NYT gets Islam in the suburbs

suburbsCongratulations once again to The New York Times for its excellent coverage of American Islamic issues. If only it would devote like coverage to other religions, like maybe Christianity. In a follow-up to its March 2006 series on Brooklyn imam Sheik Reda Shata, the author Andrea Elliott caught back up with the thoughtful and eloquent cleric and found that he had moved from the city to the suburbs. Shata's move to the suburbs was the result largely of Elliott's series. The series moved quickly around the world and unsurprisingly some of Shata's statements were not too well received. He was called a devil and people said he was evil.

Now out of Brooklyn and in a sleepy New Jersey suburb, Shata finds that he enjoys the easier life with big supermarkets (a 32-can pack of Coca-Cola sold for $8.29 at Costco prompts him to say: "The Prophet said, 'Whoever is frugal will never suffer financially'") and lots of open space. But he also finds himself with a different flock to shepherd:

But the suburbs have brought challenges that Mr. Shata never imagined. His congregation in Brooklyn may have been on the margins of American society, but it was deeply rooted in Islam. Muslims in Middletown were generally more assimilated but less connected to their mosque.

To be a successful suburban imam, he found, meant persuading doctors and lawyers not to rush from prayers to beat traffic. It meant connecting with teenagers who drove new cars, and who peppered their Arabic with "like" and "yeah." It meant helping his daughter cope with mockery at school, in a predominantly white town that lost dozens of people on Sept. 11.

The article is also accompanied by a wonderful audio slide show with Shata's words spoken by an interpreter. What struck me the most was the impression of Shata's sincerity. The media have rarely displayed this side of American Muslims, yet every Muslim I know displays this same trait to varying degrees, whether they are part of the flock or a religious leader.

The final part of the 3,100-word article best illustrates how this Muslim imam could easily be a conservative Christian preacher or missionary. The author is observing Shata's daughter as she tries to get used to her new surroundings:

One night this month, she sat slouched on the edge of her bed. If only she had a cellphone or an iPod, she said, she might have friends.

"I have friends," her 7-year-old sister, Rahma, piped up.

"You don't wear a hijab," Esteshhad shot back.

Recently, her mother noticed that Esteshhad had forgotten parts of the Koran. She was also becoming more assertive.

A sign outside her room read, "Please knock before entering!" and then, in smaller letters, "I'm angry."

Esteshhad's mother has thought of enrolling her again in an Islamic school, but Mr. Shata is reluctant. He wants to give public school a chance. Still, it pains him to see Esteshhad so alone.

I hope that Elliott continues to follow Shata, because he has a great story that is worth continued telling.

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