Can Japan show the West how to live peacefully with Islam?
Long ago, in another life, I went to a mosque in San Francisco to attend Friday prayer. More than the calling of Islam, it was a Libyan woman who beckoned me, and for the sake of family blessing, I considered a love conversion.
Enamored and clueless, I checked out the scene — an alabaster agnostic among dark-skinned and bearded believers, who eyed me wonderingly as we kneeled to pray.
Face down with my arms outstretched, my behind in the air and my nose smelling the prayer rug, I could feel that a prostration is a submission — a concession of smallness in front of a higher power. I could feel that as a humble servant to the only one god, Allah, you are no longer boss of the spectacle that is you. It was a gut-level challenge.
As I was leaving the mosque, saying goodbye to the regulars who had warmed to the newbie, I started liking these people and their humility. But with the exotic aroma of spices and the muezzin droning the Arabic verses, there was a sense of an alien reality. “If I get in too deep here,” I mused in private, “I might lose myself.”
The intrepid writer George Plimpton — who made a career out of ambling into otherness — once captured this bittersweet affirmation, leaving a football field to applause after a hapless trial with the Detroit Lions.
“The outsider did not belong,” Plimpton wrote about the amateur and his audience, “and there was comfort in that being proved.”
Like other projects enamored and clueless, my love conversion was later aborted.
Fast forward to Tokyo, the present. As this Saturday ushers in Ramadan, the monthlong fasting from dawn to dusk that is observed by Muslims worldwide, it has been striking to see Japan’s efforts to make this minority feel at home.
Some university cafeterias, hotels and restaurants now offer halal meal choices. There are Muslim tour guides, as well as prayer rooms at airports and companies — in addition to more than 100 Islamic associations. Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a Ramadan party last summer, assured foreign ambassadors of the “unbroken bond” between Japan and the Muslim world.
In part, the embrace is customer service. As relations with China went sour, Japan eased visa restrictions last year for Southeast Asian nations, to offset the lost business. This boosted tourism and student exchanges from Malaysia and Indonesia — the latter home to the largest Muslim population in the world — to the point that now more and more hijab headscarves are dotting Japan’s urban landscapes.
“Islam here is growing,” says Musa Omar, the executive director of the Islamic Center Japan in Ohara, Setagaya Ward, which first opened in 1963. He speaks with congenial authority, the kind of man who inspires you to read books and be a better, more spiritual person.
“We don’t recruit, but the mosques are full and each day people are coming to visit. Also, there are more conversions — many of them for marriage, both women and men.”
There is no reliable count of Muslims in Japan, allows Musa, but it now far exceeds 100,000. Having lived here for 40 years and served as the Sudanese ambassador, he thinks that the local community enjoys a unique idyll.
“There are no ties to our homeland politics,” says Musa. “At Japanese mosques there are no divisions, no problems between Sunnis and Shiites. The police here are on our side, and the people are open to Islam. Whatever prejudice they may have, they get from the West.”
Who would have thought: Japan, a utopia of pluralism?
Uniting a colorful mix of expats from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, removed from the context of sectarian strife and the historical Western interference still haunting many Muslim countries, could the Japanese brand of Islam be a showcase for its peaceful essence? Are the frictions between Muslims and the West based in part on identity posturing?
The Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, built in a lavish Ottoman style, emerges from the Shinjuku skyline like something out of “Arabian Nights.” For the second Friday prayer in my life, I embedded myself there with 200 Muslims who had gathered for a sermon and food — perhaps the most multiethnic crowd anywhere in Japan (although the vast majority of the faithful are men).
The sermon, held in English and Japanese, exhorts the congregation to respect their parents. Later on, as people line up for rice and potatoes, the atmosphere is relaxed and clubby, a meet-and-greet among fellow immigrants. A visiting group of Japanese seniors is getting a tour of the mosque.
It feels different from Western environs, where Christianity and Islam are seen as the other’s Other. There is the fear of a Muslim planet — an immigrant force out-populating the natives, seeking to set up a caliphate governed by Islamic law. Afraid of a stealth ideology, conservatives such as the historian Sir Martin Gilbert warn that “the European idea is being subverted by Islamic hostility to the very ethics and values of Europe itself.” The message is picked up by politicians and media exploiting the Muslim bogeyman.
“The larger threat comes not from the immigrants themselves, but from our response to them,” Doug Saunders counters in his book “The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?”
“These are clashes within civilizations, not between them,” Saunders writes, “and to a large extent they are products of the false belief, held by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that the world is divided into fixed and irreconcilable civilizations.”
With an array of surprising facts, Saunders claims to show that most Muslim immigrants have no wish for Shariah law. Likewise, he writes, their fertility rates are actually decreasing as this diaspora adjusts to lifestyles and trends in the West.
Meanwhile, in Japan, no one frets over the Great Decline. Islamophobia is not an industry; the Other here is Chinese. The Japanese may be drawn to what they see as the pureness, the disciplined abnegation on display during Ramadan, yet unlike some in the West, they don’t appear to feel challenged by perceptions of superior spirituality.
“The Tokyo religion is fashion,” jokes Rahil Khan, 47, from Rawalpindi in Pakistan. A company owner with a swashbuckling air, he is a fixture in the Muslim community. Khan believes it is the social element that is attracting the Japanese.
“People are lonely at home,” muses Khan, “so they come to the mosque for company, for conversation and jokes. At the iftar (the shared breaking of the fast after sunset during Ramadan), many Japanese show up for free food. They follow Ramadan more than Islam — it’s like a festival.”
On a Saturday night, Khan takes me to my third mosque in Tokyo, on the outskirts of Asakusa. A prayer leader from Indonesia speaks to a group of Pakistanis and a Tunisian about the “Five Intentions to Read the Quran.”
The multinational setting leads to a comical misunderstanding, when the leader asks the group in English, “So why does the Quran have 30 juz (the Arabic word for ‘sections’)?” and Khan replies, perfectly sincere, “It is, like, orange juice for the 30 people. You know, they are thirsty.”
Being a Muslim means many things to many people in their very different lives. As for the evening prayer in Asakusa, it feels like a guys’ night out without booze — expats meeting with friends and connecting through things they would do back home.
But in Japan as well, the authorities are watching Islam. Government officers check the mosque in Asakusa, and the police keep an eye on Khan as he roams Shinagawa on business. One day, in decidedly un-Japanese fashion, he walked into a station and confronted the officers.
“I go inside and say, ‘What is the problem? Let us talk about this problem!’ If you need something, you should come and ask.”
No one says that diversity is easy, or even natural. A harmonious pluralism might need curiosity as well as indifference, both emblematic of how Japanese handle otherness. As for the showcase Muslim community, the alabaster agnostic is keeping his fingers crossed.