7216Converts/Reverts: Backstory: Islam's soul of the South
- Sep 29, 2006Backstory: Islam's soul of the South
The improbable rise of a black Muslim politician in
By John Fleming | Contributor to The Christian Science
September 28, 2006 edition
SELMA, ALA. Yusuf Salaam's dedication to racial
reconciliation started when a white man died for his
sister. It was 1965 Alabama, the height of the civil
rights movement, and Mr. Salaam's 16-year-old sister,
Ruby Sales, was in the thick of it, working to end
segregation. That August day she, with a handful of
others, was confronted by a shotgun-wielding avowed
racist. As he leveled his gun, shouting obscenities,
Ruby was shoved out of the way by an Episcopal
seminarian named Jon Daniels who died instantly from
"If you want to understand what I stand for, and why I
do what I do here in this place that isn't known for
its tolerance and its understanding, you really have
to go back to Ruby and that Jon Daniels thing," Salaam
says referring to the incident that occurred not far
from this city aside the churning Alabama River.
When Daniels was killed, Salaam was at a summer prep
school in Colorado "along with a bunch of rich kids,"
as he puts it. "They offered me a scholarship. But
after what happened, I felt like I had to go back to
my Jim Crow school in the South and start being a part
"I felt such a sense of gratitude then that someone
from outside the black race would make such a
sacrifice for us, that it nullified any inclination I
had toward looking at it racially myself."
Today's Selma, he will tell you, is a different place
than it was during the height of violence and
suffocating oppression of 1965. And he's right. Gov.
George Wallace's state troopers no longer menace
peaceful marchers, Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse no
longer terrorize blacks registering to vote. The city
has a black mayor and a majority black city council.
Enfranchisement at least has been achieved.
But he also grudgingly acknowledges what's still
there: the issue, the question, the matter of race.
It's a current just below the surface, determining and
defining just about everything from the city budget to
candidates for public office. It's safe to say that
one of this nation's most racially intolerant cities
in the 1960s still has issues. But when you cast about
for a way to measure Selma's lack of tolerance and
it's unwillingness to reconcile and embrace change,
you run up on a problem in the form of Yusuf Salaam
It would be hard to find anyone so out of the ordinary
and unlikely to be accepted in middle Alabama. Yet,
here's a Muslim convert of 30 years who is Selma and
Dallas County's representative to the state house in
Montgomery. The county is 47 percent white and 99
percent Christian - and many of them, black and white,
are deep-water, conservative Baptists. With
demographics like that, it would seem a Muslim vying
for public office wouldn't have a prayer - especially
with central Alabama's record of resistance to change.
However, it appears that Salaam has hit upon a
successful strategy: He speaks the politics of
pragmatism and reconciliation, and a lot of people -
enough to reelect him - love that.
"You have to be wise when you get power," he says over
breakfast at the Downtowner Restaurant, a few blocks
from the Pettus Bridge, site of a bloody attack on
black voting rights marchers in 1965. "I learned I had
to find a way to transition from protest politics to
electoral politics. You see, it's one thing to dream
about power, it's quite another to actually govern, to
deliver to the people. And the test of faith, in
Selma, comes with being fair to all races."
But how does that come off in Selma's day to day,
where a flagging economy and lingering animosities
aggravate festering racial issues? The proof is in the
returns. Salaam won handily in 2002 and 2004. Last
June he won the Demo- cratic primary - almost
equivalent to winning the general election here - with
54 percent of the vote.
He gets high marks from both whites and blacks for
being what he calls a "compassionate-conservative
Democrat." That roughly means he's about fiscal
discipline and accountability, is antiwar, not a
George Bush fan, but ardently anti-abortion. And he's
big on delivering: He's funneled $10 million in
development funds to the area in recent years and
backed a major road-building project that serves a
nearly all-white community north of Selma.
His connection to the people was clear in his
reception at the Downtowner. Next to a table full of
burly white guys making too much noise and going on
about turkey hunting, Salaam sat quietly in a booth.
While his neighbors were knocking back their sausage
and fried ham, the waitress drifted by to serve the
representative his "usual" - also known as the
As Salaam settled in to toast and eggs, an older white
man striding by paused just long enough to hiss,
"don't believe a damn word he says."
A ghastly silence fell. Then an outburst of laughter
from the white guys at the next table, the old man,
the waitresses, and Salaam himself. Half the morning,
it seemed the waitresses doted on him, and
businessmen, farmers, and old ladies stopped to say
hello. Many people at the Downtowner and around town
respect the man who has raised five children here
while practicing law.
Becky Nichols, the white director of the Selma-Dallas
County Public Library says Salaam's a successful
politician "because he has struggled to represent all
the people. That sounds simplistic, but in this
community, that is essential for a politician."
Born Joseph Sales in 1947, Salaam was the son and
grandson of Southern Baptist preachers. His sister,
Ruby, today is an Episcopal priest. He converted to
Islam in the '70s because of a personal crisis - bad
habits he was picking up in law school at the
University of Miami (like chasing too many women and
drinking too much). That, combined with a deeper
reason: "I was looking to bring about that change
Martin Luther King spoke to us about. I was looking
for that way [that] could take black people to the
Promised Land, and I wasn't seeing it in the Christian
leaders.... I did, however, see it in Islam and the
He explains that he disagreed with the racial rhetoric
of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad,
especially references to "white devils." But in 1975,
the organization took a moderate turn under Warith
Deen Muhammad, who emphasized empowerment and racial
Selma isn't very conducive to someone adhering to the
dietary restrictions of Islam - there are as many
barbecue joints in Dallas County as churches. And
Salaam, who is imam of the local mosque, readily
admits that it's sometimes difficult to fulfill all
the daily obligations of a devout Muslim. "I aspire to
pray five times a day," he says, but sometimes "I have
to give in to the realities of Alabama and American
life." Such as when he is debating on the floor of the
State House. "But look, you know Muslims don't have a
corner on praying a lot. My grandmother was a
hard-core Southern Baptist. She must have prayed 12
times a day."
His detractors are easier to find in the black
community, where people will whisper that Salaam is
the "white man's candidate."
"Yusuf was a mentor to a lot of us," says community
organizer Tarana Burke. "We really looked up to him,
but somewhere along the line he figured out he could
be more powerful by allying with white folks. That's
when he stopped working for the reforms that were
important for blacks."
It takes about a millisecond for Salaam to respond to
such accusations: "That kind of talk you hear about
me, that's just left over, boiled over rhetoric from
the 1960s.... I refute that kind of nonsense by my
action. There hasn't been anyone from the
African-American community who has done more for Selma
than I have."
Ultimately, however, he wants everyone to know that he
represents a new way of politics in this part of the
South. George Wallace, he explained, learned early how
to use race to gain power and a lot of black
politicians have used the same idea.
"None of that is me," he says. "What I've done is to
convince people that they need to stop voting along
racial lines. It has been a long struggle, but it's
paying dividends. I think a lot of politicians could
learn from that."
Tucsonan finds her way with Islam
By Lourdes Medrano
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 09.23.2006
As the Sept. 11 attacks tainted Islam as a religion of
extremists, Tucsonan Leslie Travaglione said, she kept
thinking of Muslims who didn't fit the description.
Could Islam harbor terrorists? What was this religion
really all about? Travaglione kept asking herself.
Her mind kept wandering back to the Muslim nurse in
Mesa who had watched over her after a car accident
years earlier, soon after she moved to Arizona from
the Hudson Valley in New York. "She sat by my bedside,
and she read to me," Travaglione recalled. "She was so
kind; she kept my spirits up all the time."
Seeking answers about Islam, Travaglione immersed
herself in the study of the religion, which pulled her
in like a magnet. A year ago, she became a Muslim.
"I discovered that Islam is a tolerant, very kind
religion," she said.
Until she converted to Islam, Travaglione said, her
life had been punctuated by family conflict,
depression and alcoholism. Now Islam fills her life.
"Islam gives me a reason to live," said Travaglione,
as she prepared to observe Islam's holy month of
Ramadan. Like other Muslims, she will begin a daily
fast today that lasts from dawn to dusk.
The monthlong observance, which highlights prayer,
reflection and charity, gives Travaglione a chance for
contemplation and renewal, she said. "It's also a
communal experience because we break fast with other
Muslims, and we get to meet other people."
As she does every week, Travaglione, 44, on Friday
prayed at the Islamic Center of Tucson near the
University of Arizona.
Warda Harama, who also was at the mosque, described
Travaglione as a good Muslim because the convert
follows the religion's basic tenets, including
attending prayers at the mosque often.
"She seems committed to Islam," Harama said. "She and
the rest of us will be here at the mosque even more
After the early afternoon prayers, Travaglione and
other women chatted about Ramadan on their side of the
The men were on the opposite side; Islam forbids the
intermingling of women and men.
The practice may seem sexist to some, Trava-glione
noted, but she is comfortable with it. "My mother
thinks Muslims are behind the times," she said. "But
that's the way it is, it's part of the religion, and
I'm accepting it."
Her mother, as well as some friends, question
Travaglione's decision to embrace Islam and cover her
entire body with the exception of face and hands
in an Islamic show of modesty.
Her hijab, or head covering, and floor-length dresses
usually turn heads. The stares no longer make her
uneasy, she said, but the questions people ask her
"It's hard on me," said Travaglione, who is divorced
and has a daughter living in New York. "Sometimes I
just feel like I don't want anybody to ask me anything
Contrary to perception, Travaglione said not all women
wear the hijab, and they are not forced to do so.
Initially, she did not like the idea of wearing the
loose attire. But the more she thought about it,
Travaglione said, the more it made sense.
"The general school of thought is that you don't want
to dishonor yourself by attracting attention to your
body instead of you as a human being, who you are as a
person," she said. "It is more dignified not to have
myself hanging out all over my clothes."
Although it may be difficult for non-Muslims to
understand, Travaglione said Islam's segregation of
the sexes and the modest attire of its followers works
for Muslims because the religion doesn't allow dating.
Marriages usually are arranged, she said.
As for her, Travaglione noted that she is appreciative
when a man looks directly into her eyes, rather than
at her chest, when talking.
"All my clothes are Muslim now," she said. "I used to
wear shorts and tank tops, and I don't wear them
Now, she is focused on learning how to be a good
Muslim. In her tiny Midtown apartment, Tra-vaglione
reads a translated version of the Quran, Muslims' holy
book, and other Islamic literature.
As all devout Muslims, she prays five times a day,
facing east toward the holy city of Mecca in Saudi
She still has a lot to learn about the religion,
Travaglione said, but she is a willing student.
Already, she can recite some prayers in the Arabic
language of Islam.
"I have found my way," she said, and smiled.
● Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 573-4347
Muslim convert catches flak from both sides
By Rick Badie | Tuesday, September 26, 2006, 06:38 AM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The criticism comes from both sides.
Some accuse her of being anti-American, unpatriotic, a
Others call her anti-Muslim for denouncing terrorists
who kill in the name of Islam.
Nearly 20 years ago, Shannon Imran became friends with
a Muslim woman when Imran was a college student in
Central Texas. Imran, now a 39-year-old white mother
of three who lives in Norcross, liked the way her
friend carried herself and the way Muslim men treated
So she converted to the faith.
All the Muslims were very well-reserved gentlemen and
ladies, Imran told me. It was almost like the way
Americans used to act in the 1950s.
Well, its not 1950 anymore. Its the 21st century,
and terrorists killed thousands on Sept. 11, 2001. The
United States has retaliated with a so-called war on
terror. Radical Muslims figure prominently in it.
And in her own way, so does Imran, a Texas native who
grew up in a military family.
She spent 12 years in the Marines and saw duty in
Operation Desert Storm. Today, shes a disabled
veteran because of a non-combat back injury that was
sustained during the war.
When you carry a backpack that weighs 60 to 80 pounds
and run in combat boots, its going to take its toll,
she said. Lots of veterans wind up with back
Until recently, Imran wore hijabs, the head scarfs
worn by Muslim women. The scarfs attracted unwanted
attention. Passing motorists who yelled obscenities.
Subtle and overt forms of rudeness.
It was too much, she said. And Im not stupid. It
would be different if I were carrying an M-16.
To vent and express herself, Imran has turned to the
accommodating world of cyberspace. She posts comments
on discussion boards and Web sites like
There, shes an equal opportunity offender, drawing
the ire of Muslims and Americans. When she defends her
faith, she infuriates Americans. When she denounces
terrorism, extremists scream traitor and issue death
threats. Its the epitome of being damned if you do
and damned if you dont.
Im not liked by Americans, and Im not liked by
Muslims, she said. I never would have thought I
would be called a terrorist or anti-USA because I am
Muslim. And the Muslims who use Islam to follow their
own agendas Im fighting them, too.
Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American
Society in Washington, has never met Imran, but hes
talked to her via telephone. Hes a black man who,
like Imran, converted to Islam.
Its a double-whammy for people who are American and
convert to Islam, especially since 9/11, he said.
People view you as less than loyal, as a fifth
column, even though many of us love this country. I
can imagine its very, very difficult for a Caucasian
who converts because it really raises eyebrows.
Imran is planning a local rally to protest terrorism,
the war on Iraq as well as the Israel-Lebanon
conflict. She wants Muslims, Christians and Jews to
show solidarity and has enlisted the help of the
Muslim American Society. A date hasnt been set yet.
Murder is murder, Imran said. It doesnt matter
whos doing it.
Guantanamo's Uneasy Ramadan
Tensions and religious teaching mix at prison, as a
court challenge calls for Muslim chaplains.
With the beginning of the Islamic holy month of
Ramadan, authorities at the Guantanamo Bay detention
camp have stepped up efforts to teach guards about the
religious observance, amid signs that radical strains
of Islam are becoming a potent organizing tool at the
The cellblocks, which now house 14 suspected Al Qaeda
leaders as well as more than 400 other detainees, have
been rocked by a riot and three suicides in recent