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Wednesday, December 14, 2005 - Page updated at 01:06 PM

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Islam in America

Muslims next door: Brace for change

First of three parts

After being ignored, excluded or blissfully anonymous, American Muslims and Islam can expect a cultural embrace both liberating and alarming.

Following the shocks of 9/11 and the Iraq war, the larger, myopic Christian culture in the United States is discovering its Muslim neighbors. A nation is introduced to the talents, achievement and economic presence it overlooked.

For Islam, the opportunity for its faithful to examine and explore their beliefs will be unsettling. It has been for others. Every group that comes to the United States has to deal with two realities, explains Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University: Religion is voluntary and there is a pluralism of religious options.

Back home, the call to prayer from the minaret spoke to communities of like-minded believers without challenge or distraction, Killen said. Here, they have to figure out how to be religious in a voluntary, pluralistic context colored by a Christian ethos.

Periodically, the U.S. is challenged to re-examine cherished myths about itself. For all the talk about freedom of conscience, there is a fear about the amount of diversity the country can handle and still have shared values.

Religious tension is as old as the republic. German immigrants in the 1850s sued to stop schools from forcing their children to read from the King James version of the Bible. They wanted their Catholic Douai Bible text.

Waves of immigration brought newcomers who did not fit the homogeneous profile of the nation's Founders. How to balance liberty of conscience with fear of social chaos?

After World War II, Jews and Catholics were brought inside the circle. By the mid-1960s, the doors were opened wider to the Middle East, Asia and South Asia. For scholars, one benchmark of a faith's emergence in the broader culture is the diversity of faiths represented by military chaplains, whose ranks now include Muslims and Buddhists.

Other increments of inclusion reflect a growing awareness of values and practices.

The first airport chapel in America was Catholic. Now, 14 of 40 airport chapels serve all faiths. Two New Jersey sports arenas are setting aside prayer space for Muslim fans. A Northwest-based mutual fund describes itself as grounded in Islamic values. Lending institutions work to open home-buying to Muslims, who, as an article of faith, cannot pay interest.

Mosques and Islamic centers are sponsoring Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops that have an exclusively Muslim membership.

A quote from The Pluralism Project at Harvard University is especially revealing: "Enabling Muslims to explore the roots of their faith more freely is, in my mind, America's gift to Muslims."

A fresh start for America's estimated 3 million Muslims means an opportunity to explore Islam unadorned by the culture of a homeland. This can be upsetting for parents and grandparents whose faith blends traditional teachings and nostalgia for how it was practiced back in Pakistan or Indonesia.

If there is a theological tension between Islam and modernity, it is not evident in the embrace of technology from Bridges TV, the American Muslim Network on cable TV, to on the Internet.

Islamic advocacy groups led by students and professionals have been around for decades. Religious councils denounced terrorism. Latino Muslims are part of the faith's diversity.

A Muslim sorority is organizing at the University of Kentucky. Hardly a surprise. Generations of anxious students cluster around the familiar at Catholic Newman Centers and Baptist Student Unions download evening prayers on your iPod to ease the move away from home.

Religious expression changes where freedom inspires the faithful to explore. Muslim parents who want their children prepared to compete for admission to medical school will duel with parents who want a more-conservative curriculum at the local Islamic school.

America will make room for Islam. Religious freedom will shape its practice and expression.

The pattern is as old as the nation.

Copyright 2005 The Seattle Times Company