The New York City school system will open its first public school dedicated to teaching the Arabic language and culture in September, with half of its classes eventually taught in Arabic, officials said yesterday. The school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, is one of 40 new schools that the Department of Education is opening for the 2007-8 school year. It will serve grades 6 to 12 and will be in Brooklyn, although a specific location has not been determined. Debbie Almontaser, a 15-year veteran of the school system who is the driving force behind the school and will be its principal, said that ideally, the school would serve an equal mix of students with backgrounds in Arabic language and culture and those without such backgrounds.
MIDDLETOWN, N.J. – Sheik Reda Shata pushed into Costco behind an empty cart. He wore a black leather jacket over his long, rustling robe, a pocket Koran tucked inside. The imam, a 38-year-old Egyptian, seemed not to notice the stares from other shoppers. He was hunting for a bargain, and soon found it in the beverage aisle, where a 32-can pack of Coca-Cola sold for $8.29. For Mr. Shata, this was a satisfying Islamic experience. The Prophet said, _Whoever is frugal will never suffer financially,’ said the imam, who shops weekly at the local store and admits to praying for its owners. He smiled. These are the people who will go to heaven. Seven months have passed since Mr. Shata moved to this New Jersey suburb to lead a mosque of prosperous, settled immigrants. It is a world away from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he toiled for almost four years, serving hundreds of struggling Muslims for whom America was still new. His transition is a familiar one for foreign-born imams in the United States, who often start out in city mosques before moving to more serene settings. For Mr. Shata, Middletown promised comfort after years of hardship. He left behind a tiny apartment for a house with green shutters set amid maple trees and sweeping lawns. He got a raise. He learned to drive. But the suburbs have brought challenges that Mr. Shata never imagined. His congregation in Brooklyn may have been on the margins of American society, but it was deeply rooted in Islam. Muslims in Middletown were generally more assimilated but less connected to their mosque. To be a successful suburban imam, he found, meant persuading doctors and lawyers not to rush from prayers to beat traffic. It meant connecting with teenagers who drove new cars, and who peppered their Arabic with like and yeah. It meant helping his daughter cope with mockery at school, in a predominantly white town that lost dozens of people on Sept. 11. Mr. Shata knew from his years in Brooklyn that the job demanded more than preaching and leading prayers, the things for which he was trained in Egypt. In America, he helped to arrange marriages. He mediated between the F.B.I. and his people. He set up a makeshift Islamic court to resolve disputes among hot dog vendors. Last summer, as he prepared to join a new community where the median income is roughly $86,000, he reminded himself that Islam has no quarrel with wealth – as long as the wealthy are pious. Still, he was stunned when a man at the mosque bought his daughter a new car, only for her to request a different model. Islam says to a Muslim you can own the world if you want, but don’t get attached to it, said Mr. Shata, speaking Arabic through a translator. Put the world in your hands, not your heart. […]
By ANDREA ELLIOTT LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Tex. – Stomping her boots and swinging her bony arms, Fadwa Hamdan led a column of troops through this bleak Texas base. Only six months earlier, she wore the head scarf of a pious Muslim woman and dropped her eyes in the presence of men. Now she was marching them to dinner. I’m gonna be a shooting man, a shooting man! she cried, her Jordanian accent lost in the chanting voices. The best I can for Uncle Sam, for Uncle Sam! The United States military has long prided itself on molding raw recruits into hardened soldiers. Perhaps none have undergone a transformation quite like that of Ms. Hamdan. Forbidden by her husband to work, she raised five children behind the drawn curtains of their home in Saudi Arabia. She was not allowed to drive. On the rare occasions when she set foot outside, she wore a full-face veil. Then her world unraveled. Separated from her husband, who had taken a second wife, and torn from her children, she moved to Queens to start over. Struggling to survive on her own, she answered a recruiting advertisement for the Army and enlisted in May. Ms. Hamdan’s passage through the military is a remarkable act of reinvention. It required courage and sacrifice. She had to remove her hijab, a sacred symbol of the faith she holds deeply. She had to embrace, at the age of 39, an arduous and unfamiliar life. In return, she sought what the military has always promised new soldiers: a stable home, an adoptive family, a remade identity. She left one male-dominated culture for another, she said, in the hope of finding new strength along the way. Always, I dream I have power on the inside, and one day it’s going to come out, said Ms. Hamdan, a small woman with delicate hands and sad, almond eyes. She belongs to the rare class of Muslim women who have signed up to become soldiers trained in Arabic translation. Such female linguists play a crucial role for the American armed forces in Iraq, where civilian women often feel uncomfortable interacting with male troops. Finding Arabic-speaking women willing to serve in the military has proved daunting. Of the 317 soldiers who have completed training in the Army linguist program since 2003, just 23 are women, 13 of them Muslim. Ms. Hamdan wrestled with the decision for two years. Only in the Army, she decided, would she be able to save money to hire a lawyer and finally divorce her husband. […]
LEICESTER, England – The sports hall doubles as a prayer room and dining hall for male teenagers, at other times for young women, but never the two together. In the kindergarten, female teachers, warned of an impending visit by a man, draw full facial veils before receiving their guest. When the guest arrives, the children offer a chorus in Arabic: As salaam aleikum – peace be upon you.
MANCHESTER – Two years after its launch, the country’s first fully Islamic retail bank cannot yet offer traditional products like mortgages, but Muslim clients say they feel more at home there. “You feel you’re putting your money in the right place,” said Kuwaiti-born Mona Aabbassi as she walked into the Islamic Bank of Britain ( IBB.L ). Behind the bank’s glass walls, engraved with Arabic calligraphy, the staff can speak Arabic, Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi as well as English. Licensed in August 2004 by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), IBB has its headquarters in Birmingham and opened its seventh branch in Manchester in January. It aims to expand further in northwest England before moving into mainland Europe. According to the most recent census in 2001, around 13 percent of the country’s 1.6 million Muslims live in the northwest. Islam prohibits paying or receiving interest, “riba” in Arabic, considering it immoral to profit from money alone. Islam allows people to make a profit only if they bear the risk of an investment — as with equity in traditional western finance. Aabbassi feels comfortable with the way other customers at IBB share her values. “Some money went missing from my account but I recovered it because the person who got it by mistake phoned the bank,” she said. “It is because people here put Allah before themselves.” IBB aims to compete with conventional banks but to comply with Islamic principles, to ensure Muslims do not break the rules of their religion when they open a bank account. “Muslims want a good return,” said IBB Managing Director Michael Hanlon, who came to the bank after 34 years at Barclays ( BARC.L ). “But their faith might not necessarily drive them down the route of accepting the benefits regardless of what is available.” To offer a return on deposits, Islamic banks must share with customers any profits — and any risks — arising from trades the banks carry out with clients’ cash. “We generate profits from commodity trading activities and then we seek to pay our customers profits that are consistent with market rates generally,” Hanlon said. CLASH OF CONCEPTS To get its licence, IBB worked closely with the FSA as under British law, banks must guarantee that depositors receive their money back in full — a concept which clashes with the Islamic principle of risk-sharing. The solution was to offer a full guarantee for clients’ deposits, but let them choose whether to share any losses the bank may make. While trying hard to rival conventional banks, IBB is counting on its clients’ willingness to accept that returns may be lower for the sake of their faith. It recently launched a young persons’ savings account offering a target return of 3 percent before tax. This compares with a current 4.43 percent gross from Natwest’s ( RBS.L ) children’s savings accounts. “Only retail customers are attached to the religious argument,” said Standard & Poor’s analyst Anouar Hassoune. “Corporate borrowers and depositors usually do not care about religion: they ask for price and service.” Estimates of assets controlled by Islamic banks globally range between $200 billion (106 billion pounds) and $500 billion, growing at a pace of 10 to 15 percent per year, the FSA said. But IBB, which said it had some 14,000 customers at enD-2005, faces competition from conventional banks which are also offering services compliant with Islamic law, or Sharia. HSBC ( HSBA.L ) first introduced Sharia-compliant current accounts and home-finance schemes in July 2003 through its Islamic finance division. HSBC Amanah now has around 2,000 accounts and has financed as many home purchases. Lloyds TSB ( LLOY.L ) followed suit early last year and Lloyds’ Islamic services are now available at around 35 branches with more planned across the country, a spokesman said. Islam also bans investments in industries such as tobacco, alcohol, pornography, gambling and arms, so special committees have been set up to monitor banks’ Islamic products and services. Each bank has its own Sharia Supervisory Committee, employing experts in Islamic finance to ensure that all the bank’s products and transactions comply with Sharia.
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. A teenage girl wants to know: Is it halal, or lawful, to eat a Big Mac? Can alcohol be served, a waiter wonders, if it is prohibited by the Koran? Is it wrong to take out a mortgage, young Muslim professionals ask, when Islam frowns upon monetary interest? The questions are only a piece of the daily puzzle Mr. Shata must solve as the imam of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a thriving New York mosque where several thousand Muslims worship. To his congregants, Mr. Shata is far more than the leader of daily prayers and giver of the Friday sermon. Many of them now live in a land without their parents, who typically assist with finding a spouse. There are fewer uncles and cousins to help resolve personal disputes. There is no local House of Fatwa to issue rulings on ethical questions. Sheik Reda, as he is called, arrived in Brooklyn one year after Sept. 11. Virtually overnight, he became an Islamic judge and nursery school principal, a matchmaker and marriage counselor, a 24-hour hot line on all things Islamic. Day after day, he must find ways to reconcile Muslim tradition with American life. Little in his rural Egyptian upbringing or years of Islamic scholarship prepared him for the challenge of leading a mosque in America. The job has worn him down and opened his mind. It has landed him, exhausted, in the hospital and earned him a following far beyond Brooklyn. “America transformed me from a person of rigidity to flexibility,” said Mr. Shata, speaking through an Arabic translator. “I went from a country where a sheik would speak and the people listened to one where the sheik talks and the people talk back.” This is the story of Mr. Shata’s journey west: the making of an American imam. Over the last half-century, the Muslim population in the United States has risen significantly. Immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa have settled across the country, establishing mosques from Boston to Los Angeles, and turning Islam into one of the nation’s fastest growing religions. By some estimates, as many as six million Muslims now live in America. Leading this flock calls for improvisation. Imams must unify diverse congregations with often-clashing Islamic traditions. They must grapple with the threat of terrorism, answering to law enforcement agents without losing the trust of their fellow Muslims. Sometimes they must set aside conservative beliefs that prevail in the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam. Islam is a legalistic faith: Muslims believe in a divine law that guides their daily lives, including what they should eat, drink and wear. In countries where the religion reigns, this is largely the accepted way. But in the West, what Islamic law prohibits is everywhere. Alcohol fills chocolates. Women jog in sports bras. For many Muslims in America, life is a daily clash between Islamic mores and material temptation. At the center of this clash stands the imam. In America, imams evoke a simplistic caricature – of robed, bearded clerics issuing fatwas in foreign lands. Hundreds of imams live in the United States, but their portrait remains flatly one-dimensional. Either they are symbols of diversity, breaking the Ramadan fast with smiling politicians, or zealots, hurrying into their storefront mosques. Mr. Shata, 37, is neither a firebrand nor a ready advocate of progressive Islam. Some of his views would offend conservative Muslims; other beliefs would repel American liberals. He is in many ways a work in progress, mapping his own middle ground between two different worlds. The imam’s cramped, curtained office can hardly contain the dramas that unfold inside. Women cry. Husbands storm off. Friendships end. Every day brings soap opera plots and pitch. A Moroccan woman falls to her knees near the imam’s Hewlett-Packard printer. “Have mercy on me!” she wails to a friend who has accused her of theft. Another day, it is a man whose Lebanese wife has concealed their marriage and newborn son from her strict father. “I will tell him everything!” the husband screams. Mr. Shata settles dowries, confronts wife abusers, brokers business deals and tries to arrange marriages. He approaches each problem with an almost scientific certainty that it can be solved. “I try to be more of a doctor than a judge,” said Mr. Shata. “A judge sentences. A doctor tries to remedy.” Imams in the United States now serve an estimated 1,200 mosques. Some of their congregants have lived here for generations, assimilating socially and succeeding professionally. But others are recent immigrants, still struggling to find their place in America. Demographers expect their numbers to rise in the coming decades, possibly surpassing those of American Jews. Like many of their faithful, most imams in the United States come from abroad. They are recruited primarily for their knowledge of the Koran and the language in which it was revealed, Arabic. But few are prepared for the test that awaits. Like the parish priests who came generations before, imams are called on to lead a community on the margins of American civic life. They are conduits to and arbiters of an exhilarating, if sometimes hostile world, filled with promise and peril. An Invitation to Islam More than 5,000 miles lie between Brooklyn and Kafr al Battikh, Mr. Shata’s birthplace in northeastern Egypt. Situated where the Nile Delta meets the Suez Canal, it was a village of dirt roads and watermelon vines when Mr. Shata was born in 1968. Egypt was in the throes of change. The country had just suffered a staggering defeat in the Six Day War with Israel, and protests against the government followed. Hoping to counter growing radicalism, a new president, Anwar Sadat, allowed a long-repressed Islamic movement to flourish. The son of a farmer and fertilizer salesman, Mr. Shata belonged to the lowest rung of Egypt’s rural middle class. His house had no electricity. He did not see a television until he was 15. Islam came to him softly, in the rhythms of his grandmother’s voice. At bedtime, she would tell him the story of the Prophet Muhammad, the seventh-century founder of Islam. The boy heard much that was familiar. Like the prophet, he had lost his mother at a young age. “She told me the same story maybe a thousand times,” he said. At the age of 5, he began memorizing the Koran. Like thousands of children in the Egyptian countryside, he attended a Sunni religious school subsidized by the government and connected to Al Azhar University, a bastion of Islamic scholarship. Too poor to buy books, the young Mr. Shata hand-copied from hundreds at the town library. The bound volumes now line the shelves of his Bay Ridge apartment. When he graduated, he enrolled at Al Azhar and headed to Cairo by train. There, he sat on a bench for hours, marveling at the sights. “I was like a lost child,” he said. “Cars. We didn’t have them. People of different colors. Foreigners. Women almost naked. It was like an imaginary world.” At 18, Mr. Shata thought of becoming a judge. But at his father’s urging, he joined the college of imams, the Dawah. The word means invitation. It refers to the duty of Muslims to invite, or call, others to the faith. Unlike Catholicism or Judaism, Islam has no ordained clergy. The Prophet Muhammad was the religion’s first imam, or prayer leader, Islam’s closest corollary to a rabbi or priest; schools like the Dawah ar
e its version of a seminary or rabbinate. After four years, Mr. Shata graduated with honors, seventh in a class of 3,400. The next decade brought lessons in adaptation. In need of money, Mr. Shata took a job teaching sharia, or Islamic law, to children in Saudi Arabia, a country guided by Wahhabism, a puritan strain of Sunni Islam. He found his Saudi colleagues’ interpretation of the Koran overly literal at times, and the treatment of women, who were not allowed to vote or drive, troubling. Five years later, he returned to a different form of religious control in Egypt, where most imams are appointed by the government and monitored for signs of radicalism or political dissent. “They are not allowed to deviate from the curriculum that the government sets for them,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Mr. Shata craved greater independence, and opened a furniture business. But he missed the life of dawah and eventually returned to it as the imam of his hometown mosque, which drew 4,000 worshipers on Fridays alone. His duties were clear: He led the five daily prayers and delivered the khutba, or Friday sermon. His mosque, like most in Egypt, was financed and managed by the government. He spent his free time giving lectures, conducting marriage ceremonies and offering occasional religious guidance. In 2000, Mr. Shata left to work as an imam in the gritty industrial city of Stuttgart, Germany. Europe brought a fresh new freedom. “I saw a wider world,” he said. “Anyone with an opinion could express it.” Then came Sept. 11. Soon after, Mr. Shata’s mosque was defiled with graffiti and smeared with feces. The next summer, Mr. Shata took a call from an imam in Brooklyn. The man, Mohamed Moussa, was leaving his mosque, exhausted by the troubles of his congregants following the terrorist attacks. The mosque was looking for a replacement, and Mr. Shata had come highly recommended by a professor at Al Azhar. Most imams are recruited to American mosques on the recommendation of other imams or trusted scholars abroad, and are usually offered an annual contract. Some include health benefits and subsidized housing; others are painfully spare. The pay can range from $20,000 to $50,000. Mr. Shata had heard stories of Muslim hardship in America. The salary at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge was less than what he was earning in Germany. But foremost on his mind were his wife and three small daughters, whom he had not seen in months. Germany had refused them entry. He agreed to take the job if he could bring his family to America. In October 2002, the American Embassy in Cairo granted visas to the Shatas and they boarded a plane for New York. A Mosque, a Magnet A facade of plain white brick rises up from Fifth Avenue just south of 68th Street in Bay Ridge. Two sets of words, one in Arabic and another in English, announce the mosque’s dual identity from a marquee above its gray metal doors. To the mosque’s base – Palestinian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Moroccan and Algerian immigrants – it is known as Masjid Moussab, named after one of the prophet’s companions, Moussab Ibn Omair. To the mosque’s English-speaking neighbors, descendants of the Italians, Irish and Norwegians who once filled the neighborhood, it is the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. Mosques across America are commonly named centers or societies, in part because they provide so many services. Some 140 mosques serve New York City, where an estimated 600,000 Muslims live, roughly 20 percent of them African-American, said Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, an anthropologist at Teachers College who has canvassed the city’s mosques. The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, like other American mosques, is run by a board of directors, mostly Muslim professionals from the Palestinian territories. What began in 1984 as a small storefront on Bay Ridge Avenue, with no name and no imam, has grown into one of the city’s vital Muslim centers, a magnet for new immigrants. Its four floors pulse with life: a nursery school, an Islamic bookstore, Koran classes and daily lectures. Some 1,500 Muslims worship at the mosque on Fridays, often crouched in prayer on the sidewalk. Albanians, Pakistanis and others who speak little Arabic listen to live English translations of the sermons through headsets. It is these congregants’ crumpled dollar bills, collected in a cardboard box, that enable the mosque to survive. Among the city’s imams, Bay Ridge is seen as a humbling challenge. “It’s the first station for immigrants,” said Mr. Moussa, Mr. Shata’s predecessor. “And immigrants have a lot of problems.” Skip 911. Call the Imam. Mr. Shata landed at Kennedy International Airport wearing a crimson felt hat and a long gray jilbab that fell from his neck to his sandaled toes, the proud dress of an Al Azhar scholar. He spoke no English. But already, he carried some of the West inside. He could quote liberally from Voltaire, Shaw and Kant. For an Egyptian, he often jokes, he was inexplicably punctual. The first thing Mr. Shata loved about America, like Germany, was the order. “In Egypt, if a person passes through a red light, that means he’s smart,” he said. “In America, he’s very disrespected.” Americans stood in line. They tended their yards. One could call the police and hear a rap at the door minutes later. That fact impressed not only Mr. Shata, but also the women of his new mosque. They had gained a reputation for odd calls to 911. One woman called because a relative abroad had threatened to take her inheritance. “The officers left and didn’t write anything,” Mr. Shata said, howling with laughter. “There was nothing for them to write.” Another woman called, angry because her husband had agreed to let a daughter from a previous marriage spend the night. To Mr. Shata, the calls made sense. The women’s parents, uncles and brothers – figures of authority in family conflict – were overseas. Instead, they dialed 911, hoping for a local substitute. Soon they would learn to call the imam. A bearish man with a soft, bearded face, Mr. Shata struck his congregants as an odd blend of things. He was erudite yet funny; authoritative at the mosque’s wooden pulpit and boyishly charming between prayers. Homemakers, doctors, cabdrivers and sheiks stopped by to assess the new imam. He regaled them with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, fetched by the Algerian keeper of the mosque, and then told long, poetic stories that left his visitors silent, their coffee cold. “You just absorb every word he says,” said Linda Sarsour, 25, a Muslim activist in Brooklyn. The imam, too, was taking note. Things worked differently in America, where mosques were run as nonprofit organizations and congregants had a decidedly democratic air. Mr. Shata was shocked when a tone-deaf man insisted on giving the call to prayer. Such a man would be ridiculed in Egypt, where the callers, or muezzinin, have voices so beautiful they sometimes record top-selling CD’s. But in the land of equal opportunity, a man with a mediocre voice could claim discrimination. Mr. Shata relented. He shudders when the voice periodically sounds. No sooner had Mr. Shata started his new job than all manner of problems arrived at his worn wooden desk: rebellious teenagers, marital strife, confessions of philandering, accusations of theft. The imam responded creatively. Much of the drama involved hot dog vendors. There was the pair who shared a stand, but could not stand each other. They came to the imam, who helped them divide the business. The most notorious hot dog seller stood accused of stealing thousands of dollars in donations he had raised for the children of his deceased best friend. But there was no proof. The donations had been in cash. The solution, the imam decided, was to have the man swear an oath on the Koran. “Whoever lies while taking an oath on the Koran goes blind afterward,” said Mr. Shata, stating a belief that has proved useful in cases of theft. A group of men lured the vendor to the mosque, where he confessed to stealing $11,400. His admission was recorded in a waraqa, or document, penned in Arabic and signed by four witnesses. He returned the mon
ey in full. Dozens of waraqas sit in the locked bottom drawer of the imam’s desk. In one, a Brooklyn man who burned his wife with an iron vows, in nervous Arabic scrawl, never to do it again. If he fails, he will owe her a $10,000 “disciplinary fine.” The police had intervened before, but the woman felt that she needed the imam’s help. For hundreds of Muslims, the Bay Ridge mosque has become a courthouse more welcoming than the one downtown, a police precinct more effective than the brick station blocks away. Even the police have used the imam’s influence to their advantage, warning disorderly teenagers that they will be taken to the mosque rather than the station. “They say: ‘No, not the imam! He’ll tell my parents,’ ” said Russell Kain, a recently retired officer of the 68th Precinct. Marriage, Mortgage, McDonald’s Soon after arriving in Brooklyn, Mr. Shata observed a subtle rift among the women of his mosque. Those who were new to America remained quietly grounded in the traditions of their homelands. But some who had assimilated began to question those strictures. Concepts like shame held less weight. Actions like divorce, abhorred by Mr. Shata, were surprisingly popular. “The woman who comes from overseas, she’s like someone who comes from darkness to a very well-lit place,” he said. In early July, an Egyptian karate teacher shuffled into Mr. Shata’s office and sank into a donated couch. He smiled meekly and began to talk. His new wife showed him no affection. She complained about his salary and said he lacked ambition. The imam urged him to be patient. Two weeks later, in came the wife. She wanted a divorce. “We don’t understand each other,” the woman said. She was 32 and had come from Alexandria, Egypt, to work as an Arabic teacher. She had met her husband through a friend in Bay Ridge. Her parents, still in Egypt, had approved cautiously from afar. “I think you should be patient,” said the imam. “I cannot,” she said firmly. “He loves me, but I have to love him, too.” Mr. Shata shifted uncomfortably in his chair. There was nothing he loathed more than granting a divorce. “It’s very hard for me to let him divorce you,” he said. “How can I meet God on Judgment Day?” “It’s God’s law also to have divorce,” she shot back. The debate continued. Finally, Mr. Shata asked for her parents’ phone number in Egypt. Over the speakerphone, they anxiously urged the imam to relent. Their daughter was clearly miserable, and they were too far away to intervene. With a sigh, Mr. Shata asked his executive secretary, Mohamed, to print a divorce certificate. In the rare instance when the imam agrees to issue one, it is after a couple has filed for divorce with the city. “Since you’re the one demanding divorce, you can never get back together with him,” the imam warned. “Ever.” The woman smiled politely. “What matters for us is the religion,” she said later. “Our law is our religion.” The religion’s fiqh, or jurisprudence, is built on 14 centuries of scholarship, but imams in Europe and America often find this body of law insufficient to address life in the West. The quandaries of America were foreign to Mr. Shata. Pornography was rampant, prompting a question Mr. Shata had never heard in Egypt: Is oral sex lawful? Pork and alcohol are forbidden in Islam, raising questions about whether Muslims could sell beer or bacon. Tired of the menacing stares in the subway, women wanted to know if they could remove their headscarves. Muslims were navigating their way through problems Mr. Shata had never fathomed. For a while, the imam called his fellow sheiks in Egypt with requests for fatwas, or nonbinding legal rulings. But their views carried little relevance to life in America. Some issues, like oral sex, he dared not raise. Over time, he began to find his own answers and became, as he put it, flexible. Is a Big Mac permissible? Yes, the imam says, but not a bacon cheeseburger. It is a woman’s right, Mr. Shata believes, to remove her hijab if she feels threatened. Muslims can take jobs serving alcohol and pork, he says, but only if other work cannot be found. Oral sex is acceptable, but only between married couples. Mortgages, he says, are necessary to move forward in America. “Islam is supposed to make a person’s life easier, not harder,” Mr. Shata explained. In some ways, the imam has resisted change. He has learned little English, and interviews with Mr. Shata over the course of six months required the use of a translator. Some imams in the United States make a point of shaking hands with women, distancing themselves from the view that such contact is improper. Mr. Shata offers women only a nod. Daily, he passes the cinema next to his mosque but has never seen a movie in a theater. He says music should be forbidden if it “encourages sexual desire.” He won’t convert a non-Muslim when it seems more a matter of convenience than true belief. “Religion is not a piece of clothing that you change,” he said after turning away an Ecuadorean immigrant who sought to convert for her Syrian husband. “I don’t want someone coming to Islam tonight and leaving it in the morning.” Trust in God’s Plan Ten months after he came to America, Mr. Shata collapsed. It was Friday. The mosque was full. Hundreds of men sat pressed together, their shirts damp with summer. Their wives and daughters huddled in the women’s section, one floor below. Word of the imam’s sermons had spread, drawing Muslims from Albany and Hartford. “Praise be to Allah,” began Mr. Shata, his voice slowly rising. Minutes later, the imam recalled, the room began to spin. He fell to the carpet, lost consciousness and spent a week in the hospital, plagued by several symptoms. A social worker and a counselor who treated the imam both said he suffered from exhaustion. The counselor, Ali Gheith, called it “compassion fatigue,” an ailment that commonly affects disaster-relief workers. It was not just the long hours, the new culture and the ceaseless demands that weighed on the imam. Most troubling were the psychological woes of his congregants, which seemed endless. Sept. 11 had wrought depression and anxiety among Muslims. But unlike many priests or rabbis, imams lacked pastoral training in mental health and knew little about the social services available. At heart was another complicated truth: Imams often approach mental illness from a strictly Islamic perspective. Hardship is viewed as a test of faith, and the answer can be found in tawwakul, trusting in God’s plan. The remedy typically suggested by imams is a spiritual one, sought through fasting, prayer and reflection. Muslim immigrants also limit themselves to religious solutions because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, said Hamada Hamid, a resident psychiatrist at New York University who founded The Journal of Muslim Mental Health. “If somebody says, ‘You need this medication,’ someone may respond, ‘I have tawwakul,’ ” he said. Mr. Gheith, a Palestinian immigrant who works in disaster preparedness for the city’s health department, began meeting with the imam regularly after his collapse. Mr. Shata needed to learn to disconnect from his congregants, Mr. Gheith said. It was a concept that confounded the imam. “I did not permit these problems to enter my heart,” said Mr. Shata, “nor can I permit them to leave.” The conversations eventually led to a citywide training program for imams, blending Islam with psychology. Mr. Shata learned to identify the symptoms of mental illness and began referring people to treatment. His congregants often refuse help, blaming black magic or the evil eye for their problems. The evil eye is believed to be a curse driven by envy, confirmed in the bad things that happen to people. One Palestinian couple in California insisted that their erratic 18-year-old son had the evil eye. He was brought to the imam’s attention after winding up on the streets of New York, and eventually received a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Mr. Shata had less success with a man who worshiped at the mosque. He had become paranoid, certain his wife was cursing him with witchcraft. But he refused treatment, insisting divorce was the only cure. Time and aga
in, Mr. Shata’s new country has called for creativity and patience, for a careful negotiation between tradition and modernity. “Here you don’t know what will solve a problem,” he said. “It’s about looking for a key.”
ROME: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sought on Wednesday to distance Italy from Muslim outrage over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) by condemning the images, after anti-Italian rallies in Libya left 11 dead. Satire must not be disrespectful, he told the Arabic satellite television channel Al-Jazeera in an interview to be broadcast later Wednesday.
Milan — The guards, heavy brass keys swinging from their belts, open and shut the metal gates to each floor of the labyrinthine Bollate prison as the Muslim call to prayer echoes in the corridors. Prisoners rush to the makeshift mosques that have sprouted in every building. At the end of the hall on the fourth floor of Building 1, a hand-lettered paper sign proclaims, in Italian, “moschea” — mosque. Furnishings inside are sparse, just three green prayer rugs, pointing eastward, and on the wall a plaque with verses from the Quran. Abdelfattah Jendoubi, serving a sentence on drug charges, throws on a dishdasha shirt, pulls off his shoes and makes his way to the room. The 42-year-old Tunisian is joined by two other men. He is apologetic, saying turnout is better on Fridays. Generally, though, younger Muslims in the prison are not very religious, he says. He hopes to change that. “I want to teach the young beautiful things,” he says, but it is unclear whether authorities, who lack Arabic speakers to monitor his preaching, would agree with his definition of beauty. “They have to change their lives. God wants them to leave the life of crime.” Jendoubi’s mission is a difficult one: reaching out to the young men confined within these sterile walls on the outskirts of a city known the world over as Italy’s vibrant fashion capital. About 30 percent of the inmates in Bollate are Muslim, officials say; that’s in a country where Muslims make up just 2 percent of the population of 58 million, although there is a higher concentration of them in northern Italy around Milan. Their burgeoning numbers in prison are a reproach to Europe’s efforts to integrate its immigrants, and a boost to radical imams and hard-core militants who use cellblocks to attract followers and spread a doctrine of violence. Many of the Muslim inmates in Bollate arrived in Italy alone, sometimes as young as 14, hoping to find an uncle or a cousin, or even a distant relative, and burdened with the overly optimistic expectations of their family back in Morocco, or Tunisia or Algeria. Once in Italy, they can find themselves trapped in a vicious circle. Unable to obtain proper work and residency documents, they live on the fringes, perhaps turning to crime to survive. Marginalized in society, they are doubly marginalized in prison, outsiders in an institution where Italian clout and influence are supreme. Their hopes of sending money to families who sacrificed to send them to Europe are vanquished. They probably will be deported, and going home as ex-cons will bring shame. That fate probably awaits Bilel Sefir, an inmate with an air of quiet desperation. Sefir left his native Tunisia for France four years ago, when he was 17. After a couple of years he moved to Italy, thinking, mistakenly, that it would be easier to obtain residency papers. Alone but for a friend who had come with him from France, he found odd jobs as a plumber and was able to support himself for about a year, until he was arrested in a crackdown on drug dealers. “I made a big mistake,” he says in a voice barely above a whisper. Tall but slight, with wavy dark hair, Sefir received a relatively short sentence of 14 months and expects to be sent back to Tunisia after his release. Like Jendoubi, he takes some comfort in his faith. Sefir says he is able to pray five times a day, as devout Muslims do, with little trouble. In fact, he finds it easier to pray inside jail than outside, where mosques are far away and tolerance more rare. “I have the time,” he says. “Once in a while, other prisoners make fun of me and ask me why I do it the way I do and why do I keep praying. But most people are respectful. “I pray mostly that God forgives me for what I’ve done.” Jendoubi, in his quest to save souls, sees far more hardened cases in Bollate. A greater number of young Muslim men in the prison are like Mohammed Derrag, 23, a heavily tattooed Moroccan. He does not pray at all, saying, “This is not the moment.” Derrag is caught between his family and heritage, which he acknowledges he has betrayed with his criminal ways, and the gritty world in which he survives. “I was born a Muslim and always will be a Muslim,” he says. “But my family prays. Not me.” Even some young immigrants who seem destined for better things can get caught up in a hard-luck underground. As baby-faced as Derrag is tough, Yunis Qabili, 19, landed in jail after being caught with friends who had drugs. Unlike most other inmates, Qabili has lived more than half his life in Italy with his parents and siblings, who arrived legally from Morocco. The teenager, who says he speaks better Italian than Arabic, worked as a mechanic. But he fell in with a bad crowd, and now he just wants to do his time (a year), get out and finish high school. “The police will say they don’t (discriminate), but I think they look more for Moroccans,” Qabili says, narrowing his eyes and taking a long drag on his cigarette. Mirroring friction on the streets, relations between Italian and immigrant prisoners are often strained. A recent — and not uncommon — brawl landed several inmates in the infirmary. In the prison’s gyms, cafeteria and library, the inmates usually divide into cliques. Muslims lift weights and exercise together, and share pork-free meals. Bulletin boards advertise Italian lessons for Arabic speakers. The library has copies of the Quran — as well as works by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, known of late for her anti-Muslim screeds. For a while, the prison employed “cultural mediators” who could translate both language and cultural sensitivities, but there’s no budget for them anymore. None of the inmates at Bollate talks about waging jihad; one youth recoils physically and begins to shake when asked. But authorities in Italy, Spain, Britain and elsewhere in Europe are all too aware of the ease with which prison populations have become fodder for militant networks operating in their midst. Throughout Europe, some suspects in notorious cases, including the recent London bombings, are said to have been radicalized in prison, and a number of terrorist plots are known to have been hatched behind bars. Muktar Said Ibrahim, an Eritrean immigrant arrested in a failed bombing attempt in London in late July, obtained British citizenship in September 2004 despite having served a five-year prison sentence for armed robberies. He found Islam in the same penitentiary where radical imams converted Richard Reid, the convicted shoe-bomber of Jamaican descent imprisoned in the United States for trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight. And so the delicate balance for wardens such as Lucia Castellano at Bollate is allowing inmates to practice their faith without letting the institution be used to recruit and indoctrinate extremists. “I’m a little scared of the imams,” she says. “They don’t speak Italian, we can’t understand them, and in Milan that can be quite dangerous.” As a consequence, and in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she has banned imams from outside the prison. Milan has long been known as a center of radical Islam, and one of its principal mosques was named by U.S. and Italian authorities as a likely European headquarters for al Qaeda. Instead, Castellano allows the Muslims in each cellblock to appoint an imam from among themselves. Still, the inability to understand the language being spoken in many cells is worrisome, says Castellano, a red-haired native of Naples, one of Italy’s toughest cities. Her office is decorated with Andy Warhol prints of Marilyn Monroe on one wall, a crucifix on another. “Each of my head guards can tell me who the boss (of the Muslim inmates) is on each floor,” she says. “It does not mean that they are terrorists, but they are organized. We are paying attention. We are watching.” But the warden and her guards can only guess at what devout prisoners such as Jendoubi are preaching. On the fourth floor of Building 1, Italian inmates are giving hard looks to the trio of Muslims gathered to pray in the room designated as a mosque. They keep their distance, smoking cigarettes. Jendoubi, the Tunisian, says he avoid
s the Italian inmates. But he praises the prison for allowing the Muslim inmates to pray. A carpenter by trade who has lived many years in Italy, he was not religious when he was sent to prison, he says, but has used his time in the three years since to study the Quran. Now he prays 12 times a day, sometimes rising well before dawn to do so. “I didn’t pray before,” says Jendoubi, who has a thin, graying beard. “But as I read more, I saw it was the right way.” On this particular midday, another Tunisian calls out the summons to prayer. He, Jendoubi and a third man then move inside the one-room mosque. The three men kneel on the small rugs and pray. They bow eastward, toward a window looking out on the cold gray concrete of the prison, and the walls topped with barbed wire.
Michael Settle A PACKAGE of measures to steer young Muslims away from extremism and to get them to integrate better into mainstream British society was put forward by community leaders yesterday in response to the July 7 London bombings. Seven working groups set up by Charles Clarke, the home secretary, in the wake of the terrorist attacks recommended: A national advisory council of imams and mosques to teach English to imams, encourage more UK-born Muslims to become Islamic clerics so as to reduce the reliance on foreign-based ones and to advise mosques on how to prevent them being used by extremists; A national forum against extremism and Islamaphobia to provide a regular discussion point for Muslims to talk about issues as they affect their local communities, with access to government to “share outcomes and understandings”; and A nationwide road show of influential, populist religious scholars to explain the true meaning of Islam and condemn extremism. The home secretary praised the “constructive” work of the groups and said he broadly supported their proposals, announcing the government would spent _5m over the next 18 months to pursue them. “The initial take we have on the recommendations is overwhelmingly positive,” stressed Mr Clarke. Lord Ahmed, convener of the mosques and imams group, said of the proposed national advisory council: “For the first time we’ve had a debate in the Muslim community and in the mosques with the imams. They know we can’t continue to deliver sermons in Arabic and you can’t exclude youths and women from mosque committees.” The Labour peer added: “We can’t have illiterate people on mosque committees or people with criminal records on mosque committees, or anywhere near the mosques.” Lord Ahmed said that of the estimated 2000 imams in Britain, about 1700 were educated and trained abroad. Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, described the ideas as “sensible . . . and well-intended”. But he added: “While helping create better community relations and understanding between Muslims and the wider community, one feature of these proposals is that public money should be spent on schemes promoting Islam. “We are concerned that this could cause resentment in other faith groups and be wholly counter-productive if it is distinct from other multi-faith initiatives.”
For three hours, Imad Rababe helped slit the throats of more than 100 goats and lambs at his white cinderblock slaughterhouse near Hagerstown, murmuring a quick blessing to Allah with each flick of his sharpened knife then immediately hoisting the animals by their feet on hooks to drain the blood. It’s a tough business, Rababe said. Turnover is high among his eight employees, most of them Muslim immigrants who could not find other jobs. In addition to teaching them the Islamic style of slaughter, Rababe must also shop for livestock, drum up business, track orders and collect payments — often using his limited English to communicate with customers who do not speak Arabic. But as the Washington area’s Muslim population grows, so do Rababe’s moneymaking opportunities. Because the Koran instructs mankind to eat meat that is “halal,” the Arabic word for lawful, devout Muslims are willing to pay a premium for the type of product Rababe sells at his Hamzah Slaughter House LLC in Williamsport. These days, more than 140 of the region’s restaurants and grocery stores advertise themselves as halal, according to Zabihah.com, a Web site that posts reviews of halal food establishments across the country. When Rababe, a native of Lebanon, arrived in the United States in 1978, only a few did. Now at least three major halal meat suppliers serve the region, including Rababe, who says he slaughters 500 to 700 animals a week for his wholesale and retail customers. “Look, I’m not from Harvard. I have no high school education, no nothing,” said Rababe, a practicing Muslim who learned the trade from his father in Lebanon. “But this is the business I know best. It serves the Muslim community, and it makes me financially comfortable.” The fledgling halal business remains far less established than the kosher trade, its Jewish cousin, and there are no reliable estimates of how much halal meat is sold in the Washington area. But it is no longer relegated to traditional kabob houses or ethnic grocery stores either, as new immigrants and others seek out products consistent with their religious practice. Pizza Roma in College Park serves pizzas with halal meat toppings, and Double A Burgers & Shakes in Springfield Mall offers “homemade, halal burgers hot off the grill.” Some Giant Food and Shoppers Food Warehouse stores stock frozen halal chicken nuggets and other products from Al Safa Halal Inc. in Canada. Even the White House does its part, ordering halal for visiting Muslim dignitaries. “For decades we conformed because we really didn’t have much choice” when it came to meeting Islamic dietary needs, said Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a nonprofit group in Chicago that certifies halal meat. “That’s changing.” Mohammad Abdul-Mateen Chida, owner of Halalco Supermarket in Falls Church, recalled how he slaughtered his own chickens when he arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, for lack of better options. A decade later, when he started selling meat at Halalco, he scoured the region for a place that would allow him to slaughter animals for his retail customers. He ended up slaughtering cattle in Baltimore, goats and lambs in Manassas, and chickens near Frederick. But it wasn’t an easy sell, he said. Most plants scoffed at disrupting their production lines for a low-volume slaughter that would generate little money for them, Chida said. “Now there are so many places I trust to do these things for me,” Chida said. In Islam, the Koran bans followers from eating swine, carnivores and birds of prey no matter how they are slaughtered. Muslims are allowed to eat other animals that meet two requirements, said Imam Mahmoud Abdel-Hady of Dar al-Taqwa mosque in Columbia: They must be slaughtered from their necks, and the name of Allah, the Arabic word for God, must be mentioned as the animals are killed. From the hadith — compendiums on how the Muslim prophet Muhammed lived– Muslims are also taught that animals must be well rested, fed wholesome foods and handled in a way that minimizes suffering during slaughter, Abdel-Hady said. That is why the butcher must use a sharp knife and prevent one animal from witnessing the slaughter of another, he said. It is undesirable to sever the animal’s neck because preserving the spinal cord is less painful to the animal and maintains the convulsive movements necessary to rapidly drain its blood — another requirement, according to the Islamic Center in the District. The time involved and the labor-intensive requirements boost the price of halal meat, said Jim Williams of Midamar Corp., a Muslim-owned halal meat company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Midamar has 92 customers in the Washington area. Some cuts of halal beef can be as much as 20 cents a pound more expensive than the mass-produced beef slaughtered by the conventional “stun and stick” method, Williams said. Adding to the price is the cost of hiring a company to certify meat as halal. The extra costs help explain why the four companies that slaughter 80 percent of federally inspected cattle in this country — Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., Excel Corp., Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co. — do not do religious slaughter, Williams said. “It slows down their production lines,” he said. “The plants doing a kosher or halal slaughter have to get a premium for their meat because they can’t slaughter as many animals in a day.” Abdul Baig, owner of Pizza Roma in College Park, said the higher price of turkey ham, beef pepperoni and halal chicken breasts cut into his profit, but he said he hopes that as demand for halal grows, so will his pocketbook. He converted to halal agreements slowly after buying the restaurant five years ago. “If I’m going to practice my religion this is all part of it,” said Baig, a Muslim from Pakistan who, for religious reasons, also does not sell alcohol. “I cannot sell food that is not halal or sell beer and then go home and start praying. I cannot earn money from something that is not allowed.” The halal business is fraught with marketing headaches, many stemming from well-founded apprehension among Muslim consumers about the authenticity of products marketed as halal. In 1997, the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service fined Washington Lamb Inc. in Springfield $15,000 for fraudulently mislabeling and selling ordinary meats as halal, after the owner pleaded guilty to related charges in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, according to the agency. Because of similar problems, California, New Jersey and four other states have enacted laws fining anyone who sells or advertises meat as halal when it is not. A group of Muslims in Virginia is pushing for similar legislation in their state, said Habib Ghanim Sr., president of the USA Halal Chamber of Commerce, which distributes information about halal meat and non-meat products from its offices in the District and Silver Spring. The group has 30 members, mostly meat and poultry companies, Ghanim said. Part of the problem is that there is no standard authority to certify halal meat and poultry. Slaughterhouses that sell halal meat are inspected by the Agriculture Department, but the agency oversees only food safety issues. Certification is left to dozens of individuals or groups, some more reputable than others. Then there are issues open to interpretation. Can the slaughterhouse pipe in recorded prayers to make the lines move faster? If halal meat is not available, would a prayer before eating suffice? Can a company’s meat be halal if its owner or workers are not Muslim? “It’s a very sensitive topic, and there are many issues that need to be resolved,” Ghanim said. “The final responsibility is on the person selling it who claims it to be halal. Ultimately, it is between him and his creator.” Al Safa, the Canadian company that supplies frozen halal products to area stores, initially was involved in controversy when word got out that its owner is an orthodox Jew. But, according to many Muslims who sell Al Safa products, the company overcame doubts when it hired Muslims to do its marketing and slaughtering. Al Safa also adopt
ed an open-door policy under which anyone can visit its facilities unannounced, said Steve Hahn, the company’s vice president. The policy includes the three plants where its Muslim slaughter teams work. “We’ve received hundreds and hundreds of [mostly Muslim] visitors to witness our slaughter” since Al Safa started selling halal products in 1997, Hahn said. But it will probably take time for halal meats to gain a foothold in conventional supermarkets because many halal-meat shoppers feel more comfortable shopping in ethnic stores, Hahn said. Giant, which carries Al Safa products in only 15 stores nationwide, said that the line sold well when it was introduced about two years ago but that sales waned when coupon offers and other promotions ended. Malik Abbas, owner of Pakeeza Market in Gaithersburg, said reputation plays a key role in the halal marketplace. Before he opened his store about three years ago, he would drive far from his home in Gaithersburg to butchers he trusted in Baltimore or Virginia. “My wife would prefer to stay hungry if she can’t find the halal meat,” said Abbas, a Muslim from Pakistan. But Abbas said many of his customers are not necessarily driven by faith. Some come because they swear halal meat has a different taste, he said. Others come because they believe halal meat is more wholesome. Sayeed Quraishi, a retired scientist at the National Institutes of Health, comes to Pakeeza Market because of the mutton chops. They’re hard to find elsewhere. But if he is in the mood for chicken, he picks up Perdue. As Abbas wrapped up Quraishi’s mutton chops, six in one-pound packages, Quraishi apologized to his friend for his bluntness. “You will probably go to heaven,” Quraishi told Abbas. “And I will be your servant.”