A Divide In American Shiism

July 20, 2009

Author: Rachel Zoll

Source: The Seattle Times

Wire Service: AP


The hotel conference room was divided: men on the left, women on the right. The speaker, a compact, bearded man in a safari vest, had come to talk about current events and the Quran.

In the weeks leading up to the gathering, postelection protests had shaken Iran, and the audience of American Shiite Muslims wanted to know what to make of the turmoil.

Imam Mohammad al-Asi, a Michigan-born activist, sounded like a spokesman for the Iranian government. The Iranian protesters, he said, were aiding "the political Jews and the political Christians," the U.S. government and the Zionists, in a plot to eradicate Islam.

He cited verses from the Quran that he said backed his views. Then, his voice rising, he ticked off his list of American transgressions against Muslims, from supplying Israel with bombs to building U.S. military bases in Islamic countries.

"Can't you see the shaytani character of the U.S. government?" al-Asi demanded, using the Arabic word for "satanic."

This was more than a single defiant speech.

It was part of a struggle over the future of American Shiism.

Far smaller in numbers and less established than U.S. Sunnis, Shiites are wrestling with their ideological differences: Is America a place they should embrace, tolerate or resist? The debate mixes politics and faith, and spans the spectrum from hard-line separatists to eager-to-Americanize immigrants. Whichever outlook prevails will determine whether Shiism can find a place in the nation's religious mainstream.