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7216Converts/Reverts: Backstory: Islam's soul of the South

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  • Zafar Khan
    Sep 29, 2006
      Backstory: Islam's soul of the South
      The improbable rise of a black Muslim politician in
      deepest Alabama.
      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
      the blast.

      "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
      of it.

      "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
      "hold-the-pork plate."

      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
      Islamic leadership."

      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
      during Ramadan."
      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
      still do.
      "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
      about it."
      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
      or lmedrano@....

      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, it’s not 1950 anymore. It’s 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, she’s 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, it’s 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 I’m 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, she’s 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. It’s the epitome of being damned if you do
      and damned if you don’t.

      “I’m not liked by Americans, and I’m 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 — I’m fighting them, too.”

      Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American
      Society in Washington, has never met Imran, but he’s
      talked to her via telephone. He’s a black man who,
      like Imran, converted to Islam.

      “It’s 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 it’s 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 hasn’t been set yet.

      “Murder is murder,” Imran said. “It doesn’t matter
      who’s 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