By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"Anyone who extends peace to us, we extend peace to them," al-Yaqoubi barked over the heads of the seated congregation. "We fight for the sake of Allah . . . We fight those who oppress us, who take our property and our freedom of speech . . . The media depict us as monsters, that we love to fight — No!"
Parts of the sermon were openly political. Al-Yaqoubi, who is considered a moderate, spoke approvingly of jihad in the battlefield, of "fighting in order to liberate your country, as the Iraqis are doing." (Asked about this afterward, he told me that it is natural to fight against an invading army. As to why Arabs so rarely rise up against their own Arab oppressors, he said it was un-Islamic to use violence against a local government.)
From the pulpit, al-Yaqoubi claimed that the early Muslims who came to countries like Egypt and Syria and Iraq and North Africa did so "not to occupy land, but to liberate people who were oppressed by their governments." As for spreading Islam by force, he said, Americans should understand the concept better than anyone, since "America feels she has the right to impose democracy all over the world" and "to throw away governments that don’t agree with her policy." But whereas the desire to disseminate Islam "is based on the divine," the American approach to spreading democracy "is based on greed."
Having said that, al-Yaqoubi once again took a more conciliatory approach. "This doesn’t mean that we are going to practice jihad in America. We have to show our neighbors respect. We love people around the world and want them to become Muslims."
Most intriguing of all, perhaps, were al-Yaqoubi’s remarks about the role of the Muslim immigrant in the West. While many Muslims have come here to earn money and live a better life, he said, they can justify their decision to live in a materialistic, non-Islamic country by acting as messengers for Allah. "What justifies us living in America, other than trying to convey the Message?" he asked rhetorically.
The sermon built to an impassioned, rapid-fire crescendo, in which, almost shouting, al-Yaqoubi seemed to divide jihad into foreign and domestic spheres, with appropriate action for each. "Wherever the American troops are — wherever they are, they are going to be defeated," he yelped. But "here in this country," he instructed Muslims to "leave jihad to those who are fighting jihad," and "work peacefully" to represent Islam.
The end of the sermon signaled the time for prayer, and the atmosphere in the mosque became electric. An usher, massive and rotund as a bouncer, rushed around pushing the congregants into precise rows like Japanese commuters being squeezed into a Tokyo subway car, forcing them to stand shoulder to shoulder in line after line after line, from the back of the mosque all the way to the front. There must be no gaps that wily Satan could slip through, sowing division. As the prayers commenced, thousands of faces touched the floor with choreographed precision.
"It’s a beautifully simple and elegant religion. It’s extremely sensible," I was told by Bruce ("al-Baraa") Randall, a personal trainer and student of South Asian history from Northern California who recently converted to Islam and attends Friday prayers at the mosque. Looking at the hundreds of bent bodies, you could see what he meant. From an observer’s viewpoint, it was rather like a bizarre sartorial demonstration — look, here are the backs of a thousand jackets and the seats of a thousand trousers! Swatches of fabric in every color joined to form an immense patchwork tapestry stretching from one end of the room to the other. To a Christian, it could look strangely alluring. No hymns — no pretendingto be singing. Even the prayers, though in Arabic, were brief and required only minimal call-and-response. Curiously, while demanding what to a Christian might appear to be excessive uniformity and obedience, Islam seemed to permit the individual a considerable amount of personal breathing space too. And if you were a non-Arabic speaker, listening to prayers in a foreign language would, I suppose, be similar to a Catholic attending services held in Latin.
With the prayers under way, there was almost no room for the unbeliever. Two mild-mannered cameramen from India’s STAR channel, who were standing next to me filming the proceedings, hurriedly folded up their tripods and disappeared. I decided to go with them. I squeezed my way to the back where the mountain of shoes was surrounded by more mountains, hundreds of Merrills and Nikes and Adidas and lace-ups and sandals flung down on top of each other. Outside more men were praying on the carpets provided, all in equally precise rows, and two men in wheelchairs had made a mournful duet of their own.
Afterward, as the mosque emptied, I ran into Vincent, who was shaking hands and saying "Salaam alaikum, alaikum salaam" to people left and right, many of whom he knew by name. He looked happy, a big smile of belonging on his face. Though it has put him at odds with ordinary American society, becoming a Muslim has also given him a sense of community unavailable to him when he was just another white dude into loud music, parties and girls. It has brought him distinction. The mosque was full of young Arab and South Asian men, sharply dressed businessmen with neat beards, cabdrivers in baseball caps, diminutive Bangladeshis in white robes and trousers — and religion came as naturally to them as breathing. They were entirely unselfconscious about it, and it was obvious that they considered it a source of unity and solace and power. Not for the first time I found myself wondering how it is that so many urban whites have managed to turn their own religion into an object of scorn, even a source of shame, while everyone around them continues to reap the benefits of organized faith. And, since the religious impulse shows no sign of dying out, should we be surprised if spiritually inclined urban whites decide to join a religion which, unlike Christianity, seems to be alive?