Story Publication logo December 3, 2005

Still us and them?


The following article "Still us and them?" by Tim Townsend originally ran as part of a seven-part series by Jon Sawyer and Tim Townsend, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 4-11, 2005.

Maysa Albarcha, holding her daughter Sara, shops last month with her sister-in-law, Remy Javed, at the St. Louis Galleria. Albarcha and Sara are St. Louis natives. Javed and her family are from Pakistan. (Robert Cohen/P-D)

For the family of Bassam and Maysa Albarcha, the last Thursday in November comes with certain traditions: Twenty-five cousins, aunts and brothers from Missouri, Illinois and Pennsylvania converge on Maysa's parents' home in Ballwin, some with a turkey or other dishes in tow.

There's the annual "Best Turkey" contest (Bassam and Maysa won last year, mostly due to Bassam's rice, peas and pine-nut stuffing). And after dinner there's NBA basketball on TV, and the "project in the garage" that occupies Bassam and his father-in-law.

The Albarchas, in other words, participate in the cultural ritual known as Thanksgiving. "You see an American family celebrating Thanksgiving on TV or in movies," said Maysa. "That's us."

The Albarchas are among at least 20,000 Muslims in the St. Louis area. Their family is among a growing number of followers of Islam to adopt U.S. cultural traditions.

The history of the United States is filled with ethnic and religious groups assimilating into the American mainstream, and Muslims are no different - except in one regard. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the specter of terrorism has loomed, and individual American Muslims are paying a price.

They are living through a time in which Islam is being examined like never before by a skeptical but curious public.
"We are now, whether we like it or not, in the spotlight," said Sheikh Mohammad Nur Abdullah, imam and director of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

In St. Louis and across the country, American Muslims have a lot to say about how they believe they are perceived by their non-Muslim neighbors in a post-Sept. 11 world. "Those 19 hijackers happened to be Muslim," they often hear themselves telling non-Muslims, "but they did not act for me. They may have claimed to act in the name of Islam, but they did not act for Islam."

Islam, they say again and again, had nothing to do with that day.

So, for the last four years, the United States - their own country - has been an interesting place for American Muslims. They have been harassed, questioned and eyed suspiciously - not just by the government - but by their neighbors and co-workers, and especially, they say, by some in the media.

Along with the suspicions have come questions. "After 9/11 there was a certain openness and curiosity about Islam," said Ahmet T. Karamustafa, professor of Islamic thought at Washington University.

Abdullah said the number of non-Muslim visitors to St. Louis' main mosque, in Ballwin, has increased so much that its members have had to organize more outreach efforts and open houses, and they have trained more young people to speak to visitors about Islam.

Many American Muslims, by necessity, have become patient teachers, eager to tell their fellow Americans about their food, their families and, especially, their faith.

And it's on that stage that they are living their lives, trying to accept and absorb both the negatives and the positives of the last four years, trying to understand how they are perceived by their non-Muslim neighbors, trying - maybe more than anything else - to become just another ingredient in the big American stew.

"Islam in America," said Sherman Jackson, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, "is part of the ongoing American project."

American Islam

There is disagreement in American Muslim circles as to whether celebrating Thanksgiving is haram, or forbidden, but most American Muslim religious authorities say because the message of Thanksgiving is cultural, not specifically religious, it's OK to celebrate.

The increasing acceptance of Thanksgiving and some other U.S. traditions by Muslims suggests that a new kind of Islam may be forming: American Islam.

For 1,400 years, Islam spread from its origins in Saudi Arabia and has adapted to the cultures in which it found itself. Islam's U.S. arrival is recent, making its influence on American culture slight compared to that of other religions.
Similarly, American culture has yet to make much of an impact on Islam here, but just as there is a Pakistani Islam that is markedly different from a Malaysian Islam that looks nothing like Nigerian Islam, so too, say many Muslim scholars, an American Islam is beginning to take shape.

If there's a frustration in the American Muslim community about how its members are perceived by non- Muslim Americans, for some it is a frustration tempered by an understanding of human nature.

"For a lot of Americans, Islam is the unknown, and often it is the unknown that is feared," said Saaqib Rangoonwalla, an editorial board member of InFocus, Southern California's largest Muslim newspaper. "And when you're scared of something, the first thing you want to do is stomp it out - like a spider. But Muslims here are not the other. They are Americans, like we are all Americans."

That concept is difficult for some non-Muslim Americans since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Khaled Hamid, 42, an allergist from west St. Louis County and father of two teenage boys. "You sometimes hear people say things like, 'I'm not prejudiced, but when it comes to Muslims I have concerns,'" said Hamid. "We are outside, and we feel like people are completely oblivious that there might be good Muslims here."

In September, the Muslim Public Affairs Council surveyed American Muslims aged 14-25 who attended the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America. It found that 70 percent noticed "significant hostility toward Muslims in the general American public," while just 53 percent said "the general American public sees Muslim Americans as a legitimate part of the country's pluralism."

But discrepancies with other poll numbers could illustrate a disconnect between how American Muslims see themselves being perceived and the way most Americans view them.

A poll in July by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that most Americans - 55 percent - say they have a favorable opinion of American Muslims. That's 10 percentage points higher than in 2001 before Sept. 11. The poll also found that the number of Americans who say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has fallen from 44 percent to 36 percent in the last two years.

Ali Javed, 24, from University City, said the non-Muslims he works with at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. are often curious about his religion. Some even try to help him adapt American culture to his faith.

"In a way they look out for me," he said. "We go to happy hour, and they know I don't drink so they'll order me a Coke, or if I'm fasting, they won't eat around me, or tell me where they went for lunch. As Muslims, we shouldn't think all non-Muslims are after us."

Some scholars believe numbers like Pew's suggest that non-Muslim Americans are simply discovering that some of their neighbors and co-workers, people they get along with and like, happen to be Muslim - something that's not immediately obvious in most cases, unless a Muslim woman is wearing a hijab, or head covering.

That can lead to a phenomenon that Washington University's Karamustafa calls "exceptionalism," when non-Muslims believe that their Muslim friends are the exception because they've been Americanized but that the majority of the Muslim world is suspect.

"Sometimes, if we know someone well, they might say, 'But you are the exception,'" said Hamid. "Why are they assuming I am the exception?"

Javed said friends "may like us on an individual level, but when you start talking about the Muslim world as a whole, things change."

Media portrayals

Most Muslims agree that there is one American enemy conspiring to defame Islam, and many refer to this enemy consistently as "the media." Individual media culprits can be anything from conservative author Ann Coulter to daily headlines about Islamic extremism to movies about terrorism in which the bad guy seems invariably to be Arab and Muslim.

A study in 2004 by the Media & Society Research Group at Cornell University found that 32 percent of Americans who paid a "high level" of attention to television news agreed that "all Muslim Americans should be required to register their whereabouts," as opposed to 22 percent of those who paid a "low level" of attention to TV news.

"American opinion of Islam is driven by the media," said Anas Ziu, 24, an Albanian graduate student at St. Louis University. "And as far as I've seen, the media says we're all bad."

Gulten Ilhan, 39, is a humanities professor at St. Louis Community College. When she recently tried to take a group of students to Turkey, she found parents hesitant - mostly due to the images of violence in the Middle East they had seen on television. "They think their kids are going to get beheaded," she said.

September's poll by the Muslim Public Affairs Council found that 95 percent of the young Muslims surveyed felt Muslims did not "get a fair shake in domestic U.S. media."

Ali Alshehhi, 24, a meteorology student at SLU, said non-Muslim Americans are increasingly seeking answers about Islam for themselves. "Many people ask me about Islam, they ask me what Ramadan means," he said. "They come to the mosque on Fridays to watch us pray. After 9/11 people have become curious, and they want to know for themselves, not through the media, what Islam is."

The Pew poll found that "among those most knowledgeable about Islam" 61 percent view American Muslims favorably and 49 percent held a favorable view of Islam. Among the lowest-knowledge group only 47 percent had a favorable view of American Muslims and 24 percent had a favorable view of Islam.

A report on young American Muslims by the Muslim Public Affairs Council said that "if negative information and characterizations of Islam did not dominate media and public discourse, far greater
numbers of young American Muslims could proudly claim their Muslim-American identity without facing hostility, discrimination or misunderstanding."

"I've been here ten years, and people treat me nice," said Nermin Begic, 26, a Muslim from Bosnia. "But some don't understand that not all Muslims are terrorists. I came from war, I don't want to have war again. I want peace."

"I can share a part of me"

There are no reliable tallies, nationally or locally, of American Muslims or of Muslims in St. Louis. Estimates range from between 3 million and 8 million Muslims in the United States, and between 20,000 to 60,000 in the St. Louis area.
A Cornell poll in 2002 found that 70 percent of Muslims in the United States are under the age of 40, and 40 percent are under the age of 30. Younger, educated Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, exude an aura of idealism when it comes to relations between American Muslims and non-Muslims.

"I have a good amount of friends who are Muslim, and none of them have ever felt different to me than any of my other friends," said Jason Phillips, 19, a Catholic from Texas who is a sophomore at Washington University. "They're just part of my group of friends. I just see them as people."

Maheen Bokhari, 21, a junior at SLU, agrees. "I think we're at the point where people don't look at us as different any longer," she said. "I think we're looked at as equal citizens here."

This next generation of American Muslims - born, bred and educated in the United States - will be critical in defining an eventual American Islam, say scholars.

"Children of immigrants have a different perspective on Islam in the U.S.," said Meagan Reid, a professor of Islam at the University of Southern California. "For younger Muslims, their Muslim identity has come to the fore since September 11th in a big way because that identity is being forced upon them by Americans."

More than half of the young Muslims polled by the Muslim Public Affairs Council in September said they didn't experience any conflict between their American identity and their Muslim identity. That, according to the council's report, demonstrates a "high rate of integration" among this generation of American Muslims, very different from "the reality of British Muslims, who have not laid claim to a 'British Muslim identity.'"

Many younger American Muslims handle their dual identifications - as Americans and as Muslims - by becoming politically active, signing up with civil rights or political organizations. Others recognize the need to teach about their faith in a less formal fashion, one non-Muslim American at a time.

Irfan Asif, 24, is a financial analyst who lives in Chesterfield and often talks to non-Muslims about his religion.

"I wouldn't call it a responsibility, but more of a chance to educate people who come to you with questions," he said. "My religion is a part of me, so I can share a part of me by sharing something about my religion."

When people ask Maheen Bokhari about her faith, she feels some pressure to make a good impression. "It's important to represent my culture and my religion properly," she said.

For Ali Javed, teaching his friends about Islam is also about making sure non-Muslims can defend the faith, or at least Muslims, if need be. "You hope that one day, your friend might turn to someone (who is disparaging Muslims) and say, 'I know a Muslim, and he's not like that,'" he said.

Uthayla Abdullah, 22, is a native St. Louisan who is hoping to become a journalist. While earning her degree at Washington University, she was inundated with questions about her faith and Muslim culture. Abdullah wears a hijab and so is approached in coffee shops and other public places. "You get tired, but you have no choice but to continue," she said. "You have to represent an entire faith, and this may be the one interaction with a Muslim they'll ever have."

Still welcome?

In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Maysa Albarcha, then 26, thought Muslim women who covered their heads were crazy. "It made them targets," she said, sitting in her home in Creve Coeur on Thanksgiving morning. Her husband, Bassam, was in the kitchen trying to figure out what the little plastic knob on the turkey was for. A plate that read "God Bless Our Home" hung on the living room wall. Across the room, a decorative hookah sat on a table.
Three years ago, on a three-month trip to the Middle East, Maysa had a revelation when she saw, in person, that Turkish women were not allowed to wear the hijab in any public buildings, such as government offices, schools or courts. "I realized they didn't have the right to do what, in the U.S., I have every right to do, and I wasn't doing it," she said.

She decided to wear the veil for the first time in her life, but she was nervous about what would happen when she returned to St. Louis, and to her neighborhood. "When I came back here, that was the test," she said. "I didn't want them to think I was a terrorist, that I'd gone to the Middle East for three months and now I was back and different."
The reaction she got from friends and neighbors was not the one she was expecting.

"No one said anything," she said. "They would have normal conversations with you, and I'd be thinking, 'Are you going to say anything about the big piece of fabric on my head?' But no one ever did."

Maysa, 30, and her three children (10, 6 and 2) were all born in St. Louis. And since she was a girl, Maysa said, anytime she flew back to the city from anywhere else, she's looked out the window searching for St. Louis' defining landmark.

"I love the Arch," she said, "and whenever I see it from the plane, I know I'm home."

But on that day three years ago when Maysa flew into St. Louis from her trip to the Middle East, a hijab covering her head, the Arch stirred something different in her, a question that has yet to be fully answered.

"I saw the Arch and knew I was home, but I wondered if I would be welcome here any more," she said. "I wondered how friendly my home would be to me now."

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