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New wave of imams seeks to identify with Americans
Sacramento Bee


August 26, 2005

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - There's a new imam in town who criticizes forced arranged marriages, insists Muslim nations need to become democracies and says it's OK to drink an ice-cold martini - if you're dying of thirst in the desert. And he uses the Koran to back him up.

He's Mohammed Abdul Azeez of SALAM (Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims), and he's tall, hip and handsome.

Like most of America's imams, Azeez, 29, is an immigrant - he comes from Egypt. And like most devout Muslim men, he has a beard, though his facial hair is more GQ than Yasser Arafat's.

He speaks Arabic and English flawlessly, tells jokes and presents the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in a practical, worldly context.

As terrorism in the name of radical Islam continues to scar the world, American Muslims increasingly are seeking to reform mosques that often have been ethnic enclaves led by foreign-born imams out of synch with their Americanized members.

Some have hired new-wave imams such as Azeez to bridge the gap between Muslim immigrants and their American-born children - and to inoculate the younger generation against extremists seeking new recruits via the Internet or from the fringes of American Muslim society.

Many young men linked to or suspected of recent terrorist activities had drifted from traditional mosque culture to radical influences: the British-born London bombers; the Lackawanna Six, American Muslims convicted of training for jihad, or holy war, in Afghanistan; and 22-year-old Hamid Hayat, the Lodi, Calif., youth charged with lying about attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

Muslim leaders also realize the need to tell their worshippers - and the world - that they are Americans who are Muslim, rather than the other way around.

"We stress the American Muslim identity, that home is where my grandchildren are going to be raised, not where my grandfather is buried," Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said from his Los Angeles office.

Many Muslim Americans are caught in an identity crisis spawned by terrorism, Al-Marayati said. "One extreme is the self-hating Muslim youth. - Either you live in secret - or you lash out at the Muslim community and say, 'These Muslims are just a bunch of losers.' "

The other extreme, Al-Marayati said, is the rigid, self-righteous Muslim who is in denial. "They don't accept America as their country, even if they benefit from America economically."

But Al-Marayati, like Azeez, sees no conflict between the American values of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and the Muslim values of preservation of life, mind, faith and family.

"The vast majority of Americans want to see us as a positive, integral force in America," he said. "We want people to see Muslims are part of the solution" to terrorism.

To that end, the Muslim Public Affairs Council has developed a national grass-roots campaign to fight terrorism, including a voluntary "mosque accountability" program "to get the word out that any extremists or al Qaeda operatives will not be able to infiltrate our institutions in America, and if somebody tries we'll report them to authorities," Al-Marayati said.

Americanized imams can better deal with problems facing American Muslims, Al-Marayati said. "We don't believe that bringing over people who have no understanding what's happening in the minds of our youth ... is optimal or ideal."

About 2 million of America's 6 million Muslims, the majority of them immigrants, associate with mosques. About 400,000 regularly attend the Friday midday prayer and sermon - the equivalent of Christian Sunday services, according to experts from the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Imams are selected by mosque boards made up of mostly male immigrants who reflect their congregation's ethnic roots.

But it's getting harder to keep American Muslim youths engaged in the mosque if "they can't relate to what's being said and they don't understand the language," said Mohamed Nimer, CAIR's research director.

Nimer said the Pakistani imam at his mosque in Virginia delivers his Friday sermon in classic Arabic, followed by translations in Urdu and a smattering of English.

"I have four children, from 19 to 11, and they're all getting restless," Nimer said. "Sometimes they even make fun of it as being gibberish."

Nimer said his kids, like many young Muslim Americans, are fans of the Muslim comedians Allah Made Me Funny. The group occasionally pokes gentle fun at immigrant imams.

Azeez, the new SALAM imam, recalled one routine by a Muslim comedian:

An imam tries to discipline his child but can't find the words in English. Using the few words they have in common, he finally blurts out: "You little hummus you, you little baba ghanouj!" Hummus is a Middle Eastern chickpea spread; baba ghanouj is an eggplant dip.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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