Islam: Growing In Number, Changing In Image
"There are two factors that lead to the growth of Islam,” said Imam Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California. “One is a higher birth rate among Muslims, the second is through conversion.”
The global Muslim population is expected to grow by about 35 percent in the next 20 years, from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030, according to the latest figures by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
That puts the Muslim growth rate at about twice that of the non-Muslim population over the next 20 years – an average growth of 1.5 percent for Muslims, in contrast to 0.7 percent for non-Muslims.
If numbers continue to rise, Muslims will make up 26.4 percent of the world’s total expected population of 8.3 billion in 2030, up from 23.4 percent of the estimated 2010 world population of 6.9 billion, according to the Pew Research Center.
While a strong birth rate is behind Muslim growth, the religion's continuing attraction to converts also plays a part.
“Conversion happens in my experience through intermarriage," Turk said. "A man or a woman ends up falling in love with a Muslim and embracing the religion and raising their children as Muslim, which contributes to the growth. The other half find their way to Islam through their own spiritual journey.”
Moises Gonzalez, who recently joined the Nation of Islam, is an example of the marriage trend described by Turk.
“I fell in love with a Muslim woman, and as a way of showing my love for her I decided to convert,” said Gonzalez, who is of Latin descent and has quit drinking and grown a beard as part of his newly adopted customs.
A relationship is also the reason why Ti Mikkel is considering becoming a Muslim. Mikkel was born in the Midwest but spent most of her life in Savannah, Ga.
“I've lived all over the world and was never raised with religion," Mikkel said. "In fact, I've been back and forth between agnostic and atheist for as long as I can remember.
“My reason for converting was for me and my boyfriend, as faith is very important to his family. We are no longer together now, but before we parted ways, I knew, being the non-religious type, that I had to make this step on my own. It had to be my decision so as to not build resentment. He had never asked me to convert. It has always been my choice.”
While Mikkel has not yet converted, she already wears the hijab, a head covering favored by some Muslim women.
“I do like wearing the hijab," Mikkel said. "It shows respect and that means something to me, but I have no problem with how anyone else chooses to dress. I am very socially liberal as well, so the values at Muslims for Progressive Values really make me feel comfortable, and I like that I could be part of something wonderful.”
Muslims for Progressive Values (MVP) is an American reformist organization rooted in the traditional Qur’anic ideals of human dignity and social justice. The group, which started in Los Angeles in 2007, has developed from a few friends to more than 1,000 members and has expanded to other states, including such conservative bastions as Georgia. It has even reached Canada.
“The reason I started MPV, there was a real shift toward conservatism," said Ani Zonneveld, co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values. "I became more acutely aware of that as a result of being discriminated against in the arts.”
The 49-year-old Malaysian-American singer-songwriter had recorded an Islamic pop CD but could not find a distributor because she is a woman.
“The reason it was denied is because I am a woman and men are forbidden to hear women sing," Zonneveld said. "I found that this interpretation of Islam was alien to me, and I wanted people to have a place to practice the kind of Islam I practice, a religion that is all inclusive and nonjudgmental. After all, Prophet Mohammad never discriminated against anyone.”
While the group espouses fighting radicalization, building interfaith bridges and protecting women’s rights, it has found its most important role to be giving all Muslims a place to come where they can practice their faith, no matter their backgrounds, and feel accepted.
“Our belief system is an inclusive egalitarian interpretation of Islam, and by that we don’t just say it, we live it, and by that we practice it,” Zonneveld said.
Mathew Simonds is another member of MPV who has found comfort within the organization.
“It has changed my life,” Simonds said. “Before I found out about it last year, I felt very isolated. It is a place where I can be myself and meet other gay Muslims and feel totally accepted.”
Simonds adopted the name Yousef when he converted to Islam in 1989 after having an “amazing” experience fasting during the holy month of Ramadan while he was in Egypt.
Simonds had a longtime interest in the religion and had studied it along with Arabic at the University of California at Berkeley.
“MPV allowed me to be who I am,” Simonds said. "Before being part of the organization, I couldn’t go to a mosque and be out there. I had to conceal my sexual orientation.”
At MPV, women lead congregations in prayer, homosexuals are accepted and women and men pray side-by-side, customs not witnessed in a traditional mosque.
“While Islam does not judge or even sanction homosexual tendencies, the consensus of Muslim scholars would say it is not right, it is un-Islamic,” said Sherman Jackson, the King Faisal chair in Islamic thought and culture and a professor of religion and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
While more traditional clerics might disagree with members of MPV on what is accepted in Islam and what is not, all are working within their own communities toward portraying a more positive image of Islam.
“I think it behooves us as American Muslims to get involved and not just be consumers of culture but to be producers of culture, to be involved and be known for who we are with all of our wrinkles and warts and everything else,” Turk said.
“At MPV,” Zonneveld explained, “we just look at ourselves inwards, and we say to be a good human being is to do good deeds and to care for others and not be judgmental and not to discriminate, because that is what the religion is about and that’s what should be portrayed.”
At the Islamic Center of Southern California, activities for young Muslims are geared to cultivating young leaders with a strong Muslim American identity and a positive peer group while establishing a firm foundation in Islamic knowledge.
“In a world where Islamophobia is on the rise, it is important for Muslim American children to grow up in an environment where they can talk openly about the issues they are facing with people who are dealing with similar issues,” said Soha Yassine, co-chair of the Islamic Center of Southern California. “It is also important for young people to understand that being Muslim and being American are not exclusive.”
Yassine also organizes meetings between young Muslims and Jews to cultivate interfaith understanding between the two communities that have faced challenges and difficulties in maintaining a positive dialogue.
Turk, who works with Yassine on the projects, believes that interfaith dialogues are important in redressing misconceptions about Islam.
“Muslims believe in one God,” Turk said. “Secondly, while Muslims do not worship Jesus, they believe in Jesus as Christ. Third, people believe that Islam mistreats women and while the truth is that many Muslims mistreat women, it’s against our faith to do so and it’s something that we are working hard to fight.
“Finally, people think that Islam is a violent religion, and the truth of the matter is many Muslims might in the name of religion engage in violent actions, but it is something against Islamic teachings. In fact, Islam in its essence is a religion that values peace and harmony over violence.”
Turk continued, “Like any other community, I think Muslims have the good, the bad and the ugly. It is a newer religion, and our true flavor will be identified and understood, and that is just going to take time.”
Reach contributor Nuha Abujaber here.