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Islam in America

In recent years, Islam has emerged as the nation’s fastest growing religion, making it, says DU religious studies Associate Professor Liyakat Takim, “a very American phenomenon.”

"We talk about Islam and the West, but we should be talking about Islam in the West," says religious studies Associate Professor Liyakat Takim. "Muslims are pumping gas; they are serving combos at McDonald's." Photo by: Wayne Armstrong

"We talk about Islam and the West, but we should be talking about Islam in the West," says religious studies Associate Professor Liyakat Takim. "Muslims are pumping gas; they are serving combos at McDonald's." Photo: Wayne Armstrong

So American, in fact, that in many U.S. communities the mosque is almost as much a part of the cityscape as the church and temple. “For a long time, Islam has been a foreign phenomenon — located somewhere in the Middle East or the Far East. We talk about Islam and the West, but we should be talking about Islam in the West,” Takim says, adding that “Muslims are pumping gas; they are serving combos at McDonald’s.”

Despite their growing presence in American life, Muslims remain strangers to many of their fellow citizens. In fact, when they give it any thought at all, Americans tend to regard the Muslim community as monolithic, Takim says. Few understand the sectarian and cultural differences that characterize — and often divide — this community. Even when people understand the distinctions between Sunni and Shi’i, they are unlikely to grasp the differences between one subsect and another.

Takim attempts to remedy that in his forthcoming book, which introduces readers to the ethnically and culturally diverse American Shi’i community, whose members follow the Koranic interpretations advanced by Ali ibn Abi Talib. (Ali was the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and Shi’is regard him as Muhammad’s rightful successor.) Because they are outnumbered by Sunni Muslims, Takim describes Shi’is as a “double minority” in American life, a misunderstood group within a misunderstood group.

Takim’s book — Shi’ism in America — is due in bookstores in late summer or early fall. According to Takim’s editor, Jennifer Hammer of New York University Press, the book breaks new ground, describing a community that has been largely ignored by scholars.

“Most of the research that has been conducted on American Muslims has tended to focus on the Sunni community — and, to a lesser extent, on matters relating to the Nation of Islam,” she explains. “This work will be the first comprehensive study of the Shi’i experience in America and will therefore make a significant contribution to the literature, from Islamic studies to American religions.”

In doing so, the book also traces the history of the Shi’i community in America and explores how, as Hammer puts it, “Shi’is have negotiated their identity in the American context, and what the contemporary composition of the Shi’i community is. It also illuminates how living in the West has impelled the community to grapple with the ways in which Islamic law may respond to the challenges of modernity and how they have interacted with non-Shi’i groups in the United States, from Sunni Muslims to the Christian majority.”


Question of identity

Takim’s interest in Shi’ism stems, in part, from his own faith and experiences. A Shi’i himself and a native of Tanzania, he was once the imam of an Islamic center in Toronto. There, and in the U.S. communities he has explored, he has seen firsthand how Shi’is are perceived and, too often, misunderstood. To gain insight into their experiences, Takim surveyed and interviewed many members of Shi’i enclaves, traveling to their community centers and mosques, visiting them in their homes and even, on occasion, in their prison cells.

The Shi’i experience in America dates back to the 1880s, when a tiny community of the early immigrants settled in Massachusetts, Indiana and Michigan. These Shi’is hailed primarily from Lebanon. Over the next decades, Shi’is crop up in unexpected places, much to the delight of Takim, who took great pleasure in tracking their American odyssey. At least three members of the faith sailed on the Titanic; only one of them, the sole female in the tiny group, survived. A few years later, in 1924, the nation’s first Shi’i mosque opened in unlikely Michigan City, Ind.

Throughout these early years, Takim explains, the Sunnis and Shi’is found themselves so outnumbered that they overlooked their sectarian differences and worked together to preserve Islamic values. In the midst of America’s largely Christian milieu, in the face of its boisterous culture, Takim says, “They had to accentuate their Islamic identity.”

Since the 1970s, the Shi’i population — indeed the Muslim population as a whole — has experienced dramatic diversification triggered by immigration from Africa, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, among others. What’s more, the Shi’is also have increased their numbers through proselytizing and conversions. This growth has resulted in tensions among the various groups, who often disagree over rituals and religious practices. For example, the Shi’is of Lebanon may find the rituals of their Pakistani counterparts offensive, if only because the latter show some traces of Hindu culture. Other Shi’is may be alarmed by how their Iranian cousins use passion plays in mourning practices.

Many immigrant Shi’is also have struggled to understand what Takim calls “black Shi’i,” or African-American converts to the faith. Like so many demographic groups populating the American scene, Shi’is struggle with differences. “There is racism in the Shi’i community, too, as in other communities,” he explains.

The identity issues that emerge from these frictions give Takim much to ponder. What does it mean to be Shi’i in a culture that touts the advantages of pluralism, in a country that understands so little about Islam? And what makes a Shi’i a Shi’i when the community demonstrates so much diversity?

“I think what surprised me was how the Shi’is are divided about how to approach Americans,” Takim says, looking back on his research. Some Shi’is want to assimilate fully, while the more conservative often favor isolation and retreat. But as Takim sees it, the community’s largest failing has been its reluctance to engage the larger multiethnic society. An impregnable isolation, he argues, only perpetuates marginalization.

Takim is especially interested in fissures between American Shi’is and Sunnis, noting that the two communities tended to coexist peacefully for much of the 20th century. “I think the turning point came around the 1970s, when the Wahabis started making their mark in America,” he says, describing a conservative strain of Sunnism that dominates the religious culture of Saudi Arabia.

With Wahabism on the rise in American Sunni communities, it has not been uncommon for Shi’is to be shunned within Islamic centers and groups, Takim says, citing a number of troubling trends and news items. On U.S. campuses, for example, members of the Muslim Student Association frequently spar over sectarian differences, with some Sunnis calling for the exclusion of Shi’is. Increasingly, the Shi’i faithful have arrived at their local mosques only to discover ominous signs posted on the front door: “No Shi’i allowed.”

What’s more, Takim says, when Shi’is and Sunnis clash in, say, Iraq or Lebanon, the confrontation also surfaces on domestic soil. Nowhere was that more telling than in Dearborn, Mich., after the 2006 execution of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. In the days following Hussein’s hanging, avenging Sunnis vandalized some Shi’i businesses. Although the episode was limited in scope, it left the Shi’i worried about the possibility of escalating hostilities.

Takim has felt the sting of this anti-Shi’i campaign himself. When he was a visiting professor at the University of Miami between 1991 and 2001, Sunni students discouraged other Muslim students from taking his classes on the grounds that he was a Shi’i. “What we see is sectarian differences from abroad arising in America,” he says.

Although this worries him, he finds hope in the Americanization of Sunni and Shi’i youth. “The younger generation is going to be different because they are all pretty much university trained,” he says, noting that they have been exposed to a diverse range of viewpoints. Like so many second- and third-generation Americans before them, he explains, “they are challenging the culture. The culture they are creating is primarily an American one.”

Takim’s book also looks at how Shi’is have adjusted to American life and American attitudes in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In many respects, Takim explains, Shi’is were able to use 9/11 to their advantage, reversing negative opinions that grew out of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Shi’i followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah. Americans came to associate the Shi’i with the subsequent seizure of the U.S. embassy and the taking of 52 American hostages.

The resulting view of Shi’is as Islam’s radicals was, in many respects, altered by the events of 9/11. As Americans learned more about Osama Bin Laden, they also learned about Wahabism and other forms of extremism. Once the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq, Shi’is were viewed more favorably-as supporters and allies. Along the way, American Shi’is used the post-9/11 events to denounce the violence associated with Bin Laden and to clarify their position within American society.

That process continues to this day. Like so many minority groups in the United States, Shi’is are learning to sustain their culture and practice their religion within the American context. “The Shi’is are as American as anybody else,” Takim says, “and they are proud of their American identity.”


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