PLAYING BY THE RULES
MARCH 14, 1996
The recent conflict over basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's refusal to stand during the National Anthem has sparked debate over the balance between religious and patriotic duty. Following a report on the controversy by Tom Bearden, Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses Islam's growing role with an expert and the social impact with essayist Roger Rosenblatt.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A battle of wills between the National Basketball Association and one of its star players ended today. It was a struggle that stirred up strong feelings about religion and patriotism. Tom Bearden begins our report.
TOM BEARDEN: Twenty-seven-year-old Mississippi-born Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, is a five-year NBA veteran. Formerly known as Chris Jackson, he changed his name in 1991 after converting to Islam. Abdul-Rauf is one of the Denver Nuggets' best players, averaging 19.6 points per game. He leads the league in free throw percentage, making 93 percent of his foul shots. Unlike his teammates, Abdul Rauf has not stood during the National Anthem for the entire season. Most of the time he didn't come onto the court until the opening ceremonies were over. But his actions escaped widespread public attention until this week. Reaction was immediate and overwhelmingly negative.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think it's ridiculous! I respect his religious beliefs, but he should also respect the fact that he lives in a country greater than any other, and it's a matter of standing out of respect.
TOM BEARDEN: Two days ago, Abdul-Rauf said his Muslim faith prevented him from worshiping at any nationalistic ceremony.
MAHMOUD ABDUL-RAUF, Denver Nuggets: (March 12) It's a belief, and I won't compromise my beliefs. And that's my stance on it. I didn't--I didn't intend to make it a public issue, but it's, it's at that level now. But I won't waiver in my decision. The Supreme Court even issued it's constitutional to burn the flag, so why give me a problem for not standing? I come to play basketball, so watch me play basketball. I think because I'm in the public, the public eye, I'm visible, it's easy to target.
TOM BEARDEN: Abdul-Rauf's comments about what the American flag stands for drew the most ire.
MAHMOUD ABDUL-RAUF: It's also a symbol of oppression, of tyranny, so it depends on how you look at it. Uh, uh, I think this, this country has a long history of that. If you look at history, I don't think you can argue the facts.
TOM BEARDEN: The NBA suspended Rauf without pay yesterday on the grounds that League rules require players to stand in a dignified manner during the playing of the National Anthem. Abdul-Rauf's actions have drawn qualified support from teammates and other NBA players, but Houston Rockets center Hareem Olajuwon, also a Muslim, said his understanding of Islamic teaching was different.
HAKEEM OLAJUWON, Houston Rockets: (March 13) In general, Islamic teachings require every Muslim to obey and respect the law of the countries they live in. You know, that is--that is Islamic teachings. You know, to be a good Muslim is to be a good citizen, to be an example. If you worship none but God--well, you expect the flag--you expect, the, you know, the honor America, but not worshiping it--that must be distinguished between worshiping and respect, you know.
TOM BEARDEN: But today, Rauf said he would stand for the National Anthem at future games.
MAHMOUD ABDUL-RAUF: Am I sorry for it? No. Do I feel I'm wrong for doing what I did? No. Uh, this is what I believe, and, and I'm not wrong for the stance that I took, and in no way am I compromising, but I'm saying I understand and recognize that there is a better approach, and in Islam, it says if there's something, uh, you honor, it's, it's about honoring a contract and making decisions, but after making a decision, if you see that which is better, you do that, and I understand that there is something better.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Abdul-Rauf said he would pray while standing for the National Anthem. After his comments today, the NBA lifted its suspension. The case has opened a window on a growing phenomenon in America, African-Americans practicing Islam. For some insight into that, we turn to Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud, a professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Dr. McCloud, there seems to be a range of opinion within the Islamic community about the conflict between religion and patriotism. What explains that?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD, DePaul University: (Chicago) I think it's because of individual interpretation and individual expression within religion itself. There is a great deal of diversity, umm, spanning ethics, spanning nationalities, and just very individualistic a how people understand what they are supposed to do Islamicly and also how they read and interpret how they are to express themselves as Muslims.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there anything that is unique to the African-American interpretation of Islam?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Well, I think that the African-American interpretation is one that's done by conscious choice. There are--Islam has been in America since the beginning of the century. And while there are Muslims who have come through the generations, there are always Muslims moving--I mean, individuals moving into Islam. And, therefore, by conscious choice, they're looking to be very reasonable and rational about what they're going to do, what they're not going to do in a society that's largely secular.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How many African-Americans practice Islam today?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Well, the estimates have gone from a million, one point five million, all the way to four point five million. It depends upon who you ask, which scholar is doing the research.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But is there a growing--is there a sense that whatever the number is between that one and four point five million or whatever, that the numbers are growing?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Definitely, definitely growing.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Within a recent period of time?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: I would say probably since the 60's. There's been a decade kind of increment, but in recent years, there has been phenomenal growth.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hmm-hmm. Abdul-Rauf converted when he was about 22. I think that was in 1991. Is the pull strongest among the younger people, younger African-Americans?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: I would think it is. Uh, in talking with people across the country on the East Coast and on the West Coast, there seems to be between eighteen- and twenty-five-year-olds the greatest amount of conversion.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is it to any particular branch of Islam, or--
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Most are converted to Sunni Islam.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what does that mean? What's the difference?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: There are two major branches of Islam. One is Shi'a Islam. The other is Sunni Islam. And they are historically different, philosophically different and have developed over the centuries a little bit different. Uh, the main core of Islam, prayer, fasting, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the attestation that there is no God but God belongs to all the groups, but how they understand history, how they understand the treatment of their communities differs.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there anything distinct about Sunni that you can tell us briefly to understand perhaps this appeal to African-Americans?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Well, I think on the face of it one appeal is that it is the first Islam that has come to the United States. I don't know that African-Americans would convert in larger number to Shia Islam, although some have.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is one more conservative than the other, or is there--I mean, how can you establish the difference?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Well, Shia Islam is historically ethnically, has grown to be historically ethnically kind of particular. It's bases now are in Iran and although there are Shia Muslims who live all over the world, it's more ethnically specific than Sunni Islam.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And they differ from Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, is that right?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Well, Farrakhan's Nation of Islam and the movements he's making to accommodate the group toward more, a more orthodox Islam, when and if he does that, it would probably fall under the category of Sunni Islam.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But right now, there's a distinct difference between the Sunnis, the Shia's, and the Nation of Islam?
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Doctor, thank you for joining us.
DR. AMINAH BEVERLY McCLOUD: Thank you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now for some thoughts from our regular essayist, Roger Rosenblatt, who's been listening in to our discussion and who has followed the Abdul-Rauf case. Roger, you've been listening to all of us and following the case, as I just said. What do you see through the window you're looking through?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, the window I'm looking through is not the specific religious window, Charlayne, as much as it is the one that when such events occur as this, they're always equally infuriating and instructive and in some way exhilarating. The idea that someone can, and I think the League should have allowed him, apart from this compromise that they worked out, that someone can protest the flag, can say things bad about the country, umm, is the, is the strength of the country. We only really know that this class document, the Constitution, was tested when somebody like Abdul-Rauf comes along and says, well, I don't really share your beliefs, and I'm not going to share your traditions, and I'm actually going--going to insult you directly. It's the nature of the insult, oddly enough, proves the strength of the symbol.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you're saying that sometimes the worst brings out the best in--
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That's exactly right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --Americans.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And actually, the demonstration of the worst shows what, what the quality of the best is. Our Constitution is really a class document. Our democracy is a class form of government. If everybody followed the rules all the time, we would never know it. But every once in a while, a Roseanne comes along to denigrate the "Star Spangled Banner," or there's, as there was a few years ago, an exhibit in a Cleveland Museum where people have to walk on the flag in order to look at the museum, and people rightly get furious at this, because we love the country, and we love what it's--those things symbolize.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you see this much more in that context than say Mohammed Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam because of his religion or Sandy Koufax refusing to play on, was it Yom Kippur?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: On opening day of the World Series.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Exactly. They just shifted a day for Koufax, and the League would work this out, right. I see it as yet another demonstration, because, after all, Abdul-Rauf added to his expression of wanting to retain his religious beliefs, that he felt that the flag was a symbol of an oppressive government. That obviously gets under people's skin; we get very angry, and rightfully angry, when we hear that, but when we hear it and allow somebody to say it, allow somebody, as long as he doesn't do harm to anybody else, hold onto his beliefs, however unpalatable they are, however unattractive they are, then we know how strong we are.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In brief, is this just a blip on the media landscape, or is this part of the cultural landscape changing that we're going to see in coming years, weeks, years, months?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I don't know if it's a blip or something big. I think every once in a while we have these things. If we had them all the time, there'd be something to question in our Constitution and in our form of government.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I obviously don't think there is.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: But every once in a while, something like this will happen. When it does, it's instructive.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Roger, thank you for joining us.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you, Charlayne.