Some American Muslims are finding that 9/11 rekindled their faith. But others are still asleep.
By SHOMIAL AHMAD
Imam Moujahed Bakhach was shopping at Costco that day in 2001, when he happened to push his empty cart past the audio-visual equipment aisle — and saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks being played out on tv set after tv set. At first he thought that he was watching a movie, but he knew from the eeriness of the store that something was not quite right — and he realized that what he was watching was real. He cut short his shopping trip and hurried back to his office.
Bakhach knew that in a matter of hours, reporters with cameras and notebooks would be knocking on the green front door of his mosque off Hulen Street in West Fort Worth. And so he started fielding the phone calls and news media visits, the first in a deluge that would last, on and off, for weeks, as reporters sought insight into Islam and Islamic culture. In between interviews, he called members of his mosque board.
“I need your help — ABC, CBS, NBC — they are here. Star-Telegram are here. Visitors are passing by here,” the imam said in his Lebanese accent, recalling the phone calls he made that day.
But his board members were afraid — they didn’t come to the mosque that day or for several days. In fact, in the first week after 9/11, only African and African-American Muslims showed up in any numbers for Friday prayers.
The day after the terrorist attacks, however, just as the imam was finishing an interview with WFAA Channel 8, help arrived from an unexpected quarter. Assembled outside his office were a group of 15 religious leaders, led by Tarrant County Council of Churches representative Ken Macintosh and including many people the imam recognized from his interfaith work.
Macintosh told him, “We are here to help and support you,” Bakhach recalled. The group that had come to his immediate support was composed of people outside his faith — a female Presbyterian minister, a Disciples of Christ pastor, a Jewish rabbi.
When 9/11 happened, most Muslims in this country had probably never really asked themselves what that meant — to be Muslim in America. Most are the first or second generation of their family in this country, immigrants or children of immigrants who, when their world changed that day, still didn’t feel fully American, even with blue passports in their hands. They were a community living in their own shells — going to work on weekdays and socializing with other Muslims at the mosques and dinner parties on the weekend, and the attacks scared them even further into that protective space. By that point, only a few Tarrant County Muslims had ventured outside their own cultural groups to vote or to do charity work. The vast majority still felt like foreigners here, and “civic participation” wasn’t a phrase in their communal vocabulary.
Four years later, Tarrant County Muslims can again pray without the sound of camera clicks in the background, and they are beginning to define — for themselves and for mainstream Americans — what it means to be an American Muslim. Not that there’s a consensus — it’s almost impossible for Muslims to agree on anything. Even Islam’s biggest holiday, Eid ul-Fitr, is celebrated on different days by different mosques because leaders can’t agree on when the new moon of that month will be sighted, triggering the observance. But even those leaders all could agree that 9/11 was a watershed for their community.
After 9/11, Muslims felt growing pains. From the outside world, they faced pressures: increased discrimination, an uneasiness about the two American-led wars in Muslim countries, and, everywhere, curious questions about their faith. Each time those pressures eased, another crisis — most recently, the London subway bombings — would put the squeeze back on.
Internally, a more fascinating process began: In Tarrant County and across America, Muslims have started to define Islam on their own terms, instead of leaving that task solely to religious scholars. It’s a process that many believe could revive Islamic study and scholarship and perhaps lead to another “golden age of Islam,” when once again, as in the 9th to 11th centuries, the masses of Muslims would practice ijtihad — interpreting the basic documents and precepts of their faith, rather than taqleed — imitating, or simply accepting dogma. The latter is the tradition — in many countries, a tradition enforced by law or fear — among most Muslim communities today.
Inayat Lalani, a surgeon who has lived in Tarrant County for the last 23 years, says 9/11 had the equivalent effect on Islamic thought as Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the church door had on the Catholic church. “For the first time, it shook us up and forced us to start asking questions that we should have been asking a long time ago, but we were not asking,” Lalani said.
Lydia Abdullah, an African-American Muslim who was active in the civil rights movement, figures that 9/11, for the first time, made immigrant Muslims really feel the sting of discrimination. “There was never an illusion with us [blacks] about whether you could count on the white man to help you. When the problem comes, whoever is responsible, everybody who is like that person will be clumped together,” Abdullah said. “Ask the Japanese, ask the Indians, ask the African-Americans — that’s the experience, and it was no different with the immigrant Muslims after 9/11. ... They got a hell of an awakening call.”
Ahmad Al-Khadra, who was 17 that year, got a different type of wake-up call. He was a senior at Western Hills High School when the planes hit, and at the time he was more concerned with driving a souped-up car than with practicing Islam. His friends began to ask questions about Islam. “I kind of felt ashamed at myself because I didn’t know how to answer,” he said. “It was like if any of my friends talked about sports or anything else, then right there I know. And my own religion, I don’t know.”
But how many Muslims have answered that incessantly ringing alarm clock with any new awareness or introspection about their community and their religion in an American context? Perhaps only a small fraction — as would be true with any group. Experts figure only one American Muslim in 10 is actually practicing; the other 90 percent are “cultural” Muslims whose observances are limited to attending Eid prayer and dressing up in fine clothes at weddings.
Yasmin Khan, one of 40 Muslim delegates to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, thinks her community, for the most part, is still asleep, and unfortunately parents are passing along apathy to their children. “I think [American Muslims] are not really in touch with reality,” Khan said. The events of 9/11 may have made them aware that some change is needed, she said, “but as far as [actually] doing something — uh-uh.”
One of the founders of the only full-time Islamic school in Tarrant County, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani thinks that the Muslim community is at a crossroads, with three paths leading on from here “We can totally integrate with American society: We melt into American society. We [can] remain hostile — I think that’s a terrible road. ... The third, which is the middle road, [is that] we recognize that this is our country.”
Demographers estimate that there are now nearly 7 million Muslims in the United States, two-thirds of them immigrants. Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in America, according to the U.S. State Department. In Tarrant County alone, about 40,000 Muslims worship at 11 mosques scattered around.
The first mosque in North Texas was Masjid Jami’a on Fort Worth’s West Side, built with money collected from many of the first-generation immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East, who came here after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, opening America’s doors to a trained professional class comprising mostly doctors and engineers. The white mosque with a minaret and a dome opened its doors in 1980. At the time there was one large prayer space, where men and women stood in separate single-file lines to face Mecca. More Muslim immigrants came in the 1980s, this time not professionals but businessmen, who imported goods and opened up convenience stores. They were joined in the 1990s by Iraqi, Somalian, and Bosnian refugees. And so more mosques were built in Tarrant County communities with significant pockets of Muslims: Arlington, Watauga, Colleyville.
The Fort Worth mosque grew, too. A new wing for Sunday school classrooms was added, and parents-turned-teachers drilled their kids in the Alif, Ba, Thas (the ABCs) of the Arabic alphabet, so that the children could learn to read the Qur’an.
In the ’80s, local Muslim parents were consumed with anxiety that their children would lose their culture and their values while growing up in a non-Muslim world. In that pre-9/11 cocoon, many socialized only with other Muslims, and tried their best to limit the interaction between Muslim boys and girls.
Moujahed Bakhach graduated from one of the most well-known Islamic seminaries, Al-Azhar in Cairo, and in 1982 he came to Fort Worth. He led the Hulen Street mosque for over 20 years, leaving earlier this year to become the imam of Al Hedayah, another Islamic center, located off I-30 at the Fort Worth-Arlington border. Growing up in Lebanon, Bakhach had become politically involved at an early age, and he had expected to talk to his congregation not only about heaven above and hellfire below, but the earth in between, where his congregation walked. But when he gave Friday sermons about what was happening in Israel and Palestine, the members of the mosque board cautioned him. “They want a place to worship and go home and leave me alone,” Bakhach said. “[They] say, ‘Imam, we don’t need politics’”
Many of his congregants came from countries where political involvement translated into persecution. Others didn’t feel that they had the right to be involved in American politics — some, in fact, didn’t feel fully American. During the first Gulf War, a slur spray-painted on the white brick of the mosque — “Camel Jockeys Go Home” —only heightened the immigrants’ anxiety.
Others in the congregation — men wearing beards, prayer caps, and long white robes — denounced political involvement in a non-Muslim country. With the roll of an r in an Arabic accent, they said it was haram — forbidden. The imam remembers listening to endless discussions and lectures on whether political involvement was halal — permissible, in Islam. Even the big North American Islamic conferences, which annually draw tens of thousands of attendees, held seminars on this issue.
After 9/11, however, that question faded away in the minds of most American Muslims. “That question is canceled,” Bakhach said. “Now we have lectures: Yes, we have to get involved and how to get involved now.”
The bearded imam spoke in the dimly lit prayer area of the Hulen Street mosque, the chandelier inside the dome reflecting bits of light onto the green carpet where people line up to pray. He wore a Mexican guayabera shirt and slacks, casual clothes compared to the long white robe he wears on Fridays. In the mosque’s entry, where men unbuckle their shoes and place them on shelves before entering, fliers on bulletin boards showed the Statue of Liberty and a message for a Sunday seminar: “Know your rights.”
While the majority of the congregation didn’t condemn political involvement before 9/11, some other conservative ideas held more sway. Some self-selected men reserved the right to interpret the message of the Qur’an and other Islamic texts, and anyone who questioned their interpretation was dismissed with quotations in Arabic — which most of the congregants couldn’t understand or, therefore, dispute. To many such men, the ideal Muslim was someone who modeled his life strictly according to that of the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago.
Many immigrant Muslims grew up in countries where theirs was the religion — and culture — of the majority; therefore, while they were growing up, they never had an urge to know what Islam really meant in practice. When they settled in America, they deferred their knowledge to a select group of men who concentrated on defining Islam as a set of rules, rather than a spirituality that rests on five pillars (believing in one god, praying, fasting, giving charity, and going for Hajj). Throughout the ’90s, as more Muslims in America saw themselves merging into American society and heard the constant urgings of the religious leadership, they held onto things that would at least externally show that they were Muslim. Many women who had never done so before began covering their hair and men began to grow beards. And what was happening in mosques around this country seemed to be mirrored in an extreme way by what Muslims saw and heard in the news from Afghanistan, where the Taliban was forcing every “requirement” of Islam on the Afghanis. To some American Muslims, the leaders of their mosques seemed to be asking their congregations for the same unquestioning acceptance — of similarly archaic interpretations of Islam.
Lalani, now 66, remembers sitting through some of those discussions. One debate centered on whether, because the Prophet Muhammad was right-handed, a left-handed child should be forced to become right-handed. Another time a lecturer talked about how riba — the Arabic word for raising prices — was forbidden. The man urged people not to take out loans or open savings accounts, because to do so would be to accept or pay interest, which the lecturer said was forbidden. Lalani raised his hand (hopefully not his left hand), saying that he thought the prohibition was not against interest, but extortion, and the lecturer censured him. “This is not my words. This is Allah’s words,” Lalani recalled him saying. “Are you Muslim or no?”
Many American Muslims didn’t have the confidence to question the ulema — the religious hierarchy — at first. But when the Taliban rule fell, and fell quickly, they too began to feel that they could ask questions. Because, they thought, if truly Allah was on the Taliban’s side, the government wouldn’t have fallen so fast.
Now many American Muslims are interpreting Islam for themselves, rather than accepting whatever is handed down by a selected few men. “Before they asked us to shut up,” Lalani said. “Now you can ask them to shut up, because there is no audience.”
That doesn’t mean that local mosques have completely changed, of course. Lalani, who has been trying to encourage Muslims to get politically involved, at one point went on the air on a local ethnic radio station to make announcements about a “Ballot Box barbecue.” Some people called in to say he was going to hell.
That hasn’t stopped Lalani, who has been trying to organize Muslims into a significant voting bloc since the late 1990s. He came here from India at age 23, became an American citizen 14 years later in 1977, and was a member of the American Muslim Caucus. Later he joined the Muslim Democrats, and encouraged his fellow Muslims to get involved with local politics — voting in precinct elections, knocking on doors to register voters.
After 9/11, he began to get more response to his urgings. Last year, 35 Muslims from the Metroplex attended the Texas State Democratic Convention as elected delegates. Many at the convention seemed to accept and approve such involvement by these new Americans, stopping by the Muslim Democrats table to ask questions about Islam. But other Americans — conservative and liberal — didn’t welcome such involvement.
In a syndicated column that ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2003, neoconservative pundit Cal Thomas called Muslim political involvement in this country “the danger within” and predicted that the final goal would be “the imposition of a theocratic state.”
On the left, Hillary Clinton’s 2000 New York senatorial opponent, Rick Lazio, characterized her acceptance of a $50,000 donation from the American Muslim Alliance as “blood money,” and in turn Clinton promptly publicly stated that she was returning the money. The American Muslim Alliance’s political involvement has generally been mainstream — in 2000 they supported George Bush, and they have rarely been publicly critical of governmental policy.
Lalani hoped that more involvement by Muslims in politics would mean more acceptance by mainstream America, but incidents like that made him feel an outsider still.
Sitting in his sunless living room with a big-screen television where he watches his news and a fireplace mantel filled with decorations of Qur’anic calligraphy, Lalani reminisced about world political events that have happened since he came to the States, as if he were turning the pages of a modern Middle-Eastern history book. He talked about the ongoing violence in Israeli-occupied territory; described the “turkey shoot” in the first Gulf War, where American pilots bombed a retreating Iraqi army, leaving below five miles of charred bodies and burnt-out vehicles; and cited former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s admission, “the price is worth it,” justifying the need for economic sanctions on Iraq that led to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. Through those years, Lalani thought about what it meant to be American, and he thought the way to express himself was to become more involved in American politics.
These days many American Muslims don’t depend solely on American tv networks for their news. Instead, they surf through the channels provided by their satellite dishes — Al Jazeera, Pakistani Television, Al Arabiyah — witnessing the human cost of war in “Muslim” nations. They, like Lalani, are outraged at what America is doing — and this is pushing them to become more politically active and more questioning about what is being done in the name of their religion.
After 35 years of being a surgeon, Lalani is comfortable with giving diagnoses — even political ones. He knows the question that non-Muslims want to ask when they see things like the London subway bombings and hear of suicide bombings in Baghdad or Gaza.
Muslims “are not supportive of violence or terrorism, but they do understand what’s behind it,” Lalani said. Most American Muslims, he said, are offended by ongoing foreign occupation — including U.S. occupation — of Muslim countries, even if they don’t agree that the reaction to that occupation should be terrorism.
If their deep anxiety about world politics sets Muslims apart from many of the ethnic groups struggling for acceptance in America, the question of race puts them right back in the main channel of discontent in this country. And some see racism as a factor that is on the increase rather than the decrease.
Four African-American Muslims sat around a kitchen table discussing the London bombings and why four British Muslims would commit such horrendous acts. All four at the table had been introduced to Islam in their early 20s, through the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam. Lydia Abdullah and Elizabeth Shaheed, who grew up together in Little Rock, wore opaque blue scarves covering their hair, and long flowing shirts. Elaine Abdur-Razzaaq circled a scarf around her head, covering her hair, and her husband Samad Abdur-Razzaaq wore a TXU baseball cap.
“I’m thinking about the Nation of Islam and how we bought into that indoctrination of the white man being the devil and the black man being God,” Abdullah said. “It was like bingo — that’s what it is.” Abdullah and the others around the table talked about how persecution and the pain of racism can make people susceptible to being indoctrinated. “You know, I don’t know how it is in London, but I know how it is in this country being African-American. And you know racism and prejudice — it hurts, and it’s oppressive,” Samad Abdur-Razzaaq said. “I’m not making an excuse for anybody, but when people are persecuted ... those people are easy to indoctrinate ... especially young men with all that testosterone”
Shaheed remembered how, when she was growing up, she’d see news of a crime and pray that the person who committed it wasn’t black. Now when she watches the news, she said, she thanks God it’s not a Muslim. “9/11 was like being black twice,” Shaheed said. “So it’s like we already felt that discrimination.” If the criminal or the bomber or terrorist is a Muslim, she knows that subsequent newscasts will be filled with imams making statements apologizing for the acts, explaining that Islam does not teach violence. To Shaheed and her friends, such apologies seem to follow a double standard: If someone, under the guise of Christianity, blows up an abortion clinic, a Christian minister isn’t compelled to apologize.
“You get tired of defending yourself on something. If they knew anything about this religion, they would know that those types of things don’t have anything to do with what we believe as Muslims.” Abdullah said.
The people around the table said that many immigrant Muslims seem passive to them, acting as though they still feel they haven’t earned the right to be here. Shaheed said that when she’s at the mosque, immigrant women often slip pieces of paper to her with scribbled questions that they want her to read, because they’re too shy to ask the imam themselves. “We were always taught that to gain muscle, you have to use force against it,” Shaheed said, “so the reason they’re not courageous is because they don’t fight to be courageous.”
People like Shaheed, Abdullah, and Lalani aren’t ready to predict yet whether the repercussions of 9/11 will draw immigrant American Muslims long-term into more active roles in their own mosques and in involving themselves in the larger society. The vast majority of Muslims remain self-absorbed, trying to keep up with the Joneses, or in their case the Alis or the Siddiquis. For them, being concerned about anything beyond their immediate social circle is not expected. And since middle-class to upper-class Muslim immigrants haven’t felt a lasting sting of ethnic discrimination, most remain complacent on that score. It’s hard for Muslim community leaders to lead an apathetic group.
If you walk into a Pakistani-American evening party, you’ll see women in sequined clothes and dripping diamonds, sitting in a circle, watching some girl making her debut, dancing to a Bollywood tune. Some have long scarves flowing around their necks; others wear them loosely over their heads, demurely adjusting when a scarf slips; and some have taken to fully covering all their hair, with the scarf tucked tightly underneath the chin. Women will often talk about fabric and food, but generally they don’t talk about community service or about lives outside of their social circle.
Sitting in her dining room with the sun setting behind her, Yasmin Khan was not optimistic about the level of impact that 9/11 has had on the Muslim community. She has lived in the Fort Worth area for the last 24 years. In the mornings she works as doctor, and in the evenings, as a single mother, she raises her six children — several of whom peppered her with questions as she talked to a reporter. In her free time, she tries to get more Muslims to become more civically involved — to do community service, vote, give to charities.
She has sat in on luncheon speeches by popular Pakistani religious leader Farhat Hashmi, who tours the United States giving lectures, covered head to toe in her niqab with only a slit open to see through. The women in the audience sit in their starched clothes, sip tea, and talk about the Qur’an. Hashmi encourages her followers, who are mostly well-to-do Pakistani women, to interpret the Qur’an for themselves. For the women it’s a rare opportunity to hear a religious leader directly addressing their concerns. Unfortunately, according to Khan, Hashmi’s talks center around personal and family development, rather than community service.
“She’s affected people in a positive way, but knowledge means doing something with it,” Khan said. “It just doesn’t mean you take knowledge and you sit on it.”
Khan describes these gatherings, which draw crowds of Muslim women, as “pathetic.” For the past several years, she said, she’s noticed that as far as political and social consciousness go, Pakistani immigrants, especially the women, are behind other immigrant groups that came to the States after 1965.
“It’s the norm not to do charity work, not to do social services, not to spend five hours a week that will help another human being,” Khan said. “Your conscience can rest safely in its little cocoon.”
Khan doesn’t entirely blame the women for their idle chatter, but also says that in the culture of some Muslim countries, women have traditionally been kept behind. There’s no moral support from a husband that would encourage his wife’s involvement, and there’s an unwritten rule that Muslim women should not participate in mixed-gender gatherings unless it’s in a social setting where the family goes as a whole.
Unfortunately these values and this apathy are being passed on to the next generation of Muslim children, Khan said.
It doesn’t help that when women go to many area mosques for Friday prayer, they pray in a separate room, disconnected from the imam who leads the prayer — an arrangement that’s becoming more common in American mosques. They watch the sermon on a small television in the corner of a room and listen to the imam over a loudspeaker. At the Hulen Street mosque, men and women used to pray in the same room — the men would line up behind the imam and face Mecca to pray; the women would stand behind them and cup their hands to their ears, the motion to begin prayer. As the congregation grew, more men started coming to prayer, and the back of the men’s section kept going further and further back, eventually spilling into the women’s section. Instead of the mosque adding more space, the women began to pray upstairs. Today woman enter by one entrance and the men by another. A study done by the Council on American-Islamic relations notes that the percentage of segregated mosques rose from 52 percent in 1994 to 66 percent in 2000.
Perhaps it’s been the airing of the Muslim community’s “dirty laundry” that’s giving some Muslims the courage to challenge this practice. Or perhaps it’s internal pressure from people wanting to become more invested in their religion. One Metroplex woman challenges this practice: When she goes to a Friday prayer, she stands behind the men’s section, and if anyone asks her to leave, she stays there and prays alone.
Last year a woman challenged the accepted tradition at a West Virginia mosque, where women are told to enter through a separate door in the back; instead, she marched through the front door. In March of this year a Muslim woman led a mixed-gender prayer in New York City. Both events caused controversy in the Muslim world. The mixed-gender prayer prompted religious leaders around the world to issue fatwas — religious edicts — condemning it. There was a notable buzz as Muslims all over the nation talked about whether or not these events were Islamically right.
Nizam Peerwani remembers one day when a police sergeant came to him to talk about what he had seen at an Arlington mosque he’d visited. “Doc, do you go to temple?” Peerwani recalled the sergeant asking. “You know, it’s a very sad place.” The officer described it as “very pathetic” because the women were allowed to pray only in a little enclave in the back.
Peerwani was one of the founding members of the full-time Islamic school Al Hedayah. Now at the school there’s a mosque, too, where the women and men pray in the same room, but Peerwani realizes that it’s not the case in every mosque. “We’ve relegated women to places that are usually not very conducive to prayer or anything,” he said.
Peerwani, who has raised three adult children (one son and two daughters), has noticed that it’s his daughters who have a more difficult time accepting the boundaries of religious rules. He said that his Arab and his Pakistani friends have encountered this same difficulty.
“[My daughters] always want to nudge the line,” Peerwani said. “Why can’t I do this? Why? Why? Why? It’s always why. It’s good, because it makes the parent reflect: Why not?”
He and his wife often wonder if it is some social or cultural taboo that leads them to try to control their children or if it’s an intellectual fear based upon experience in this society. Peerwani said that one of the challenges facing Muslims in America is finding imams who are familiar with what younger Muslims here go through; otherwise, the next generation of Muslims will turn away from religion and completely disappear into American culture, as Muslims have done in other countries.
While he was doing human rights work in Guatemala, looking at mass graves after 35 years of civil war, Peerwani met a Guatemalan graduate student named Ahmed. To Peerwani’s surprise, Ahmed turned out to be Catholic, not Muslim. Ahmed’s great-grandfather had been a Muslim who emigrated from Palestine, settling into the eastern part of Guatemala along with others of his faith. Eventually, he and the other Muslims assimilated into the local community.
“You can see some Islamic remnants when they talk about Arabic food they used to make,” Peerwani said. “They have this memory of that, but they’re not Muslims by any stretch of the imagination.”
Peerwani worries that if the leadership of his faith in this country doesn’t wake up, the vast majority of Muslims here will become as thoroughly assimilated as the Irish, most of whom now celebrate their heritage only by wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day.
Ahmad Al-Khadra of Fort Worth is now 21, and he may have been on that road to assimilation before 9/11. But the questions that his classmates asked him about Islam during that period have made him search more deeply into his faith. He sat in a Starbucks recently, wearing a backward baseball cap and a trimmed goatee, talking about his transformation. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were “like a wake-up call for me, you know. I had to speak out and say what we believe and don’t believe, what’s right, what’s wrong,” Al-Khadra said. “The least I can do is defend it and tell them what we really believe.”
During his senior year in high school, he found himself constantly defending his religion, when his government teacher would make statements like: “Every Muslim’s goal is to be a suicide bomber” or “We have to attack, because they hate our freedom.” Al-Khadra said the experience also taught him that he needs to speak out not only against injustices against Muslims, but also the injustices affecting others, including the poor.
Still, other Muslim friends tell him he is too serious and to lighten up. “See, it’s like a lot of the Muslim youth here, I think — the problem with them is they think Islam is like you pray five times a day, you go to masjid for Friday, you fast, and that’s it,” Al-Khadra said. “They know their identity, but they’re doing their thing.”
Al-Khadra, a student at Tarrant County College, said he now understands that one of Islam’s most fundamental messages is to treat others well. Since 9/11, he’s been attending study sessions that the Imam Bakhach leads on how to be a better Muslim. These discussions are on a more personal level, talking about what’s halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden) and learning to recite the Qur’an with more fluency. On a recent evening, however, the imam had different plans. Through Bakhach’s work with Clergy and Police Alliance, he knew of one of the shelters to which the New Orleans evacuees had been taken. Al-Khadra and about a dozen others went to the shelter to give spiritual support to the victims, and to get a list of supplies the people needed.
Al-Khadra, whose family are Palestinian refugees, was particularly affected by the story of one woman at the shelter, who talked about leaving New Orleans with only the clothes on her back. Ahmad remembered a similar story from his grandmother when she left Palestine in 1948.
Bakhach is hopeful that, after four years of his urging, local Muslims are finally beginning to get more involved with the larger community. He figures that he stands the best chance of reaching the children of the first-generation immigrants — like his own son and two daughters — with his message.
He chafes at the pressure he gets to make mosque activities “fun” in order to draw young people in. Some important things take hard work and aren’t much fun, he said.
He remembers sitting in a Lebanese restaurant with Ken Macintosh one day, asking the former minister how he could improve the image of Muslims in America. Macintosh asked him if Muslims volunteered with the police, in hospitals, with Habitat for Humanity. To all of Macintosh’s questions, Bakhach answered no. “Building, helping, sharing, volunteering — no, no, no, no,” Bakhach said.
The imam doesn’t know how to combat the materialism that he sees being passed on to the second generation of Muslims in this country, but he hopes that once the children he taught at the Sunday school establish their careers, they will come back and serve the community.
“Islam is the religion of serving, not isolating ourselves from the society,” Bakhach said. But do young Muslims accept that agenda? “I don’t see it,” he said.
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