Face of Islam: Being Muslim and American

By Matt Porter

May 8, 2013 Updated May 8, 2013 at 5:47 PM EST

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Dressed in a loose fitting traditional white robe and cap, Imam Anas Shaikh could be confused as a foreigner.

And considering the wide berth of ignorance that exists about his religion, the confusion lingers even after he's spoken in perfect English and an upstate accent.

Then it becomes clear: He's your neighbor.

The recently named leader of the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier is the first Imam to be born in America and Binghamton.

"I think that being a Muslim and being American are very similar," Shaikh said, "There is nothing in our religion that says you can't be an American while being a Muslim."

Shaikh is part of the increasing number of second and third generation Muslim Americans, who are members of the world's fastest growing religion.

The face of Islam is changing from a mostly immigrant community to an American one.

Two thirds of the Muslim community in America today are immigrants, but the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates almost half of Muslims in the U.S. will be born here by 2030.

But while Muslims become a greater presence in the US, Shaikh says Islam continues to be associated with terror.

"I think Islam has definitely gotten portrayed negatively in the media," he said.

He said he would explain Islam as a submission to God's will, which includes a command against violence.

"Our greeting, 'As-salamu alaykum,' is translated to 'Peace be upon you, peace be on you.' So we greet people with peace," Shaikh said, "And this shows that peace, love and kindness are important aspects of Islam."

Shaikh said a common misconception among non-Muslims is focused on the frequency of prayer, which can be viewed as extreme. He said Muslims pray five times a day in order to keep them better connected to God.

"The reason why we pray so many times during the day is because every so often we need to go back to God," Shaikh said.

Shaikh encourages anyone with questions to sit down with Muslims, and come to the understanding most are far from extreme.

"If you interact with a Muslim," he said, "You'll come to know exactly who he is."

In fact, a Pew study reveals most American Muslims and Christians view their religion with a similar attitude.

Seventy percent of both view religion as 'very important in life,' according to the study. But only about 45 percent of each attend services at least once a week.

Another 70 percent believe there are multiple interpretations of faith.

In Binghamton, an interfaith group known as the Children of Abraham was founded on that idea of meeting with one another across the religious aisle.

The group meets at churches, synagogues and mosques
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Rabbi Tziona Szajman helps lead the group.

She said the ties that bind the faithful are stronger than those that divide.

"One of the things that makes America special is this belief that we're all here because of a common dream," Szajman said.

The Rev. James Dutko, of Saint Michael's Greek Catholic Church, also belongs to the group.

As a Slovak, he remembers 60 years ago when eastern Europeans were looked at with suspicion as Communists or Bolsheviks.

"There was a time where we were the new kid on the block, and yes, we were discriminated against, too," Dutko said.

The history of the Greek Catholic Church has a long relationship with Islam, including periods of war and conflict.

Dutko said times have changed and America is a land for religious freedom, not strife.

"We can't repeat those mistakes," he said. "We can do better than this. This is America."

And it's an America whose changing face now includes 2.75 million Muslims.