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Main Line Muslims: Negotiating Cultural Differences and Misconceptions

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WAYS OF WORSHIP: The Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge’s Mohammad Aziz at the group’s Devon mosque. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
It was a cold shoulder she hadn’t felt in years. But there was no mistaking the suspicious glances and outright glares directed at the woman sitting on the sidelines of her daughter’s soccer game. She is a wife and a lawyer. She drives an SUV and lives in Upper Merion Township. She also wears hijab.

Cold shoulders aren’t the norm, insists Mohammad Aziz—though the Boston Marathon bombing has ratcheted up the scrutiny and dismissals.

Aziz sits on the board of directors of the Islamic Society of Greater Valley Forge, based in Devon. He and ISGVF members Dr. Arshad Amanullah and Dr. Rehana Jan immigrated to the United States decades ago and are longtime Main Line residents. More tolerated than embraced, and widely misunderstood, they nevertheless love America.

But they don’t love the media. Even before 9/11, the melting pot was becoming a frying pan for Muslims. Burned by the media stereotype and frustrated by the dissemination of misinformation about Islam, none of the three ISGVF members want to speak for the world’s 1 billion Muslims. Nor do they want speak for Main Line Muslims, a diverse and growing minority.

ISGVF was founded in 1984. Now with about 100 Muslim families as members, the organization expanded into a larger, newly built mosque in 2010. The Islamic Society of Chester County, located in West Chester, was founded in 1978, expanding in 1985 and again in 1996. In the fall of 2013, it will begin construction on a bigger mosque and parking facility to accommodate the 200 families in its congregation.

Local universities like Villanova have seen Muslim student enrollment increase. Mahsa Ebrahim, Masoud Khadem and Mohsen Samadani are from Iran. All in their late 20s, they are in Villanova’s mechanical engineering Ph.D. program. Jokha Al Harthy, a 41-year-old from Oman, is earning an advanced degree in nursing. The phrase “radical Muslim” makes them cringe, and they all share one belief: Terrorists have hijacked Islam and twisted its precepts to suit their political agendas. The fusion of politics and Islam has created a mutant hybrid—one with a power out of proportion to the minority it represents.

“Someone may have radical politics and be a Muslim,” says Amanullah. “But saying a Muslim is radical because he prays five times a day and goes to the mosque on Fridays is like saying that a Catholic is radical because he goes to Mass on Sundays. Those are things that Muslims are supposed to do every day. It has nothing to do with politics.”

The separation between religion and politics is keenly felt by the Iranian students. The leadership’s anti-Americanism is not shared by the majority of Iran’s people, the students say, and they don’t understand U.S. sanctions, which have created serious hardships for citizens and not so much as bruised the government. Ebrahim, Khadem and Samadani all speak English, as do most Iranians. In fact, English is a mandatory subject taught in all of Iran’s junior high schools. “Of course, there are political things on which we have different opinions, but Americans themselves often disagree with their government,” says Samadani. “We love Americans. We wish no harm to America.”

So you can imagine their views on Al Qaeda. “It has killed thousands of Muslims in acts of terrorism around the world,” says Khadem. “Al-Qaeda says that certain kinds of Muslims should be destroyed because they are just as much heretics as Americans. We, too, have paid a price for terrorism.”

And as for jihad, “it’s ridiculous what the terrorists have done with the concept,” says Jan, with obvious frustration. “Jihad is not what the terrorists say it is. The word jihad means ‘struggle,’ and the struggle is internal. That is the most widely accepted view of jihad. To struggle against the evil within yourself.”

And what about sharia, the quasi-religious law that oppresses women? “Again, this is politics imposed on Islam,” Jan explains. “Islam is not antifemale.”

Jan, Al Harthy and Ebrahim are prime examples of modern Muslim women. All three are highly educated and are not prohibited from studying in their native countries. Al Harthy and Ebrahim will have careers when they graduate. Jan earned a doctorate in her native Pakistan, immigrated to the U.S. in 1975, and has enjoyed a long career as an anesthesiologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “Women’s rights—to vote, to inherit property, to divorce—are detailed in the Koran and in marriage contracts,” says Jan.
 

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Muslim garb can be off-putting to some. To promote modesty, there are religious guidelines for women’s clothing. Jan, Al Harthy and Ebrahim don’t wear chadors, let alone burqas. Jan dresses in Western clothes; Al Harthy wears a hijab and a long-sleeved tunic that ends at her knees. She sees her clothing as an expression of the tradition in Oman and her identity as a Muslim. “It is my choice to wear this as a modest Muslim woman,” she says. “This is part of who I am, and no one is forcing me to dress this way.”

Women in other countries don’t have that choice. Jan believes it has more to do with socioeconomics than religion. Whereas the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99 percent, Afghanistan’s rate is closer to 28 percent. “If everyone in the country is poor and uneducated, then so are the women,” says Jan. “It’s not because Islam wants the women to be that way.”

“If they can’t read, then they can’t read the Koran,” says Aziz. “So how do they know what it really says? How do they know if the restrictions on their lives are from God or from man?”

The Koran contains lifestyle guidelines that are shared by observant Muslims throughout the world. Dietary restrictions include the prohibition of alcohol and pork. Meat should be butchered according to hallal rules, which are similar to Jewish kosher laws. But while kosher foods are now widely available in the Main Line area, hallal meat is not. Observant Muslims travel to Norristown, Center City and elsewhere to get beef, lamb and other meats.

At Villanova, campus life can be a challenge. Ebrahim and the others have vegetarian diets or eat non-hallal meat. Two of them have experimented with alcohol, but sparingly. All three say they socialize with ease and don’t feel ostracized for not drinking—or not dating.

“There is no dating,” says Khadem. “You hang out in groups of friends, but a boy and girl are never alone. When two people like each other and the families get along well, the boy and girl become engaged. This way, there is a promise between them. Then, they can be alone perhaps a little bit. If the engagement goes well, they get married.”

Aziz says it’s the same in India, and he wishes it were true in America. But he understands that his children are living in a culture different from the one in which he was raised. “Believe me, I wish that I could make them do everything I want them to do,” says Aziz with a laugh. “What parent doesn’t?”

It’s an everyday, personal jihad for Main Line Muslims: their struggle to reconcile their American and native identities. “To stay true to your religion in America is a challenge, and that’s just fine with me,” says Jan. “It makes me appreciate Islam more.”

Jan and the others say that they have a lot to learn from America’s Jewish community. Aziz’s son will be a college freshman this fall, and he speaks with admiration of the Hillels he saw on the campuses they toured. Jews are accepted and embraced in this country—and certainly in the Main Line area. They’re leaders in politics, entertainment, business and more.

Told that it took centuries for Jews to accomplish this, Aziz says, “Then we better get started.”