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Americas
The American crescent
Rageh Omaar explores how Islam has become a 'very American faith'.
Last Modified: 23 Oct 2008 12:29 GMT

Keith Ellison, right, says US Muslims have
to engage in the political process [Amanda Sealy: CTVC]

In a special two-part film Rageh Omaar travelled across the US exploring the roots and influence of Islam in America.

Abdi says he would sacrifice his life for the country he calls home.

The taxi driver taking me to the airport in Minneapolis is not referring to his birthplace, Somalia, but to the US – the place where he has lived for the last 13 years.

Abdi is part of a 44,000-strong Somali community in the liberal mid-western state of Minnesota, most of who are Muslim.

My own adopted home, England, has an even larger Somali community, which has been settled for longer, but they do not tend to think of England as home.

But in Minnesota, Somalis – no less scarred or traumatised by their experiences - seem to have planted roots deeper and faster than any Somali community I have seen in the world. 

They do not talk of returning home, they are home.

The Somali community's sense of belonging in Minnesota runs contrary to the image many people may have of an irreconcilable conflict between America and Islam.

Electoral milestone

Estimates put the number of Muslims in the US as high as eight million, and the faith is thought to be the fastest growing religion in the country. 

Minnesota's population is largely Christian and Jewish, so it may seem an odd destination to begin a journey looking at the origins of Islam in the US. 

But in 2007 the state elected America's first Muslim congressman - Keith Ellison.

He admits that being a Muslim in the US can be a "bumpy" experience, but says that people should not use that as an excuse to disengage from society.

"You have to get involved. You have to run the risks that you're going to encounter bumps along the way," he says.

The Somali community in Minnesota has certainly engaged. After meeting Keith, I went to a party for recent Somali university graduates - part of the latest wave of immigration to the US.

One young man celebrating his achievements tells me that while he and his friends have not forgotten their identity they are determined to give something back to their new community.

The Somali community in Minnesota represents the modern face of Islam in America. But the roots and history of the religion in the US stretch back further than most people realise.

I travelled to the town of Jackson in Mississippi, America's Deep South. I had my own preconceptions about this being a place of segregation and prejudice.

However Islam's roots in the US begin here. Many slaves shipped from Africa to work on the grand plantations of the south were Muslims.

Slave origins

Largely forbidden from practicing their faith they found different ways, such as singing, to express their religion.

Okolo Rashid founded the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson - the first in the US. Her research suggests that the number of Muslim slaves was much greater than previously thought.

"One third of all the enslaved Africans that were brought to the Americas actually were Muslims," she tells me.

Artemis Gaye describes his story as "roots in reverse" [Amanda Sealy: CTVC]
After slavery was abolished, millions of African Americans abandoned the south and headed north to seek their fortunes in the factories and stockyards of the big cities.

Their other choice was to sail for Liberia, the country established for freed slaves by the US.

The early settlers of Liberia encountered little but disease and hardship. And modern Liberia has suffered a succession of devastating civil wars, causing those who had the means to do so to leave.

In Chicago, I met one such Liberian, who has turned the story of slavery and emancipation on its head. He is Artemis Gaye, the great, great, great, great grandson of Prince Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, an African Muslim prince and scholar who was enslaved in Mississippi for over 40 years.

Prince Ibrahim was one of the first settlers of the new Liberia, and his story is portrayed in the International Museum of Muslim Cultures I had visited in Jackson.

Artemis told me that discovering his ancestry through research in Chicago's libraries was like winning the lottery. He describes his story as "roots in reverse".

"This country has to understand that its roots – especially when it comes to African Americans – are Islamic roots," he says.

Chicago's cultural diversity and relative harmony, including a large Muslim community, is surprising given its divided past and history of race riots and black separatism.

Today, the city is home to the largest number of African American Muslims in the US and Islam has a role to play in combating the endemic gang violence.

I met convicted murderer Rafi Peterson, who converted to Islam while in jail and now runs Chicago's only half-way house for Muslim ex-prisoners.

'Matter of survival'

The house is a calm oasis in a neighbourhood destroyed by drugs, guns and violence.

Rafi does not condemn the gang members out of hand. "It's a matter of survival" he says. "They gotta do what they gotta do to survive. My thing is that if you wanna turn people away, you gotta turn 'em towards something."

"Americans I think are subject to fear just like any people in the world"

Keith Ellison, US congressman

And he feels that Islam is the "something" that can offer gang members an alternative. 

Towards the end of my trip I visit the capital, Washington DC. It might come as a huge surprise to many people but America's founding fathers knew and respected the basic principles of Islam.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, had his own copy of the Quran. And monuments in Washington acknowledge Islam's contribution to world civilisation.

One of Jefferson's crowning achievements was establishing freedom of speech and freedom of religion and that is what many Muslims in the US I spoke to were thankful for.

In the course of my trip, the message I heard from Muslims was largely about opportunity and rights, about having a stake in this country and being made to feel that they belong.

In Washington I met up again with Congressman Keith Ellison who was sworn in to office using Thomas Jefferson's Quran.

I asked him whether, despite Muslims' confidence in themselves as US citizens, most Americans across the country are still afraid of Islam.

"Americans I think are subject to fear just like any people in the world," he replied.

"But I think there is a deeply rooted tolerance. We've been through a momentous civil rights movement, we've been through all kinds of social change movements, all marching the country toward a greater level of equality and I think people are just not ready to try and cut anybody out of the deal."


Rageh Omaar's search for the roots of Islam in America can be seen from Sunday, October 19, at the following times GMT: Sunday 0000 and 14000, Monday 1000 and 1900, Tuesday 0600

Source:
Al Jazeera
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