Muslims in America: Creating a New Beat
A New York Times reporter—a non-Muslim—looked for pathways into the Muslim experience and, once found, she immersed herself to tell the story.
On a sticky summer night, Sheik Reda Shata walked into a crowded ballroom in Staten Island. Bare-shouldered Palestinian girls shook their hips and clapped to the beat of Arab pop music, as boys in coats and ties orbited around them. Older women in sequined headscarves stood watchfully to the side as video cameras beamed images of the wedding onto giant flat-screen monitors.
Sheik Reda, an Egyptian imam who had arrived in America three years earlier, took his seat and closed his eyes. His lips moved in silent prayer. Every so often he glanced up at the screens, as if seeking a filter between himself and the guests. Dueling expressions of amazement and consternation crossed his face.
"Every centimeter of a woman's dress is part of her faith," he said, frowning. As for the dancing, he added, Muslim women should only do this alone or with their husbands.
At that moment, the emcee announced, "We're going to have open dancing all night long!" But first, he said, "a blessing from Sheik Reda Shata."
I sat with the imam that evening in August 2005, two months after I began reporting on him for a series of New York Times articles. To watch Sheik Reda interact with Muslims in the United States was, at times, like watching a man size up his teenaged grandson. He was both put off and thrilled by what he saw, curious about yet scared of what he might learn. He wanted to understand this new world but also to rein it in. He had come here to teach American Muslims, yet he wondered what they might teach him.
When I set out to write about Muslims in America earlier that year, I, too, found myself in unfamiliar territory. Few news organizations had reported deeply on the "Muslim community," a phrase I learned to avoid. It was, in fact, a constellation of communities, complicated, diverse and exceedingly difficult for non-Muslims to penetrate.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed life dramatically for Muslims in the United States. Their businesses, homes and mosques came under surveillance by the authorities, and their status in American society became uncertain. Researchers at Columbia University who studied the impact of 9/11 on American Muslims found two striking patterns: Many Muslims took refuge in their faith, growing more devout. Others distanced themselves from Islam, avoiding their mosques and even changing their names. Men named Mohammed became "Moe;" Osama became "Sam." Some women stopped veiling, while others began covering themselves for the first time.
As I began my reporting, I found that many Muslims had retreated into their private lives. In the New York area, I could find few who would talk with me. Again and again I heard the same complaints: that Muslims had suffered needlessly in America, and the press was to blame; that reporters had distorted Islam by exploring it only through the prism of terrorism.
As a non-Muslim American who did not speak Arabic, I came to this story with few natural advantages. I learned by trial and error. Early on, for example, I noticed my temptation to describe Muslim women by their headscarves, as Western reporters so often do. But with time, I began wondering what it would be like for non-Muslim women to always be described by, say, their hair. So I tried to unearth more revealing observations.
As my stories appeared in the paper, doors began to open. But I came to realize that unless I focused on a single Muslim enclave—one mosque, city block, or family's home—I would never capture a fuller story. I wanted a subject whose own story revealed the challenges of Islam in America, but who could also transport me to the hidden corners of Muslim life. The idea of writing about an imam seemed promising.
In Muslim countries, imams lead the five daily prayers and deliver the Friday sermon. When they are recruited to American mosques—for their Islamic expertise—they end up filling many unfamiliar roles. They become marriage counselors, Islamic judges, matchmakers and Qur'an school principals. They broker business disputes, grant divorces, and often deal with the FBI. For none of this are they prepared. And as they take on these new roles, they often find themselves rethinking Islamic law in the context of American needs.
I interviewed about a dozen imams before I found Sheik Reda, who was then the leader of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a thriving mosque in Brooklyn. But he and the directors of the mosque's board were extremely reluctant to be written about. They felt they had nothing to gain; that my reporting would simply repeat the negative, one-dimensional image of Islam they'd seen in newspapers before. I tried to persuade them that our readers' understanding of Muslims would never deepen unless reporters were allowed greater access to their community. I promised to be fair in my reporting. After some weeks of deliberation, they agreed to let me try.
For six months, Times photographer James Estrin and I immersed ourselves in Sheik Reda's life. We watched him chaperon dates with single Muslims and steer quarreling couples away from divorce. We saw him lecture Brooklyn police officers in Islamic mores and explain American traditions to newly landed immigrants. We followed him in the morning as he walked his children to the bus and stood near him as he put them to bed at night.
I spent hours in his cramped office at the mosque, where interviews felt more like conversations. We were strangers in each other's worlds. The questions moved both ways. When I asked him about memorizing the Qur'an as a child, he asked me about my Catholic upbringing. "Why do American women wait so long to get married?" he wanted to know when he found out I was engaged at 33.
I think it was only because we spent so much time together that Sheik Reda was finally willing to share his views on such controversial topics as suicide bombings and the tactics used by U.S. law-enforcement authorities to investigate Muslims. He opened up about his personal transformation in America; about how he'd become "flexible," now believing that Muslim women could remove their headscarves if they felt threatened in public and that Muslim waiters could serve alcohol if they could find no other job.
Coverage Sparks Debate
The reaction to this series, which was published in March 2006, overwhelmed Sheik Reda. His phone rang continuously. Hundreds of letters and e-mails arrived—from rabbis and priests interested in interfaith projects, from prison inmates seeking his guidance, from Muslim professionals who wanted help in finding a spouse. The articles also sparked considerable debate, around the United States and in the Middle East. Some deemed Sheik Reda an extremist; others saw him as a liberal sellout. Flyers appeared on the streets of Bay Ridge declaring him "a devil."
Sheik Reda finally decided he had no choice but to leave Brooklyn. His new job at a mosque in the New Jersey suburbs has brought him a world of new experiences, which I have continued to report on. But his life will never be the same. Despite the criticism he has endured, Sheik Reda said he does not regret his decision to let us tell his story. In a recent interview with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he explained it this way: "When the astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon he said, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' These were the words that moved me in the beginning to get involved with this story. I knew that I was somehow like Armstrong, making a small step on a personal level, yet a giant leap that would benefit the Muslim community and, in turn, humanity. It was a step that I believe was bigger than our differences."
Andrea Elliott covers Islam in America, a beat she created in 2005 for The New York Times. Her three-part series, "An Imam in America," won the 2007 Pulitzer for Feature Writing. She is learning Arabic.