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...

Share story

DEARBORN, Mich. —

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.

Al-Asi spoke at the annual meeting of the Muslim Congress, a Houston-based group that largely looks to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s ruling religious establishment as their highest religious authority.

The congress, which first met in 2005 with about 400 people, this year attracted more than 1,200 people over the Fourth of July weekend to Dearborn, considered the heart of Shiism in the U.S.

On another side of the Shiite divide is the Universal Muslim Association of America. Formed in 2002, it seeks full participation in U.S. democracy and broader society. Its leaders generally consider Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a moderate from Najaf, Iraq, their religious authority.

“It’s almost like red-state, blue-state Shiite,” said Saeed Khan, who researches American Muslims and teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The organizations home in on the ideological bandwidth of their respective sectarian communities.”

But both groups are more likely to follow the lead of a local imam and, as their tradition requires, a high-level religious scholar, not a national association. Still, the organizations provide a glimpse into forces shaping American Shiism — a population estimated to be less than 15 percent of the more than 4 million Muslims in the United States.

Clash of values

Like religiously observant Muslims from other streams of Islam, some Shiite immigrants disagree over whether they should become U.S. citizens or vote.

They appreciate American freedom and economic opportunity, but resent U.S. policy in the Mideast, and consider liberal American culture a threat to their traditions. Some regard Islamic law — Shariah — as the only legitimate system, and say Western democracy has no place in Islam.

While immigrant Sunnis haven’t fully settled the issue for themselves, many of their leaders, such as those from the Islamic Society of North America, have consistently promoted interfaith outreach and active citizenship, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks.

With no unifying religious leader or strong national organization, Shiites are a beat behind.

They are scattered in small pockets around the nation and more divided than Sunnis along ethnic lines. In Dearborn, a stream of immigrants from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere have filled the city with mosques and Islamic day schools, halal cafes and grocery stores, yet they often separate into their own neighborhoods.

Martyrdom tradition

Shiites also hold a worldview that can keep them isolated. Their outlook is rooted in the martyrdom of their earliest leaders and the modern-day violence and discrimination they face from Muslims who consider Shiism a false path.

“Shiites, more than Sunnis, psychologically feel that ‘we are the victims,’ ” said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a University of Virginia professor and expert on Shiism.

That sense of being under siege from enemies pervaded the Muslim Congress, where turbaned clerics in flowing robes set a strict religious tone.

Islamic dress was required at all times, and “just wearing a small hijab [veil] is not Islamic attire,” one speaker warned. Most of the women wore tunics and tightfitting head scarves that covered their necks up to their chins. Organizers put men and women in separate dining halls.

The gathering occurred just a few miles away from the moderate Islamic Center of America, considered the most influential Shiite mosque in the country. Its interfaith outreach director, Eide Alawan, said he was appalled by the approach of the congress. The mosque is led by the prominent Imam Hassan al-Qazwini, who did not participate in the event.

Among the lecturers at the event was Imam Abdul Alim Musa of Washington, who distributed fliers calling the U.S. government “Zionist occupied” and the FBI the “Gestapo.”

He accused U.S. leaders of fabricating a Muslim threat to national security so Americans could stop the global spread of Islam. An African-American civil rights activist, Musa said he converted to Islam while incarcerated in the Leavenworth, Kan., federal prison.

Sheik Abbas Ayleya, a Muslim Congress board member and lead scholar at the Zainab Center in Seattle, told the audience, “There is no room for pluralism in Islam. It is un-Quranic.”

Another Muslim Congress board member, Sheik Mohammad Baig, ended an interview when pressed about whether Shiites should vote in American elections. “That’s up to the people,” he said, rising and walking away.

Baig leads a mosque in Tampa, Fla., with a seminary guided by the theory that religious scholars should rule Islamic nations — the principle behind the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran which remains the basis for the Iranian regime.

Event organizers did hold a workshop on interfaith outreach led by a moderate imam. But many attendees seemed sympathetic to the message that Shiites should stick with their own.

“We think the people in the United States need to realize that Islam is the upgrade from Christianity,” said Abdullah Rezah, 29, a U.S.-born Iranian from the Pacific Northwest, who rubbed a string of prayer beads as he walked through the meeting. “The original Christians became Christians for one reason: They were upgraded from Judaism.”