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What Is It Like To Be Muslim in America? - 2002-02-19


Muslims in America practice their faith in a variety of ways. Some do not practice all the rituals of their faith, while others strictly adhere to all the practices such as fasting and dress.

What is it like to be Muslim in America? Well there is no one answer, but it is a question Ra'id Breiwish and his wife Dr. Manal Halabi of Columbia, Maryland, have been asked. As a professional woman in America, Dr. Manal Halabi, a pediatric dentist and a Muslim, is a far cry from the images recently out of Afghanistan, of Muslim women under Taliban rule. Dr. Halabi and her husband Ra'id Breiwish are from Jordan.

They brought to America their experiences growing up in the Arab world, where religion plays a more pervasive role in everyday life. Their children, seven-year old, Razan and Ismail, eight, know only life in America, where there is a constitutional separation of church and state.

Betty Van Etten has this look at their life in America.

As a professional woman in America, Dr. Manal Halabi, a pediatric dentist and a Muslim, is a far cry from the images recently out of Afghanistan, of Muslim women under Taliban rule.

"If I want to talk about Afghanistan, I mean those practices of forbidding women to go to school, and you know, forbidding women from walking on the street, and you have to be totally covered, you have to cover your face, and all that, that's definitely, that's a cultural practice of a certain regime," she said. "That's not, that's not Islam."

Dr. Halabi and her husband Ra'id Breiwish are from Jordan. They brought to America their experiences growing up in the Arab world, where religion plays a more pervasive role in everyday life.

Their children, seven-year old, Razan and Ismail, eight, know only life in America, where there is a constitutional separation of church and state.

"Yes it's different because you know you don't have the atmosphere a Muslim country gives you in terms of the call to prayer, being able to hear that and actually respond," Mr. Breiwish said. "That's something we always miss in this country. The "Athaan," as we call it in Arabic, the call to pray. Ramadan is not as engaging in here as it is in a Muslim nation because again, the whole country, a Muslim nation, will change their work habits, their school habits, in the month of Ramadan to accommodate the fasting. This doesn't happen in this country. So it's not quite the same. But in terms of being able to worship and being able to pray, and go to mosques, we actually have all the freedom that we need to do that in this country."

Mr. Breiwish left Jordan and came to the U.S. to pursue higher education. He received a college degree and two advanced degrees including a doctorate in transportation engineering. He works for a major research and engineering firm and designs web sites as a sideline.

"Transportation is my profession I guess, this is what I went to school for. But I've always liked computers, and been working with computers since," he said. And so perhaps it is not a surprising that his children, Razan and Ismail, who share a bedroom, also share a computer.

While some would look at Ismail as a typical American boy, they would also see a typical Muslim boy praying alongside his father and reading from the Koran. Ismail and Razan both attend an Islamic school.

"This is actually, if you compare that to some of the schools back home, they get a very good education here," Mr. Breiwish said. "Some of our family members were amazed that my son can actually pick up the Koran and read anywhere in the Koran while he was in second grade. This is something again that in this country you can easily get to. There is an abundance of Islamic schools in the United States and again it goes back to the freedom of religion, freedom of practice, and you know, having these schools."

While Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S., Mr. Breiwish says the U.S. Muslim community has not done enough to educate non-Muslims about Islam.

"I'm shocked, you know, when I talk to a colleague of mine who has a high degree that they don't know some of the very, very basics of our religion," he said. "I'm not saying they should be a scholar of the religion, but at least the very basic fundamentals of the religion, they don't know. And they have a lot of misconceptions, misconceptions that have been introduced by Hollywood and some of the movies and the stereotypes that they portray in these movies."

Mr. Breiwish admits though he had his own misperceptions about Americans. "I'll be honest with you, when I first came into the United States as a lot of people in the Middle East are, we have our own perceptions," he said. "We only learn about the United States from Hollywood, which for the most part doesn't give a good picture, unfortunately. And then also from U.S. foreign polices in the region, you know, hearing about it in the news. And of course our own propaganda, I mean every country cannot escape their own propaganda. But all of that really kind of changed when I came. I've been here since 1983 and I find that the people of the United States is nothing like what we have kind of been led to believe. They're just nice people and I wish that people in the Arab world and the Muslim world get to see that picture, that side, of the American people and not what they are seeing through propaganda and other means and movies and what have you."

But at times, old fears may rise to the surface. After September 11, Dr. Halabi did not leave the house for 48 hours. And for a month, she would not go to the grocery store or mall. "To begin with, my first worry was about, you know, myself and my family and how we are going to be perceived in the eyes of Americans," she said.

But what she found out was quite different. "My experience was really positive with everything. I got support from everybody," she said. "I got cards from friends and co-workers. You know that really showed me how much people care."

At what point does the family feel they are part of mainstream America and not a Muslim family looking in on America? "Well, I guess you can be an America and still maintain an identify, you know, your own identity, as you know, your faith," Mr. Breiwish said. "You can vote, you can dress like Americans, you can do what Americans do. But when it comes to religion, at least in our belief, we believe, we don't compromise. When it comes to religion, there is no melting. Because if you do melt, then you basically compromise some of that religion, that faith you have. And that's where line is drawn with Muslims. To some this paints us in a different picture and makes us look different, or act different and dress different and have different names. I guess I've heard this expression -and its' not mine but - the United States is thought of as a melting pot- and in my opinion, and that's the thing I heard on one of the shows - is that it should be thought of as a salad bowl, where everybody has their own little contributions but still not melt and be just like everybody else."

Ra'id Breiwish and Dr. Halabi hope to become U.S. citizens next year, their children already are.

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