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a mosque
introduction: may 9, 2002

Muslims account for one-fifth of the world's population, but most Americans know little about their faith, Islam, which continues to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and around the world.

What does it mean to be a Muslim today? Does Islam deserve its reputation as a patriarchal, authoritarian, and anti-Western religion? What is the role of Islam in movements for political and social change?

FRONTLINE explores these and other questions in "Muslims," a special two-hour film examining the different faces of Islam's worldwide resurgence and the fundamental tenets of the faith. Reporting from Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey, and the United States, and drawing on the perspectives of leading scholars of Islam, this program tells the stories of Muslims struggling to define how Islam will shape their lives and societies.

The journey begins at Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque, the oldest extant university in the world. Sheik Muawith Mabrook Abbas, an Islamic scholar, staffs the phones of Al Azhar's Fatwa Committee, responding to Muslims wanting to know what is right and wrong under Islamic (or Sharia) law. The sheik encourages Muslims to hold fast to the traditions of Islam. But the influence of Islamic institutions such as Al Azhar has waned, while daily pressures have risen, and people have been forced to look elsewhere for guidance. For some, the answer has been in more traditional interpretations of Islam, while for others it is in a more contemporary understanding of their faith.

In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar, a feminist Muslim activist, questions her religion's repressive views and treatment of women and heads a group working for modern interpretations of Islamic texts. Despite the rising influence of Malaysia's Islamic Party, which encourages women to veil themselves and put their family before career, Zainah is adamant that Islam is not a patriarchal religion.

In secular Turkey, Muslims are in another kind of struggle. For over seventy years the government has strictly separated Islam from politics, viewing political Islam as a threat to Turkey's modern, democratic society. But with the revival of Islam -- in 1996 a Turkish Islamic Party won over 20 percent of the vote -- Turkey has cracked down on Islam's most visible symbols, such as head scarves on women. Secularists see head scarves in public leading to further inroads on the nation's strict separation of religion and state.

There's little struggle over Islam and modernity in the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria. "Muslims" shows how an increasing number of states in the region have reintroduced full Sharia law, with its harsh penal code that includes amputations, floggings and executions. Supporters of this movement, such as attorney Muzzammil Sani Hanga, defend Sharia as a way to establish morality and order in a society where values have eroded. And for Hanga, Westerners' opposition to Sharia highlights the sharp differences in how Westerners and Muslims see individual freedoms vs. communal values and harmony.

And how do American Muslims define their Islamic culture and identity in the open, multicultural society of the United States? For years, Muslims have been learning how to carve out a Muslim identity in a diverse society. However, particularly since Sept. 11, they also have had to face confrontations with other ethnic and religious groups.

"Muslims" traces the stories of several Americans, including Yasemin Saib, a New York City marketing professional who was raised in Saudi Arabia, and Dr. Aminah McCloud, an African-American convert to Islam who works not only to resolve misunderstandings between American Muslims and non-Muslims, but also to improve relations between African-American Muslims and Muslim immigrants.

Modernity, globalization, and immigration are proving to be key fault lines for Muslims everywhere, as their effects force many to redefine their faith and its place in their daily lives.

Perhaps nowhere are the fissures and tensions greater than in the Islamic state of Iran. "Muslims" travels there to examine the question facing many Islamic societies -- can democracy, modernity and Islam mix? Iran's repressive theocracy of hard-line ruling clerics is determined to adhere to the strictest interpretatons of Islam. But Iran's secular and religious reformers are relentlessly pressing for changes, despite imprisonments and threats from the regime. The paradox of tradition and modernity is illustrated in the personal story of Ayatollah Mahdi Hadavi Tehrani, a professor of jurisprudence at Qom Seminary. While he teaches and lives by traditional Islamic values and practices, he allows his wife to work as a college teacher and hopes that his daughter will one day attend university and have a career.

Believing that Islam is a religion that can blend tradition and modernity, Muslims like Malaysia's Zainah Anwar -- the feminist fighting for women's rights in Malaysia -- remain optimistic about their religion's future in the 21st century and beyond.

"Islam can be interpreted in different ways by different groups," she says. "This is one reason why Islam as a religion survives to this day and is the fastest growing religion in the world -- precisely because of the flexibility of Islam."

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