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Fast-Growing Islam Faith Moves Into U.S. Mainstream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Lubna Mela’s son started at University High School in Irvine two years ago, the Muslim youth prayed during his lunch hour in the only place where he could lie face down, facing east, as his religion requires: on the front lawn, surrounded by curious eyes.

But since January, he and more than a dozen Islamic youths, most new to the United States, pray in an empty classroom.

It is, said Mela, “a lot easier for them. And it’s easier for me to do what I want to do--raise my children with their faith.”

The school’s decision to open the room probably would have gone the other way a decade ago. But that was before Islam, one of the fastest-growing religions in the nation, began moving into the mainstream.

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Fueled by waves of immigration from Asia and the Mideast, Islam in America has been transformed in the past two decades from an insular faith to a culturally diverse religious movement gathering the strength, confidence and sheer numbers to assert itself as never before.

When more than 3,000 Muslims from throughout Southern California meet in Buena Park today at the first joint conference of 52 Islamic organizations from Los Angeles to San Diego, they will put their minds to the challenges that go with that maturity.

For example, the growth and diversity throughout Southern California have spawned some internal problems. In some African American mosques, Indians and Asians are not welcomed, Islamic leaders say, and some new Muslim immigrants look with suspicion and resentment on Muslims who live a more secular life in the United States.

Those differences are expected to spur debate at the conference, the first to bring together a majority of the 59 Islamic Centers in Southern California.

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Community’s Needs Have Changed

“There has never been [a conference] before on this level in California, but the needs of the Islamic community have deeply changed,” said Richard Dekmejian, professor of political science at USC and author of two books on Islam.

“It started out as an immigrant religion, and now Islam is becoming an indigenous religion in America. In the past, the issues Muslims discussed were about survival, about their demonization in U.S. culture. Now that they’ve become more stable, they can afford to look at things like education, how to raise their children, how to live a religious life here.”

The conference takes place two weeks before Muslims inaugurate an $8-million mosque in Culver City that will be the largest mosque in Southern California and one of the largest in the United States.

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At the same time, Muslims in Orange County who still pray in converted churches, offices and storefronts are launching plans for their own mosque, school and cultural center that is expected to rival the Culver City Islamic Center in size.

The emergence of Islam in the United States is adding a new chapter to the ancient religion founded more than 1,350 years ago in Mecca, the faith’s holy city, by the prophet Mohammed.

The faith embraced by more than 1.2 billion people worldwide holds that divine revelation began with the Hebrew prophets, continued with Jesus and culminated in the prophecy of Mohammed, to whom God, known as Allah to Muslims, revealed the Koran, Islam’s holy book.

Like Christians and Jews, Muslims live by the Ten Commandments.

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But in addition, their lives are shaped by the Koran and the “five pillars” of the faith--profession of faith, daily prayer, giving of alms, fasting in the month of Ramadan and a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The number of Muslims in the United States is the subject of considerable debate and no authoritative census has been undertaken. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations claims a nationwide population of more than 6 million, up from 2 million three decades ago, but others say the numbers are smaller.

The council estimates that more than 500,000 Muslims live in Southern California, 225,000 of them in Los Angeles County and 120,000 of them in Orange County.

Almost half the Muslims in the United States are African Americans, many of them recent converts to the faith. But fully a quarter are from India and Pakistan, the fastest-growing segment of Muslims in the country.

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Despite its association in the Western mind with things Arabic, only 12.4% of Muslims in this country come from the Mideast, according to the council.

With the growth in numbers has come an increased confidence and a determination to reverse what Muslims say are unfair stereotypes of their religion as warlike and sexist.

In the past decade, Muslims have begun to venture out of their communities into U.S. politics. Since 1990, when the American Muslim Council was founded in Washington, four groups specifically representing Muslim interests in the United States have emerged. Two, the American Muslim Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, are based in California.

In Orange County and Los Angeles, Muslims have newly joined community groups. Last year, more than a dozen ran, all unsuccessfully, for school boards and city councils.

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Eileen Ansari, an American Muslim, is running this year for the congressional seat from Diamond Bar. If she wins, Ansari, a Democrat, would be the first Muslim member of Congress.

She hopes to join Muslims making a name for themselves such as North Carolina state Sen. Larry Shaw and Selma, Ala., City Councilman Yusuf Abdus Salam.

“The Muslim constituency is not powerful, it can’t be said that it is, but there is an increased participating in American life in all its facets,” said Haitham Bundakji, vice chairman of the Islamic Society of Orange County, one of the largest Islamic organizations in the Western United States.

A school run by the society, one of more than a dozen at some of the 15 Islamic Centers in Orange County, was founded 14 years ago with 12 students. Today, 375 students from preschool through eighth grade study there. Plans to open a high school are in the works.

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Raising Islam’s Public Profile

The opening of the Culver City mosque July 17 is seen by Islamic leaders in Southern California as an opportunity to raise their faith’s public profile. Leaders of Islamic centers throughout the country are expected to attend. Sheikh Sudeis, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, will speak.

At the same time that Muslims build external emblems of their faith, they are looking inward at the issues that have the power to divide them or bring them together. As part of that reflective movement, the conference was organized by the 4-year-old Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, a coalition of mosques formed to increase cooperation between them. Shura is the Arabic word for cooperation.

“How much Muslims should hold to tradition and how much they should adapt will be a major topic of discussion at the conference, I suspect,” Dekmejian said.

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“There are differences between modernists and those who want a more comprehensive religious life, and questions about how that can be brought about in a very secular country like the United States.”

For Lubna Mela, who came to the United States from Pakistan in 1978, the daily challenge of being Muslim in the United States is not how to worship, or how to get along with other Muslims, but how to preserve their culture and religion within U.S. society.

The Mela family works hard at it. Three of their children--the youngest is a toddler--go to religious school on Sundays, and study with a private tutor who comes to their house several times during the week.

Every day, the family prays together in the evenings, often discussing the Koran before or after.

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Praying during the day, however, is more difficult.

“We pray on our own, wherever we have time, however we can fit it in, but it’s hard,” Lubna Mela said.

She and other Muslim parents banded together to ask her son’s school for a private place where the youths could pray. The school obliged with permission to use a classroom that is empty during that time.

“I want them to, besides being good human beings, I want them to really have some faith, and I see that as a blessing for people, no matter what religion they are.”

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