Outlook: Five myths about mosques in America

Aug 31, 2010

Author and editor Edward E. Curtis IV will be online Tuesday, Aug. 31, at Noon ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Five myths about mosques in America."

I am Edward Curtis, a professor at IUPUI. Thanks for joining me to talk about my Sunday Outlook piece, "Five Myths about Mosques in America." Like anything regarding Muslims today, the article generated lots of interest, support, and condemnation. I appreciate the chance to expand on my comments and take your questions.

What role are American Muslims playing in the criticism of Islamic nations who actively suppress freedom of religion and the abuse of Christians and other non-Muslims in those nations?

That's a great question. Muslim Americans are now playing a leading role in  intra-Muslim dialogues on the importance of freedom of religion and values of religious pluralism. They do so at a formal level, through participating in governmental and non-governmental dialogues abroad, and at the informal level, through their social and religious networks. At the grassroots, you can observe this taking place by visiting your local interfaith dialogue groups. One concrete example: during President Bush's administration, the State Department regularly funded the trips of interfaith groups from the United States to Muslim-majority areas of the world. I was part of one such delegation sent to Mindinao in the Philippines.  Muslim participants included Rafia Zakaria, a women's rights advocate who serves on an Amnesty International board; Zahid Bukhari, a Muslim American scholar; and former Islamic Society of North America Sec'y General Muneer Fareed.

For evidence of this at the intellectual level, you can read the work of Muslim Americans such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson, Omid Safi, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the late W. D. Mohammed, and Eboo Patel. These scholars and leaders all see religious tolerance and freedom of religion at the heart of Islam, and often quoting the Qur'an that there can be "no compulsion in religion," they call on fellow Muslims to protect these precious Islamic values.

Who is funding the mosque near Ground Zero?

Good question.The developer is SoHo Properties, which is led by Sharif El-Gamal, a Muslim American. Daisy Khan, one of the leaders of the Park51/Cordoba House initiative, has indicated that the project will need to raise additional funds, both from Muslim and non-Muslim sources.

I wonder how you can legitimately separate mosques in America from their source in Saudi Arabia. In looking at the potential implications to our society one must recognize the whole picture, for example, the inability to separate religion and state.

Thanks for this question. The funding for most mosques in the United States does not come from Saudi Arabia. It comes overwhelmingly from Muslim American contributions. Most mosques also reject the interpretations of Islam that are officially supported by the Saudi government.

Muslim Americans are overwhelmingly in support of freedom of religion and separation of religion and state. They see this as an Islamic value. For immigrants who have come from countries where religion is highly regulated  by the state, they are grateful for the American system. Many African American Muslims, who constitute the largest single racial/ethnic group of Muslim Americans, are also weary of government interference in their religious affairs, and thus support freedom of religion.

Historically speaking, members of the Nation of Islam helped to exapnd freedom of religion in the 20th century. Their challenges to religious restrictions in prisons, like in Cooper v. Pate, resulted in broadening freedom of religion, not restricting it.

Thanks for this informative article, Ed. You say that the concept of Sharia is not fully agreed upon but I think I read recently that a part of London has been set aside for that "practice" or perhaps I'm recalling that the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested he could live with its coexisting with British Law. If so, what are the precepts that he had in mind? Surely not stoning for adultery, which apparently is one tenet as practiced in Afghanistan. Thanks

Sharia is an ideal; the practical attempt to implement it as a form of law is called fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. It was never codified in the pre-modern period. In modern times, some Muslims have supported the notion that the shari`a should become a codified system of laws.

In Europe, where Muslims are mainly in the minority, however, the most some Muslims ask for is that matters of family and personal status law be settled through the use of fiqh. This would never fly in the United States since we have a first amendment. In Great Britain, however, there is an official religion of state--the Church of England--of which the Queen is the head. Religion is taught in public schools. Because religion has a public status, the people of Great Britain have attempted to mitigate the effects of a state religion on religious minorities.

Aren't most or all mosques under scrutiny by the FBI or HLS? It seems they'd be an unlikely place to try to hide radical activity, which would be most likely to occur far away from the obvious site. Aren't these investigations focused on financial suspicions?

After 9/11, the Bush administration began to conduct intelligence and counter-intelligence activities in Muslim American communities, including mosques. Harkening back to the intelligence techniques utilized under the COINTELPRO initiative of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, this includes placing agents in mosques who can conduct sting operations. Such domestic counter-intelligence was seemingly abandoned in the 1970s, but the urgency of 9/11 prompted the Congress to pass the PATRIOT Act, which "took the gloves off" and allowed the FBI new powers of investigation. It would be difficult to hatch a plot in a mosque, as you indicate.

You are also correct that the Department of Treasury has engaged in much investigation of the financing of mosques and especially Muslim philanthropies that send money overseas. The department's greatest success has been in discovering Muslim American contributions to the charitable arm of Hamas, which President Clinton declared to be a terrorist organization. Supporters of Hamas point out that the money they have given is for schools and hospitals and food--Hamas provides these services in Gaza--but support of Hamas is against the law in the United States. 

The Treasury Department has not found significant evidence that links Muslim American charities to al-Qaeda. When Muslim Americans send money abroad, they generally send it to feed the hungry or provide medical relief for tsunami or flood victims; they often send remittances to relatives as well.

This is an excellent article, a true eye opener. Thanks!

Thank you!

There are widespread media reports that mosques and Islamic charities in this country and throughout help fund oganizations classified by our gov't as being friendly to terrorism. To what extent is that true? If is is so, then what should we do about it?

 I refer the gentleperson to my previous answer.

Why do you charterize the subject of the controversy about Muslims in America as an issue of myths about mosques? Isn't the real issue for Americans the lack of distinction between the Muslim faith as a peaceful religion and the expression of that faith by jihadists as a to the death crusade against all non-believers? Why aren't Muslim proponents of peace forceful in expressing their views? Do they concede that the jihadists may be right?

First, about myths. The Five Myths is a regular feature in the Washington Post. They gave me the title and I went from there. As a religious studies professor, I would have preferred to call them misconceptions.

Muslim Americans and Muslims all around the globe have spoken eloquently and forcefully about the need for peace. One place to look , for example, would be the Amman Message. Muslim Americans have also spoken ad infinitum about this issue. For example, see the fatwa, or religious opinion, issued by the Fiqh Council of North America, which was signed by every major Muslim American organization and hundreds of mosques. Finally, you can also surf onto the sites of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim American civil rights group, and the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim American organization overall, for forceful statements in favor of peace.

As you know, jihad simply means struggle. Muslim Americans are on the front lines fighting against extremists, both Muslim and Christian, who want to interpret jihad as holy war.

Thanks for your article. Unfortunately I think it will not really have any effect. The people in this country simply do not respond to facts and reason. They are only swayed by their emotions.

I have a thought about that. You are right that this is in part  preaching to the choir. But in the struggle for peace and justice, the choir needs to be preached to! We need sustenance in our struggle. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to fill our public spaces, like the media, with hope.

But I also know that there is a chance--and I know this from my speaking and teaching--that there are genuinely concerned people who simply don't know much about Muslim Americans. They are truly open to learning more. They have concerns and it is the job of informed people to try to answer them and appeal to their better natures, not to their fear.

I want to appeal to people's "hearts" and call on human values of compassion and feelings of human solidarity. Having grown up in Southern Illinois, I know that you can't win an argument only by appealing to people's "heads."

We have many mosques in the western world, yet building churches in places like Saudia Arabia is strictly forbidden. Wouldn't it go a long way, as an act of good faith perhapse, for Muslims to approve of allowing non-Muslims to practice their religion there before insisting on building yet another mosque here?

Thank you for this question. I have seen this a lot.

As you know, there are thousands of foreigners in Saudi Arabia who practice their respective religions inside of the compounds where they live. Please be aware that these compounds are a product of the Americans who first explored oil in Saudi Arabia; they did not want to live next to the Saudi workers so they built white-only enclaves where they could live like they were back mining copper in Arizona. See further Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom.

Though Saudi Arabia is an exception, you will find churches all across the Muslim world. In Amman, Jordan, for example, a large Orthodox church sits right next to the blue-domed  Abdullah Mosque.

I appreciated very much your article in the newspaper. Are you yourself Muslim and, whether you are or not, what is your relationship with any Islamic organizations in this country and abroad?

Thank you for this question. I am a Christian. I was baptized in a Roman Catholic church and "confirmed" in the Presbyterian Church, USA.

Your question about my association with anything Islamic reminds me of a question from the Cold War: are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? I know you didn't mean it that way.

I work for Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. You can look up all my other jobs, fellowships, etc. on my CV, which is public.


Do you have any idea why people are so ready to investigate and punish Muslim-Americans that might contribute to Hamas, but were and still are totally unconcerned with those who supported the IRA? That organization was also terrorist, killed many (English-speaking, Christian) innocents, but those Americans who supported it have a free pass.

Accepting the premise of your question, my guess, put too simply, is that the Irish American political constituency was simply too strong  in the 20th century to be challenged in this way.

How do you reconcile your article with the history discussed in Bernard Lewis's thoughts in his book "What Went Wrong"?

My article and books are about Muslim Americans. Professor Lewis was not an expert on Muslims in America; he studied Islam in the Middle East.

Why is this important? Because no one can be an expert on everything Muslim. Too many languages to learn (dozens), too many places to study, etc. It is important for us all to be humble in making generalizations about Muslims since they are so diverse.

What is the earliest history of Muslims in America? When did the first Muslims come to America, where did they settle, and what brought them to come to America?

Thanks for your question. The first significant population of Muslims to arrive on American shores were from West Africa. They came as slaves. A minority of scholars believes that some Muslim explorers and sailors arrived before Columbus; the majority of scholars believe that the very first Muslims to set foot in the Americas either came with Columbus or other European explorers and merchant ships.

Is there any data regarding where Muslims tend to fall on the social / liberal scale of social or cultural issues? For instance, there are pockets of liberal Catholics and Episcopals who support gay marriage, while almost all Evangelicals are against it.

Yes, there are data. The 2007 Pew poll, titled something like "American Muslims: Mostly Middle Class and Mainstream," classifies the majority of Muslim Americans as big government social conservatives. This means that while they are socially conservative when it comes to abortion and gay rights, they are also liberal when it comes to feeding and housing the poor and helping people get a college education. The 2009 Gallup poll has additional data on Muslim American political attitudes.

You say mosques have been here since the colonial era, and you note the mosque on Kent Island in 1731, defining mosque as any place where prayers are said. Frankly, that seems a bit of a stretch to say mosques have been here since the colonial era; do you have any other examples and maybe more importantly, when was the first actual mosque building erected? Thank you. Also, you mention that contrary to stereotypes that mosques are male-only places, Gallup finds that women are as likely to attend as men. First, why city Gallup? Secondly, are women segregated in different rooms? They can't be in the same room? I assume that was the question, or maybe confusion. Thank you

According to a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, the whole earth is a mosque, that is, you can pray anywhere, whether it is in a building or not. For more evidence of Muslim prayers in the colonial age, you can refer to my publications or those of S. Diouf, M. Gomez, and A. Austin.

As for women and men, some mosques separate the genders in different rooms while other mosques have men and women in the same room and then use children as the dividing line. Still other Muslim prayer spaces--after all, not all Muslims pray in mosques--have gender-integrated spaces. These include Sufi lodges.

In what community was the first mosque built in North America. I have heard Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Ross, North Dakota.

Many communities seem to compete for who gets to claim the first mosque. Here is what I know, based on primary, written sources. The first documented, purpose-built mosque structure was opened in 1921 in Detroit, in the Highland Park area. The mosque in Iowa was built in 1935, though Muslims in Cedar Rapids were praying in a rented hall by 1925. As I was writing this, someone from Biddeford, Maine, wrote in to say that Albanian Americans first prayed there in 1915. There is evidence of this, though they did not build a mosque.

Just to clarify, we know Muslims were praying together even before this. As Muslims immigrated from Europe and the Middle East in the 1880s and 1890s to the East Coast and Midwest and beyond, they almost certainly prayed with one another. Whether they built a building we haven't discovered yet, well, I will keep looking...

But women are not equal are they?

Yes, women are equal to men in God's eyes. See, for example, Amina Wadud's Qur'an and Women. If you are asking whether patriarchy and sexism exist in the world, among Muslims and non-Muslims, yes, we all have a lot of work to do.

Thanks for an informative chat, and citing your sources so we can read more about these topics.

Thanks, everyone, for your interesting questions. I wish I could have gotten to answer all of them, but I am afraid that I am not that fast a typist. Thanks again for joining the chat. Take care all!

In This Chat
Edward Curtis
Edward E. Curtis IV is millennium chair of liberal arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of ?Muslims in America: A Short History? and the editor of the ?Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History.?
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