."

His late father, Mushtaque, a Pakistani aeronautical engineer, came here from Indiana to work for Boeing's supersonic-transport program. In the early 1970s, Mushtaque and two other community pioneers, Iraqi immigrant Jamil Abdul Razzak and Egyptian-born Mohammed El-Moslimany, decided it was time for an official meeting place and bought a house near SeaTac. It was the first mosque in the area.

The mid-1970s brought Muslim engineers here from places such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. More students came. Newly opened mosques were packed.

In 1976, a wealthy Saudi benefactor, the father of Boeing's Saudi Airlines representative, funded construction of the first mosque built from the ground up, a multimillion-dollar project in Northgate that remains the area's largest. Idriss Mosque opened in 1981 despite complaints from neighbors about potential traffic and parking problems and "all these foreigners running around in the neighborhood," according to a memoir by Mushtaque Junejo.

"Even now, on Fridays, I still tend to drive the 20 miles to go to that mosque," Aziz Junejo says. "It became a real center point."

Since then, Muslim communities have sprouted from Olympia to Everett along Interstate 5. Most of the mosques serve distinct ethnic communities. In addition to Iraqis in Everett and other Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis on the Eastside, there are Middle Easterners in Northgate, East and North Africans in the Central Area and Southeast Asians in the Rainier Valley as well as outside Olympia.

Along with Des Moines, Iowa, the Puget Sound area became a prime destination for so-called "boat people" from Cambodia in the 1980s. Many were Muslim Chams, a minority people driven from their Southeast Asian homelands.

The mostly Cham Muslims in Lacey, outside Olympia, illustrate how some communities grow while observing religious requirements. The Chams began with a mobile-home park, designating one trailer a mosque and making announcements over the park's public-address system. Now, prefab homes are replacing mobile ones on 10 community-owned acres in a cooperative-financing strategy that avoids mortgages - and thus payment of interest, which Islam frowns upon.

The Islamic Journal's Ahmed explains: Groups of families make payments into a general pool of money that after a certain time - say, six months - is used to buy a prefab home for about $20,000. One family moves in, the group starts over again and in another six months, they can buy a house for another family. "Within three to five years, they all have houses," Ahmed says. Some communities use the same method to purchase cars.

Muslims mindful of Islamic requirements governing what one eats - pork and alcohol are prohibited, for instance - can also find a growing assortment of halal, or "lawful," markets around the Seattle area. For meat, the ritual of slaughter is important. Many Muslim families, especially before major holidays, slaughter their own cow or lamb or find someone to do it for them in the halal way.

"This is something we've been doing since we were kids," Junejo says, remembering how his own family performed the ritual. "We're taught that meat doesn't just come from Safeway. You find the jugular vein. You never show the animal the knife. It takes one slice."

In America, 'you choose'

Some Muslims find America a place of spiritual rediscovery, not just because they are free to practice their faith but because they are free not to.

"We believe you choose between good and evil," says Tayyibah Taylor, administrator of the Islamic School of Seattle. "If it's Ramadan, and all the restaurants are open, and you're the only one in your office who's not eating and you smell the food - the positive thing is, you're making the choice. Whereas in Muslim countries, nobody is eating. All the restaurants are closed. Here you really have to be responsible for your own spirituality."

Overcoming the temptations of one's surroundings is one thing. Overcoming attitudes and misconceptions is another.

Muslims here say their reputation has been damaged, even defined, by Islam's association with the terrorist acts of a zealous minority. Why is it, they wonder, that headlines don't refer to rebels in Northern Ireland as Catholic terrorists?

"You'll find all kinds of extremists," says Naeem Sharif, who produces a Muslim-oriented cable TV show, "Community Issues Group." "Just like you'll find those who just put on the clothes. We have to look at the character of the prophet Mohammed. He wouldn't condone the kinds of things going on today. He wouldn't take hostages. He would promote peace."

Women who wear the hijab are the most visible targets of misunderstanding. Hijab (pronounced hee-JOB) is an Arabic word meaning "head to toe covering," although it's commonly used also to refer to just the head scarf. Though some were verbally harassed after 1995's federal-building bombing, at least one suffered far worse: In Oklahoma City, a pregnant Muslim woman miscarried after people threw rocks through her window.

Some Muslim women find the hijab generates pity from those who assume it translates into second-class status. Says Beth Mahmoud-Howell, who came to Islam five years ago: "We get these looks like, `There, there, honey - it must be so hard for you.' "

Says Taylor, the Seattle Islamic school administrator: "During the Gulf War, I was in the supermarket, and I passed somebody and they said, `Oh, is that an Iraqi?' People are uneducated about Muslims, and the little education they have comes from a biased media. It's a recipe for disaster."

In the workplace, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations recorded more than 280 discrimination cases in the year preceding April 1998, a 13 percent increase over the year before. Most involved the hijab or requests for time or a place for prayer. Muslim immigrants working at a New York-based juice factory, for example, were forced to pray outside in winter weather after fellow employees complained the Muslims' midday prayer in the company lunchroom made them uncomfortable. The case was resolved last year and space for prayer was provided.

The council's research director, Mohammed Nimer, says overt discrimination - rejecting job applicants upfront because of prayer-time requests or because they show up in the hijab - is decreasing. That's a result, he believes, of better-educated employers and heightened awareness among Muslims of their civil rights.

But it has happened: "I found myself getting very little work when I wore the scarf," says Amira Atan, a Cambodian Cham employed as a King County interpreter. Now, like some other women, she only wears it among other Muslims.

That's a source of debate even within the Muslim community itself. But there are other issues, too, as varying sects and schools of thought blend into the area's social fabric.

"The community grows, and unfortunately, so does the division," says El-Moslimany, the 74-year-old community pioneer who now serves on the board of the Islamic School of Seattle. "There should be commonality in our goals."

Only through unity, he says, can America's Muslims carry out the missions of their faith: "We are part of this country. It's our obligation to correct the wrong things and encourage and enhance the good things. That's a verse from the Koran."

Says Junejo: "It's ironic, all the negative stereotypes. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. There must be something people are looking for."

Marc Ramirez's phone message number is 206-464-8102. His e-mail address is: mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright 1999 Seattle Times Company





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