These are not easy times for Islam in America.
As Barack Obama continues to battle persistent rumors he is Muslim, 28 million DVDs of the film Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West have been distributed in newspapers in many swing states. A recent Pew survey found the number of Americans harboring negative views of Islam is growing.
In this environment, the recent firings of hundreds of Somali workers in JBS Swift Meat Co. plants in Greeley, Colorado, and Grand Island, Nebraska have taken on an added significance. The workers had demanded and were refused time to pray and break their fast at sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Grand Island case was featured in a front page article by the New York Times this week. I was in Nebraska when the story broke on an American University study of Islam in the United States led by Professor Akbar Ahmed, so I decided to investigate. The project, called "Journey into America" will take us to 35 US cities in the next six months.
I set off from Omaha with one of our team members, Craig Considine, and Abdi Mohamed, a Somali professional we had met in Omaha. We arrived in Grand Island and Abdi stopped briefly on the side of the street to pick up a Somali worker who we hoped could guide us in the town. "Welcome to America!" a woman screamed angrily from across the street. "Get moving!"
We headed for the center of the Somali community. It was a small room off one of the streets which served as prayer room, restaurant, community center and place of business, all rolled into one. There were about six workers in the room, one of whom had just been fired that day.
There had been tensions building up for some time between the Somali workers and the mainly Latino management of the plant over cultural and religious issues like prayer times. The final straw came when managers grabbed two Somali women who were praying and removed their prayer rugs from under them, which the Somalis viewed as a major religious and cultural insult and attack on their honor.
The Somalis reiterated their demand for a short break from the meat assembly line and were granted a break at 7:45 pm for prayer. But then Latino workers protested that the Somalis were being given preferential treatment. Tensions escalated. In response, the management at Swift canceled their offer of 7:45 pm prayer and then, to the ire of the Somalis, pushed the break back to 9:00 pm. This was seen by the Somalis as a deliberate slight to them and as a sign of favoritism to the Latinos.
Some Somalis attempted to break anyway to pray and were fired. Some workers requested a bathroom break and would secretly pray during the time allotted. The management suspected that they went not to the bathroom but to pray and were fired. Many others simply walked off the job when threatened with dismissal should they choose to pray.
These people had fled the hell of civil war in their country as refugees, languished for years in camps in Kenya and finally made it to the US. They then journeyed to small Midwestern towns to work in a dangerous, minimum-wage jobs while living in apartments packed full of people. Now hundreds of them had lost their jobs and were left helpless in a strange place. They have no one to represent them, and it takes money to hire lawyers. Unlike some of the plant's other workers, the Somalis are in the US legally.
Yet, despite these trials the Somalis still had a strong sense of dignity, of confidence. I asked them how they felt after losing their jobs, and they said they felt great. "This is not a loss for us," one worker said, "It is a win." In their minds they had preserved their culture and their religion, Islam -- the only thing, it seems, they have left.
Still the firings had left the Somalis confused. "America has freedom of religion," one man said, "I don't understand what is happening here." Some workers have left to find employment elsewhere but others have stayed to fight the firings and have now involved the US Department of Justice Equal Opportunity Commission.
These Somali refugees have walked right into a raging debate about Islam in the US, to the point where fired workers in Greeley, Colorado have had to answer questions about the film Obsession and the mayor of Grand Island, Nebraska admitted in a New York Times interview that Somalis make her think of Osama bin Laden and the September 11th attacks.
There is also suspicion from Americans fearful that Muslims are not assimilating and are seeking special favors. "We don't get time to pray at work," said one white Grand Island women I spoke to, "why should they?" But in reality things are a bit more complex as the real culture clash seemed to occur between immigrant groups within the plant.
We have also heard people say, "if you don't like it here, leave." But these Somalis are American citizens and legal residents exercising their Constitutional rights. With this in mind, some accommodation and understanding on the part of the plant management, and by the other groups working in the plant, is necessary.
The reaction to the case demonstrates how far we still have to go to better understand a religion practiced by 1.3 billion people around the world and seven million people in the US. With more understanding we will be better be able to deal with problems such as the prayer controversy when they occur. With all that is going on involving Islam domestically and overseas, we can afford nothing less.