Below is an interesting Associated Press piece on the American Twelver Shi'i community in and around Dearborn, Michigan.....Twelvers still receive most attention when it comes to Shi'i Islam, to the detriment of other Shi'i groups such as the Isma'ilis. For an excellent study on Twelver Shi'ism in the United States, see Prof. Liyakat Takim's new book Shi'ism in America. A Twelver Shi'i who frequently speaks at Shi'i Muslim centers and events, Takim's study is generally balanced and non-sectarian.
By RACHEL ZOLL
The Associated Press Monday, January 18, 2010; 12:29 AM
DEARBORN, Mich. -- Sayyid Haider Bahar al-Uloom paces before his students seated in two neat rows - men in one, women in the other. They meet each week in a small but growing office in an old storefront downtown, its shelves lined with Arabic texts on Islamic jurisprudence.
Tonight's lesson is on justice, but Bahar al-Uloom's lecture ranges wide of Muslim teaching. He cites The Federalist Papers, slavery in U.S. history and spirituality in "The Audacity of Hope." A 37-year-old Iraqi Shiite, he consumes books on American culture and religion, analyzing the work of mega-pastors Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and others, to learn their appeal.
"We should not fear introducing people to other ideas," says Bahar al-Uloom, whose title sayyid is for those who trace their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad.
On this night in Michigan, he ends his lecture with the same message he brings to Shiite groups around the country: Your ideals, rooted in Islam, are not alien here.
"We call them Islamic values, but they are universal values," he says in near accentless English. "If it's a principle or act that would help all Americans, all I need to do is speak it in a language that is universal."
Shiites comprise less than 15 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and an even smaller percentage of the Muslims in the U.S. Within the wider Muslim world, they are often persecuted for their beliefs and way of worship.
Islamic law governs even the smallest issues for devout Shiites. Can they wear cologne? Listen to popular music? Sit at a table where alcohol is served? New interpretations are needed for life in non-Muslim countries.
Pious Shiites have seen threats to their faith from the permissive American way of life and what for many is their first experience of a non-Muslim government. Worried that voting or other civic involvement would violate Islamic law, many have opted instead to turn inward, focusing on preserving their traditions.
But the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror strikes, the war in Iraq and other world events have prompted some significant changes in the U.S. Shiite community in recent years. Shiite clerics and activists are pushing community members beyond the protective walls they built, encouraging them to fully embrace their American citizenship.
At the forefront of the effort is the nonprofit that Bahar al-Uloom helps represent, called I.M.A.M., which tells Shiites they can vote, participate in the 2010 U.S. Census and hold public office without abandoning their faith.
"In the United States, the law here is not against Islam," said Sheik Mohammed el-Ali al-Halabi, a Syrian who came to the U.S. a decade ago, sitting in his bare-bones office at I.M.A.M. "I can be a good Muslim and a good American."
Half a world away from Dearborn lies the inspiration for this drive, an unexpected source for dramatic change: an elderly holy man who rarely leaves his home in the old quarter of the Iraqi holy city of Najaf and who will probably never visit the United States.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani isn't widely known in the U.S. outside public policy circles, but he should be. He is one of the most revered thinkers in global Shiism, a moderate in outlook and a powerful force in Iraq. His behind-the-scenes interventions were key to guiding the country's fledgling democracy.
The grand ayatollah and his advisers lead lives dedicated to religious tradition, but they are also pioneers in using the Web to reach the globally dispersed faithful. They teach that good Muslims must be active citizens of whatever country they call home.
As Shiites emigrate around the world, al-Sistani sends his representatives along to guide them on how to remain devout in a foreign culture.
I.M.A.M., the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya, is the liaison office in America for al-Sistani.
The organization's lecturers and scholars crisscross the country to support fledgling Shiite institutions. Al-Sistani is far from the only marja, or top-level religious authority, with American followers, but he is one of the most prominent, and through the Dearborn office, he is helping shape American Shiism.
"It's kind of a status symbol that you are recognized and trusted by the office of the ayatollah," said Liyakat Takim, author of "Shi'ism in America," and professor at McMaster University in Canada. "It builds your credibility."
I.M.A.M. opened a year ago under the leadership of Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri, a cleric who works in Dearborn and Los Angeles on behalf of al-Sistani and his advisers.
The Dearborn area has the biggest concentration of Shiites in the United States. The city is home to the headquarters of Ford Motor Co., which started attracting Arab and Muslim immigrants in the early 1900s with above-average assembly line wages. Now, the city bordering Detroit is filled with mosques, Islamic schools, Lebanese restaurants and food markets that follow Islamic dietary laws.
Inside I.M.A.M., poster-size photos of al-Sistani and his late mentor, Ayatollah Sayyid Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, hang above the office reception desk. It is one of the rare portraits that the reclusive al-Sistani ever allowed of himself, as he, like many of the Dearborn staff and volunteers, consider it a sign of humility to avoid photographs of themselves.
Bahar al-Uloom, I.M.A.M.'s vice chairman, graduated from Dearborn's public high school and Wayne State University, but his seminary education has been by correspondence with scholars from Najaf, Iraq, and Qom, Iran - prominent centers of Shiite learning. For years, teachers mailed him sackfuls of cassette recordings of their lectures, which he would play in his car as he drove the streets around Dearborn.
He and his cousin, Sayyid Hassan al-Hakim, a 26-year-old graduate student in public administration, often arrive early in the morning to study before the deluge of calls and e-mails with questions about Islamic law and requests for help. Staff cell phones buzz all day with questions sent by text.
"How far off can u be from the Qibla?" reads a query on al-Hakim's cell phone, about facing in the proper direction, toward Mecca, for prayer.
Volunteers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, share computers crammed into a small room off the library. Among them are the editors and designers of I.M.A.M.'s glossy educational magazine, Reflections. They have a policy of publishing in English, except for religious references that require Arabic, to reach a younger generation of American Muslims, along with non-Muslims.
"Muslims should be essential participants in their respective societies while maintaining the beauty of Islam as their code of conduct," reads a recent article titled "Being American and Being Muslim." Al-Sistani "is known to have repeatedly called for integration with preservation of identity," the author writes.
The same article indirectly addresses the threat of extremism, condemning "so-called `Muslims' who endanger innocent lives." The author urges Muslims and non-Muslims to report any potential threats to civil authorities and "hold fast to the principles of Islam and protect those around them."
In the spirit of the Najaf scholars, and their embrace of new technology and thinking, I.M.A.M. uses contemporary management tools to aid its cause.
Bahar al-Uloom quotes from the corporate success book "Good to Great." Al-Hakim collects evaluation forms for feedback on programming. The office uses customer service software to monitor response time for calls to 1-888-SISTANI, the toll-free line.
In side rooms, al-Halabi and other clerics offer counseling on personal and religious issues. Sayyid Mehdi al-Ameen, a resident scholar at I.M.A.M., had been a judge in a religious court in Lebanon, hearing cases on divorce, child custody and other issues. Three days a week he teaches a class on ethics and another on the Quran, and provides marriage counseling.
Down a winding staircase into the basement is the organization's video production arm, AscentTV.net. It was created by Aous Asfar, a veteran branding executive, and targets young people under age 35. The shows are in English and include lectures on Islamic teaching, the importance of interfaith relations, and discussion of workplace and family issues.
An underlying theme of the shows is that observant Shiites can find ways to fit into Western society. On a program for young professionals, Wissam Bazzi, a 34-year-old who works at AscentTV, holds out his right arm to show how men can create a personal safe zone - two or three arm lengths - to avoid being drawn into a handshake or hug with a female co-worker.
"They don't have to feel like outsiders," says Asfar, a Canadian of Iraqi descent.
The call to prayer sounds at midday. Staff members assemble in a corner of the library with their prayer mats directed toward Mecca.
Houda Fawaz, a 26-year-old project manager for AscentTV, was working at a bank when she thought "there had to be something more," and began volunteering with the video unit.
She now does editing and post-production work for a women's show called "Sister to Sister" and is planning a new career in media.
Fawaz, who wears a scarf that covers her hair and neck, said she hopes the show reaches non-Muslims as well so they can learn how Western Muslim women think and move beyond stereotypes - or what she calls "the whole `women are oppressed' issue."
"I've always wanted a job where I felt I was helping other people," said Fawaz, the college-educated daughter of Lebanese immigrants. "With communications, you can touch so many people at one time."
The office is open at least 10 hours a day but often far longer. On a recent evening, two young women without appointments dropped in after 9 p.m. seeking help with family troubles. One woman was upset that her father opposed her decision to become a psychologist. He didn't think she'd earn enough. The second woman said her mother objected to the man she loved because he had not earned a bachelor's degree. Bahar al-Uloom agreed to talk with the parents.
I.M.A.M. takes its responsibilities to the Shiite community far beyond Dearborn. The group recently organized a meeting of the Council of Shia Muslim Scholars in North America, a panel revived by lead cleric Kashmiri. The theme of the event, citizenship and integration, was written in Arabic and English on a banner across a photo of the U.S. Capitol.
More than 40 turbaned clerics gathered for two days in the conference room of an Atlanta airport hotel, drawing surprised stares from other guests. Along with the Muslim scholars, I.M.A.M. invited two Roman Catholic academics to explain how Catholic immigrants overcame the hatred that greeted them in a once overwhelmingly Protestant United States.
The Muslim clerics discussed the challenges they face urging their communities to, as one participant said, "come out of their boxes."
No one is sure how effective I.M.A.M. can be.
Like American Sunnis, Shiites are divided by ethnicity, language and culture. Often, I.M.A.M. is viewed in the Dearborn community as a mostly Iraqi or Lebanese organization, even though the group works with Iranians, South Asians, African-Americans and others.
Then there are those Muslims who seem beyond reach: the notable number of Shiites who have become so Americanized that they no longer practice their faith.
The staff at I.M.A.M. acknowledge all the challenges to their mission, but they find encouragement in the Shiite history of struggle and survival, and the success of other U.S. immigrant groups before them. With a growing number of American-born Shiites, just blending in with the larger Muslim community or hiding away in enclaves is no longer an option, they say.
"Sayyid Sistani emphasizes that you are in this country," Bahar al-Uloom says. "You are citizens here."
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