Between Faith and Country: Muslims in America

Friday prayers i i

hide captionHundreds of people attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Foundation Mosque at Villa Park, Ill.

Davar Ardalan, NPR
Friday prayers

Hundreds of people attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Foundation Mosque at Villa Park, Ill.

Davar Ardalan, NPR

More in the Series

The Islamic Society of North America convention i i

hide captionThe Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago includes a giant, Middle Eastern-style bazaar.

Davar Ardalan, NPR
The Islamic Society of North America convention

The Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago includes a giant, Middle Eastern-style bazaar.

Davar Ardalan, NPR
A bronze bust of Fazlur Rahman Khan at the Sears Tower Skydeck i i

hide captionA bronze bust of the late Fazlur Rahman Khan, lead designer of Chicago's Sears Tower, greets tourists as they enter the building's Skydeck.

Davar Ardalan, NPR
A bronze bust of Fazlur Rahman Khan at the Sears Tower Skydeck

A bronze bust of the late Fazlur Rahman Khan, lead designer of Chicago's Sears Tower, greets tourists as they enter the building's Skydeck.

Davar Ardalan, NPR

The Sept. 11 attacks started an intense debate among American Muslims. Five years later, it isn't over.

In Chicago, that most American of cities, tens of thousands of Muslim Americans gathered for a conference in early September. They simultaneously debated questions about Western-style dating, the application of Islamic law, the role of Muslim Americans in the war on terrorism, and even perspectives on torture.

The debate took place in a city where Muslim immigrants have thrived for decades. An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in the Chicago area, home to about 90 mosques, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The city's greatest icon — the Sears Tower — was designed by a Muslim American structural engineer.

This vast meeting of Muslims came just days before the nation marked the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some Muslims speak of the difficulties facing those who practice their faith in America.

"I think one of our biggest challenges is Muslim fatigue, or Islam fatigue on the part of the general American public," says Ingrid Mattson. Mattson is a Westerner who converted to Islam, and feels she has insight into both worlds. She says some Americans have trouble staying tolerant of Muslims as terrorist incidents pile up around the world.

"I'm a Muslim woman who wears a scarf, a head scarf," she says. "But who I am is not an extremist or fundamentalist, it's someone who's trying to remember God in her life."

Other Muslims argue that if they want Islam to be respected, they must be careful what Islam stands for. Keynote speaker Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim convert and noted scholar, urges his fellow Muslims to press hatred out of their mosques.

Every year, the convention includes a giant, Middle Eastern-style bazaar. This year, for the first time, booksellers were required to disclose in advance what they were selling — part of an effort to keep out literature deemed unsuitable by the conference organizers.

About Ingrid Mattson

Ingrid Mattson
Courtesy Hartford Seminary

Ingrid Mattson was just named the president of the Islamic Society of North America, the first female leader of one of the country's oldest Islamic institutions.

 

She is also the director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Mattson helps train Muslim chaplains who then serve in a variety of American institutions including colleges, prisons, hospitals, police and fire stations as well as the U.S. military, both domestically and overseas.

 

Mattson was raised in Kitchener, Ontario, and converted to Islam at the age of 23.

 

On a lengthy train ride to a tree-planting job in British Columbia, Mattson read the late Fazlur Rahman's book Islam and decided to apply to graduate schools in Islamic studies. She also wrote a letter to Rahman, asking if she could study with him. Rahman invited her to the University of Chicago. His encouragement inspired Mattson to "start on the path to scholarship that I have found so rewarding," she says in her online biography.

 

Steve Inskeep asked Mattson about the role of Muslim Chaplains in the U.S. military.

 

Q: Does the role of Muslim chaplains change in any way when the U.S. military is operating amid Muslim populations?

 

It does not. However, the presence of Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military is, from what I have heard, a mostly pleasant surprise to those Muslim populations. Also, the Muslim chaplain is available to provide context and information about Islam to his colleagues and others who may have misunderstandings.

 

Q: NPR once interviewed a Christian military chaplain, who was asked how he squared his job with the Biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not kill." Should the chaplain refuse to play any role, refuse to comfort soldiers who have been killing people? The chaplain answered that the commandment was technically, "Thou shalt not murder," that is, kill wrongfully; and in any case that he was there to minister to people in a hellish situation. How would a Muslim chaplain answer that question?

 

Just as a physician is sworn to treat individuals who need medical assistance, no matter who they are, a chaplain must be available to provide spiritual support and religious accommodation to all those who come to him or her for help.

About Hamza Yusuf

Hamza Yusuf
Photo by Aaron Haroon Sellars

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is an unusual figure in American Islam. He is an American-born, white convert who is deeply schooled in Islamic theology — allowing him to easily bridge the gap of understanding between the West and Islam.

 

Yusuf was born Mark Hanson in Walla Walla, Wash. He became a Muslim in 1977 and studied for 10 years in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and North and West Africa. He has traveled around the world, giving talks on Islam.

 

Yusuf founded Zaytuna Institute, which has "established an international reputation for presenting a classical picture of Islam in the West and which is dedicated to the revival of traditional study methods and the sciences of Islam," according to his online biography.

 

Laurie Goodstein, religion reporter for The New York Times, compares Yusuf's communication skills to former President Clinton's.

 

"He has that Clinton ability to focus in on whoever he's speaking to, look them directly in the eyes and make them feel like they are the only one in the room even though there might be 200 people in the room," she says.

 

John Esposito of Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding says Yusuf has been working on a project to translate key texts of Islam that are important to the Muslim community and that may also be of interest to non-Muslims.

 

Esposito says Yusuf has "put a lot of time into the whole area of education [and] access to information... to kind of say, 'Here are the true sources of your faith. That's what you should be looking to. Look to the Koran. The Koran has space for Christians and Jews. And you need to remember and affirm that. You also need to look at our classical texts, rather than the texts that come from the extremists or the terrorists.'"

 

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