Bloomfield—March 10—Jeffrey Lang, converted Muslim and prolific author, spoke passionately this past Saturday night at the Bloomfield Muslim Unity Center on the need and methods to keep our children within the fold of Islam.
About 300 people packed the banquet facilities at the Bloomfield Muslim Unity Center, by far the biggest crowd this reporter has seen at the facility.
Lang, professor of mathematics at the University of Kansas, is an important intellectual voice in the American Muslim community. Lang was born January 30, 1954 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Born Catholic, he went through several phases of belief through his sincere quest for belief in the truth; during periods of agnosticism and atheism, before he accepted Islam, he had recurring and comforting dreams of himself performing the communal prayer—this was eventually to become reality, as Professor Lang did in fact become a Muslim in the early 80s.
Lang has written four books addressing the core problem the American Muslim community faces, that of the disaffection of American Muslim youths and converts with what they see of the practice of Islam in their local communities and mosques. His books include Struggling to Surrender (1994), Even Angels Ask: A Journey to Islam in America (1997), and Losing My Religion: A Call for Help (2004).
While Islam may be the fastest-growing religion in America, he said, it may also be the fastest-shrinking. He began his speech with an engaging and essential statement, that while perhaps 80% of Muslims in the United States are native-born, either coming to Islam through conversion or birth to Muslim parents, the population at any communal mosque service has only a minimal percentage of such native Muslims—typically even less than 1% of the active membership in most mosques. Therefore, “by the most essential measure,” our situation is very bleak. The main purpose of his speech was to describe what has brought about the disaffection on the part of those who have left their mosques in droves, so that the community can redress the grievances that drive people away from the mosques.
The professor explained the fundamental process by which young Muslims distanced themselves from the religion—as they grew up they had many deeply painful and viscerally felt experiences relating to their own Muslim community, which led them in later life to a visceral distaste for the community. Converts did not at first have this visceral reaction to problems in the community, but developed it over time. One experience at a time, the community delicately hammers away at converts, until they feel at a visceral level unwelcome, and—frequently—leave.
Lang’s essential solution lay in refraining as Muslims from imposing questionable “Shari’ah” interpretations on newcomers to Islam. Confronted with just the five pillars, he said, many people will already be unwilling to change their lives to fit Islam. If Muslims approach newcomers to Islam with immensely heavy and debatable “Islamic law” they will drive away the remaining people who would have been willing to practice Islam–they would have prayed, made hajj, abstained from what is plainly haram.
Lang explained that his interest in the subject began about two decades ago, when a brother at his local mosque, after they prayed ‘isha together, explained in tears that, “Brothers, I lost him—I have lost my son.” Not to death, but to a life without real devotion to Islam. This story, of course, has been repeated many thousands of times in other American Muslim families since then. In reaction to this event, Lang wrote his first book about Islam, Struggling to Surrender—he received many letters from other converts, who he said had followed a similar trajectory to his own on becoming Muslim. They accepted Islam with spiritual ecstasy, went through a period of extremism as they learned the extreme views of the religion from the most vocal members of their communities, then—many times—went out of the religion as they were faced with cultural barriers and inconsistencies in the way that Islam was portrayed to them.
Under pressure from the Muslims he knew to not ask the questions that had originally brought him to Islam, he wrote Even Angels Ask, about the basic fundamental challenges to belief that many born Muslims find so disturbing that they really cannot face, but which he said must be faced in dealing with young American Muslims whether they are converts or 2nd generation Muslims in America. In reaction to this book he started to uncover a great hidden mass of people within America, second-generation Muslims, disaffected by what they saw of Islam in their homes and communities, unable to find answers to the basic questions of belief that they encountered as they grew up in a secular but—in many ways—just society. In reaction to their letters and emails, he wrote Losing My Religion—based on opening the basic issues that came up in his correspondence with these youth who found themselves confronted with the impossibility of opening fundamental issues with their home communities (parents and imams). When these youth tried to bring up fundamental issues with parents or imams, they were called “kafir” or sometimes instructed to hide their disaffection from the community they were in—to hide their fundamental questions of belief for the sake of appearances in their parents’ social community.
Lang said that growing up, Muslim youths go through a process of imbibing the ethos of America at a deep level, building their fundamental assumptions on the American ethos which many times, he pointed out, is fairer than their own communities (not to say Islam) on issues important to them—for instance race. Living astride two cultures, they grow up going through a psychological process of trying to accept only those parts of each culture that do not conflict with the parts of the other—and they end up with fundamental questions about the assumptions and lifestyles of their parents.
The essential questions that our own Muslim people face and question within Islam are the following, in descending order of their impact on disaffected youths: (1) the treatment of women in American Muslim communities, (2) the cultural chasm between mosque culture and the culture of the outside world, (3) in Lang’s words “problems with traditional theology,” (4) the perceived race problem of the Muslim community in America (which he said caused many converts to leave the community).
Lang was at pains to say that the Bloomfield Muslim Unity Center is in fact an enlightened mosque which has as a part of its charter 30% of its board members women, and is very friendly to Muslim women.
Issues he described with the treatment of women were first that the issue of “segregation” of women is a charged issue in America, so any time women are asked to go to a separate, inaccessible and inferior part of the mosque for their prayers, the psychological effect on converted women is immense. Young Muslims saw their mothers and other women discouraged from attending the mosque, asked to attend parts of the mosque that were “small, poorly maintained, and dangerous to children.” Women are denied positions of power in the mosques, except there is a frequent practice of allowing one woman to act as a token representative to the men who run each mosque. Muslim women are sometimes viciously unwelcoming to newcomers—he told the story of how one woman he knew was accused, her first time entering a mosque, of having come only to find and marry a Muslim man. The social structure among American Muslim women, he said—based on his experience with American mosques, his family’s experience, and with his contact with the community—is hierarchical as follows: Muslim newcomers to the US are accepted directly proportional to the inverse of their time in the US (if they arrived yesterday they have higher status than if they arrived 2 years ago), then children of the first generation are in a group considered behind that first group, then converts come after that; race and color are also factors in this hierarchy. An essential problem is that American converts to Islam are treated as third-class people in their own country when they try to integrate with the community. Discouraged from attending the mosque, these women are extremely isolated when they convert to Islam. Despite this, he said, women were actually the best and most devoted Muslims, “hanging on by their fingernails” to this religion.
He described his own mother’s once-interest in Islam: after she visited the community and was asked to attend prayers in a separate dirty room accessed only with difficulty, she told him, “There is no place for me in this religion.” He also explained that while he had tried to raise his daughters with abundant contact with the mosque he had reached a point where other men in his community would try their best to dissuade them from attending the mosque.
The second problem Lang perceived was the divisions in Islam by ethnicity—a different mosque for each ethnicity. Each has its own culture which it imposes on newcomers as “Islam;” violation of the norms of that culture will lead to ostracism or verbal attacks by that community.
The third problem, he said, is “problems with traditional theology.” He said that young people receive no answers to their questions. When they use mainstream resources to find answers to their questions their minds end up in the hands of people who hate Islam and provide information with a view to undermining the Muslim community—for instance, if a child does a search on “women in Islam” he/she will likely end up at virulently anti-Muslim sites—which in fact are most of the sites available on the issue. If they go to the library or to their educational institutions they face the same problem. Muslim scholars, he said, should make themselves available to US Muslims so that the latter can find legitimate answers to their questions.
Lang’s arguments relate to an important point, which is that studying Islam from non-Muslims has none of the light associated with it that has been transmitted from Muslim to Muslim from the time of the Prophet (s).
Finally, he hinted that the Muslim community in the United States must recognize its fundamental race bias. In supporting his perception of bias he recounted his own experience of converting Islam to the rapturous love of his surrounding community, while African American converts of similar background were ignored by the community. He pointed out that at his mosque, white converts were celebrated and remembered regardless of their piety or commitment, while African American converts frequently went ignored and unknown in the community.
Professor Lang’s speech was deeply troubling to many members of the community, challenging as it did many of their fundamental beliefs relating to Islam and challenging also many of their habits, traditions, and beliefs. While his core point is valid and requires attention, Muslims must maintain a balance between their belief and their assimilation with mainstream American culture—that balance should be struck in a way that accommodates American/Western culture better than we do. His speech’s essential truth shows that we have failed to strike that balance, and instead have perhaps lost an entire generation due to our blindness to our own flaws.