Between Faith and Country: Muslims in America The Sept. 11 attacks started an intense debate among American Muslims. Five years later, it isn't over. At a recent convention in Chicago, thousands of Muslims attended discussions on how to balance their faith and their adopted country.
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Between Faith and Country: Muslims in America

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Between Faith and Country: Muslims in America

Between Faith and Country: Muslims in America

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep in Chicago.

We're recording this in the lobby of the Sears Tower. We've come here to start an exploration of Muslim life in America five years after the 9/11 attacks. The reason we've chosen America's tallest building will become apparent as we step into the elevator.

(Soundbite of elevator doors closing)

INSKEEP: Oh, you can feel the acceleration. This American icon was designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Muslim structural engineer. And that is just one sign of the way that Muslims have shaped this country.

(Soundbite of elevator doors opening)

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

INSKEEP: From this observation deck near the top of the building, tourists are looking out over this metropolitan area. It happens to be an area where hundreds of thousands of Muslims live, and it's in the suburbs, which are somewhere out in the haze to the west of this city, where we will begin a week of reports and conversations about Muslim life in America today.

Our next stop is a mosque in a suburb called Villa Park.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: Inside that mosque, hundreds of people attend Friday prayers. They're kneeling toward Mecca. One man wears a long green shirt and pants, the baggy clothes of South Asia. Another wears a baseball cap turned backwards with an American flag stitched on.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: This lunchtime service is kept short for those who have to rush back to work. That's just one of the adjustments Muslim immigrants make to balance their faith with their adopted country.

At this mosque, we met Shakila Hassan(ph), a doctor who came from Pakistan in the 1950s.

Dr. SHAKILA HASSAN (Chicago Muslim): I worked in a Catholic hospital, and I was single and living in a nurse's dormitory. And the mother superior, or one of the nuns, used to come and knock on the door announcing the service time at five o'clock in the morning. And I never - it never occurred to me to say, knock knock, who's there, what's going on? I followed, and I went in the church, and every day I listened to the sermon.

INSKEEP: Were there many Muslims around the Chicago area at that time?

Dr. HASSAN: Not really. I couldn't even greet them in my (unintelligible) to anybody. There was nobody.

INSKEEP: Today, that Muslim greeting - peace be upon you - is heard all over, as are other phrases in Arabic, the original language of the Koran.

Mr. ABDUL HAMID DOGAR(ph) (Islamic School Director, Chicago): (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: That's Abdul Hamid Dogar reading Arabic words on an eraser board. He directs the Islamic school next to the mosque. He came from Pakistan more than 40 years ago and wants to shield young people from too many influences of America.

Mr. DOGAR: The culture is being diluted because of the environment here. They're not so strong as I was. Unless you live Islam at home, the children will not remain Muslim.

INSKEEP: Law enforcement officials worry most about Muslims who might be too isolated from American culture and vulnerable to extremist ideas. Right now, a Muslim from the Chicago area is facing trial on charges of financing terrorism overseas.

This is the story of how other Muslims respond. Shakila Hassan says she's dismayed when people keep asking her about the latest terrorism news.

Dr. HASSAN: They say, you know, your people did this again. And even the people who are close to me and good friends, they say, you know, can you imagine? One of your cousins did it again! Friends did it again. His name was Hassan(ph) or his name was Hitayet(ph).

INSKEEP: They refer to your people...

Dr. HASSAN: It's supposed to be joke - (unintelligible) my people.

INSKEEP: It's a joke?

Dr. HASSAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: To them?

Dr. HASSAN: That's right.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: Muslims' balancing act between faith and country was a major theme for thousands of Muslims at an annual convention here. Stroll past a row of meeting rooms and you see half a dozen discussions, like a question and answer session on Islamic rules for living.

Unidentified Man #3: What are the rulings during music? Is it absolutely (unintelligible) or certain types?

INSKEEP: That's a Muslim scholar taking a question about whether music is permitted. He says yes, just not everything.

In another session, Hasham Hessoballah(ph) is arguing that Christians do not realize that the Koran makes prominent reference to Jesus.

Dr. HASHAM HESSOBALLAH (Muslim Scholar): They have no idea. And who better to tell our story than us?

INSKEEP: Dr. Hessoballah, the man who wants to tell that story, says he's often felt like an outsider in America. He says that even though he was born here of Egyptian parents 32 years ago.

Dr. HESSOBALLAH: Many of the people who came over here in my parents' generation maybe subconsciously had a foot left in the old country. Some explicitly said, we're going to come here and then go back eventually. And they kept saying that five years from now we're going to go back, ten years from now we're going to go back, 15 years from now we're going to go back. And in the meantime, they had children who grew up and were raised here.

And there was a long time, partly because again I had a foot in both worlds, partly because peers made me not feel American, that I really didn't feel American. I really didn't feel that, you know, when I talked about Americans, quote, unquote, I talked about non Muslim Americans, not me. Some of my peers made me feel that way. Some people e-mail me and tell me that even today.

INSKEEP: They'll e-mail you and say you're not an American?

Dr. HESSOBALLAH: You are not an American, you're a Muslim in America. You are not an American. I mean they explicitly say that to me. But really - and I was working through that problem, working through that identity clash, and it went away on September 11th. And on that day I became an American.

INSKEEP: Hasham Hessoballah, this doctor by trade, became an author and blogger. He argues now for a progressive interpretation of his faith.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

INSKEEP: He's not the only one at this convention making that argument. Every year, this convention includes a giant Middle Eastern-style bazaar. And this year, for the first time, booksellers had to disclose what they were selling.

Unidentified Man #3: If you buy a book, you get a free bag. You want one?

INSKEEP: And it may be no coincidence that at the sensitive moment, the conference organizer, the Islamic Society of North America, chose its first woman president.

Ms. INGRID MATTSON (President, Islamic Society of North America): I think one of our biggest challenge is Muslim fatigue or Islam fatigue on the part of the general American public.

INSKEEP: Ingrid Mattson trains Islamic chaplains for a living. As a Westerner who converted to Islam, she feels she has insight into two worlds. Mattson says some Americans have trouble staying tolerant of Muslims as terrorist incidents pile up around the world. And she says Muslims have trouble staying tolerant of American culture.

Ms. MATTSON: I think one thing that Muslims who have come to America are starting to understand but still don't have a good grasp of is that many Americans who don't seem to be particularly observant of their religious practices still have deep values that are faith-based.

INSKEEP: You want Muslim immigrants to understand that it's not a Godless country.

Ms. MATTSON: Precisely.

INSKEEP: And what about on the other side?

Ms. MATTSON: I think one of the biggest challenges is that contemporary culture is highly visually oriented and so we have a difficult time looking beyond the surface of people. I'm a Muslim woman who wears a scarf, a head scarf, but who I am is not an oppressed woman, an extremist, a fundamentalist. It's someone who's trying to remember God in her life.

INSKEEP: Yet there are Muslims among these thousands who argue that if they want Islam to be respected, they must be careful what Islam represents. One such person is the man who took the stage as a keynote speaker at the convention.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) no introductions, so we're going to go straight to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is an American convert to Islam, a noted scholar who's become a kind of rock star at venues like this. And he used his platform to press his fellow Muslims to force hatred out of their mosques.

Mr. SHAYKH HAMZA YUSUF (Islamic Scholar): And our religious leadership is in crisis, because our religious leaders have failed to bring people back to the metaphysics of religion. They use anger, they use revenge and they use hatred. And we have to drive that discourse out of our mosques wherever they are. We have to drive that discourse out of our mosques.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. YUSUF: It is time that we stopped demonizing the Jews...

INSKEEP: The September 11 attacks started an intense debate among American Muslims. Five years later, it isn't over. And few people have been more prominent in that debate than Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, born Mark Hanson in Washington state. We will sit down to talk with him as our series continues tomorrow. And you can find a profile of Hamza Yusuf and the Muslim leader Ingrid Mattson at

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