An odd controversy briefly dominated the sports pages in March 1996. A player in the National Basketball Association, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, refused to follow the league's rule requiring that players stand in a "dignified posture" during the national anthem

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, NBA player.

An odd controversy briefly dominated the sports pages in March 1996. A player in the National Basketball Association, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, refused to follow the league's rule requiring that players stand in a "dignified posture" during the national anthem. Instead, since the beginning of the 1995-96 season, Abdul-Rauf had remained seated during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

A black, 27-year-old former Baptist from Mississippi who had converted to Islam in 1991, he declared that as a Muslim, he could not pay homage to the American flag - which he called a "symbol of oppression, of tyranny." He argued further that the flag directly contradicted his Islamic faith: "This country has a long history of [oppression]. I don't think you can argue the facts. You can't be for God and for oppression. It's clear in the Koran. Islam is the only way."

The NBA responded firmly, suspending Abdul-Rauf until he agreed to obey league rules. He missed one game, then capitulated. Two factors probably weighed most heavily on him: losing a cool $31,707 for each game missed, and facing wide opposition to his decision from other Muslims.

Though soon forgotten, this act of defiance raised important questions. When a successful young man earning almost $3 million a year and enjoying wide adulation talks publicly of hating his own country, something is afoot. What that might be is hinted at by a similar case a whole generation earlier, that of the boxer Muhammad Ali. After his conversion in 1960 to a form of Islam (Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam), the former Cassius Clay adopted a set of intensely anti-American attitudes. Most famously, he refused to be drafted by the U.S. military, which led to the forfeit of his heavyweight title. As Muhammad Ali later put it, he stood against "the entire power structure" in the United States, one dominated by Zionists who "are really against the Islam religion."

Stories such as these have given American converts to Islam a reputation for hating their own country. But is this accurate?

Although numbers about religious affiliation in the United States are soft, Americans who have converted to Islam--plus their descendants--probably total about a million. This makes them by far the largest convert population of Muslims in the Western world; but, using the conventional figure of six million Muslims residing in the United States, converts are far outnumbered by immigrants. Of the million, whites number maybe 50,000; the overwhelming majority is black. Given that African-Americans constitute a small minority of the U.S. population, this implies that a black person is over a hundred times more likely to embrace Islam than is a white person.

A convert's attitude toward the United States depends on what form of Islam he adopts. If it is a tolerant and moderate variant, then he probably has mild views. His Islam will be an act of private faith with few political consequences. This moderate spirit is widely found among those (most of them female) who convert because they are marrying a Muslim, and those (most of them white) who convert because they are attracted to the mystical Sufi movement within Islam. The same goes for converts drawn to Islam as an old-fashioned way of life, or for its emphatic monotheism. Clearly, there is nothing inherently antagonistic between the faith of Islam and good American citizenship.

Well-known moderate Muslim converts include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball player, who has a positive view of the United States and a constructive attitude towards its problems. Mike Tyson, for all his troubles with the law, has found in Islam a soothing and civilizing influence; Islam, he says, is "going to make me a better person." Robert Crane, a one-time foreign-policy adviser to Richard Nixon and Muslim convert, holds that the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were implicitly based on the Islamic principles of equality and justice for all. He concludes from this that the United States and Islam are totally compatible: "To be the best Muslim is to be a good American, and to be the best American is to be Islamic." In fact, "both paradigms, the overtly Islamic and the traditionalist American, are the same."

But there are often less happy results when a convert adopts two specific types of Islam: the Nation of Islam (the black-nationalist sect that originated in Detroit in 1930) or the fundamentalist variety (now usually known as Islamism) imported from the Middle East and South Asia. Converts to these forms of Islam are much more likely to turn anti-American.

The threat of violence often accompanies the Nation of Islam.

From its inception, the Nation of Islam has promoted a black-nationalist outlook hostile to mainstream American culture and politics. "You are not American citizens," Elijah Muhammad, its longtime leader, told his followers. He went to jail for draft evasion instead of enlisting to fight in World War II, and even forbade Nation of Islam members to accept Social Security numbers. Malcolm X, his most famous disciple, contrasted the pure evil of America with the pure good of Islam, saying that an American passport "signifies the exact opposite of what Islam stands for." Continuing in this spirit, the group's current leader, Louis Farrakhan, threatened some years ago to "lead an army of black men and women to Washington, D.C., and we will sit down with the president, whoever he may be, and will negotiate for a separate state or territory of our own." On a 1996 visit to the virulently anti-American regime in Teheran, Farrakhan declared that "God will destroy America at the hands of Muslims."

Many converts eventually leave the Nation of Islam and join mainstream Islam; those of them who become Islamists are especially likely to continue to disassociate themselves from the surrounding culture in a radical way. Even after his break with the Nation of Islam, for example, Malcolm X announced, "I'm not an American." Similarly, the one-time radical H. Rap Brown, now known as Jamil Al-Amin, declares, "When we begin to look critically at the Constitution of the United States . . . we see that in its main essence it is diametrically opposed to what Allah has commanded."

Imam Siraj Wahhaj is considered one of the most respected Muslim leaders in America, and he holds a host of prominent positions (e.g., vice president of the Islamic Society of North America). Yet he not only calls for replacing the U.S. government with a caliphate, but has taken practical steps in this direction. He served as a character witness when the Sheikh Abdel Rahman was on trial for--and found guilty of--conspiracy to blow up New York bridges and buildings, and even was listed by the U.S. attorney for New York as one of the "unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators" in the blind sheikh's case.

Those American converts who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s may now be the most extreme in their hatred of the United States. After imbibing the mujahedin vision of destroying both superpowers, they vowed to do their part on returning home. As one such man put it to a Pakistani magazine in 1989: "It is the duty of all Muslims to complete the march of jihad until we reach America and liberate her. And I will be a guide for them."

Other converts went further. Clement Rodney Hampton-el, a New Jersey hospital technician, was a wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan against Russia. He came back to the U.S. and helped set off the February 1993 explosion at the World Trade Center in New York.

White Islamists also typically condemn America for its immorality, consumerism, tolerant social policies, and warm relations with Israel. They talk about "our society's unrelenting greed" and its neglect for the downtrodden. In some cases, they associate with hostile governments. Mohammad Al-Asi, leader of the Washington Mosque in the nation's capital, explicitly called on Muslims to vanquish the United States during the Kuwait crisis of 1990 (note how he uses the pronoun "we"): "If the Americans are placing their forces in the Persian Gulf, we should be creating another war front for the Americans in the Muslim world--and specifically where American interests are concentrated. In Egypt, in Turkey, in the Indian subcontinent, just to mention a few. Strike against American interests there."

Why do some converts become so hostile toward their own country? There are two main reasons: personal temperament and the immigrant-Muslim milieu. Americans drawn to Islamism tend to be discontented with their lives or alienated from their society. For them, Islam's reputation as Christianity's historic arch-rival is an attraction; accepting Muhammad and the Koran offers a protest vehicle that is far larger than themselves and much deeper than politics.

Converts are also influenced by the contempt for America that many immigrant Muslims bring from their homelands. Because accepting Islam is a major step, one that often means breaking with family and friends, the new Muslim typically feels vulnerable and particularly in need of his new community's favor. This weakness makes him susceptible to the views of the immigrants, including their negative outlook on America. The immigrants, to be sure, do appreciate America's economic opportunities and political freedom, but survey research suggests that at least half of them, and usually the more pious among them, despise American politics and ethics. If anything, their firsthand experience in the United States enhances their sense that Christian America has lost its faith and lacks moral strength.

This outlook affects the new convert. Jeffrey Lang, a white professor of mathematics at the University of Kansas, recounts attending a lecture in a San Francisco mosque not long after his conversion. An immigrant medical student concluded his talk with this call to arms: "We must never forget--and this is extremely important--that as Muslims, we are obligated to desire, and when possible to participate in, the overthrow of any non-Islamic government--anywhere in the world--in order to replace it by an Islamic one." Lang protested to the lecturer that if Muslims are obligated to overthrow the U.S. government, accepting Islam is tantamount to an act of political treason. "Yes, that's true," the lecturer blithely responded. Lang candidly admits how, in an effort to win acceptance from his new co-religionists, he became "a passionate denouncer of everything American and a staunch defender of Middle-Eastern culture," propagating wild-eyed conspiracy theories about the U.S. government. (He has since moderated his views.)

This kind of ideology presents a great challenge to America. No other body of ideas claims blanket superiority over the culture, customs, laws, and policies of the United States; even the fascist and Marxist-Leninist ideologies dealt only with politics.

What is to be done?

The first priority is for journalists, intellectuals, clergy, and academic specialists to awaken Americans to this still-incipient but rapidly growing problem. Once they recognize the danger, the remedy is clear: While acknowledging that turning against one's own country is legal--though acting on this hatred, through sedition or treason, is not--Americans must combat this self-hatred. Because sitting out the national anthem, or defaming the Constitution, falls under the category of protected speech, this will be a task not for law enforcement but for moral suasion; a challenge less for the government than for the citizenry. Of course, politicians should use their bully pulpits to decry anti-American sentiments--but private institutions will have to take the lead.

There's a place for nearly everyone--business executives, union leaders, Hollywood producers, investigative journalists, columnists, scholars and teachers, clergy, moderate Muslims --to debate with the self-hating Americans and the organizations they form. These Americans are using free speech to influence America malignly; others should use free speech to oppose them.

One might think it obvious that life in this country is immeasurably preferable to that in Iran, Sudan, or Afghanistan; but clearly, not everyone realizes it. It is up to those of us who grasp this simple truth to explain it to our fellow citizens.


Dec. 8, 2005 update: For where these attitudes might lead, see "Converts to Terrorism" and the follow-up analyses, "More Converts to Terrorism" and "Further Converts to Islam Connected to Terrorism."

May 28, 2012 update: In a throw-back to the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf incident mentioned above, Serbia's football federation's new national team coach Sinisa Mihajlovic dropped a Muslim player, Adem Ljajic, from the team because he refused to sing Serbia's national anthem. Ljajic refused on the grounds of "personal reasons."