By Edward E. Curtis IV
New York Muslims leaving the Jamaica Muslim Centre after prayers on Friday in the Jamaica neighbourhood of Queens. Today there are more than 2,000 places of Muslim prayer, most of them mosques, in the United States. -- PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
IN ADDITION to spawning passionate debates in the public, the news media and the political class, the proposal to build a Muslim community centre near Ground Zero in New York City has revealed widespread misconceptions about the practice of Islam in the United States - and the role of mosques in particular.
Mosques are new to the US
MOSQUES have been in America since the colonial era. A mosque, or masjid, is literally any place where Muslims make salat, the prayer performed in the direction of Mecca; it needn't be a building.
One of the first mosques in North American history was on Kent Island, Maryland: Between 1731 and 1733, African-American Muslim slave and Islamic scholar Job Ben Solomon, a cattle driver, would regularly steal away to the woods there for his prayers - in spite of a white boy who threw dirt on him as he made his prostrations.
The Midwest was home to the greatest number of permanent US mosques in the first half of the 20th century. In 1921, Sunni, Shi'ite and Ahmadi Muslims in Detroit celebrated the opening of perhaps the first purpose-built mosque in the nation.
Funded by real estate developer Muhammad Karoub, it was just blocks away from Henry Ford's Highland Park automobile factory, which employed hundreds of Arab-American men.
Most Midwestern mosques blended into their surroundings. The temples or mosques of the Nation of Islam - an indigenous form of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad from 1934 to 1975 - were often converted storefronts and churches.
In total, mosques numbered perhaps slightly more than 100 nationwide in 1970. In the last three decades of the 20th century, however, more than one million new Muslim immigrants came to the US and, in tandem with their African-American co-religionists, opened hundreds more mosques.
Today there are more than 2,000 places of Muslim prayer, most of them mosques, in the US.
According to recent Pew and Gallup polls, about 40 per cent of Muslim Americans say they pray in a mosque at least once a week, nearly the same percentage of American Christians who attend church weekly. About a third of all US Muslims say they seldom or never go to mosques. And contrary to stereotypes of mosques as male-only spaces, Gallup finds that women are as likely as men to attend.
Mosques try to spread syariah
IN ISLAM, syariah ('the way' to God) theoretically governs every human act. But Muslims do not agree on what syariah says; there is no one syariah book of laws.
Most mosques in America do not teach Islamic law for a simple reason: It's too complicated for the average believer and even for some imams.
Islamic law includes not only the Quran and the Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) but also great bodies of arcane legal rulings and pedantic scholarly interpretations. If mosques forced Islamic law upon their congregants, most Muslims would probably leave - just as most Christians might walk out of the pews if preachers gave sermons exclusively on Saint Augustine, canon law and Greek grammar.
Instead, mosques study the Quran and the Sunna and how the principles and stories in those sacred texts apply to their everyday lives.
Worshippers are Middle Eastern
A 2009 GALLUP poll found that African-Americans accounted for 35 per cent of all Muslim Americans, making them the largest racial-ethnic group of Muslims in the nation. It is unclear whether Arab-Americans or South Asian Americans (mostly Pakistanis and Indians) are the second-largest.
Muslim Americans are also white, Hispanic, Sub-Saharan African, Iranian, European, Central Asian and more - representing the most racially diverse religious group in the US.
Mosques reflect this diversity. Though there are hundreds of ethnically and racially integrated mosques, most of these institutions, like many American places of worship, break down along racial and ethnic lines.
Arabs, for instance, are the dominant ethnic group in a modest number of mosques, particularly in states such as Michigan and New York. And according to a 2001 survey (the most recent national survey on mosques available) by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, they represented the plurality in only 15 per cent of US mosques.
Mosques are funded by unfriendly groups and governments
THERE certainly have been instances in which foreign funds, especially from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, have been used to build mosques in the US. The Saudi royal family, for example, reportedly gave US$8 million (S$10.8 million) for the building of the King Fahd Mosque, which was inaugurated in 1998 in Culver City, a Los Angeles suburb.
But the vast majority of mosques are supported by Muslim Americans themselves. Domestic funding reflects the desire of many US Muslims to be independent of overseas influences.
Long before Sept 11, 2001, in the midst of a growing clash of interests between some Muslim-majority nations and the US government - during the Persian Gulf War, for instance - Muslim American leaders decided that they must draw primarily from US sources of funding for their projects.
Mosques lead to home-grown terrorism
ON THE contrary, mosques have become typical American religious institutions.
In addition to worship services, most US mosques hold weekend classes for children, offer charity to the poor, provide counselling services and conduct interfaith programmes.
No doubt, some mosques have encouraged radical extremism. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheik who inspired the World Trade Center's first attackers in 1993, operated out of the Al-Salam mosque in Jersey City, New Jersey.
But after the 2001 attacks, such radicalism was largely pushed out of mosques and onto the Internet, mainly because of a renewed commitment among mosque leaders to confront extremism.
There is a danger that as anti-Muslim prejudice increases in the US - as it has recently in reaction to the proposed community centre near Ground Zero - alienated young Muslims will turn away from the peaceful path advocated by their elders in America's mosques. So far, that has not happened on a large scale.
Through their mosques, US Muslims are embracing the community involvement that is a hallmark of the American experience. In this light, mosques should be welcomed as premier sites of American assimilation, not feared as incubators of terrorist indoctrination.
The writer is Millennium Chair of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of Muslims In America: A Short History and the editor of the Encyclopedia Of Muslim-American History.