Category Archives: Muslims

Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future – Part III

Part III of “An Imam in America” series by the NY Times.

Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.


March 7, 2006
An Imam in America
Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future
By Andrea Elliott

The young Egyptian professional could pass for any New York bachelor.

Dressed in a crisp polo shirt and swathed in cologne, he races his Nissan Maxima through the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, late for a date with a tall brunette. At red lights, he fusses with his hair.

What sets the bachelor apart from other young men on the make is the chaperon sitting next to him — a tall, bearded man in a white robe and stiff embroidered hat.

“I pray that Allah will bring this couple together,” the man, Sheik Reda Shata, says, clutching his seat belt and urging the bachelor to slow down.

Christian singles have coffee hour. Young Jews have JDate. But many Muslims believe that it is forbidden for an unmarried man and woman to meet in private. In predominantly Muslim countries, the job of making introductions and even arranging marriages typically falls to a vast network of family and friends.

In Brooklyn, there is Mr. Shata.

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Filed under Islam, Islam & Modernity, Islamic Scholarship, Muslims, U.S.

To Lead the Faithful in a Faith Under Fire – Part II

Part II of “An Imam in America” series by the NY Times.
Part I can be found here.
Part III can be found here.


James Estrin/The New York Times
Sheik Reda Shata begins a seminar in cultural sensitivity at the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Through these kinds of efforts, the imam hopes to foster better understanding between law enforcement and his fellow Muslims.

March 6, 2006
An Imam in America
To Lead the Faithful in a Faith Under Fire
By Andrea Elliott

The F.B.I. agent and the imam sat across a long wooden table at a Brooklyn youth center last August.

Would the imam, the agent asked, report anyone who seemed prone to terrorism?

Sheik Reda Shata leaned back in his chair and studied the agent. Nearly a year had passed since the authorities had charged two young men, one of whom prayed at Mr. Shata’s mosque, with plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan.

The mosque had come under siege. Television news trucks circled the block. Threats were made. The imam’s congregants became angry themselves after learning that a police informer had spent months in their midst.

At the meeting, the imam chose his words carefully. It is not only the F.B.I. that wants to stop terrorism, he answered; Muslims also care about keeping the country safe.

“I would turn him in to you,” Mr. Shata finally said, pointing his finger at the agent, Mark J. Mershon, the top F.B.I. official in New York City. “But not because I am afraid of you.”

The moment captured one of the enduring challenges for an imam in America: living at the center of a religion under watch.

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Filed under Islam, Islam & Modernity, Islamic Scholarship, Muslims, U.S.

A Muslim Leader in Brooklyn, Reconciling 2 Worlds – Part I

The NY Times has recently come out with a 3-part series on Reda Shata, an Imam at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, New York. The following 3 posts will contain each part of the series. The links to the NYT articles contain interactive media, video, and photographs.


Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.


James Estrin/The New York Times

March 5, 2006
An Imam in America
A Muslim Leader In Brooklyn, Reconciling 2 Worlds
By Andrea Elliott

The imam begins his trek before dawn, his long robe billowing like a ghost through empty streets. In this dark, quiet hour, his thoughts sometimes drift back to the Egyptian farming village where he was born.

But as the sun rises over Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Sheik Reda Shata’s new world comes to life. The R train rattles beneath a littered stretch of sidewalk, where Mexican workers huddle in the cold. An electric Santa dances in a doughnut shop window. Neon signs beckon. Gypsy cabs blare their horns.

The imam slips into a plain brick building, nothing like the golden-domed mosque of his youth. He stops to pray, and then climbs the cracked linoleum steps to his cluttered office. The answering machine blinks frantically, a portent of the endless questions to come.

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Filed under Islam, Islam & Modernity, Islamic Scholarship, Muslims, U.S.

Baden-Wurttemberg’s Conscience Test: Zeitgest of Fear and Prejudice

Baden-Württemberg’s Conscience Test

Zeitgeist of Fear and Prejudice

The conscience test, conceived by the interior ministry in the German state of Baden-Württemberg to check whether potential German citizens have the right moral convictions, reflects current German attitude towards Muslims, says Ülger Polat

Since the beginning of this year, a so-called “conscience test” has been sent out to all the 44 regional offices of the state of Baden-Württemberg. The test is to serve as a guideline for checking whether Muslim immigrants fulfil the conditions for naturalisation as a German citizen.

The test, which was developed by the state interior ministry, consists of thirty questions which should be asked orally of the applicant, and which should give an indication of the applicant’s attitude towards democracy and basic democratic values.

Testing the migrants

In this questionnaire, applicants are tested as to their religious tolerance as well as to their tolerance towards other ethnic groups and people with homosexual tendencies.

In addition, they are asked to make clear their attitude to religiously motivated terrorism, to the issue of social and political equality and self-determination for women, as well as to possible culturally defined codes of honour, customs and traditions.

The answers are noted down and given to the applicant to sign, so that the answers they have given can be referred to, if necessary, in future years.

Following intense criticism on the part of Muslim organisations, as well as from political parties, it has been decided to modify the questionnaire, and to extend it to all immigrant groups.

All the same, when the test was first introduced, it was justified as a response to what was seen as a purely “Muslim” problem. According to the interior minister of Baden-Württemberg, Heribert Rech, the questionnaire was needed because it could be assumed that, when Muslims stated their commitment to the German constitution, as all applicants for citizenship are required to do, the commitment did not match “their deepest convictions.”

Rech justified this assumption on the basis of reports of the maltreatment of Muslim women in Germany by their husbands or other male relatives. His initiative came right in the middle of a public discussion about so-called honour killings and forced marriage among Muslim immigrants.

Anti-Islamic mood as background to the debate

It is no mere accident that this discussion has become the justification for a new naturalisation procedure. The discussion itself emerges from an anti-Islamic mood which is currently being felt across the whole of Europe.

The causes can obviously be found in the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 in New York, as well as the attacks which brought terrorism to Europe on 11th March 2004 in Madrid and 7th July 2005 in London. A turning point in public perception of Muslim migrants in Europe occurred when the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was murdered on 2nd November 2004 by a Muslim migrant.

Since then, as never before, members of the majority communities in Europe feel themselves threatened by Muslims – and the threat seems to face them right in front of their own front door. In addition, according to a report in March 2005 by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the number of Muslim migrants who complain against discrimination and stigmatisation in daily life has never been as high as it is now.

Specifically in Germany the report shows that more than 80 percent of those questioned associated the term “Islam” with “terrorism” and “oppression of women.”

Looking at migrants as merely a cultural phenomenon

In this emotionalised atmosphere, individual migrants have been able to make a killing with tearful reports of their own maltreatment by members of their Muslim families. Among them was Necla Kelek, who is now an advisor to the federal interior ministry and had a major role in the concept behind the Baden-Württemberg “conscience test.”

It seems to be a symptom of the current overheated climate that Kelek’s tendentious and populist presentation has put entirely into the shade a forty-year-old tradition of migration studies in Germany. It’s a tradition of scholarship which itself has only with difficulty and with considerable effort emerged in the last few years from a culture-based approach to Muslim migrants.

The test itself also seems to reflect the current zeitgeist of fear and prejudice, rather than to be based on a rational analysis of the conditions under which Muslim migrants actually live. With alarming openness, the test has taken over all the current clichés about Muslims which are currently doing the rounds of German society and its institutions.

Muslim applicants find themselves now in a situation in which they have to justify themselves in the face of characterisations and accusations which are not just personally insulting on account of their religious and cultural origin, but which also implicitly draw an unbridgeable moral gulf between the values of the majority society and those of the Muslim minority.

If they want to pass the test, applicants are required to distance themselves from a specific conception of what Muslims are like. They are confronted with a catalogue of negative characteristics and behaviour patterns which, it is assumed, they are likely to identify with.

Among the least offensive accusations are that they will have a limited ability to deal with criticism of religious positions, and that they will display a tendency to disregard German law on the grounds of their ideological biases.

In effect, simple membership of the Muslim religious community is linked with the oppression of women, forced marriage, honour killings, polygamy, terrorism and racism towards other minorities, especially Africans and homosexuals.

A negative social signal

This “conscience test” does not communicate “knowledge about our constitution, our culture and our values,” as Maria Böhmer, the federal official responsible for the integration of foreigners, expects of such a test. It does not take the slightest notice of the realities of migrants’ lives or of their efforts to integrate into German society. On the contrary, Muslim applicants for citizenship are tested as to whether they are civilised enough to be able to become German.

The signal which is sent out by this irresponsible and defamatory test could scarcely be more worrying. It shows a climate of disrespect and racism on the part of state institutions. It is a climate which makes dialogue with Muslim fellow-citizens and organisations – a dialogue which has never been more urgently needed than now – only more difficult.

Such a test once more provokes mistrust among Muslim migrants towards German institutions, if not towards German society in general, and encourages them to turn towards extremist groups.

The current atmosphere also makes daily work with migrants on the social level more difficult and hinders efforts to establish a differentiated picture of their situation, to understand their problems and conflicts in the context of their lives, and to look for solutions. What is at stake is no less than the peaceful coexistence of Germans and Muslim migrants in Germany.

By now, the main conditions for integration are well known: education and work. But it is precisely these two resources which are inadequately available to migrants.

That fact in its turn gives rise to social problems and conflicts, such as unemployment and poverty and the family and personal problems which are a consequence of these. Social conflicts have to be solved objectively, without generalised, defamatory or culture-based attempts to explain behaviour which are remote from the understanding those concerned have of their daily reality.

For that to come about, there is a need for a policy of integration which, on the one hand, sees Muslim migrants as a part of society, and, on the other, takes concrete measures to promote their educational and vocational integration.

Ülger Polat

© 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Dr. Ülger Polat researches migration issues and teaches intercultural social work at Hamburg Technical College. She is also working as a social work psychologist with Turkish women and girls.

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Filed under Europe, European Muslims, Muslims

A Spectator’s Role for China’s Muslims

A Spectator’s Role for China’s Muslims

February 19, 2006

The World

NY Times


RELIGION is often hidden in China, so the unabashed public display of Islam here in the city known as Little Mecca is particularly striking. Men have beards and wear white caps. Women wear head scarves. Minarets poke up from large mosques. A bookstore sells Korans and religious study guides in Arabic.

These are reminders that with almost 21 million followers of Islam, China has roughly as many Muslims as Europe or even Iraq. But the openness of religion in this isolated region along the ancient Silk Road does not mean that China’s Muslims are active participants in the protests and seminal debates roiling the larger Islamic world. In that world, they are almost invisible.

A case in point is the outrage and violence over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that last week continued to ripple through Islamic countries. Here in Linxia, which has more than 80 mosques, news of the cartoons spread quickly. The local religious affairs bureau also moved quickly. Local Muslims say officials visited imams and cautioned them against inciting followers.

The same happened in 2003, when a few protests broke out over the American invasion of Iraq. The China Islamic Association, the quasi-governmental agency that regulates Islam, quickly intervened and shut down the protest.

Not that most Chinese Muslims need any warning. With 1.3 billion people, China is so huge and Muslims constitute such a tiny minority that most Muslims intuitively learn to keep quiet.

“We can talk about these things among ourselves,” said a shopper at a Muslim bookstore. “But China has a law. We are not allowed to speak out about these things that are upsetting the Muslim world.”

The tight government regulation of religion, as well as restrictions on free speech, can even separate Muslims on the Chinese mainland from their peers in Hong Kong, where citizens enjoy far greater civil liberties. On Friday, Hong Kong Muslims held a protest against the cartoons.

Human rights groups have long criticized the lack of religious freedom in China and highlighted the harsh treatment of underground Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group in the western region of Xinjiang. Yet other Chinese Muslim groups that might be expected to support the Uighurs have rarely done so.

Dru C. Gladney, a leading Western scholar on Chinese Muslims, said the country’s 10 Muslim nationalities usually find common cause only when they feel an issue denigrates Islam, as was the case with the cartoons. Sometimes, disputes between different factions can end in violence. Mr. Gladney said the largest group, the Hui, regard some Uighurs as unpatriotic separatists who give other Chinese Muslims a bad name. The Hui, he said, have blended fairly well into society by placing pragmatism over religious zeal and adopting the low profile of an immigrant group living in a foreign land — despite their presence in China for more than 1,300 years.

“They don’t tend to get too involved in international Islamic conflict,” said Mr. Gladney, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii. “They don’t want to be branded as radical Muslims.”

Yet Chinese Muslims should not be considered completely housebroken by authoritarian rule. Since the seventh century, when Islam began arriving in China along trading routes, there have been periodic Muslim revolts. Under the Communist Party, Muslim rage, if mostly contained on international issues, has erupted over localized affronts.

Large protests broke out in 1989. Muslims took to the streets to denounce a book that described minarets as phallic symbols and compared pilgrimages to Mecca with orgies. Government officials, who allowed the protests, quickly banned the book and even held a book burning.

A few years ago, thousands of Muslims protested in various cities after a pig’s head was nailed to the door of a mosque in Henan Province. And last year, riots erupted after Hui from all over central China rushed to the aid of a Muslim involved in a traffic dispute.

At the Mayanzhuang Islamic school in Linxia, Ma Huiyun, 40, the director of studies, said the cartoons infuriated him and other local Muslims. “But we have to cooperate with the government,” he said. “They asked us to be calm. They said they would speak on our behalf and express our unhappiness.”

Mr. Ma said Chinese Muslims want closer ties to the Islamic heartland in the Middle East. His school now has two computers to obtain news from the Middle East or about the Iraq war. This year, Mr. Ma made his first pilgrimage to Mecca, one of roughly 10,000 Chinese Muslims estimated to have taken part in the hajj. The government has begun hiring Chinese Muslims to work in Middle Eastern embassies and state-owned companies that do business in the region.

But many Muslims here cite obstacles to developing relationships with Muslims in other countries, and as a result, the Chinese remain largely isolated. “There is really not a lot of understanding about us in the outside world,” Mr. Ma said.

Linxia, once known as Hezhou, has been a center of Islam for centuries and now has a climate of religious tolerance. But Muslims elsewhere in China face more restrictions. In Xinjiang, for example, Muslim schools are tightly monitored and are allowed only limited numbers of students.

Many of the same societal problems that fueled protests by Islamic immigrants in Europe — discrimination, lower education levels, higher unemployment, a sense of cultural separation from the dominant majority — can be found in China, too. China’s Muslim population is stable, but among upwardly mobile Chinese, Islam is not as popular as Buddhism or Christianity. The pressure to assimilate, too, has watered down Islam in many places; in cities, some people who call themselves Muslims abstain from eating pork but rarely attend mosque.

Not so in Linxia. At the Muslim schools in the city, most of the students are young boys from poor families who may one day became imams. It will be their job to navigate the delicate task of being Muslim in China.

“Obviously, we’re different from Muslims in other parts of the world,” said Ma Ruxiong, a teacher at the Nanguan Mosque, the city’s oldest. “We just can’t go into the streets and protest. You have to have permission from the government. But there are other things we can do. We pray to Allah to protect all Muslims in the world.”

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Filed under China, Muslims