Islam Takes Root in Land of Levis Muslims Search for New Identity and Influence in a Secular Society Series: Muslims in America. Part One of Four. Second of Four Articles Appearing Today

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INSIDE a cool and solemn mosque nestled in a suburban neighborhood in Iowa, Friday prayers have ended.

A student from Saudi Arabia stands to speak. He has been in America three months and finds that Muslims here do not follow the Koran sufficiently. He exhorts the group to pray more - telling of a cleric in Bosnia who prayed while his mosque was under attack and in flames.

It is a dramatic story, and the mostly male group hears him out. But later Jamal, a civil engineer who arrived from Syria in 1980, offers some context: "We should pray more. Who can disagree? But it's not so simple. Practicing Islam in America is more complicated than he thinks."

The American Muslim community today is at a historic transition point. For the first time, Muslims are in a position to exert new cultural, political, and religious influence in American society. At 4 million and rising, they now outnumber Episcopalians. Muslims represent one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the US. In the past five years, the number of mosques has doubled to more than 1,200.

The result is that Muslims today are not only adding to the multicultural identity of America. As they fashion their own form of worship in this country, they are developing new interpretations of Islam and ways of living that could influence the practice of Islam - the world's fastest-growing religion - elsewhere around the globe, as American Roman Catholics and Jews did in decades past.

But sheer numbers aren't enough to guarantee a distinct role and place in American society for Muslims. Whether they can gain acceptance, overcome infighting and apathy, and develop a particular identity is still uncertain.

One thing is clear, however: As the Islamic religious month of Ramadan begins today for Muslims around the globe, Muslims in America, like those in the Iowa mosque, are now looking to themselves for authority about their lives and their faith.

In the mid-1990s, American Muslims no longer think of themselves as a foreign import. Rather, they are in a fitful process of assimilation similar to the one Catholics underwent in the 19th century and Jews in the 20th as the two groups became middle class and established uniquely American identities. Muslims, realizing they have a stake here, are slowly finding their way in American politics and culture and fighting a cartoon image of themselves as fist-shaking, anti-Western extremists.

"The Gulf war was the watershed," says Yvonne Haddad, an authority on Islam at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "After that, Muslims said, 'We'd better look after ourselves.' "

"They are trying to do what every group has done - trying to assimilate, yet remain distinct," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

This "Americanization" of Muslims is taking place in many ways. For example, the imam, or prayer leader, in the mosque is increasingly taking on a role similar to that of minister, something he does not have overseas. Some mosques now use Roberts Rules of Order to conduct business meetings. One can find Muslim summer camps for children and wooded spiritual retreats for adults.

Other changes are more culturally cutting edge: The Koran is available on CD-ROM. Muslim rap groups have formed. Muslim comic books and magazines for kids are available. Local imams use cellular phones to talk with members.

"A lot of Muslims mistakenly believe Islamic law is rigid," says Youssef Delorenzo, a progressive on the American Fiqh Council, which Muslims consult for religious law. "In Islam, every generation must make sense of its own environment. We can find new interpretations in North America ... and a relaxing of the literal, 15th-century model of Islam."

Yet the majority of Muslims are fairly conservative by nature. They are middle class - store owners, clerks, doctors, plumbers, dentists - working taxpayers. …