[In the Media] Defining the ‘All-American Muslim’
By: Naomi Schaefer Riley, from the Wall Street Journal
Earlier this month, the TLC network announced that it will cancel the reality show “All-American Muslim” due to low ratings. Critics had complained that the show whitewashed the problem of Islamic radicalism in the U.S. by not portraying Muslim extremists, which led major sponsors such as the retailer Lowe’s to drop their support.
But the show’s producers were closer to portraying reality than critics asserted. The story of Islam in America today is a story of rapid assimilation and even secularization, not growing radicalism.
Jihad Turk, director of religious studies at LA’s Islamic Center of Southern California, says that of the roughly 750,000 Muslims living in Southern California, just 30,000, or about 4%, regularly attend Friday prayer. And when I interview members of the center’s offshoot, the Muslim Establishing Communities of America (MECA), whose target demographic is unaffiliated young adults, they say there are few Muslim institutions where they feel comfortable.
Younger Muslims say they don’t like the gender segregation at prayers and the imams imported from other countries who repeat the same Friday sermons, known as Khutbahs, week after week. (There are only so many times I want to hear the hadith about how smiling is a kind of charity, one woman told me.) They question the religious education they received growing up, where they learned enough Arabic to recite prayers or Koranic verses but not enough to understand what they were saying. Many say they have disaffected friends who have fallen away from the faith.
Mosque attendance is not the only measure of religious observance, but Muslims are experiencing other signs of secularization as well. They are intermarrying at rates comparable to those of other religious groups in America. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates that about one in five Muslims is wedded to someone of another faith.
Muslim men are allowed by religious law to marry Jewish or Christian women so long as they raise the children Muslim. But in America, where mothers tend to be more responsible for a child’s religious education, the products of Muslim interfaith couples are often raised in another religion.
Some Muslim women insist that their partners of other faiths convert before marriage. But Munira Ezzeldine, the author of “Before the Wedding: 150 Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married,” says that many of these are “fly-by-night Shahaadas,” professions of faith that are not sincere and are simply made to please the families or religious authorities. Indeed, one of the women on “All-American Muslim” tells her siblings that her Catholic fiancé converted only for the sake of marriage.
According to Pew, there are about 2.8 million Muslims in the U.S., and 63% are immigrants. Not surprisingly, their children and grandchildren feel more American and say they are stifled by religious communities dominated by the rules of a particular culture.
The challenge of L.A.’s Islamic Center, in its view, is to help American Muslims assimilate without betraying the tenets of Islam. “How do we carry forth the charge to speak for truth . . . and live life based on a moral foundation?” Mr. Turk asked his congregation on a recent Friday. “If we find ourselves caught up in the rat race, we won’t have fulfilled our religious commitment.”
Mr. Turk advises parents “to turn off the TV and eat dinner as a family.” And he expresses concern that young adults are putting off marriage too long and are marrying outside the faith. He also notes that constructing bigger institutions is not the answer to strengthening Islam in America. The focus should be passing on the faith: “Otherwise we will possess buildings of great size and great emptiness.”
Raising children with moral foundations, encouraging marriage, avoiding the distractions of too many worldly things: If it seems like these are the messages that one might hear at thousands of churches and synagogues on a given weekend, they are.
The news this week that a Muslim Frenchman, a jihadist trained by al Qaeda, shot and killed seven people is yet another reminder of the dangers of radical Islam in the West. This strain of Islam no doubt exists in America too. But that is not the experience of most American Muslims or their religious leaders. As Mazen Hashem, a sociologist at Cal State Northridge and a longtime attendee of the Islamic Center, says, “Everything that’s true of middle-class Americans is true of Muslims.”
Ms. Riley, a former Journal editor, is writing a book about interfaith marriage, to be published by Oxford University Press next year.
A version of this article appeared Mar. 23, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Defining the ‘All-American Muslim’.