The Rapid Spread of Islam in America
In the previous chapter, we related that people were beginning to reject atheism and turn toward religion, and asked for what religion they were searching. The growing number of people turning to Islam in the last few years shows that the true answer to this question is starting to be discovered. Every day, interest in Islam is increasing throughout the world, and many people are converting after reading the Qur'an and studying the Prophet Muhammad's life. In addition, there are people who may have not started to practice Islam yet but who are very influenced by the Qur'an's moral teachings and say that the best way of life for human beings is the one described in the Qur'an.
Thirty or forty years ago, the great majority of people knew almost nothing about Islam; now, Islam has become the most talked about, written about, and researched religion in the world, as well as the religion about which the most programs have been prepared. Of course, this state of affairs has contributed to society's learning about Islam. On the one hand, those involved in such activities have expanded their knowledge about Islam; on the other hand, those to whom this information is directed may have taken the opportunity for the first time in their lives to gain knowledge about Islam. So, it is from the lack of information or wrong information that people who have had little contact with Islam are coming to this religion in droves.
This movement is quite noticeable in the United States, a country founded on religious values. When Americans speak about their country, one of the things they stress is that people from every religious background are free to live together in peace and security. This situation has given Muslims immigrants a place to practice their religion freely and to talk about their faith. As a result, the number of Muslims increases daily. In spite of this, for years Muslims have remained small in numbers and economically and politically weak.
But over the past 10 years, these economic, social, and political difficulties have begun to disappear. In some states, existing mosques are filled to overflowing and new ones have been built. Hundreds of Islamic schools, both full-time and weekend, have opened and have had to expand to meet enrollment figures. Many companies have begun to set aside rooms for their Muslim employees, many banks have begun to open departments that operate according to Islamic law, and many state institutions have begun to hire Muslims for high-level positions.
A recent issue of Christianity Today, one of America's best-known magazines, contained an article entitled "Are Christians Prepared for Muslims in the Mainstream?" It gives this account of Islam's rise in America:
Islam could be the second-largest religion in America by 2015, surpassing Judaism, according to some estimates. By other estimates, Islam has achieved that rank already.
Muslims moving to the West are changing the cultural and religious landscape. A hospital in Detroit offers Muslim patients copies of the Qur'an; Denver International Airport includes a chapel for Muslim prayers; the U.S. Senate has invited a Muslim cleric to open its session in prayer; the military has hired four Muslim chaplains; the White House sends greetings (like its Christmas cards) on Id al-Fitr, the feast that ends Ramadan; the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington D.C. sends 100 Qur'ans a month to prisons while imams (spiritual leaders) send volunteers to teach Arabic.
"On Capitol Hill … weekly Muslim prayer services and forums to expose congressional staffers to Muslim viewpoints have become regular fare," notes Ira Rifkin of Religion News Service (Nov. 30, 1999), "and a bill has been introduced in Congress to issue a postage stamp commemorating Ramadan."38
These striking developments have attracted the interest of many sociologists. One of the most important names associated with this issue is Professor Dianne Eck, known for coining the name "Pluralism Project" for an enterprise in interfaith dialogue. In her book, A New Religious America, she gives an account of what she has determined about Islam's rapid rise:
As Muslims become more numerous and visible in American society, public officials have begun to shift from speaking of "churches and synagogues" to "churches, synagogues, and mosques." The annual observance of the Ramadan month of Muslim fasting now receives public notice and becomes the occasion for portraits of the Muslims next door in the Dallas Morning News or the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The fast-breaking meals called "iftar" at the close of each day have become moments of recognition. In the late 1990s there were iftar observances by Muslim staffers on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, and in the State Department. In 1996 the White House hosted the first observance of the celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the end of the month of Ramadan, a practice that has continued. The same year also saw the U.S. Navy commission its first Muslim chaplain, Lieutenant M. Malak Abd al-Muta' Ali Noel, and in 1998 the U.S. Navy's first mosque was opened on the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia, where Lieutenant Noel was stationed. When 50 sailors attend Friday prayers at this facility, they signal to all of us a new era of American religious life.39
Eck considers these developments a sign of the beginning of a new age, one in which Islam will spread quickly, not only throughout America but throughout the world.
Developments After 9/11
American interest in Islam reached its pinnacle in the last quarter of 2001. The most important reason for this was the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Several studies undertaken to determine the roots of terrorist ideology, as well as investigations of Islam, have enabled people to learn that Islam is a peaceful religion that enjoins tolerance, justice, mercy, and love. Islam has suddenly become a major topic of discussion all over the world. More and more world-renowned statesmen, political scientists, researchers, and thinkers consider it necessary to understand Islam correctly, and have given speeches underlining Islamic tolerance and willingness to reach agreement. Americans have approached Muslim organizations in order to find the most accurate information about Islam and Islamic history. As a result of this interest, the Middle East Media Research Institute reported that after 9/11, 34,000 Americans converted to Islam.40
The Egyptian weekly al-Ahram al-Arabi published a letter by Dr. Walid A. Fatihi of the Harvard Medical Faculty. In it, he stated that when he first heard of the attack, he thought that the work he had done to introduce Islam to America would be set back by 50 years. However, he soon realized how wrong he was. He continues:
I read an official statement issued by the leading Muslim clerics condemning the incident [i.e., the attacks]. The statement explained Islam's stance and principles, and its sublime precepts. Afterwards, I read Koranic verses translated into English…
One said to me: "I do not understand the Arabic language, but there is no doubt that the things you said are the words of Allah."
On Sunday, September 16, the Islamic Society of Boston issued an open invitation to the Islamic Center in Cambridge, located between Harvard and MIT. We did not expect more than 100 people, but to our surprise more than 1,000 people came, among them the neighbors, the university lecturers, members of the clergy, and even the leaders of the priests from the nearby churches, who invited us to speak on Islam. All expressed solidarity with Muslims. Many questions flowed to us. Everyone wanted to know about Islam and to understand its precepts…
That same day, I was invited again to participate in a meeting in the church, and again I saw the same things. On Thursday, a delegation of 300 students and lecturers from Harvard visited the center of the Islamic Society of Boston, accompanied by the American Ambassador to Vienna. They sat on the floor of the mosque, which was filled to capacity. We explained to them the precepts of Islam, and defended it from any suspicions [promulgated in the media]. I again read to them from the verses of Allah, and [their] eyes filled with tears. The audience was moved, and many asked to participate in the weekly lessons for non-Muslims held by the Islamic Center…
On Friday, September 21, the Muslims participated in a closed meeting with the governor of Massachusetts. In the meeting, a discussion was held on introducing Islam into the school curriculum, to inform the [American] people and to fight racism against Muslims arising from the American people's ignorance regarding the religion …
These are only some of the examples of what happened and is happening in the city of Boston, and in many other American cities, during these days. Proselytizing in the name of Allah has not been undermined, and has not been set back 50 years, as we thought in the first days after September 11. On the contrary, the 11 days that have passed are like 11 years in the history of proselytizing in the name of Allah. I write to you today with the absolute confidence that over the next few years, Islam will spread in America and in the entire world, Allah willing, much more quickly than it has spread in the past, because the entire world is asking, "What is Islam!"41
On a television program broadcast one week after 9/11, Eck related what that event had changed:
And yet most of us don't really see it [positive changes]. I think one of the real gifts, if we could call it that, of the last week has been the recognition that we are religiously diverse in ways we had never imagined…42
This increased interest in Islam caught the American press' attention, and the issue became a topic on television news programs. One newspaper that took up this issue was The Los Angeles Times. An article entitled "Expressions of Support Surprising to Muslims" reported that one of the most unexpected results was that Americans had begun to study and investigate Islam, and that this interest was so intense that it even surprised Muslims:
Many Americans also are investigating, some for the first time, one of the world's great faiths and oldest civilizations. Bookstores are selling out of copies of the Koran. University classes and teach-ins on the Middle East and Islam are filled to capacity. Middle East scholars are being invited on television news shows repeatedly and being spotted on the street like celebrities. And many everyday Middle Easterners—Muslim or not—are fielding a daily barrage of questions about Islam from neighbors, co-workers and strangers… "We are overwhelmed," said Mahmoud Abdel-Baset, religious director of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Since the attacks, the Los Angeles-based center has hosted a steady stream of dignitaries, including Gov. Gray Davis, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn... Richard Hrair Dekmejian, a USC professor on Middle Eastern politics, said this thirst for knowledge about Islam is a result of the powerful impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and the general lack of religious knowledge in America.43
In America today, the interest begun with 9/11 continues to intensify and become more widespread. In the following pages, we will see the rise of Islam in America. As we look at all of these developments, we must keep in mind one basic fact: God has given the good news of His promise to believers that true religion will be established among human beings. The events we have experienced show us that, God willing, the fulfillment of this promise is very near. For this reason, we are living in a crucial period and a time of profound change. Believers must realize the value of this period, offer the best and most accurate information to those who are slowly turning to Islam, answer their questions in the most satisfactory way, and be zealous representatives of Islam. As the verse below says, this is an important charge given by God to believers:
Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair admonition, and argue with them in the kindest way. Your Lord knows best who is misguided from His way. And He knows best who are guided. (Qur'an, 16: 125)
Muslims in America
There are between 6 and 7 million Muslims in America today. In other words, Muslims outnumber some Christian denominations and are equal to the number of Jews. Research done in the year 2000 by prominent American universities and Islamic foundations show that the number of Muslims is increasing rapidly and that Islam is growing stronger day by day.
The main theme of this research, known as the Mosque Study Project, is the establishment of mosques in America. The reason for this is that mosques occupy a very special place in any statistical compilations done with regard to the American Muslim community. Mosques in America are both houses of worship and gathering places for talking with one another and launching cultural activities to make Islam more widely known. Every mosque establishes a relationship with the press to introduce Islam to a wider audience, speaks with local politicians, visits schools and churches, engages in interfaith dialogue and carries on other such activities. Thus, research done on these mosques is one of the most useful tools for gathering accurate and enlightening information on this community's state.
According to this research, America now has about 1,209 mosques, most of which were constructed very recently. Thirty percent of these mosques were built in the 1990s, and 32% were built in the 1980s. Other statistics show that in 1994, the total number of mosques in America was 962; in 2000, there was a 25% increase in this number.
These data show a natural parallel with the growing number of Muslims. For example, according to determinations made in 1994, the number of Muslims attending mosque services was 500,000; in 2000, this figure had increased to 2 million—an approximately 300% increase. A significant part of this number is composed of people who converted to Islam. The same research shows that about 30% of those worshippers are converts. According to these data, about 20,000 Americans accept Islam every year.44
The above figures are the result of research done before 9/11 and rely on data from the year 2000. In 2001, especially after 9/11, these figures have increased several fold.
This rapid growth of Islam in America is related in a news article, "Islam Is Growing in America," on the American army Internet site (www.defenselink.mil)
Muslims, those who believe in Islam, are everywhere in the United States. They may be your doctor or drive your taxi. They may serve you in restaurants or advise you in law. And they increasingly may be in the same foxhole, manning the same position or working on the same aircraft as you … In the United States, Islam is the fastest growing religion …45
A New York Times article, "Islam Attracts Converts by the Thousands," contains interviews with converts, analyzes Islam's rapid rise in America, and states:
With some 6 million adherents in the United States, Islam is said to be the nation's fastest-growing religion, fueled by immigration, high birth rates and widespread conversion. One expert estimates that 25,000 people a year become Muslims in this country; some clerics say they have seen conversion rates quadruple since Sept. 11.46
An ABC News segment, "Islam: Rising Tide in America," reported that some sociologists predict that within 15 years there will be more Muslims than Jews in America.47
The continually rising influence of Islam has provided better opportunities for Muslims living in America. One place where this growth and development is most noticeable is in Dearborn, Michigan. An article in the Detroit News about the spread of Islam, particularly in Dearborn, mentioned the city's growing number of mosques. But, according to the article, this is not the only sign of Islam's rising influence; the effects of this growth can be seen in restaurants, shopping centers, and hospitals. For the first time in Michigan, in a McDonald's restaurant, meals are available using meat cut according to Islamic law. Prominent supermarkets in Dearborn have begun to sell "halal" meat. Oakwood Hospital officials have started to adjust the hospital's meal service especially for Muslim patients. Moreover, throughout the month of Ramadan, the cafeteria's service hours are arranged to suit Muslims.48
Like Dearborn, Muslims in Chicago are also quickly gaining influence. Here, the Muslim community is distinguished by its high level of education and prosperity. Research conducted in the 1990s demonstrated that 16% of the Muslim community's members were medical doctors, 33% were engineers, 44% had doctorate degrees, 84% had at least a bachelor's degree, and only 2% had less than a high school education. Moreover, Muslims' contributions to Chicago were highlighted. For example, the architect of the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower was a Muslim: Dr. Fazlur Rahman. There is hardly a hospital without a Muslim doctor on its staff and there is hardly an engineering or electronic equipment manufacturer without Muslim engineers.49
Muslims in the American Army
The Muslim presence in the American army is increasing day by day. At the beginning of the 1990s there were 2,500 Muslims in the army; now there are between 15,000 and 20,000 soldiers.50 There are two reasons for this rapid increase: the general increase of the Muslim population in America and that some soldiers who served in Muslim countries converted. Their continual increase has allowed them to perform their religious duties in peace. The first of these was the army's appointment of a Muslim chaplain to minister to Muslim soldiers, an important indication that the Muslims' presence in the army has been officially recognized. Colonel Herman Keizer spoke of this fact in a 1994 speech: "This reflected the growing number of Muslims in the services over the past 10 years. It mirrors growth in the US society … where Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States."51
As a result, the army has made some concessions to make life easier for Muslim soldiers. For example, pork is not included in their meals, they can perform their Friday congregational prayers, and those who wish to make pilgrimage have an easier time of fulfilling this obligation. These concessions were reported in the Washington Post in 1998:
During Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from food and drink during daylight hours, military commanders are urged to accommodate their fasting servicemen and women—excusing them, in some cases, from rigorous physical exercise. The commanders also allow flexible work hours so Muslims can take iftar, the traditional fast-ending meal, and attend the social gatherings and community prayers that usually follow.52
Thus the American armed forces are genuinely interested in Muslims and try to meet their needs when possible. One of the main reasons for this is certainly the religious character of the American people. The belief of many Americans in God has led them to adopt a respectful and tolerant attitude toward Muslims, especially after they have learned about Islamic values. On of the best instances of this can be seen in an address given by the former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre:
I think that as Muslims and as Christians, we understand what it means to live under a world of authority—the authority that's been revealed to us by God…. We are partners and we are friends and we celebrate with our Islamic brothers and sisters tonight in this feast, and throughout the year. In an America that sometimes is too busy worrying about the latest fad in clothes, or the newest model of car or other material things, it is good to be with people who think in a broader way, who think about their relationship to God, who think about charity, alms giving, as one of the central mandates of life. This is a great thing. You're a great people to be with.53
Islam in the American Media
Today, the media is one of the most influential factors in forming public opinion, for it instills in people either a sympathy for or an aversion to a particular issue and gets them to accept or oppose it. How the media has influenced the American people's view of Islam is a case in point.
Until recently, Islam generally had a bad press in certain sectors of the American media, which tried to convince people that Islam was an Arab religion and that negative stereotypes of Arabs were generally true. But this false information and prejudiced view had exactly the opposite effect: Contrary to the expected alienation of public opinion from Islam, it became the fastest growing religion in America. These reports brought Muslims and Islam into the lives of the American people. In this way, many who knew nothing about Islam were informed and began to take an interest in it. This is also a realization of the Qur'anic verse: "It may be that you hate something when it is good for you, and it may be that you love something when it is bad for you. God knows and you do not know"(Qur'an, 2: 216)
The media reports that seemed negative at the first look became a means whereby more accurate reports were made that would prevent the dissemination of false information about Islam and present Islam in a better way. The media focused upon Muslims because of the rapid growth of the Muslim population. So, during the 1990s Islam and Muslims became one of the most important topics in the American media.
Nearly all of these reports highlighted accurately the way Muslims think and what they believe, and informed non-Muslims about Islam. They explained the daily lives and worldviews of Muslims, and gave prominence to the views of recent converts. At the same time, these reports often contained special sections on Islamic history, the fundamentals of Islam, and the Qur'an. Internet pages belonging to radio and television stations also presented the addresses of Islamic sites so that people could obtain information more easily.
This process of information accelerated as a result of the public interest after 9/11. Nearly all major newspapers began to ask whether or not terrorism was inherent to Islam and to offer comprehensive reports containing the views of academics, clergy, historians, and social scientists. As a result, the American people once again saw that Islam is a peaceful religion, and learned that their religious beliefs had many things in common with those of the Muslims.
This situation certainly played an important role in the growing interest in Islam. During this time, many people who were largely ignorant of Islam and did not have easy access to accurate information could now educate themselves with relative ease.
We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors (Qur'an, 28:5)
The Qur'an Has Become the Best Selling Book in America
The 9/11 tragedy caused the growth of Islam in America to accelerate greatly. One of the clearest indications of this is that after the attacks, the Qur'an became the best-selling book in many states for a long time. American interest in the Qur'an increased to such an extent that Penguin Books, one of the best-known publishers of the Qur'an in English, reported that it had printed 20,000 extra copies after 9/11.54
USA Today reported on this intense interest in "People Want to Know, so Koran is Bestseller," saying that sales of the Qur'an had increased by five times.55 When asked for his view on this matter, a leading expert in Islam, John Esposito, emphasized an important point:
The strength of the Qur'an is that a Muslim, or anyone, can open it to any page and get a message dealing with life's meaning.56
In addition to becoming a best seller, some public schools asked their students to memorize some Qur'anic verses. For example, seventh grade students in Byron, California, public school system were to take a three-week course to give them detailed information about the tenets of Islam. In this course, they were to memorize Qur'anic verses, learn about Islamic history and the life of Prophet Muhammad, and even make speeches to the class using Muslim names that they had chosen for themselves. And this program was put into effect immediately. Along with this, it was proposed that students learn how Muslims pray and what Islam's religious duties are.57
People in the state of Maine had a very keen interest in Islam. A few days after 9/11, there was a large increase in sales of the Qur'an and books on Islamic history. On September 22, the Bangor Daily News reported on the people's interest in Islam in "Mainers Studying Tenets of Islam." This article said, in part:
As Americans struggle to come to terms with last week's events, Mainers apparently are turning to encyclopedias, history books, biographies, textbooks and the Qur'an itself to understand what the majority of Muslims believe. Gig Weeks of Book Marc's in downtown Bangor said Wednesday the store had sold all but one copy of the Qur'an…. She said several of the titles are on back order until publishers can reprint them. Staffers at Borders Books, Music and Café in Bangor reported they had sold five copies of the Qur'an since Sept. 11, compared with the two copies that had been sold between Jan. 1 and Sept. 10.58
The article gave further information about this interest. For example, students at Bangor Theological School, who normally study about Islam toward the end of the school year, wanted to start the course right away, and so Dana Sawyer, one of the school's teachers, started a course about the Qur'an and the Prophet's life. In this course, Sawyer said that declaring all Muslims to be terrorists was the same as saying that all Christians are responsible for a crime committed by one Christian.59 The Guardian featured an article by Jeremy Rifkin, the well-known American economist, in which he said that he was ashamed that he had not read anything about Islam prior to 9/11, and that now he was not the only one engaged in learning about Islam:
I'm ashamed to admit it, but before September 11, I didn't pay much attention to Islam. I had a cursory knowledge of the historical struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I knew a bit about the struggle with the west over oil.... It took the deaths of 5,000 Americans in a horrific act of terrorism to get my attention. Like so many others, I have been reading up on Islam—its tenets, internal struggles, . . . visions. . . , its similarities and deep differences with Christianity and the West... I'm not alone. Seven of the 15 lead books on the New York Times paperback bestseller list are devoted to Islam. The Koran has become a bestseller. The whole world, it seems, has been converted into a classroom as we try to make sense out of the tragic events of September 11 and its aftermath.60
The Rise of Islam will Continue
All of these developments indicate something striking: Islam is spreading quickly in America and gradually gaining power. The coming chapters will show how this growth is not limited to America, but how Islam is spreading everywhere in the world. These are very significant developments and, God willing, are signs of many more important developments. Therefore, thesew events are good news for believers and a cause for joy and excitement. In the Qur'an, God announces that true religion will indeed triumph, as in:
It is He Who sent His Messenger with guidance and the True Religion to exalt it over every other religion, though the idolaters hate it. (Qur'an, 61: 9)
Thus, while evaluating these developments we must not forget that all of them are promises of God. Such an attitude is important, if they are to be appreciated as they should be. Otherwise, these events will be regarded as ordinary happenings in the general flow of life and simply as the results of a few political developments. But the truth is quite different. In fact, God has determined every moment that we experience according to His Destiny for us. Where and how people approach Islam, how many Qur'ans a bookstore sells, how a state official begins to take in interest in Islam and when, where, and how this interest will be expressed are all developments that God has already determined.
Although we know that God creates a reason for every event, we must always remember that He has already determined our destiny. Given this awareness, we realize that we should thank God for the blessing of creating us to live in this time, when such important developments are taking place. We say this because every event that we experience is a step leading to greater and more important developments, and every such event announces the good news that the blessed time for which Muslims have been waiting for centuries is approaching. Our thanksgiving for this blessing must take the form of both words and deeds. In other words, we must work to quicken the spread of the Qur'an's moral teachings, struggle against any irreligious ideologies and ideas that impede this development, and take every opportunity to convey these teachings.
One other point also should be kept in mind: Along with this rise, Muslims could continue to face various pressures from certain quarters. However, such concerns are beyond the scope of this book. Nevertheless, they cannot make us ignore the fact of Islam's rapid growth throughout the world, the increasing interest in Islam, and the continued growth of the Muslim population. Thus we must not confuse interest in Islam, especially in the West, with the prejudiced, anti-Islam, and anti-Muslim attitudes and hostile stances observed in some circles. These two topics must be discussed separately.
Similarly, when the Western world examines Islam, it must consider the moral values of the Qur'an and those who have sincerely adopted them. If they do not, instead of making decisions and policies that would contribute to world peace and ensure security and well-being, differences could be magnified and dialogue impaired. The basis for a dialogue between two civilizations will be established by the goodwill of believers, who conscientiously live according to the high morality that God commanded. Strengthening such a dialogue means that every viewpoint and ideology that violently agitates against peace and well-being by fomenting conflict, argument, and war will be eradicated. The fundamental support for the struggle against terror, violence, and every movement that damages world peace must be negotiation, dialogue, and a discussion at the level of ideas. This approach is the best way to prevent steps taken to bring world societies into peace and security from inadvertently harming innocent people and being used for other purposes.