Four of Islam’s five pillars lend themselves to easily to stories and pictures. Whether it’s articles about converts, images of men bent over in prayer (a photographic trope one Muslim journalist refers to as “a**-shots,”) video of pilgrims swirling around the Kaaba as they complete their Hajj, or stories about Muslims breaking their Ramadan fasts, it’s not hard to find information about the four pillars of belief, prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.

But what about Islam’s other pillar, zakat, the command to “purify” one’s wealth by giving away 2.5% of it?

Yes, yes, there has been plenty of coverage of how Muslim charities in the U.S. have been shut down post-9/11 (including how one of those charities was unable to be convicted this week,) and how these events have made life difficult for American Muslims who want to donate money.

But there has been precious little assessment of how American Muslims do or do not fulfill the highly specific command to donate 2.5% of one’s assets to eight possible categories of the needy, as designated in the Qur’an in verse 9:60:

Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah. and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. (Yusuf Ali translation)

In other words, Muslims can give their zakat money to the impoverished, the temporarily poor, zakat collectors, converts, slaves, debtors, those who fight “in the way of Allah,” and travelers. Voluntary charity, in addition to the compulsory zakat, is of course highly encouraged — the Prophet Muhammad was known to give away food even if it meant he and his family went without — and these general forms of charity are known as “sadaqah.”

According to historian Michael Bonner, who has written about poverty and charity in Islam, the question of finding hard data on if and how American Muslims fulfill their zakat obligations is a “tough” one. In its recent study of American Muslims, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 76% of American Muslims rated giving charity as “very important” to them, while only 63% put the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca in that same category - in other words, they say it’s pretty darn important. When it comes to the specific question of zakat, however, this data is not helpful, because the Pew study asked about “charity, or zakat.” In other words, the category blended general, voluntary sadaqah with specific, compulsory zakat.

So how many American Muslim fulfill their zakat obligation? ReligionWriter speculates the percentage must be very low, probably far below the 41% of American Muslims who reported that they make all five required prayers daily, that according to the Pew study. The title of a 2001 book — Zakat: Raising a Fallen Pillar — by a British Muslim implies Western Muslims have also noticed this lack of adherence.

For one thing, calculating zakat is the Muslim equivalent of filing tax returns: for all but the most enthusiastic accountants, it is hard, boring work. (Indeed, some suggest the need for zakat “tax clinics” to help individual Muslims estimate payments.) Filing your tax returns with the IRS, of course, is far from optional, while zakat is not enforced or even very strongly encouraged at mosques. This highly discretionary system is far from the compulsory charity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where tithing 10% of your income is required in order to enter temples, where sacred ordinances are performed.

Second of all, the methods of calculating zakat, as well the list of allowed charity recipients, need to be translated into modern terms in order to be implemented. Much of the classical jurisprudence on zakat pertains to commodities like livestock and precious metals, rather than, say, life insurance policies, mortgages and 401(k)s. And as Timur Kuran, a scholarly critic of the push towards Islamic economics, points out in a chapter of the 2003 book, Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts, the categories of zakat are not only outdated — you’d have to go pretty far to find slaves you can free, for example — but also that people with less money could technically end up donating money to those with more money, because categories like travelers or new converts have little to do with income levels (and in the modern world, we hardly think of travelers as a separate social category.)

Does zakat matter?

So why is this important? For journalists, zakat is an under-explored topic in the area of Muslim faith and practice. Many religious traditions in the modern era have overlooked scripture-based economic teachings, mostly because the marketplace, as well as most governments, became completely secular; the modern religious focus became personal piety, and Islam appears to be no exception. There is of course a push by some to reintroduce Islamic economic practices, such as interest-free loans, with mixed results. (And there have been few American Muslim voices speaking out on the current housing credit crisis, even though the Qur’an — like most scriptures — speaks directly and frequently against predatory lending.)

For scholars and poll-takers, zakat — not just general charitable giving — is also under-explored. What percentage of American Muslims fulfill this religious obligation? Why has this religious practice apparently fallen by the wayside? When it comes to philanthropy, do American Muslims abandon specifically Islamic charity in favor of more general giving patterns?

Finally, one would expect American Muslim leaders to take a keen interest in this topic: If it’s true that the faithful are less than religious about paying zakat, then what does that say about the state of Islam in America today?

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Just as megachurch pastor Rick Warren argues that churches can succeed where governments fail when it comes to humanitarian work, particularly in Africa, so some policy thinkers have begun to believe that culture can succeed where the current administration cannot when it comes to bridging the Islam vs. the West divide.

This win-through-culture approach resulted in a strange event this past Monday night, when the buttoned-down Brookings Institute, through its Saban Center for Middle East Policy, hosted the premier of a new sitcom, combined with an iftar, or Ramadan fast-breaking. “As a comedy writer, you generally don’t think you are going to screen your show at Brookings,” said David Guarascio, the long-haired co-creator and executive producer of “Aliens in America.”

The receptive audience — an invited mix of policy types, media leaders and D.C.-area Muppies (Muslim Urban Professionals) — laughed its way through the pilot (and third episode) of “Aliens,” which tells the story of a Wisconsin family that accidentally ends up with a Pakistani Muslim exchange student. (The premier aired on the CW Network on Monday at 8:30 PM, but is currently available for free download on iTunes.)

The show is amazingly accurate in its Muslim details, thanks no doubt to the advisory work of Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. When Raja, the Pakistani student (played by Adhir Kalyan, a Hindu in real life,) is feeling down, he cups his hands and correctly recites in the shahadah, or Muslim testimony of faith, before asking his host-brother, geeky teenager Justin (Dan Byrd,) what prayers he recites when he needs a boost. (Justin replies that he usually eats something, like a whole tray of brownies.)

Guarascio and show co-creator Moses Port did not set out to create social change through sitcom. Rather, as Guarascio recounted in the discussion panel that followed the screenings, he and Port were “just sitting in an office, thinking up TV show ideas, trying to make each other laugh.”

The departure point for the show was the torture that high school presents for insecure teenagers. Guarascio and Port wanted to riff on that theme, but also “respond to what is in the culture,” which, as Guarascio put it, is a response to terrorism that is sometime cautious and sometimes “paranoid.” Introducing a Muslim exchange student into a regular high school-angst comedy presented an opportunity to be “funny and poignant at the same time,” he said.

The show has received a level of press attention out of proportion to its potential for commercial success (a Newsday reviewer pointed out that several high school-based sitcoms have recently bombed,) and the basic headline is this: “‘Aliens’ Is First Sitcom To Have Sympathetic Muslim Main Character.” You can write the rest of the story for yourself: “What Murphy Brown did for single professional mothers, what Will and Grace did for gay people, so ‘Aliens’ may do for Muslims in America: make them seem human and harmless.”

Omar Amanat, an Internet entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who also spoke on the panel, went so far as to say the show represented a “turning point,” a moment when culture begins to make the decisive difference not only in how Americans view Muslims but how Muslims view themselves. Amanat said he is inspired by the argument, made in 1968 by two psychologists in their book Black Rage, that widespread black violence erupted in America only in the 1960s, when TV began to penetrate the general population and blacks began to see themselves depicted negatively. The Cosby Show, and later BET, began to slowly reverse that trend, he said. So, Amanat suggests, “Aliens” could begin to turn the tide of Islamophobia in the same way.

But isn’t that assessment a bit optimistic, ReligionWriter asked Amanat during the panel, given that Jamie Foxx is currently shooting up Saudis in the box office, and a September survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life revealed that the general American population has a less favorable opinion of Islam today than they did in 2002?

Amanat was undaunted, however, asserting that the “creative community” is always out ahead of the general public, “pushing the culture forward,” and that “Aliens” is just one example of this phenomenon. He pointed to the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations and a number of other similar initiatives designed to promote dialogue and also mentioned the upcoming film based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller, The Kite Runner. “That film will create a great emotional experience that will shift perceptions,” he said.

Indeed. ReligionWriter was privileged to see an advance screening of The Kite Runner movie last Friday night at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in San Antonio, thanks to Grace Hill Media, which specializes in marketing films to religious (and usually evangelical) audiences. The movie stays very close to the book, but several visual elements are striking.

In one scene toward the end of the movie, the main character, Amir (Khalid Abdalla,) a haunted Afghani immigrant to America, must search through the streets of Peshawar for his missing nephew — who represents his hopes for goodness — and he ends up at a mosque. Raised by a secular father, Amir finds himself making ritual ablutions and then bowing his head in prayer. Playing in the background is a English-language Muslim praise song (a Grace Hill representative wasn’t able to immediately identify it.)

To the casual observer, this scene may seem quite normal, even expected: a moment of spiritual renewal for troubled character. But the representation of Muslim prayer in connection with a positive theme — a man coming to terms with his tragic past — may be something of a mainstream media first. In many other films — for example, The Siege and United 93 — images of prayer are directly connected to acts of terror.

So even if “Aliens” doesn’t last more than a season (though ReligionWriter found it genuinely funny and is considering adding it as a “favorite show” on her Facebook page,) those who believe film and media have the power to open minds should be looking ahead to The Kite Runner’s release on November 2.

Update, Oct. 5: The Kite Runner is now scheduled for limited release in the U.S. on Dec. 14, according to the Washington Post, due to concern about the safety of the young Afghani actors.

Related on ReligionWriter:

Humanizing Iran, and Other Ways to Save the World With Summer Reading” Posting June 25, 2007

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With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starting at sunset tomorrow night, religion reporters around the country are already scratching their heads, trying to think up a fresh angle on a holiday that, like most, happens pretty much the same way every year. (Photo: Teens at a Ramadan fast-breaking, or iftar)

We are sure to see, especially in smaller-market news outlets, lots of “Ramadan 101″ stories. These pretty much write themselves:

Headline: Area Muslim teens keep the faith during Ramadan

Lede: Rayyan Abdel-Latif, 16, will be running at her Springfield High School track meet this Saturday, but she will have a unique hurdle to overcome. In keeping with her Muslim faith, Abdel-Latif, whose parents emigrated from Jordan before she was born, will be fasting during daylight hours on Saturday and throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “It seems like fasting is hard, but really God said it is not a hardship for us,” said Abdel-Latif.

Nut graf: With the holy month beginning at sunset tomorrow night, Springfield-area Muslims, which number an estimated 5,000 according to the Islamic Society of Springfield, will be swearing off not only food but drink, smoking and other luxuries during daylight hours. Not just a physical test, Ramadan is about food, family and faith, say local Muslims.

Photo: Abdel-Latif smiling in headscarf

These types of articles, of course, serve an important purpose, informing those who don’t have a clue what Ramadan or Islam is all about. Given that so many Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam (39% in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center,) just offering a basic primer on belief and practice is worthwhile. At the same time, however, this type of coverage runs two risks:

1. It can be boring (Imagine: “Area Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth with food, family and faith,”) and

2. It can dramatically oversimplify the lives of Muslims in the U.S., with unintended negative results.

The solution to both of these problems lies in journalists finding more complex story angles and drawing from a wider variety of sources. If one read or heard or saw only “basic primer” stories on Islam/Ramadan, one would get the misleading impression that American Muslims are, by definition,  enthusiastically observant of their religion.

The problem here is sources: When a journalist needs to find Muslims to interview, where do they go? To mosque, Islamic school or local Muslim organization. And who do they find through such channels? Observant mosque-going Muslims. While such observant über-Muslims make perfect interview subjects if you want to explain the traditional rules governing Ramadan — because those Muslim follow those all rules — they are  not representative. The May, 2007, study of American Muslims by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had this finding:

Nearly one -quarter (23%) of Muslim Americans have a high level of religious commitment, which is defined as attending mosque at least once a week, praying all five salah every day, and reporting that religion is “very important” in their lives. About as many (26%) have a relatively low level of religious commitment, rarely engaging in these practices and generally regarding religion as less important in their lives. A majority of American Muslims (51%) fall somewhere in between.

Journalists need to be aware that mosques and Islamic schools tend to have vetted, designated spokespeople (ReligionWriter knows — she used to be one of them) who will give an orthodox interpretation of Muslim life. This is not to suggest Muslim organizations are doing something wrong — they are doing their best to receive the press coverage they want, and most other religious organizations do the same.

The point is that journalists who call up a mosque asking for sources on Ramadan are likely to interviewing the top one-percent most religious Muslims. This gives people the false impression that Muslims are extremely religious. And it’s a short jump, of course, from”extremely religious” to “fanatical.”

So how do you find more representative sources? ReligionWriter offers these tips:

Fall back on the journalist’s oldest trick: interviewing your taxi driver. In many cities, as often as not, this person will be a Muslim immigrant. Ask in a casual way about what he (okay, or she) likes about Ramadan, how it’s celebrated here in the U.S. versus his home country.

Use social networking: It’s not journalistic-ly haraam, in ReligionWriter’s view, to find sources through friends and acquaintances. Do you have a neighbor with a Muslim-sounding name? Have you ever noticed how many Muslims people and Muslim interest groups are on Facebook?

Interview people, not their religion: Make your sources feel you are interesting in finding out how they personally practice Islam or celebrate Ramadan. If you give the impression you want them to represent their religion to the entire (and often hostile) American people, then you’re more likely to get defensive, apologetic, orthodox answers.

Read the Muslim press: You’ve got lots to choose from now, including,, Naseeb Vibes, Islamica Magazine, Illume Magazine, Muslim Girl Magazine, Azizah Magazine, Sisters Magazine, or your local Muslim newspaper (if you live near a relatively large Muslim community, there probably is one. In the D.C.-area, it’s the Muslim Link.) And this is not even to mention Muslim blog aggregation sites, like Hadithuna, or popular Muslim social networking sites like

The great thing about reading the Muslim press is that journalists will get a feel for the internal debates in the Muslim community, which are often quite different from debates non-Muslim have about Muslims. For example, “Are all Muslims terrorists?” is not a big conversation-starter among Muslims. However, ask an American Muslim about whether “halal” meat is really halal, whether ethnicity should factor into choosing your spouse, and whether the Nation of Islam made any positive contributions to Islam in America, and you’ll get a conversation going pretty quick. ReligionWriter applauds how American journalists have covered the intense intra-Muslim debate about marking the beginning and end of Ramadan.

As founder and editor, Shahed Amanullah, said in a Beliefnet interview with Omar Sacirbey last year:

It’s good that America sees [Muslim internal debate] because one of the fears Americans have about American Muslims is that we’re automatons that do what people tell us to do. When Americans see our internal debates, I think that reassures them that we’re human, and we’re trying to resolve our issues.

So, to close this out, here are ReligionWriter’s story suggestions for this year’s Ramadan:

Ramadan when you aren’t fasting: Many Muslims are do not fast during Ramadan because of chronic illnesses such as diabetes. What’s it like to be around observant Muslims all month when you can’t fast yourself? Do you feel left out?

Fasting while pregnant or breastfeeding: Talk about a hot topic; Muslim women debate this one heatedly every year. Some say Islamic law allows all pregnant or nursing women to forgo fasting, others say that dispensation is only allowed in certain situations. Some women face peer pressure to fast while pregnant (”Back in Egypt, all the pregnant women fast!” “My Muslim doctor told me it was fine to fast!”) Is there any data on the safety of fasting while pregnant?

Fasting when it’s the only way you observe Islam: Many Muslims do not offer five daily prayers, dress modestly, or attend their local mosques. For some non-observant Muslims, however, Ramadan is a special time to get back to God — they may throw away the alcohol in their homes during Ramadan, try not to smoke, and observe some if not all of the fasting. Headline possibility: Ramadan for slackers.

Fasting while menstruating: A topic not for the faint of heart, and you’d do better if you were a woman reporter. But still, it’s a good story because it gets to the heart of modern views of classical Islamic tradition, which holds that women should not pray or fast while menstruating. Why not call up Irshad Manji or Asra Nomani and see what they have to say about this? The Prophet Muhammed reportedly said that women are “deficient” in their religious worship because of this exception for their menstrual periods.

And for photos: How about something besides a girl in a headscarf or men bending over in prayer!

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If you encounter American Muslim teens only through the media, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining that most are praying, fasting, pious youth. In the PBS documentary “The Muslim Americans,” for example, Judy Woodruff interviews two Muslim teens who describe how they decided to wear hijab and why they won’t date before they marry. Geneive Abdo argues in her 2006 book, Mecca and Mainstreet, that American Muslim youth are more religious than their parents. Even ReligionWriter is guilty of portraying American Muslim teens and pre-teens in what is, perhaps, and overly religious light.

But a new book from an Arizona family, The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, provides a peek into the real lives of these teens, and the view is somewhat surprising: American Muslim teens may be much less observant than you think.

The handbook’s authors — Pakistani-born Dilara Hafiz and her two American-born teens, Imran and Yasmine — mailed out questionnaires to more than 40 Islamic schools around the country in 2002 and received 150 responses. Obviously 150 is not a huge sample, but the source is significant: the young people responding to the survey either attended full-time private Islamic schools during the week or attended the Muslim equivalent of Sunday School on the weekends. In other words, these young folks came from families where religion was valued highly enough for Islamic education to be a priority — they are as religious as it gets.

The brief questionnaire asked Muslim teens and pre-teens about their religious practices, and it included the question, “Do you pray?” (As most readers of ReligionWriter will be aware, Muslims are obligated to pray five times a day: before dawn, after noontime, in the late afternoon, after sunset and late in the evening.) Their answers? The large majority of the teens said they did not pray, and many reported that they did not know how to pray.

“I think there’s a serious disconnect between what parents expect and the reality of what kids are actually practicing,” wrote Dilara Hafiz to ReligionWriter in an email on the subject.

The Hafiz’s findings are significant if only because there is so little scientific data right now about the lives of American Muslim kids and teens. A recent Pew Forum study, which interviewed 1,050 American Muslims, only included respondents 18 years of age and older. The National Study of Youth and Religion , probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date study of youth religiosity in the United States, included no data on Muslims.

If more than half of the most religious American Muslim teens don’t pray or even know how to pray, this would mean American Muslim teens are significantly less observant that older American Muslims, because according to the same Pew study, 41 percent of adult American Muslims report praying all five daily prayers (and an additional 20 percent pray at least once a day.)

So you’re clueless, now what?

The handbook attempts to fill these gaping holes of religious knowledge for teens by including quick overviews of Islam’s central tenets and providing an illustrated guide on how to pray. In this sense, the book makes excellent reading for anyone who deals with American Muslim teens, such as teachers or counselors, and have no idea themselves about the basics of Islam.

Hafiz writes in the book’s introduction that the inspiration for the project came from two sources: Her daughter, Yasmine, browsing through books for Christian teens and wondering why there were no similar titles for Muslims, and her son, Imran, being called a “Taliban” by kids at his middle school. Hafiz writes: “My children and I have written this book with the best of intentions — to let Muslim teenagers all over American know that they are not alone or forgotten.”

In the style of other written-for-teens books, the handbook is short and lively and funny — and not a little controversial. In the chapter on the five daily prayers, for example, the authors argue that “sometimes quality can outweigh quantity.”

If you are only able to pray once or twice a day, or even once or twice a week, but you really concentrate on your prayer and truly try to honor God, then who is to say that you are less pious or ‘good’ than someone who prays five times a day, but does so unthinkingly out of habit?

Those would be fighting words to many Muslims, who generally hold that even if you fail to make the five daily prayers, there is no rationalization about “quality” that can substitute. But the authors here are bold: they are meeting Muslim teens where they are — largely unobservant and often unaware of religious requirements — even if that’s not where parents would like them to be.

The book is sprinkled with classically witty, literal teen observations, gathered from the questionnaires. In a section titled “Random Thoughts About Why I Love Being Muslim,” one teen is quoted as saying: “I’m helping pigs stay alive by not eating them.” And another: “I don’t have to eat dry matzo crackers or dry fruitcake after religious holidays. (Okay, I do have to help finish off the dry dates after Ramadan.)”

And when asked “Who is your Muslim role model?” answers ranged from the Prophet Muhammad to “my grandparents” to “Mr. Meyers, my English teacher, because he’s a convert and has a totally strong faith, yet he is normal and not at all fanatical right-wing/Taliban.”

When it comes to guidance, the book offers a thoroughly American point of view: You have to figure it out for yourself.

Whether you choose to ignore it entirely, complaisantly accept your parents’ version or explore it for yourself - the choice is yours.

On the question of dating, interestingly, the authors veer more conservative, insisting that teens should only date if they are ready to consider getting married. “If you’re not ready for marriage, then don’t date. It’s as simple as that. Go out with your friends in a group — you’ll have fun and won’t get bogged down emotionally with a lot of feelings you’re not ready for as a teen.”

According to Dilara Hafiz, the book has been well-received so far by fellow Muslims, though she said she “anticipating some level of negativity” from the wider Muslim community. One weakness of the book is that it speaks primarily to teens from immigrant families, who must blend their families’ Muslim culture with American culture; for African American, Hispanic or Caucasian American Muslim teens, the book may be less relevant. And for truly devout teens, the book may be redundant and overly liberal for their taste. But for what seems to be majority of Muslim teens out there, the book just might provide the religious hand-holding they need.

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When ReligionWriter’s husband first saw a press copy of CNN’s new six-hour documentary, “God’s Warriors,” lying around the house, he said he looked forward to learning about famous heroes and soldiers in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.

He was disappointed, then, when the first segment, “God’s Jewish Warriors,” which will air next Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 9 p.m. EST, instead focused on a parade of unrepentant Jewish terrorists, unsmiling Israeli settlers and vaguely frightening Jewish Americans who raise money for illegal Jewish settlements.

In her stand-up intro to all three segments, Amanpour defines God’s Warrior’s this way:

Over the last 30 years, each faith [Judaism, Islam and Christianity] has exploded into a powerful religious force, with an army of followers who share a deep dissatisfaction with modern, secular society and a fierce determination to bring God and religion back into daily life, back to the seat of power. We call them “God’s Warriors.”

This definition would seem to leave room for Jews who take their religion seriously and use it for ends more positive than the construction of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. Or the heroes of Jewish faith that ReligionWriter’s husband had hoped to learn about.

After watching the Jewish segment, one would have the idea that “God’s Warriors” is simply a novel, neutral phrase to refer to fundamentalists, extremists and the religiously unreasonable.

But if you watch the other two segments, the definition of “God’s Warriors” is expanded to include other more harmless, even positive examples. In the “God’s Muslim Warrior” segment, which will air next Wednesday, Aug. 29, Amanpour focuses on a 20-something American Muslim woman from Long Island who insists that jihad for her means wearing dressing modestly and observing her faith within the context of an often-unsupportive American culture. She engages in her own free-form translation of jihad.

Holy war? Really, who made that up? That is a very bad translation. It’s [actually] a self-struggle. Living in a secular society where you have to work to maintain your Islamic values? That’s jihad.

Since Amanpour allows this American Muslim to define faith in her own non-violent, personal-piety-focused American way, it seems strange that the Jewish segment did not include a similar profile. Instead, the only counterpoint comes in the form of a quiet Israeli veteran of the 1967 war, who prefers classical music to religion and likes bacon on his sandwiches. Why not also show an American Jew who, instead of using the Torah to insist on the Jewish right to occupy land, uses that same text to work towards reforming American society?

For the viewer, then, it’s never quite clear who “God’s Warriors” are, in the same sense that it’s never quite clear from the “War on Terror” who the enemies are.

Why now?

As the viewer watches footage of Israeli teens weeping while the Gaza settlements are bulldozed, hears ominous drum beats while photos of Osama bin Laden flash across the screen and sees pro-life demonstrators marching on Washington, the questions arises: Why make this series now?

Israel/Palestine, in spite of many protestations that it lies at the heart of turmoil in the Middle East, is on the political back-burner in the U.S. right now. And the story of Osama bin Laden and even Egyptian writer Seyyid Qutub has been oft-told. (Indeed, the footage and narration on Qutub, whose book, Milestones on the Road, is credited with birthing jihadist ideology, covered almost the exact same ground as PBS’ documentary, Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda, which aired this June.)

We know about these phenomenon: Why not help us understand them? Amanpour wisely turned to religious historian and popular writer Karen Armstrong for explanations. Armstrong’s 2001 book, The Battle for God, which explores the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is, in the view of ReligionWriter, one of the best popular titles on religion, period, and is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand religious extremism in the modern world.

Unfortunately, Armstrong appears only fleetingly through the documentary, and the central insights of her book receive only passing treatment. What Armstrong deftly and definitively showed in her book is that fundamentalism is a direct reaction to secular society and that the primary enemy for most fundamentalists is not the far-away enemy of other people, but their coreligionists who have a more lax religious outlook. This last point comes up in “God’s Jewish Warriors,” in the form of Rabin-murderer Yigal Amir, when Amanpour points out that Amir was enraged by what he perceived as Rabin’s intolerable compromises and sell-outs. More context like this is needed to make sense of fundamentalists.

On the first point — the relationship between fundamentalists and secular society — “God’s Warriors” is less sympathetic than Armstrong’s book, and as a result less effective. In her book Armstrong narrates how, in the late 1960s, after quitting the nun-hood and leaving the nunnery, emerged to discover a culture that had changed profoundly in her absence. She describes attending a party, where the Beatles’ “I want to hold your hand” was blaring while young people danced, drank and kissed. She writes (ReligionWriter is paraphrasing): “Here these singers were screaming out an emotion that I could barely articulate to myself, let along announce to a crowd of people.”

Armstrong helps us understand that for many people in America and around the world, secular society is experienced as a visceral assault to the senses, not to mention a direct challenge to deeply held values.

“God’s Warriors” rightly identifies an opposition to secular culture as the force that motivates fundamentalists, extremists and even run-of-the-mill religious folks in various traditions to press for social and political change. What the series fails to do is help us sympathize with this outlook. Even the most secular parents are probably unhappy that their son is addicted to violent video games, or that their daughter’s friends are losing their virginity in junior high.

So what makes some people turn to violence or extremism to solve those problems? That important question remains unanswered.

The Good Parts, and Why We Want More from Amanpour

Where the series shines brightest, ReligionWriter felt, was in telling individual stories. Ed Hussein’s journey out of radicalism is fascinating, as is the story of the Palestinian family whose son became a suicide bomber, as is the story of the American homeschooling family with five children.

One of the most interesting segments, part of “God’s Christian Warriors,” deals with the evangelist Ron Luce and his teen ministries, including BattleCry and Teen Mania. Luce talks heatedly to Amanpour about “virtue terrorists” who are “raping” teenage America in the streets, and he insists that if his message of “purity” is “divisive,” well, don’t blame him: “Jesus’ message was divisive.”

This segment comes alive in part because Amanpour steps out of her objective and sometimes deliberately wide-eyed reporting style to challenge Luce. When they are discussing Luce’s live-in ministry program, where TV, pop music and R-rated movies are banned, and where girls must wear skirts of a certain length and boys can’t use the Internet unsupervised, Amanpour tells Luce this makes her think of repressive societies around the world (i.e. probably Iran.) When Luce justifies the female dress code on the basis that the boys will then not be distracted by the girls’ sexuality, Amanpour replies tartly that this is the same reasoning used by the Taliban.

Indeed, the viewer begins to want more critical interjections like this from Amanpour. It doesn’t seem right that this most senior of journalists, Iranian by birth and a veteran of numerous conflicts, should be asking anyone (in this case, Karen Armstrong, who is no Iran expert) to explain the basics of the Iranian Revolution. And when Dutch ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists that women are being killed “right now” across Europe by their own repressive, religion-mad families, Amanpour offers skeptical “Really?” to this breathless, data-less assertion but presses no further.

Another rare and refreshing moment of Amanpour frankness comes when she interviews a former member of the Egyptian terrorist organization that assassinated President Anwar Sadat. As he ponderously explains that in Islamic law women have rights, but they can never be political leaders because they have other (i.e. domestic) responsibilities, Amanpour waves a devilish finger at the man, a sign that she feels his argument is not only stupid and wrong but obviously disproved by her very presence in front of him. (The man, resorting to his broken English, smiles abashedly and says, “You would angry from me now.”)

The Final Word

If you have six hours to spare next week, and you are hungry to understand the rise of fundamentalism in the monotheistic faiths today, ReligionWriter recommends you read the Armstrong book rather than watch the CNN series.

But if you have time, the best thing would be to both read the book and watch “God’s Warriors.” The two complement one another not in terms of ideas, but in terms of medium. The footage of “God’s Warriors,” collected over eight months of reporting, is fascinating and edifying to watch and makes a good complement to the more in-depth and contextual analysis of Armstrong’s book.

(All photos used with permission from CNN.)

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When interviewed tonight on Bill Moyers’ Journal, Imam Zaid Shakir appeared relaxed, looking straight at Mr. Moyers with his light brown eyes. But when the subject turned to the question of the divine mandate for wife-beating, Imam Shakir appeared flustered.

Moyers read to Shakir a translation of the Koranic verse 4:34, which, in the Yusuf Ali translation, reads in part:

As to those women on whose party ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all.)

Moyers described this verse as written by men, for men, and asked Shakir: Couldn’t some men interpret this as divine sanction to beat their wives? (As of 10:40 PM June 22, the show’s transcript was not online.)

ReligionWriter was curious to see if Shakir would mention a recent translation of that verse by an American Muslim woman, which rendered the word formerly translated as to “beat them” to read “go away from them.” Shakir did not reference that translation, indicating that the new translation has not yet been embraced by mainstream Muslims like Shakir.

Instead, he made the point that the verse must be read within the context of the entire Koran (i.e. where justice and mercy are commanded,) and that men who beat their wives would do so with or without divine sanction.

Moyers then pressed Shakir on the issue of woman-led prayer — a concept Shakir rejects. Moyer asked him if, in fact, American Muslims would have to adapt to “American” standards and accept female religious leadership. Moyers repeated use of the word “American” — along with his somewhat impassioned tone — seemed a bit odd, given that many American religious groups do not accept female clerical leadership. For example, GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson’s church, the Churches of Christ, do not allow women to preach or lead a mixed congregation. In the Mormon church, only men can access the priesthood; in the Catholic Church women’s ordination is not allowed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the interview with Shakir was his description of his mother, as a thoughtful and well-read single mother of seven. Next month, Shakir’s sister is publishing her mother’s diary, Dear Self: A Year in the Life of a Welfare Mother. In the Moyers segment, Shakir speaks of how his mother’s intellectualism shaped his life and made him who he is today. Entirely aside from viewpoints on Islam, Shakir seems to have a fascinating personal story — rising from poverty to study at some of the best universities in the U.S. and Muslim world, and now becoming a major Muslim American leader.

(UPDATE: transcript now available)

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As a father of two and a full-time real estate developer in Austin, Texas, Shahed Amanullah has also been able to squeeze in a side-project over the last few years: opening up the American Muslim community to debate and criticism.

After 9/11 attacks, the American-born Amanullah, now 39, watched his community “circle the wagons” under a barrage of sometimes hostile attention and decided to create, a news and opinion site that would allow Muslims to discuss their own issues, on their own terms.

Although has been successful, now receiving more than 8,000 unique visitors a day and sustaining operations through a revenue-generating sister site,, Amanullah is still not satisfied. In an April, 2007, column, “Western Muslims Need a Fourth Estate,” he called for the creation of an independent Muslim press in the U.S., to

explore the religious, cultural, and political plurality within the Muslim community, hold Muslim advocacy groups, businesses, and institutions accountable for their actions, present a forum for the civilized discussion of underrepresented or even controversial opinions, and increase the ability of ordinary Muslims to defend their faith beyond bumper-sticker platitudes.

Amanullah’s forth-right embrace of debate and analysis is winning him an increasing amount of national attention. Named one of ten “young visionaries” last month by Islamica magazine, he was also tapped this month by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to advise the department on fighting terrorism.

ReligionWriter spoke with Amanullah about his impatience with “whitewashed” media articles, his favorite reporters, and his plan for putting to rest the question, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?”

ReligionWriter: Your “Fourth Estate” article has gotten a lot of attention in the American-Muslim blogosphere. Did that surprise you?

Shahed Amanullah: Yes; I didn’t think it would be news to people. Every community has a degree of internal dialogue and discussion that is healthy, and I’ve been struck by how little of that goes on in Muslim community. There’s too much emphasis on enforcing orthodoxy as opposed to respectful debate.

In the center of this storm of politics and media, we’re like a little raft tossed up on the big waves. Issues are thrust upon us; we never set the agenda. When other organizations set the agenda for us, it has a very limited scope: civil liberties or foreign policy. We constantly have to respond to things thrown at us in unfavorable terms, like the issue of extremism. A great example is the “Where are the moderates?” refrain we’ve heard since 9/11. This silence happens because there is no articulate voice. Local Muslim newspapers say, “It’s not our issue.” National Muslim organizations say, “We want to talk about civil rights instead.” There’s nothing in the middle.

RW: Which issue do see as more important: promoting dialogue among Muslims or shaping the media agenda in the non-Muslim sphere?

Amanullah: I don’t separate the two. Part of the message we need to get out to the larger media is that we’re having this discussion, that there is dialogue within the Muslim community about “What is our vision? What are our values as Muslims in America?” The wider media needs to see this conversation is happening. Because when they don’t see it, they start setting the agenda: “Muslims need to start worrying about extremism in their mosques.” If they know that dialogue is already happening, then they can take the cue from us.

RW: Do you feel mainstream journalists aren’t tapping the right sources in the Muslim community? That maybe they rely too much on national organizations like ISNA or CAIR?

Amanullah: I don’t blame journalists; they don’t have anywhere where else to go. I also don’t blame [CAIR spokesman] Ibrahim Hooper Ibrahim Hooper for his interviewing style - his job is to be a media bulldog. His job is not to provide insight that may reveal weaknesses in our community. That job belongs to analysts of the Muslim community. And right now, most people who set themselves up as media-ready analysts on Muslim affairs are not from our community.

RW: Who are you referring to?

Amanullah: Professors, whether Muslim or not, who are in their ivory towers and removed from the community. Journalists who have taken up Islam as their thing, whether it’s Tom Friedman or Daniel Pipes. So many non-Muslims put on the “Islam expert” hat, and they can get away with it, because there isn’t a Muslim alternative who says, “I’m here in the community, and I have the credentials to be authoritative.”

RW: But newspapers don’t necessarily assign evangelical reporters to cover evangelicals - and maybe they shouldn’t.

Amanullah: When you create a fourth estate, you’re not creating cheerleaders. You’re creating people who over time are going to have a reputation of being objective and analytical, critical but also giving credit where credit is due.

RW: Almost every day there are positive, Islam 101-type articles, especially from small-town papers, with headlines like, “Muslims draw closer to God during Ramadan.” Is it really fair to say Muslims are misrepresented in the media?

Amanullah: Those PR-type articles are problematic in their own way. Unless you properly deal with the larger issues, the benefit of these pieces won’t sink in for the average reader. At the national level, you get more contentious articles, assigning blame to all of us for what some of us do. What is missing are articles, either at the local or national level, that say, for example, “Here’s an interesting positive trend in the Muslim community,” acknowledging that we have issues but also that we recognize and deal with them. I don’t want to be patronized by local media or condescended to by national media.

RW: A common thread among the responses to your “Fourth Estate” article was that creating an independent Muslim media will ghettoize the community. Better, they say, for Muslims go to into mainstream journalism. What’s your response to that?

Amanullah: The role of the Muslim media would be to start the dialogue on important issues. At a certain point that percolates up to the national media. Also, it’s a training ground for analytical thinkers, whether they want to continue on into mainstream journalism or Muslim leadership.

RW: If you had 20 journalists sitting in front of you right now, who were going to cover Islam in the next few months, what would you tell them?

Amanullah: Don’t miss the very dynamic debates that can and do happen within the Muslim community. It’s not enough to report on the Muslim community as a zoo specimen: “Let’s see what happens when we poke it here.” Get into the Muslim community at a local level and find out what the debates are.

We’re at a unique time in American Muslim history, when American Islam is still being defined. When people think of Muslims as monolithic, it feeds into the impression that we’re a bunch of sleeper cell operatives. But if you can say, for example, “There’s a big debate right now about intercultural marriage,” that shows a dynamism, and that makes us human.

RW: In your view, who are the best reporters right now covering Islam in America?

Amanullah: At the metro level, Matthai Chakko Kuruvila at the San Francisco Chronicle is head and shoulders above the rest. His attitude toward covering the Muslim community is fascinating; it’s like the difference between looking at a gorilla in a zoo and being Jane Goodall, actually getting in there. At the national level, I’m fairly happy with Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Carla Power at Newsweek has done a really good job, and she’s been working on it for a really long time; I first talked to her in 1998. Neil MacFarquhar at The New York Times, generally, is trying to get in at the lower level as well. I really like the reporter I deal with here at the Austin American Statesman, Eileen Flynn.

RW: One could argue the Muslim press right now is looking great. We have altmuslim, first of all. We have Islamica, Illume, Azizah, Muslim Girl and others. Would you agree?

Amanullah: A community of our size should have had an independent media a long time ago, and now we should have a larger one. Of the media outlets you mentioned, only Islamica has any full-time staff that I’m aware of. We’re not talking Christian Science Monitor here. Look at the Jewish community, which has a vigorous free press. Or recently arrived immigrant communities, like the Filipino and Chinese communities — they have many more fulltime journalists. Why don’t we?

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Muslim communities share burial duties

HERNDON, Va. Deidre “Nusaybah” Ritchie knelt down and gently braided the brown hair of the woman’s body lying in a cocoon of white sheets.

After demonstrating to the women gathered around her how to wash the body with soap and sweet-smelling camphor, Ritchie finished wrapping the woman in several layers of seamless white cloth, which five minutes earlier were a set of store-bought queen-sized bed sheets.

(Above: Deirdre “Nusaybah” Ritchie demonstrates how to wash the face of a corpse before burial. “I approach the dead persons like I would a newborn baby: they are in a very vulnerable position,” she said. PHOTO BY ANDREA USEEM)

“Performing this service for others is a reminder that death is a certainty for all of us,” said Ritchie, 39, as her audience of more than 20 Muslim women took notes and asked questions on how to prepare a body for burial in accordance with Islamic law.

The woman in the sheets was actually a volunteer. The women gathered in the cold conference room peppered Ritchie with questions, such as whether or not hair extensions should be removed before burial (answer: yes, if possible).

Like a midwife who makes house calls, Ritchie always keeps an emergency kit on hand in her car, which includes sheets, scissors, wash cloths, soap, camphor and a small bucket. She is one of many volunteers responding to calls nearly every week to wash and shroud Muslim bodies for burial.

While most Americans turn the bodies of loved ones over to funeral homes for embalming or cremation, volunteers including Ritchie work with Muslim families to administer the final preparations, in accordance with Islamic teachings.

To continue reading, please see the full article at


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(Below: Muslim American high school students gather in October, 2006, for a community iftar, or fast-breaking, during the month of Ramadan. PHOTO BY ANDREA USEEM)

A new study, released yesterday (May 22, 2007) by the Pew Research Center, estimates a total Muslim population in the U.S. of 2.4 million – about 0.6 percent of the total U.S. population.

This 2.4 million number, which includes children, is hugely smaller than the number estimated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which says on its website, “There is no scientific count of Muslims in the U.S. Six to seven million is the most commonly cited figure.”

Ibrahim Hooper stood by the 6-7 million figure today, saying the Pew number was “extremely low,” and that he believed a number of factors contributed to undercounting.

“I wouldn’t appear on that survey, with the last name of Hooper, and neither would any number of converts who don’t change their names. We also have a substantial immigrant population, and it’s more difficult for them to pop up in survey data,” Hooper told ReligionWriter by phone.

But the Pew figure cannot be easily dismissed on either of those bases.

The Pew survey did not attempt to find Muslims in the United States by searching for Muslim-sounding last names. Rather, it screened nearly 60,000 households, some of which were likely to contain Muslims, and weighted its results accordingly.

The set-up of the Pew study also made several attempts to increase response rates. Because immigrant experts estimate that a quarter of recent immigrants have limited or no English, the researchers made available foreign language interviewers who spoke Arabic, Farsi or Urdu. For this reason, the study said, researchers found a higher number of Muslims than had been discovered in previous Pew national surveys.

But given the level of suspicion among Muslims about unfair harassment and government surveillance – a finding confirmed in the report itself – wouldn’t many Muslims be reluctant to identify their religion to a stranger on the phone and answer detailed questions about their religious and political views?

The Pew study may not have been entirely successful, but they did take two steps to remove this barrier. First, the interviewers revealed the purpose of the study early on in the conversation, saying, “We have some questions about the views and experiences of Muslims living in the United States. I think you will find these questions very interesting.” In addition, Muslims were offered $50 for completing the half-hour interview.

Revealing a study’s purpose is “not common in survey research,” the study said, but the Pew researchers said they hoped this transparency would put Muslims ease and have “a greater chance of establishing a bond of trust,” according to the report.

Secondly, male interviewers were available to interview male subjects, and females for females, “a practice common among survey researchers conducting face-to-face interviews in majority Muslim nations,” the report said.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said at yesterday’s press conference that Pew’s estimate of the population – 2.4 million – was actually somewhat higher than other survey-based studies.

These estimates ranged from 0.2 percent of the population (found by the National Election Study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2000 and by Baylor University in 2006) to 0.5 percent (found by a compilation of Pew Research Center surveys between 2000-2007 and by the General Social Survey from the University of Chicago, which has been conducted every other year since 1998.)

Two Muslim social scientists, Ilyas Ba-Yunus, an emeritus professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Cortland, and Kassim Kone, a professor of anthropology at the same university, wrote that survey-based data are not a good basis for population estimates. In their chapter on Muslim demography in the 2004 book, Muslims’ Place in the American Public Square, they decried “the myth in American culture about the scientific validity of surveys based on national polling,” pointing to cases were survey data has, for example, wrong predicted election outcomes, including Al Gore’s initial win in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Ba-Yunus and Kone estimated a 2004 Muslim American population of 5.7 million, based on data collected from Muslim organizations across the country.

Hooper agreed with Ba-Yunus and Kone that accurate information can only be obtained through the community itself. “We have the most diverse religious community, and it’s hard to get a handle on it unless you have access to it, as we do,” said Hooper.

Would CAIR be open to looking more closely at the Pew survey?

Hooper said an on-staff research expert would have to examine the data closely.

He said, “There have been innumerable estimates over the years, some higher, some lower. It doesn’t change our work in serving the Muslim American community.”

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By Andrea Useem, Religion BookLine — Publishers Weekly, 5/16/2007 (reprinted here with permission.)

With a title like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s new novel (Harcourt, April) invites readers to expect a story of religion gone bad. But instead of radical preaching or religious fervor, the book details the transformation of Changez, an Ivy League-educated Pakistani, whose love affair with a wealthy, troubled American and elite but morally questionable job lead him, in the aftermath of 9/11, to loath the country he once embraced.

The title, Hamid told RBL, is a “deliberate misnomer.” Changez, who drinks whiskey and never even thinks of attending a mosque, is not a devout Muslim but rather a “secular Western rationalist,” according to Hamid. But when America begins to bomb Afghanistan—a neighbor to his homeland—Changez “starts to think of himself ethnically, almost tribally, as a Muslim,” Hamid said, even as his dark skin and beard evoke fear and suspicion in the Americans around him.

The point, said Hamid, is that today’s violent conflicts are political, not religious. Post-9/11, Westerners tend to reduce Muslims to religious labels. “I am a man, a novelist, a husband, son, brother, a Londoner, a Pakistani, a guy who likes sushi—and I’m a Muslim. Today, it’s as if that last facet is the thing on which I must be judged,” said Hamid.

Taking the same time period—the months before and after 9/11—in Once in a Promised Land (Beacon, Jan.) Laila Halaby uses the story of Jassim and Salwa, Jordanian immigrants living a comfortable if empty existence in Tucson, Ariz., to show how in a world aflame with religious and patriotic sentiment, “most people are just trying to live,” she said to RBL.

Jassim, a hydrologist, is meticulous in his work and his early-morning swims, but emotionally absent as a husband. Salwa, who married Jassim in part for a chance to come to the U.S., lives her American dream by earning money she spends on pajamas at Victoria’s Secret.

When Salwa accidentally-on-purpose stops taking her birth control pills and gets pregnant, she begins a downward spiral. And when Jassim, disturbed by Salwa’s instability, is involved in a tragic road accident, he loses the self-control he so values.

Looming over these interior, domestic dramas, however, is the shadow of 9/11. As an Arab Muslim, Jassim’s personal distress is interpreted by others as suspicious behavior—with disastrous results—while Salwa realizes her American dream is only skin deep.

The two characters, said Halaby, “are just people with their own difficulties, which have nothing to do with being Arab and Muslim. Yet people are so quick to put others in a category.”

(This article appears under the headline “SPOTLIGHT ON…Muslims in Fiction: Post 9/11, It’s the Only Place to Transcend Labels,” in the May 16, 2007, issue of Religion BookLine from Publisher’s Weekly.)
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