Todd Wilson, a third-generation Italian American, swore off his beloved prosciutto. Thy Loun, a refugee from Cambodia now attending UC Davis, had to give up her twice-weekly staple of double-pepperoni pizza. Wilson, 31, and Loun, 21, say they’ve sacrificed their favorite foods (both made from pork) for something more fulfilling: their belief in Islam. They are among an increasing number of converts who have made Islam the fastest-growing religion in America.
There are now as many as 7 million Muslims in the United States, half of them American-born. In recent years, Americans of African, European, Southeast Asian, Latin American and American Indian descent have left their parents’ spiritual paths to follow Islam, a religion that includes more than 1 billion believers from nearly every country.
At 10 pm on a recent Thursday, Wilson joined several dozen worshippers of different races and ethnic backgrounds at Salam Mosque in North Sacramento for the last of the day’s five prayers. Wilson, who teaches sixth grade in Elk Grove, observes his midday prayer between classes.
A one-time Marxist who still has posters of the late revolutionary Che Guevara, Wilson says Islam gives him a sense of peace and connectedness he never found in Catholicism, the religion of his parents. He and other made in America Muslims often combine the American values of democracy and gender equality with Islamic ideals, such as devotion to family, charity, modesty (women often cover their heads, arms and legs) and bans on alcohol, pork, smoking and premarital sex.
The growth of Islam in America has led to a growing acceptance of the hijab (the head cover worn by many Muslim women) and daily Muslim prayers during breaks at schools and workplaces. Sacramento, home to the oldest mosque west of the Mississippi, at 411 V St., now has nine mosques, several Islamic schools and a Muslim cemetery. Community leaders estimate 35,000 Muslims live in the Sacramento area.
Wilson, Loun and dozens of others interviewed say they were drawn to Islam because it places emphasis on prayer rather than on place of worship – no idols or icons are found in mosques, which tend to be relatively spare – and because it attracts a diverse group of followers across the economic and ethnic spectrum.
While many people associate Muslims with Arabs, most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and millions of Arabs aren’t Muslim. At a Muslim picnic in Sacramento’s Haggin Oaks Park last summer, believers from 20 nations prayed and ate barbecue together.
Islam, like other religions, is interpreted differently in different cultures. In Afghanistan, for example, the ruling Taliban Muslims recently destroyed ancient Buddhist statues, citing Allah’s ban on idol worship. They forbid television, listening to music or playing cards, and women often are prohibited from working outside the home or traveling. But many American Muslims, including immigrants from Afghanistan, denounce the Taliban’s hard-line approach. They say they honor their wives as equals and insist that Islam was the first major belief system to advocate women’s rights.
From the time of the prophet Muhammad, who Muslims believe received the word of God (the Koran) in the seventh century, Muslim women were allowed to choose their husbands, divorce, own property and do battle – rights afforded few Western women at the time, said Kathleen O’Connor, who teaches Islam and the Koran at the University of California, Davis.
“This Western notion that Muslim women are all tied up in a closet somewhere, bound and gagged, is utterly ridiculous,” O’Connor said.
Islamic militants have targeted Israel and its allies – including the US – for acts of terrorism. But only a small minority of Muslims advocate violence in the name of religion, O’Connor said. “They’re just like (US) paramilitary groups you wouldn’t judge Americans by Oklahoma City.”
African Americans account for 30 percent of America’s Muslims, according to O’Connor. She said the figure isn’t surprising given that as many as 20 percent of the Africans brought to the United States as slaves were Muslim.
“African Americans who have converted to Islam believe it represents a return to cultural roots pre-slavery, a culture of self-respect and independence,” she said. “And Islam is a religion of social justice. This speaks to blacks, whose experience has (often) been marked by injustice. They don’t want to turn the other cheek they’ve been turning it for 200 years.”
Like many African American Muslims, Askia Muhammad Abdulmajeed came to Islam after experimenting with the Nation of Islam, an African American group led by Louis Farrakhan that is not part of orthodox Islam.
Abdulmajeed, 56, joined the Nation of Islam under the late Elijah Muhammad in the early 1970s. He said he admired the Nation’s self-help approach to inner-city problems but said he was repulsed by its anti-Semitic, anti-white doctrine.
He says Allah saved him from himself:
“I was into drugs, I ran with a fast crowd, didn’t hold down a job very long. My perception of women was decidedly chauvinistic.”
He ultimately became an imam, or prayer leader, and now serves as a sort of Muslim circuit preacher who travels from mosque to mosque, explaining the Koran in modern American terms. Abdulmajeed, like many American Muslims, is trying to strike a balance between American notions of equality and democracy and much-older Islamic laws that preach absolute adherence to the Koran. His wife “can be a CEO as long as she doesn’t walk away from her responsibility as a wife and mother,” he said. “If my wife is uneducated, unsophisticated, what kind of children is she going to raise?”
Wilson, Abdulmajeed and other American converts appreciate Islam’s rigorous, direct relationship with God. Muslims are expected to pray, in a kneeling position with their foreheads touching the floor, five times a day. Where they pray is immaterial as long as they’re facing Mecca. They also are required to fast during Ramadan, one month out of each year during which Muslims are to abstain from food, water, sex and arguing from sunrise to sundown.
In April, California State University, Sacramento, hosted a forum on the “Islamic Presence in Latin America” before and after Columbus. One of the speakers, Salvadoran-born AbdulHadi Bazurto, said the more he examined his roots, the more he questioned the validity of Catholicism in his life. “Since the day the Spanish arrived, we as people have suffered a lot,” he said. “Christianity’s ‘white God’ concept was harmful to our people, who were definitely not white.”
Another speaker, Daniel Denton, a Stockton elementary school teacher who was born in Mexico, said he was a hard-drinking veteran of the Gulf War when he began to explore Islam in 1994. At the invitation of Muslims at Delta College, he went to a mosque. “There was a carpet on the floor, and the walls were bare. I wondered, ‘Where is everything?’ and then I realized that was everything. If you go to a Catholic church, every few feet they have an image or a statue, but in Islam, there is no association between God and any image.”
Denton also was impressed by the Islamic belief that each individual will be judged by their deeds on Judgment Day. That night, he took the shahada, the Muslim vow that says “There is only one God, Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” When he started fasting for Ramadan, “I heard my relatives in Stockton were calling my mom in San Diego and telling her I had become a terrorist and was doing drugs,” Denton said. “When I went down to San Diego toward the end of Ramadan, I had lost 15 pounds and was starting to grow my beard. My mom was just in tears for days.”
But, Denton said, his mother soon realized that instead of partying, he was staying home and talking to her as he had never done before.
“As she began to see the change, she came to accept it, and now she’s happy. There’s a saying in Islam that goes, ‘Heaven lies at the feet of the mother. You have to treat her well at all times, take care of her.’ “Denton, 29, sees similarities between Islamic and Latino culture. “I’ve noticed that if you take away the crosses, the alcohol and the pork, the smells in my house are similar to Muslim homes. So is the behavior, the respect for family.” Those similarities also ring true for Italian Americans such as Wilson and Nicole Ianieri, who teaches Italian language classes in Davis and Woodland.
“After the birth of my children (Miles in 1996 and Darius in 1998), I began to feel a very spiritual need,” said Wilson, who converted in 1998. “If I don’t pray five times a day, I get a little antsy. It’s as if my whole day is out of whack.”
Wilson’s wife and mother accept his change of faith. But Ianieri, 24, initially was viewed as a traitor.
Ianieri, whose father is an Italian immigrant, said she was raised “a very strong Catholic.” Then, as a teenager, she befriended a Muslim youth from Egypt and became curious about Islam. A few years later, a college friend invited her to a mosque. “As soon as I walked in, I felt a sense of belonging, a sense of community that in all my years of going to church, I’d never felt. There were people from all over the world sharing the same goals, and it touched me.”
Finally, during Ramadan, she broke the news to her parents. “They were really shocked initially, and who can blame them? They met me for lunch, which was kind of a bad choice, because I couldn’t eat or drink anything, and I was wearing a scarf and, unfortunately, the cheapest material was black, and I’m all pale from not eating. “My dad’s words were, ‘You’re Italian. Italians are Catholic. You were born a Catholic, and you’re going to die a Catholic.’ My mom was crying.” Ianieri said she no longer was welcome to serve as vice president of her Italian cultural group. One association member, a relative, telephoned to say “I no longer represented the cultural values they wished to represent. Fifty years ago, in the village, what were women wearing? They were wearing long skirts and scarves, like me. They were moral.”
Ianieri eventually married a Moroccan immigrant who has been embraced by her parents.
“Their biggest problem wasn’t about the religion, but about the way I dress,” she said – The hijab worn by some Muslim women – but not others, can make life for young Muslims difficult in America.
Asma Ghori, 20, a UC Davis student from India, says high school dances and college nights out have been exercises in misery. “I can’t eat the food. I can’t dance, because I don’t dance in front of men. I can’t dress the way other women dress. I don’t drink, and I don’t go with a date — what’s the point?”
Ghori’s friend Roohina Diwan, a pre-med student who emigrated from Afghanistan as young girl, said that in high school she was called a “scarf head,” “turbanator” and other slurs. After the Oklahoma City bombing, she said, schoolmates asked her if she knew how to make bombs.
But it’s not just bigoted attitudes toward Muslims that bother Diwan. “Every time you turn on the TV, the word sex comes up about a million times,” she said. “In high school, I felt a lot of pressure to date and have a boyfriend.”
At Davis, she has struggled with the drinking and mating habits of her non-Muslim friends and roommates. Because Muslim values so often clash with mainstream American behavior, Diwan identifies as Muslim – not American.
Diwan has served as a spiritual guide for her friend, Thy Loun, who was born in Cambodia a Buddhist, then became a Christian before converting to Islam last April. Loun said she’s traded nights of clubbing in mini-skirts for a hijab and the calmness that comes with daily prayer.
“When I have on the hijab, it makes me aware of what I do, and that I’m accountable for all my actions,” she said. “I have an identity.” Loun and her husband, a Mexican American Catholic, are among many American Muslims struggling with the Koran’s ban against usury, which holds that Muslims can’t make a profit lending money. “Maybe we’ll get an interest-free checking account,” she said. Jameela Houda Salem said her Egyptian husband refuses to buy life insurance because the Koran says it’s sinful to profit off someone’s death.
“That’s one of my issues, because I’m a licensed insurance agent,” said Salem, who was raised Jewish and Catholic by divorced parents in Brooklyn. “I have faith that God will provide for me, but I also want the $250,000 (in the event of her husband’s sudden death) to pay off the house. “I’m working on the faith issue.”
Salem, who said she studied 11 religions before converting to Islam last year, said it’s been a little tough getting used to her husband’s belief that “the man is the head of the household and he does have the last say.”
“As an American woman who’s been on her own for a number of years, I’m used to having my own say.”