Americans progress in learning Muslim culture, Syeed says


Jessica White | Staff Writer

Forty years ago today, many Americans didn’t know Muslims were in the middle of Ramadan, much less what the month-long observance meant. When Muslim leader Sayyid Syeed’s children were going to school in the 1970s, he said, he and his wife would have to explain to teachers that their children were fasting during daylight hours and that they should be exempt from lunch. They wondered if the day would come when Americans recognized and understood that pillar of Islamic tradition.

Almost half a century later, Syeed said he is amazed that a new generation of Muslims can grow up in a totally different, more pluralistic United States.

“When you think about it step by step, times were trying, and movements didn’t always seem to go in the right direction,” he said. “But we were persistent with a clear vision of pluralism, and it’s amazing how interfaith relationships have worked out.”

Had Muslims not had the freedom to develop a presence in the U.S., Syeed said, that would have showed a great lack of integrity in the country — something he will discuss during Thursday’s Interfaith Lecture. His lecture is at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy and is titled “Islamic Experience in a Pluralist Democracy: Building a New Muslim Identity and Institutions in America.”

Syeed moved to the U.S. in the mid-1970s when he was 30 years old to earn his doctorate in sociolinguistics from Indiana University. At the time, he said, there were hardly a dozen mosques in the country. Many Islamic nations were gaining freedom from European colonial rule, so Muslim countries were sending thousands of students to the U.S. for higher education. For the first time, there was a large and quickly growing number of Muslims in the U.S.

Syeed said he saw great potential for Muslim growth and development in a democratic nation, and he soon became president of the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada. Original students began to graduate, but many of them could not return to their home countries, because those countries had been seized by dictators or other political disturbances and were unsafe, Syeed said. So he transformed the former student organization into the present Islamic Society of North America.

“Muslims coming from countries that were not democratic were finally able to practice Islam without pressure from the government or anyone else,” he said.

Now director of the ISNA, Syeed travels throughout the world promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding of Islam. He has addressed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and he was one of eight U.S. Muslim leaders to travel to concentration camps in Germany and Poland to combat Holocaust denial by other prominent leaders of Islam. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who spoke at 2 p.m. Monday, led the trip.

“America is a powerful country, because it has been able to build a society which boasts diversity both ethnically and religiously, and the growth and development of Islam will reinforce America’s diversity,” Syeed said. “It will also allow these religions to work hand in hand at building a peaceful society here, and I believe that will have global implications.”