When Muslim journalist S. Hussain Zaidi toured the USA recently, he was stunned by what he saw: Shiite and Sunni Muslims, whose conflicts have fueled the war in Iraq and tension in the Middle East and beyond, were praying together in U.S. mosques.
"It is something we never see at home," says Zaidi, of India. "They want to kill each other everywhere except in the USA."
For years, Sunnis and Shiites in this country have worked together to build mosques, support charities, register voters and hold massive feasts for Eid al-Fitr (on Oct. 13 this year in the USA), the celebration at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. . .
For all the conflicts among Muslims abroad, those in America historically not only have gotten along, but assimilated to the point that their sects have become secondary. In a 2006 survey of 1,000 Muslim registered voters, about 12% identified themselves as Shiite, 36% said they were Sunni, and 40% called themselves "just a Muslim," according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
"America gives people the unique opportunity to leave cultural, historical baggage behind," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper says. "We can serve as a model to the world of an Islam that is clear, calm, articulate, forthright and civil."
Even so, it's an opportunity a few Muslims in the USA refuse.
"I've seen people fight over how close their toes can be when they kneel in prayer. It's got to stop," says Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), which has seven mosques in the Washington, D.C., area.
ADAMS is primarily Sunni, but Magid has his own way of quelling sectarianism.
"We teach all the scholars and traditions, and we invite Shia and Sunni imams to lead prayers," says the Sudanese-born Magid. "We don't have to fight."
He says he was heartened when 10,000 people at the Islamic Society event cheered for a new Muslim Code of Honor, pledging Sunni and Shiite respect and cooperation.
The code, drafted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil rights group, initially was circulated in Southern California after the Detroit vandalism incidents. It moved quickly to Michigan and then to the leadership of several major U.S. and Canadian Muslim political, social and religious groups.
In June, a half-dozen groups launched an "American Muslim Iraq Peace Initiative" intended to build harmony and make clear that "America cannot be a scene of conflict," says Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR.
Move toward 'big-tent Islam'
Besides the efforts to encourage dialogue, there's another phenomenon that could help ward off sectarian friction here: the inexorable force of assimilation.
At a time when rising numbers of American Protestants are attending non-denominational community churches and referring to themselves simply as Christians rather than Baptists, Methodists or Lutherans, a similar thing is happening among Muslims in the USA.
"It's a whole new era," says Patel. "The bulk of the American Muslim community is overwhelmingly young, under age 40. And they are experiencing a huge momentum toward 'big-tent Islam.' "
"We don't want to be defined by the classifications of history and the Middle East. The Quran is our authority," says Salim Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Al-Marayati, a Shiite married to a Sunni, expects to see 10,000 Muslims of all sects celebrate the Eid with the Islamic Center of Southern California next month in Los Angeles.
He calls himself "Sushi," the popular term for a combination of Sunni and Shiite. Once the glib nickname for the children of intermarried couples, it has become shorthand for Muslims who blur sectarian lines. (MORE)