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, post-election 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 hardline 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 July 4 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 Shia,” said Saeed Khan, who researches American Muslims and teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The organizations hone in on the ideological bandwidth of their respective sectarian communities.”
But both the congress and the Universal Muslim Association are small groups with limited funding and influence within the emerging U.S. Shiite community. Devout Shiites 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.
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.
Sheikh 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.
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.