Brothers’ Keeper

When Islamic practices collide with American culture in Minnesota—at taxi stands, on airplanes, and elsewhere—the state’s Muslims ï¬nd themselves called upon to defend their traditions and viewpoints. Asad Zaman, an imam, integrationist, and cofounder of the Muslim American Society, works to counteract the divisive efforts of irresponsible politicians, conservative commentators, and even members of his own community.

 
Asad Zaman, principal of Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights, is making the rounds, checking on students. He pops into several classes before entering the library, where two male aides sit before a disconsolate third-grader. “What has he done?” Zaman asks. “We don’t know,” one man replies. “He just got here, and he is not telling us anything.” Zaman faces the lad, who glances up. “Why are you here?” Zaman demands, his black eyes cool but stern. “I was talking in class,” the boy whispers. “Are you supposed to be talking in class?” “No.” “This is most unfortunate,” Zaman scolds in his staccato Bangladeshi accent. “You are not known for this.” ¶ It’s just another day at the office for the approachable man with the black Vandyke beard, round spectacles, and natty, business-casual attire. A passerby might mistake Zaman for a tech-company middle manager or perhaps an ambitious young university professor. He is perpetually busy, splitting his time among education, political activism, and his religion, Islam. ¶ Zaman is also an imam—a Muslim cleric—of some local importance, who in 1992 cofounded the influential and lately controversial Muslim American Society (MAS) of Minnesota. Within the walls of the school that abuts MAS headquarters, though, he is simply Brother Asad—principal, superintendent, and voice of authority.

For Zaman, educating the Muslim children in his fold boils down to one simple proposition. The school is—or should be—the core of the community, and the community, the core of the democracy. “I want each parent to believe, ‘I own it, it is mine, and if something is wrong with it, I will fix it,’ ” he says. This approach seems to be working. Since the academy opened in 2003, more than 30 Muslim families have moved to Inver Grove Heights, Zaman says. Before, there were just two.

Zaman takes pains to point out that his school, which currently serves grades K-7 and plans to add high-school classes, is not a religious institution. That has been confirmed many times, he says—state education officials inspected the academy 11 times during its first year. “They really wanted to make sure,” Zaman says, smiling.

Jamie Willeck, a Golden Valley–based consultant to nonprofits and charter schools, credits Zaman with creating an institution so much in demand that some families transport children more than an hour to attend. “They could send kids to much better-appointed, large district facilities, but they don’t want to deal with crime and the district not supporting their kids,” Willeck says. “Asad has done a very good job.”

Inver Grove Heights mayor George Tourville agrees, saying that Zaman has paved the way for new diversity in his small suburb. Although there was some initial discomfort in the town when word spread that the school was opening, city council member Dennis Madden says he has heard of no subsequent concerns.

Islamic Duty

Despite Zaman’s assurances, a visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school. Arabic as a second language is mandatory. Headscarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them. There is a carpeted prayer space in the middle of the building that is similar, Zaman says, to spaces provided by several Minneapolis public schools. And there is the vaguely religious-sounding language used in the school. At one point, a conversation with Zaman is interrupted by the intercom: “Sister Zamia, please call the office. Sister Zamia, 2-2-1.” “[Muslims] refer to everyone as a ‘brother’ or a ‘sister,’ ” he explains. “We are all children of Adam.”

Zaman spends a lot of time explaining things like this—not only for curious non-Muslims, but also for the new immigrants he works with, many of them Somalis suffering culture shock. The son of a well-known Bangladeshi journalist whose aunt served in that nation’s parliament, Zaman is devoted to helping Minnesota’s growing Muslim population adapt to American life. The academy is only one such effort. He also lectures worshipers at his Bloomington mosque, serves as MAS’s media representative, and was a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (Despite the constantly buzzing BlackBerry, Zaman does have a personal life; he has been married for five years.)

“My mission is not to make [Muslims] Americans,” says Zaman, who immigrated to Minnesota as a college student in 1992. “They already are Americans.” Many don’t yet accept that, however, harboring “the myth of return”—the illusion that they are in America only temporarily and therefore have no obligations to it. “My mission is to convince them to take part in the American fabric—to play a role—which many have chosen not to do so far,” Zaman says.

“He is a bridge-builder,” says Keith Ellison, who in November became the first Muslim ever elected to Congress (Zaman assisted his Fifth District campaign). “I don’t know anybody who is more effective.”

 

Last September, an Atlantic Monthly cover story suggested that perhaps America had already won its “war on terror.” Author James Fallows quoted Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who helped coordinate the war in Afghanistan and who now works as an anti-terrorism consultant, as saying that the patriotism of the American-Muslim community has been grossly underreported.

“If you ask European Muslims whether they are European or Muslim,” Sageman tells Minnesota Monthly, “they will say they are just Muslim. Whereas most American Muslims will say they are American and Muslim. That contrast makes me think most Muslim Americans are pretty patriotic.”

“It’s the untold story,” agrees Salem al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. “The American public does not realize that al-Qaeda has not penetrated the American-Muslim community, even though it has tried. We go on with our business and regard that as an Islamic duty, to protect our country from any harm.”

Stuck in the Middle

In some ways, Zaman is the man in the middle. Some liberal Muslims consider him too “hard core,” he says. “I am a Koran thumper, and I am proud of that, but one group has a problem with that,” he says. “Then another group considers me to be too liberal, meaning, ‘You hang out with these Christians, you go to the interfaith dialogues, you shake hands with them, you say as-sal mu ‘alaykum.’ ” (The greeting is Arabic for “peace be upon you.”) Among the most conservative Wahabists, he says, “it is almost to the point where it is not clear to them whether I would go to heaven.”

Attitudes and opinions within Islam are as diverse as those within Christianity. Zaman does not profess to represent all, or even most, people in his community. The former software engineer systematically breaks down the numbers. There are about 150,000 Muslims in Minnesota, he says, and he reckons 10,000 know who he is. He is in occasional contact with perhaps 5,000 of them and in regular contact with up to 1,500. “This is very busy. It is hard work,” he acknowledges. “But let us not be carried away, to say that this represents the community.”

Jonathan Chapman

In a sense, that is because there is no monolithic “Muslim community” to represent. Ali Jafaar is imam at an Eden Prairie mosque, which, like Zaman’s Bloomington counterpart, serves a large Somali contingent. He has had some interaction with Zaman, but Jafaar is not involved with MAS, a civic group he likens to a Lions Club. Instead, Jafaar focuses on the individuals who attend his mosque, aiding their spiritual development as opposed to pushing broad social change. Like many Muslim immigrants, he is not a member of any Islamic group. “Muslims themselves are not clubby people,” he says.

Zaman doesn’t disagree with that assessment and even takes it further, suggesting that Muslims rarely agree on anything among themselves. “We have a saying that if you put three Muslims together you will have four parties—each will have his own party, and they will have another party among them,” he says. “There is also a saying of the Prophet that ‘differences and disagreements in my own mind are mostly from God.’ So we are taught that disagreements are good. The West does not understand this.”

In fact, it might be said that Zaman’s chief objective is to prevent a consensus from forming on one crucial issue. He is battling to keep Muslim immigrants from agreeing that they have no place in American culture. “If we fail to convince Muslims to take a share of ownership in the American experiment, they will become disaffected,” he says. “And 20 or 30 years from now, you will see ghettos and violence.”

Taxicabs, Fatwas and Flying Imams

Recent conflicts at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport demonstrate just how difficult assimilation might be.

The first began in 2000, when a Muslim cab driver refused, on religious grounds, to carry a passenger toting bottles of alcohol. Others followed suit. Eventually there were about 77 taxi-ride refusals per month, according to Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Passengers complained, and cab drivers, forced to drive to the end of the line and wait several hours for a new fare, claimed religious discrimination and lost wages. When the state Department of Human Rights recommended that MAS help mediate, the airports commission may have gotten more than it bargained for.

On June 6, 2006, a panel of imams issued a religious statement, or fatwa, on MAS letterhead informing cab drivers that “alcohol is the mother of all evils” and “it is not permissible for you to carry on working this job, because it involves cooperating in sin, according to Islam.” Zaman’s name is not among the document’s four signatories.

Zaman says airport officials already had a fatwa from another cleric saying the cab drivers were wrong, and MAS was asked if it had one with a countervailing viewpoint. Hogan denies this.

There is some dispute about the Koran’s edict against alcohol. As Farouq As-Samaraa’ i, imam of Al-Huda Mosque in Columbia Heights and a senior member of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council of Minnesota, told the Minnesota Monitor website, the key issue is intent. Since cab drivers conduct transactions intending to move passengers—not alcohol—transporting a rider toting a bottle of booze does not violate the Koran.

 

Regardless, since 70 percent of the airport’s 900 cab drivers are Muslim, the fatwa created a huge problem. Hesham Hussein, MAS Minnesota’s president, says a compromise was arranged. Drivers declining to carry alcohol-carrying passengers would place special top lights on their taxis to discreetly signal airport employees not to flag them down. Those riders would be directed to other cabs. Hogan says the airports commission at first agreed to test the program, then begged off.

“There was no way it was going to succeed,” Hogan says. “Overwhelmingly, people said they would not take cabs with those top lights, or they wouldn’t take a cab at the airport at all because they didn’t approve of our accommodation.”

“From our perspective that was a win-win-win situation,” says Hussein. “But some people in the media managed to scare people off of this.”

That was followed by a highly publicized incident last November. Six imams leaving Minnesota after attending a Bloomington convention of the North American Imams Association were kicked off a plane bound for Arizona. A fellow passenger had complained after the group was seen praying together loudly at the boarding gate, boisterously discussing the death sentence of Saddam Hussein, and otherwise acting suspiciously—at least, in the view of witnesses and the air crew.

The clerics were taken off the plane and interrogated at the airport for five hours until an attorney interceded. But even after background checks turned up nothing, US Airways refused to honor the clerics’ tickets. Northwest Airlines eventually flew them home.

View from the Right

The events took place against a backdrop of deteriorating relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America. Last year, a Washington Post poll indicated that nearly half of Americans (46 percent) had unfavorable views of Islam—7 percentage points higher than in the tense months immediately after 9/11. “The complaints of harassment and anti-Muslim bigotry across the country are on a tremendous rise,” Zaman says. “This is caused by irresponsible politicians and a few irresponsible people in the media.”

Conservative commentators in particular have had a field day with the airport episodes. Bloggers at Minneapolis-based Powerline.com wrote that the top-light compromise would have allowed Muslims to impose Islamic law on American citizens. Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten accused MAS of being an American front for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization long linked to violence and terrorism. In fact, Kersten has published a series of columns that seem to depict the imams incident as the product of an intricate conspiracy, apparently aimed at whipping up a liberal media firestorm and stoking Islamist sympathies.

“In my opinion,” Zaman says, “the conservative press is attempting to generate or maintain a frenzy of concern. They need to divert attention from the fact that Americans are coming home in body bags, and the commander in chief is responsible for it and the thumpin’ they took at the polls. Distractions help.”

Ahmed I. Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, takes the concerns seriously. He believes Muslim immigrants are obliged under Islam to obey the laws of the countries in which they choose to live. Anyone wishing to produce social change must go through the legislative process, not simply issue a self-styled fatwa. Even if members were only seeking a fair compromise, the taxicab flap was a serious misstep for MAS, Samatar says: “They have played into the hands of people who want to turn them into some kind of extremist group.”

Zaman says that by working with the airports commission—a quasi-government public corporation—MAS did properly work through the system. Nevertheless, even he admits that the controversies have hurt. “We’ve lost some people who might have been otherwise more sympathetic,” he says. (Indeed, airport officials now have recommended stiff penalties—up to two years’ suspension of a cab driver’s airport permit—for refusing to carry passengers on religious grounds.)

Inevitable Friction

Such controversies are frustrating, Zaman says, but perhaps inevitable in the current climate. He says he remains committed to fostering relations between two communities that must learn to understand and accept one another. And he acknowledges that Muslims have as much to learn about tolerance as anyone.

“When we look at democracy, we find some elements that are good. We accept those,” Zaman tells worshippers at the mosque. “Some elements of Western democracy are bad: rich people have more power—we reject that. This would be the correct understanding of the Muslim.” It is halal—permissible—to vote for non-Muslims, he assured the crowd, as long as the choice is positive and conscientious. It does not matter which party’s candidates are chosen. What matters, he counsels, is to make the choice, to participate.

“For any Muslim who has the right to vote and does not vote,” he tells his audience, “that is a very sad situation.”

Zaman’s decision is made, and it is irrevocable. “I am an American,” he says. “America is my home. I intend to die and be buried in this country. At the same time—and see, to me, I don’t have to say ‘at the same time’—I am a Muslim. I am proud of being Muslim. I am not going to compromise on my Islam. And I don’t think these two things are contradictory.”

Kevin Featherly wrote about the Center of the American Experiment in the September issue of Minnesota Monthly.

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