WASHINGTON (Reuters) - - Al Azhar, the centuries-old center of Islamic learning in Cairo, is a world away from Oklahoma City where William Suhaib Webb grew up.
But it was not until the American Muslim leader immersed himself in Islamic studies at Al Azhar that he realized just how American he was, regardless of his religion.
“I didn’t really have enough comfort as a young convert to really be who I was ... I adopted different cultural constructs that I had not grown up with,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview from Santa Clara, California, where he is an imam at a mosque and runs a website aimed at Muslim youth.
Named in 2010 by an Islamic think-tank as one of the 500 “Most Influential Muslims in the World” for his work with youth over the last decade, Webb is now arguably the kind of moderate Islamic leader Congressman Peter King said the country needs when he chaired hearings on Muslim militancy this month.
Webb’s positions on issues such as women’s rights and religious community involvement are near the American mainstream. He denounces violence in the name of Islam, and encourages U.S. Muslim youth to be comfortable with their American roots.
But in his early days as a convert, Muslim-majority countries became a mythical land where Webb said he felt like he could tap into an authentic Islam.
“I came to the Middle East with a lot of euphoric and utopic concepts,” said Webb, 38.
“And then I actually started studying Shariah, I started realizing that, wow, I got this wrong and I really need to be comfortable with who I am and embrace who I am as a person.”
Pundits and politicians who decry the growth of Islam in the United States often cite Muslim extremists’ desire to implement Shariah, or Islamic law. Some state legislators have gone as far as proposing legislation banning it.
But Webb, who continues to spend lengthy periods studying at Al Azhar, said jurisprudence in Shariah, which means path, necessarily considers culture and custom in its interpretations.
For the Muslim clerics he knows throughout the world, an Islamic order in America makes “absolutely no sense, whatsoever.”
A learner and a leader dedicated to popularizing a moderate take on Islam with a distinctly U.S. identity, Webb offers a website that is a virtual mosque.
There he offers answers to what he says is the primary concern for young American Muslims: how to function spiritually in the face of post-modernity.
He has tackled head-on problems within the Muslim-American community through educational materials and conferences. One such conference held last year was a town hall meeting entitled “Muslim Youth Radicalization.”
American Muslims do not disagree that there is a real threat from extremism, according to Webb. He said the greatest danger comes when both non-Muslims and Muslims alike believe Islam is un-American.
Extreme Islamists may entice young Muslims to accept violence, he said. But they can also be alienated by those non-Muslims who wrongly assume all or most who practice the religion are militants with little in common with their fellow Americans, and treat them accordingly.
“Muslims are a part of the fabric of our culture and been a part of our culture for more than who knows how long,” Webb said.
Years as a Hip Hop music DJ and producer during its political high of the late 1980s and early 1990s — when the Hip Hop culture had a strong Muslim element in terms of some artists, songs and slang — introduced him to an Islam that was offered as an alternative world view to the mainstream.
“I became Muslim more with this kind of a political, anti-culture baggage,” he said.
Extremist clerics such as Anwar al-Awlaki have preyed on Muslims who have grown up in America because of the political leanings and religious insecurity sometimes found in that group.
Muslims who are American-born or grew up here often feel their religion may be less authentic than that of those who come to the United States from Islamic-majority countries, a feeling some immigrant Muslims encourage.
The result can be Islamic youth who believe they must be at the hard edge of orthodoxy and militancy to prove their dedication.
“We do have to shepherd them and look out for people like al-Awlaki who tries to undermine that (U.S.) experience and use it against them and say ... you’re American, so that automatically means that somehow your Islam is suspect,” Webb said.
“We (American Muslims) have to answer that theologically.”
For Webb, that answer comes through study and in the form of distinct, high-quality American Muslim institutions like Zaytuna College in California and Muslim community centers like Ta’leef Collective in Fremont, California instead of stigmatized mosques.
“Muslims in America are going to have to somehow engage American culture in order to offer the answers to American culture, the problems of American culture,” he said.
Reporting by Wendell Marsh; Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune