We are running several feature articles on Muslims in New York City.
The recent controversies over the plan to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and to acquire and transform a Catholic site in Staten Island into a mosque shows how the life of New York City is best characterized as postsecular. Religion is playing an increasingly important role in people’s everyday lives, our politics, and how we symbolize who we are as a city.
“This is a center where problems can be known and solved,” declared Sheikh Moussa Drammeh to New York Times reporter Dan Wakin in 2001. On the very day of the World Trade Center bombing the Senegalese Jamhivatut Tahaawin Islamic Center opened its elementary school. Neighbors came over to give support. The mosque shortly plastered up on the kitchen wall for all worshipers to read, “Muslim scholars endorse war on Osama.”
Sheikh Drammeh (Sheikh is his first name, not the religious title) is a former real estate dealer who joined with a self-help organization of African livery-cab drivers, mainly from Senegal and Gambia, to pool resources to buy the first site of their school, a former convent of the Dominican Sisters of Spankill.
Today, the Islamic Leadership School at a different site, 2006 Westchester Avenue, is run by Shireena Drammeh and her husband. The school educates kids from Africa, the Middle East, the United States and other countries. Shireena herself was born in India while her husband was born in Gambia, Africa, though raised in Senegal.
Sheikh is a very entrepreneurial, community activist. The school shares the building with other projects that he has founded or encouraged: the Masjid Al-Iman (founded in 2005), the Islamic Cultural Center of North America, the Muslim Family Services Coalition, the Islamic Federal Credit Union, Adopt-a-Friend, Inc., E & E Political Action Community and others.
Indeed, the mosque received so much support after 9/11 partly because of its own neighborhood orientation. When it opened its doors in June 2001, the leaders contacted the other nearby religions’ leaders. The mosque also started a neighborhood food pantry and blood drive, offered an African market on Fridays and strictly controlled parking of mosque attenders.
The mosque represents several key aspects of Muslims in the U.S.: the increasing diversity of Muslims and the presence of Africans; neighborhood integration of Muslims; and the change of the idea of a mosque from a ritual to a community center. New Moslem immigrants are also replacing older Muslim immigrants who are shifting out of the biggest cities to the smaller cities and suburbs.
Origins of Muslims
Sixty-five percent of America Muslims are foreign born, according to the 2007 Pew study. 35% of American Muslims are native born, two-thirds of those are African Americans.
The immigration of Muslims to the United States appears to be accelerating. Since 2000, the net immigration rate of Muslims (those who came minus those in the same yearly cohort who left) has been 2.6% a year.
Of the native born Muslims in the United States, a little less than two-thirds are converts, mostly African American males from Protestant backgrounds. 34% of the converts are White. 49% coverted when they were under 21 years of age. 34% coverted between ages 21 and 35. (These figures are from the 2007 Pew American Muslim Study.) There are small but increasing numbers of Hispanic converts in New York. In Manhattan a Sufi mosque, from which came the iman associated with the Ground Zero project, has a fair number of white converts.
Many African-Americans transferred to Sunni Islam from the Nation of Islam in the 1970s in following their leader, Warith D. Mohammed [nee Wallace D. Muhammad]. In the 1970s even some first-generation Puerto Ricans entered Islam by affiliation with African-American mosques. Today, several mosques has Hispanic members. One convert started PIEDAD (Propagacion Islamicapara la Educacion y Devocion de Ala'el Divino), and another Alianza Islamicato to evangelize Latinos. Prisons are active recruiting grounds among African-Americans and Latinos. A few members of the gang, the Latin Kings, have become Muslims.
Many of the city mosques that serve as immigrant centers are also politically centered on what is happening overseas in the troubled areas of Bosnia, Chechnya, Sudan, the Middle East, Pakistan and so forth.
Mosques here often play a different role than in Muslim countries, where most mosques are essentially places for prayer services. In Muslim countries the state acts as the implementer of an Islamic way of life, while in the U.S. the mosque is the social, cultural and educational center encompassing the Muslim’s whole life. Immigrants at several mosques say that, since living in the U.S., religion has become more important to them and that it helps them to exist within a society from which they sometimes feel disconnected. As a result, immigrant Muslims often have become much more involved in their religion, and far more and evangelistic in their orientation. Typically, Muslims will say that they "are associated" with a mosque or leader, rather than identifying themselves as members.