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U.S.: Muslims In America Work To Bridge Cultural Gaps

The Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Maryland Since the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, some observers have cited what they call a "clash of civilization" between the West and Islam. The recent bombings in London were apparently carried out by Muslims born and raised in Britain. Were the killers at least partly driven by revulsion over what they see as a corrupt Western society? And if so, do many Muslims share this feeling? RFE/RL sought answers at a Muslim cultural center outside Washington.

Silver Spring, Maryland; 28 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Muslim Community Center sits in a park-like setting in a suburb north of Washington.

The center is many things to its members -- mostly a way for them to keep in touch with their roots. But it is most definitely not a refuge from what they consider an alien society. This is according to Mohammed Babah, the organization's vice president, and Zaffer Mirza, a longtime member, who spoke with RFE/RL in the center's library.

Mirza, who emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s, acknowledges that he felt "different" as an immigrant to the United States in the first years after his arrival. But he says he does not believe he felt any more different than a European might feel moving to Pakistan. And for that he thanks Islam.

"Technology, in the last 30 years, has tremendously impacted all of our lives," Mirza says. "Some of those things [modern temptations] are also the offshoots of that technology, and we have to understand, living in this society, that you cannot stop once the genie's out of the bottle, which is the genie of change, the genie of technology. However, that is the beauty in any religion: They tell you right from wrong. And that you have to inculcate in your children."

But both Mirza and Babah -- a longtime emigre from Ghana -- say that a good moral foundation will help a child resist some of the more insidious temptations in Western society. But Baba adds that no Muslim should deceive himself into believing that he merely has to give strict orders to his sons and daughters.

"We're talking about children. Let's take a minute to think about parents themselves, who came in [immigrated to the United States] and were absorbed so much by what they've seen here," Babah says. "Some of them use the word 'time.' 'There's just no time in America to do this. I have to go make a living, and therefore it was very hard for me to keep up for [with] my five daily prayers. Now, when the parent goes astray, the child -- we don't even have anything to say about [we no longer have influence over] a child because the child did not get the leadership the child needed."

While Babah and Mirza express little overall concern about the mix of Islamic and Western cultures in America, many other immigrant Muslim parents do, according Ayesha Karimullah, an American of northern European descent who is a convert to Islam.
"I have always volunteered in the public school from the time my children were in kindergarten, and I still volunteer in the high school, even though they're not there anymore, because I'm aware of the fact that they need a Muslim presence there."

"For the [immigrant] parents raising children in this culture, there's a lot of fear because they don't know what's going to happen to their children," Karimullah says. "They see changes happen, and they don't know what to do about it."

Karimullah -- who wears a long, loose-fitting dress and the traditional Muslim head scarf -- says it was easier for her to adapt to her new religion than it is for immigrants. But she says that even she must work hard to ensure that her children, and other Muslim children, stay true to Islamic values in the midst of Western culture.

This is best accomplished at school, Karimullah says, because this is where children most easily succumb to the cultural pressures of fellow students.

"I have always volunteered in the public school from the time my children were in kindergarten, and I still volunteer in the high school, even though they're not there anymore, because I'm aware of the fact that they need a Muslim presence there," Karimullah says. "They need the people in the school to be familiar with the Muslim culture and the teachings of the faith. And because of that I was always there. As long as I was there, it helped ease that cultural difference for my children."

Such cultural differences, of course, go far beyond schoolrooms. Mirza says the 11 September 2001 attacks brought into focus the differences between the West and Islam, and gave some Americans the idea that Muslim militants somehow represent Islam as a whole.

Mirza says that after 9/11, Muslims should have spoken out about their feelings. Instead, he says, they kept silent, increasing suspicion in the West.

"As Muslims in this country, we really did not do a good job to explain ourselves, who we are," MIrza says. "If you don't define yourself, somebody else is going to define you according to their understanding, according to their information, misinformation, disinformation, whatever they have. It's not their fault, because you [the Muslim] did not do your job."

Babah agrees, pointing to what he calls a mutual "realization" in both cultures that Muslims and Westerners must live and raise their families in the same communities. But they can't do that, he says, unless each demonstrates to the other that it poses no threat.


RFE/RL Special: Religion and Tolerance