A Lesson for Europe American Muslims Strive to Become Model Citizens

By and

Part 2: The Last of the Muslim Republicans


That was the case with Masrur Javed Khan, 56. Only a few years ago, this friendly, thoughtful and charming man could hardly have imagined giving up his well-paying job as a project manager for a Texas oil company. But then came Sept. 11 and everything happened at once. Khan felt that he had to set an example, so he decided to go into politics. Friends told him that he was crazy, but Khan, a Pakistan-born engineer who had come to the United States as a student in 1975, remained resolute.

Muslims in Europe still keep apart, compared to immigrants in America.
DDP

Muslims in Europe still keep apart, compared to immigrants in America.

"For 30 years not a single American asked me about my religion," he said. "Only my work and my performance counted. Anyone who votes for me now should also be voting for me for that reason."

In November 2003, Khan ran for a seat on the city council in his adopted hometown of Houston and won -- as the first Muslim immigrant in US history. Even more remarkable was the fact that the majority of voters in his election district -- District F -- were Catholic Latinos.

Khan proudly recounts how he knocked on at least 3,000 doors during the campaign. He wanted voters to see him as a public servant and as someone who respects the common good. Khan says that public service is entirely compatible with his religion. Today he is embroiled in a dispute with the city administration for the construction of a park in District F -- his pet project. He is also involved in programs to combat violence and drugs in his district.

A gold-framed picture depicting the 99 names of God hangs on Khan's wall, next to oil paintings from Pakistan and his university diplomas. A devout Muslim, he considers himself a conservative when it comes to values, and because of this he has always felt closer to the Republicans than the Democrats. He joined the Republican Party and has remained there ever since, despite the war in Iraq. "I'm always telling my friends in Washington that I am part of a dying breed: the last self-confessed Muslim Republican," he says, jokingly.

In fact, Muslims from the Middle East, Iran and Southeast Asia were traditionally among the Grand Old Party's most loyal allies. In the 2000 presidential election, Muslim interest groups even endorsed George W. Bush. They liked his canon of values -- family, faith and private enterprise -- which was compatible with theirs. But the Iraq war and Bush's antiterrorism policies turned off most Muslims. They turned their backs on the Republican Party and have voted primarily Democratic ever since. Before the 2004 election, 74 percent of US Muslims said they supported Democratic candidate John Kerry. This suddenly placed middle-class Muslims in the same boat with an entirely different group: America's established Black Muslim community, which consists of those whose ancestors brought Islam with them as slaves from Africa, as well as those who followed civil rights leader Malcolm X's example and converted to Islam in the volatile 1950s and 60s. In other words, America's new Muslim immigrants now find themselves being associated with people who were traditionally viewed as America's losers.

"There are still major social differences between African American and immigrant Muslims, differences of language, culture, national origin," says Boston political science professor Peter Skerry. "There are alliances between the two groups, but they largely keep to themselves in mosques and residential neighborhoods."

Khan isn't ruling out the possibility that a Muslim could even become the US president one day. "I'm not entirely serious," he says, "but if a woman or an African American can do it, why not one of us in 50 years?" It only took three years after Khan managed to capture a seat on Houston's city council for the first Muslim to be elected to the House of Representatives. Until recently, the governing body included 16 Mormons, 21 Lutherans, 37 Jews, 50 Presbyterians, 63 Methodists, 72 Baptists and 153 Catholics. But then Democrat Keith Ellison from Minnesota was elected the United States' first Muslim congressman. Ellison had announced that he planned to take the oath of office on the Koran, which of course didn't sit well with everyone in his district. But in the end he captured 56 percent of the vote.

'It's different in the Christian rural areas'

America's new Muslims come from all over the world, speak dozens of languages and practice a wide range of rites. This pluralism, immigration experts repeatedly emphasize, is perhaps their greatest advantage. Unlike European Muslims with their virtually monolithic blocs -- Algerians in France or Turks in Germany, for example -- no single Muslim group sets the tone in the United States.

An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in the greater Chicago area alone -- Sunnis next to Shiites, white converts next door to black imams. The community includes Iranians, Turks, Somalis and Bosnians -- and the Arabs in Bridgeview.

The neighborhood in the western part of the city is the quintessential American dream: rows of single-family homes with basketball hoops over the garage door, manicured lawns and brand-new Pontiacs. A group of boys plays basketball on the neighborhood court. But at the center of town is an imposing mosque surrounded by a large, green lawn, about as unreal as an oriental UFO.

Hind Makki, a petite student, proudly takes visitors on a tour of the mosque. Women pray on the lower level and men up above. Makki, 25, says that her dream job is to work for the State Department in Washington. She comes from a conservative family. Her parents emigrated from Sudan but, she says, it was her choice to wear the headscarf. "People in Chicago are totally relaxed about the hijab. It's different in the Christian rural areas. That's where they give you a hard time."

Most businesses in Bridgeview are geared toward a predominantly Muslim clientele. Fast-food restaurants clearly identify dishes containing pork, and during the month of Ramadan, furniture stores decorate their displays with tinsel garlands. But it hasn't always been this peaceful. On the day after Sept. 11, when the images of the fallen towers had barely taken hold in the collective consciousness, residents of a nearby trailer park had banded together and planned to attack the mosque. Church elders and the police managed to avert violence, but the group did inflict some minor damage.

"Jealousy was part of it," says Makki, "they were lower-class whites who couldn't stand the fact that we live in nicer houses than they do."

Makki's American heroes are other whites: Ralph Nader, for example, the leftist consumer advocate and sometime presidential candidate; and Christine Rodogno, a Republican who in 2001 introduced the Halal Food Act, a law that regulates the proper labeling of Islamic food products.

It appears that the United States has a more effective immigration policy than Europe. Less well-educated Muslims tended to go to the United States, while others went to the Old World. In Europe, for the most part, they remained part of the lower classes. This is why Washington's Department of Homeland Security is not overly concerned that US Muslims could be planning the next terrorist attack. Muslims from Great Britain and continental Europe seem far more suspicious.

The United States, the land of religious refugees, is more open to religion than secular Europe. Debates over headscarves or mosques are less likely to ruffle feathers in the United States. And while America has 250 Islamic schools, Great Britain has less than half as many, France has only three and Germany has none at all. If Mujahid, the imam from Chicago, had any remaining doubts that the Muslims' lot has improved significantly in the six years since Sept. 11, they would have been dispelled once and for all on this morning. He has just met with two security officials from Washington. They came to see Mujahid because they wanted his advice on how to recruit Muslims with roots in America to work in homeland security and assist in the fight against terrorism.

The imam switched off his mobile phone, shut the door and spent the next two hours talking to the men. When they left, Mujahid knew that they would come to the mosque more often now. Now they need him.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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