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Shiite Muslims seek out a place, vision in America

Mixing politics and faith at a Michigan conference, they struggle

August 02, 2009|Rachel Zoll

DEARBORN, MICH. — The hotel conference room was divided: men on the left, women on the right. The speaker, a compact, bearded man in a safari vest, had come to talk about current events and the Koran.

In the weeks leading up to the gathering, post-election protests had shaken Iran, and the audience of American Shiite Muslims wanted to know what to make of the turmoil.

Imam Mohammad Asi, a Michigan-born activist, sounded like a spokesman for the Iranian government. The Iranian protesters, he said, were aiding "the political Jews and the political Christians," the U.S. government and the Zionists, in a plot to eradicate Islam.

He cited Koranic verses that he said backed his views. Then, his voice rising, he ticked off his list of American transgressions against Muslims, such as supplying Israel with bombs and building U.S. military bases in Islamic countries.

"Can't you see the shaytani character of the U.S. government?" Asi demanded, using the Arabic word for "satanic."

This was more than a single defiant speech.

It was part of a struggle over the future of American Shiism.

Far smaller in numbers and less established than U.S. Sunnis, Shiites are wrestling with their ideological differences: Is America a place they should embrace, tolerate or resist? The debate mixes politics and faith, and spans the spectrum from hard-line separatists to eager-to-Americanize immigrants. Whichever outlook prevails will determine whether Shiism can find a place in the nation's religious mainstream.

Asi spoke at the annual meeting of the Muslim Congress, a Houston-based group that largely looks to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's ruling religious establishment as its highest religious authority.

The congress, which first met in 2005 with about 400 people, this year attracted more than 1,200 people over the Fourth of July weekend to Dearborn, Mich., considered the heart of Shiism in the U.S.

On another side of the Shiite divide is the Universal Muslim Assn. of America. Formed in 2002, it seeks full participation in U.S. democracy and broader society. Its leaders generally consider Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate from Najaf, Iraq, its religious authority.

"It's almost like red state, blue state Shia," said Saeed Khan, who researches American Muslims and teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit. "The organizations home in on the ideological bandwidth of their respective sectarian communities."

But both the congress and the Universal Muslim Assn. are small groups with limited funding and influence within the emerging U.S. Shiite community. Devout Shiites are more likely to follow the lead of a local imam and, as their tradition requires, a high-level religious scholar, not a national association. Still, the organizations provide a glimpse into forces shaping American Shiites -- a population estimated to be less than 15% of the more than 4 million Muslims in the United States.

Like religiously observant Muslims from other streams of Islam, some Shiite immigrants disagree over whether they should become U.S. citizens and vote.

They appreciate American freedom and economic opportunity, but resent U.S. policy in the Mideast, and consider liberal American culture a threat to their traditions. Some regard Islamic law -- Sharia -- as the only legitimate system, and say Western democracy has no place in Islam.

Though immigrant Sunnis haven't fully settled the issue for themselves, many of their leaders, such as those from the Islamic Society of North America, have consistently promoted interfaith outreach and active citizenship, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.

With no unifying religious leader or strong national organization, Shiites are a beat behind.

They are scattered in small pockets across the nation and more divided than Sunnis along ethnic lines. In Dearborn, a stream of immigrants from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere have filled the city with mosques and Islamic day schools, halal cafes and grocery stores, yet they often separate into their own neighborhoods.

Shiites also hold a worldview that can keep them isolated. Their outlook is rooted in the martyrdom of their earliest leaders and the modern-day violence and discrimination they face from Muslims who consider Shiism a false path.

"Shias, more than Sunnis, psychologically feel that 'we are the victims,' " said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a Shiism expert at the University of Virginia.

That sense of being under siege from enemies pervaded the Muslim Congress, where turbaned clerics in flowing robes set a strict religious tone.

Islamic dress was required at all times, and "just wearing a small hijab is not Islamic attire," one speaker warned, referring to a head scarf. Most of the women wore tunics and tight-fitting head scarves that covered their necks and chins. Men and women had separate dining halls at the upscale hotel.

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