- When Asma Hasan was majoring in religion and American studies at Wellesley, she decided she wanted to read more about Islam, especially about American Muslims like herself.
Most of what she found was in magazines, which described a group of people she barely recognized, living isolated in enclaves.
”It was really patronizing,” says Hasan, 28, a ”Muslim feminist cowgirl” who grew up in Colorado playing Pac-Man and listening to The Go-Gos. She’s now a first-year associate at a San Francisco law firm.
To set the record straight, she wrote her own book about the Muslim community in the USA, offering an insider’s view of its history and inner dynamics, from Pakistani immigrants such as her parents (her dad’s a physician) to black converts and others who identify with Islam. She weaves her own story into the narrative.
”I certainly don’t think every Muslim has had a life like mine,” says Hasan, who attended Catholic school in Colorado and has a slight Boston accent from years attending boarding school and college in Massachusetts. ”I was trying to present my story of growing up as a Muslim. I wanted people to get a sense of the normalcy of my life.”
American Muslims: The New Generation, was published in 2000. But it has found a growing mainstream audience since last year’s terrorist attacks, when the nation’s attention became riveted on the Muslim world.
….”People like me, who grew up here, sometimes chafe under some immigrant attitudes,” she says. For example, traditionalists criticize modern Muslim women for shaking hands with men and not wearing the traditional headscarf, or hijab. Hasan makes much of the hijab, worn for reasons of modesty. Echoing many modern Muslim women, she argues that such covering should not be compulsory, that each woman should decide for herself whether she wishes to wear it. ”The veil has become some kind of litmus test,” Hasan says. ”I’ve done so much, but I will never measure up because I don’t wear a headscarf.”
Hasan, whose book is dedicated to her mother and grandmother ”for being tough, strong, feminine and feminist,” says she gets fan mail from many Muslim women, as well as from non-Muslims, thanking her for explaining a complicated subject. She also gets hate mail, especially after TV appearances. But she shrugs it off.
”A lot of people who point out the flaws have flaws themselves,” she says.
Hasan sees the American Muslim community at a ”crossroads.”
On the one hand, she says, there is the harsh Wahhabi (traditional Saudi) version of Islam, from which many of the Sept. 11 terrorists arose; on the other, there are the vast majority of Muslims, whose views are more moderate.
”We are in a real struggle,” Hasan says. ”To some degree, it is an extension to the war on terror. I’m sad to say that my side is losing. We don’t have as much money, and we are not as religiously motivated.”
But she quickly adds that more moderate Muslims ”are developing. There are scholars who are countering (the Wahhabi) view. There is a hope for the future.”
This is exactly the kind of voice we need to hear more from – I am betting her marriage will not be arranged.
The U.S. government is enlisting the aid of cultural American Muslims for their international PR campaign:
- Rawia Ismail, a vivacious young teacher in Toledo, Ohio, her head covered with an Islamic head scarf, appears in a United States government video that will have its first public showing this week on national television here in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
The Lebanese-born Ms. Ismail is shown with her three smiling children in her all-American kitchen, at a school softball game, and in front of her class, extolling American values.
“I didn’t see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after Sept. 11,” says Ms. Ismail.
The portrayal of Ms. Ismail as a woman who practices her Muslim faith in America with ease is one of the images that the Bush administration is offering to the Muslim world as an example of how America is not at war with Islam.
The message, in four videos about American Muslims that are to be shown here and in other Islamic countries, is one of tolerance at home and a desire to reach out abroad.
But viewers who have seen the videos were skeptical about whether life for Muslims in the United States is really so rosy.
The videos are part of a major campaign, conceived by a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, who is under secretary of state for public diplomacy, to sell the United States to a skeptical — and in places, hostile — Muslim world.
They tell the stories of a prominent doctor, Elias Zerhouni, the Algerian-born director of the National Institutes of Health; a Libyan-born baker, Abdul Hammuda, in Toledo; a Brooklyn-born medic with the New York Fire Department, Farooq Muhammad; and Ms. Ismail.
The theory underpinning the videos, and newspaper ads and radio spots that will accompany them, is that the United States is a misunderstood place. In reality, the message implies, America recognizes Islam as an important religion and one of the fastest-growing in America.
….The most telling critique came from Rizal Mallarangeng, a television host and political analyst who has just finished eight years of study at Ohio State University.
Mr. Mallarangeng praised the State Department for trying to overcome the hostility in the Islamic world toward the United States.
But, he said, the videos’ story lines missed the complexities of being a Muslim in America.
“I have friends like this,” he said referring to the characters in the videos. “They want to be good Muslims and good Americans. This is a bipolar way of life and the question always is how to solve the perpetual conflict.”
There were straightforward matters, said Mr. Mallarangeng, like how a Muslim student could pray the requisite number of times while attending an American public school.
“How does a student find a place to pray?” he said. “At an American public school there is no religion and I understand. But what does the religious father of a Muslim student say at home about this?”
….The videos shown today are intended for a number of Islamic countries. So far, the Egyptian government has declined to allow them to be shown on its television stations, saying it does not accept paid programming from a foreign country, an American diplomat in Cairo said. But the embassy was still pursuing the case, he said.
This is outrageous given Egypt’s own state-sponsorship of virulent anti-Semitism as discussed here:
- “We don’t think government TV stations should be broadcasting programs that we consider racist and untrue,” a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
“It is a series … supposedly on other topics, but that incorporates or is based on these odious protocols, the Elders of Zion. We have raised it with (Egypt and) other governments,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
The 30-part series “Horseman without a Horse” tells the story of an Egyptian man fighting British imperialism and Zionism in Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It draws on some elements of the Protocols, a forged document purporting to prove Jews plan to dominate the world.
Egyptian television plans to broadcast the series during the fasting month of Ramadan, when television audiences peak.
The American campaign, even though it is clearly PR/propaganda, is willing to accomodate opposing views:
- Special efforts will be made to give audiences here in Indonesia, elsewhere in Asia and in the Middle East the chance to respond to the videos and the print campaign accompanying them, the official said. A special booklet in local languages with articles about Muslim life in the United States will be distributed with a tear sheet in the back asking readers to send their reactions to either a local post box number in the country or directly to the State Department.
The characters in the videos, like Ms. Ismail, will also be made available for two-way satellite interviews.
To the protests that the characters presented a pretty veneer to the complicated picture of Muslim life in America, Mr. Boyce said, “We will take that on board.”