- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2010

DEARBORN, Mich. — Sayyid Haider Bahar al-Uloom paces before his students seated in two neat rows — men in one, women in the other. They meet each week in a small but growing office in an old storefront downtown, its shelves lined with Arabic texts on Islamic jurisprudence.

Tonight’s lesson is on justice, but Sayyid Bahar al-Uloom’s lecture ranges wide of Muslim teaching. He cites the Federalist Papers, slavery in U.S. history and spirituality in “The Audacity of Hope.” A 37-year-old Iraqi Shi’ite, he consumes books on American culture and religion, analyzing the works of celebrity pastors Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and others to learn their appeal.

“We should not fear introducing people to other ideas,” said Sayyid Bahar al-Uloom, whose title sayyid is for those who trace their lineage to the Prophet Muhammad.

On this night in Michigan, he ends his lecture with the same message he brings to Shi’ite groups across the country: Your ideals, rooted in Islam, are not alien here.

“We call them Islamic values, but they are universal values,” he says in near accentless English. “If it’s a principle or act that would help all Americans, all I need to do is speak it in a language that is universal.”

Shi’ites comprise less than 15 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and an even smaller percentage of the Muslims in the U.S. Within the wider Muslim world, they are often persecuted for their beliefs and ways of worship.

Islamic law governs even the smallest issues for devout Shi’ites. Can they wear cologne? Listen to popular music? Sit at a table where alcohol is served? New interpretations are needed for life in non-Muslim countries.

Pious Shi’ites have seen threats to their faith from the permissive American way of life and what for many is their first experience of a non-Muslim government. Worried that voting or other civic involvement would violate Islamic law, many have opted instead to turn inward, focusing on preserving their traditions.

But the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror strikes, the war in Iraq and other world events have prompted some significant changes in the U.S. Shi’ite community in recent years. Shi’ite clerics and activists are pushing community members beyond the protective walls they built, encouraging them to fully embrace their American citizenship.

At the forefront of the effort is the nonprofit that Sayyid Bahar al-Uloom helps represent. Called I.M.A.M., the nonprofit tells Shi’ites that they can vote, participate in the 2010 U.S. census and hold public office without abandoning their faith.

“In the United States, the law here is not against Islam,” said Sheik Mohammed el-Ali al-Halabi, a Syrian who came to the United States a decade ago, sitting in his bare-bones office at I.M.A.M. “I can be a good Muslim and a good American.”

Half a world away from Dearborn lies the inspiration for this drive, an unexpected source for dramatic change: an elderly holy man who rarely leaves his home in the old quarter of the Iraqi holy city of Najaf and who probably will never visit the United States.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani isn’t widely known in the United States outside public-policy circles, but he should be. He is one of the most revered thinkers in global Shi’ism, a moderate in outlook and a powerful force in Iraq. His behind-the-scenes interventions were key to guiding the country’s fledgling democracy.

The grand ayatollah and his advisers lead lives dedicated to religious tradition, but they are also pioneers in using the Web to reach the globally dispersed faithful. They teach that good Muslims must be active citizens of whatever country they call home.

As Shi’ites emigrate around the world, the grand ayatollah sends along his representatives to guide them on how to remain devout in a foreign culture.

I.M.A.M., or the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya, is the liaison office in the United States for Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

The organization’s lecturers and scholars crisscross the country to support fledgling Shi’ite institutions. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is far from the only marja, or top-level religious authority, with American followers, but he is one of the most prominent. Through the Dearborn office, he is helping shape American Shi’ism.

“It’s kind of a status symbol that you are recognized and trusted by the office of the ayatollah,” said Liyakat Takim, author of “Shi’ism in America” and professor at McMaster University in Canada. “It builds your credibility.”

I.M.A.M. opened a year ago under the leadership of Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri, a cleric who works in Dearborn and Los Angeles on behalf of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and his advisers.

The Dearborn area has the biggest concentration of Shi’ites in the United States. The city is home to the headquarters of Ford Motor Co., which started attracting Arab and Muslim immigrants in the early 1900s with above-average wages for assembly line workers. Now, the city bordering Detroit is filled with mosques, Islamic schools, Lebanese restaurants and food markets that follow Islamic dietary laws.

Inside I.M.A.M., poster-size photos of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and his late mentor, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, hang above the office reception desk. It is one of the rare portraits that the reclusive Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani ever allowed of himself, as he, like many of the Dearborn staff and volunteers, consider it a sign of humility to avoid photographs of themselves.

Sayyid Bahar al-Uloom, I.M.A.M.’s vice chairman, graduated from Dearborn’s public high school and Wayne State University, but his seminary education has been by correspondence with scholars from Najaf, Iraq and Qom, Iran - prominent centers of Shi’ite learning. For years, teachers mailed him cassette recordings of their lectures, which he would play in his car as he drove the streets of Dearborn.

He and his cousin, Sayyid Hassan al-Hakim, a 26-year-old graduate student in public administration, often arrive early in the morning to study before the deluge of calls and e-mails with questions about Islamic law and requests for help. Staff cell phones buzz all day with questions sent by text.

“How far off can u be from the Qibla?” reads a query on al-Hakim’s cell phone, about facing in the proper direction, toward Mecca, for prayer.

Volunteers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, share computers crammed into a small room off the library. Among them are the editors and designers of I.M.A.M.’s glossy educational magazine, Reflections. They have a policy of publishing in English, except for religious references that require Arabic, to reach a younger generation of American Muslims, along with non-Muslims.

“Muslims should be essential participants in their respective societies while maintaining the beauty of Islam as their code of conduct,” reads a recent article titled “Being American and Being Muslim.” Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani “is known to have repeatedly called for integration with preservation of identity,” the author writes.

The same article indirectly addresses the threat of extremism, condemning “so-called ‘Muslims’ who endanger innocent lives.” The author urges Muslims and non-Muslims to report any potential threats to civil authorities and “hold fast to the principles of Islam and protect those around them.”

Down a winding staircase into the basement is AscentTV.net, the organization’s video production arm, which targets people younger than 35. An underlying theme of the shows, which are in English, is that observant Shi’ites can find ways to fit into Western society.

Houda Fawaz, the 26-year-old, college-educated daughter of Lebanese immigrants, does editing and post-production work for a women’s show called “Sister to Sister.”

“I’ve always wanted a job where I felt I was helping other people,” said Ms. Fawaz, who wears a scarf that covers her hair and neck. “With communications, you can touch so many people at one time.”

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