A 1960s ad by a maker of rye breads helped to catapult Jewish foods into mainstream America. "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's," the ad said.


A New York imam relayed that tale to nearly 350 people in Brooklyn Center last weekend to illustrate American Muslims' journey for mainstream acceptance.

"Islam in America is looked at as being alien," said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who encountered much acrimony over an initiative to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero.

"Once it has an American character, then it will be seen as American," he said. "That's an important part of the journey we are undergoing."

Evidence of the transformation was readily visible across the room, filled with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Representatives of corporations such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart were on hand, as well as leaders from non-Muslim religions.

They'd come to mark the fifth anniversary of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). CAIR serves as a grass-roots civil rights advocacy group for the state's Muslims, but also works with corporations, schools and other entities to raise awareness (and dispel myths) about Islam.

Attendees heard stories of battles for rights won, such as how the Electrolux plant in St. Cloud agreed to accommodate Muslim workers on their Ramadan fast. There were also stories of battles remaining -- like the 20 states considering anti-Muslim legislation banning sharia law.

Sharia is a religious code that guides the way Muslims live -- similar to codes in other religious traditions. Last month, a federal appeals court struck down Oklahoma's anti-sharia law as discriminatory.

But the tone of the event was neither strident nor combative. Instead, speakers recounted the difficult process and bigotry that Protestants, Catholics and Jews endured while becoming part of common fabric of American life.

The Rev. Patricia Lull, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, called the evening inspirational. "What I encountered was a very positive, hopeful story of yet another culture finding its way into what it means to be American," she said.

The path to changing the hearts and minds of Americans is to be a force for good in society, the imam said. Muslims need to defend their civil rights, but they need to be positive contributors -- in music, dance, literature, economics and other arenas, he said.

And yes, Muslims need to make their culinary mark, too, he said. Like the rye bread example, the day will come when their cuisine is no longer thought of as Muslim food, but good eats that all Americans savor.


Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.