Review of American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett.
One of the striking things about mainstream journalism in post-9/11 America has been the scant attention paid to the nation’s Muslim community. There were, of course, plenty of stories on the many immigrants taken into detention after the terrorist attacks and on the questioning of large numbers of Muslims by law enforcement officials. But compared with the enormous amount of copy that newspapers devoted to the pederast priest scandals, the coverage of American Muslims has been seriously inadequate. Given the size and importance of the community—it’s no understatement to say that it is the first line of defense against jihadist attack—the lack of reporting has been a dramatic failing of the American media.
There were a few exceptions, and one was a series of Page One stories that Paul M. Barrett wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2003. Those articles provided the basis for American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, a book that fills a real need and does so remarkably well. (Full disclosure: Paul Barrett is an old friend and former colleague.) American Islam does not give us the entire picture of what is going on among believers of the nation’s fastest-growing religion. Nothing could. But through a group of seven profiles, it delivers a set of powerful insights about Muslim life in the United States and the tensions that are shaping the community—or, more accurately, communities, since there is a fractious diversity of Muslims in the United States.
As you might imagine, American Islam is a study of people caught in the crosscurrents. Some are trying to navigate between the roles of dexterous insider and outraged outsider. Others are trying to push their fellow Muslims to adopt changes that are at odds with hundreds of years of tradition. Others still are re-litigating ancient struggles—such as between mysticism and orthodoxy—in a New World setting. Several are trying to champion a tolerant, ecumenical version of Islam against one that seems increasingly insular and xenophobic.
In that sense, the book poses the question that really is the central one not only for Muslims but all Americans: Is radicalism going to gain a real foothold here?
Barrett’s carefully crafted approach is a smart one because of the paucity of sociological data on Islam in the United States. We don’t even know how many Muslims there are in the country; the Census Bureau doesn’t ask about religious affiliation. Estimates by Muslim groups put the number at 6 million or higher, but these are truly rough guesses; as Barrett notes, the best guess is between 3 and 6 million. The number of mosques is also a matter of dispute, as is the degree of religious observance within communities. Trying to get a sense of the relative strength of different strains of thought among American Muslims is maddeningly difficult.
So, instead of giving us unsubstantiated generalizations, Barrett looks closely at the micro-environments of his seven subjects. Among them are a colorful newspaper publisher of Lebanese Shiite origins who is a power broker in Michigan’s large and politically influential Muslim community, and noted Kuwaiti-born scholar Khaled Abou el Fadl, who challenged fellow Muslims to speak out against the attacks of 9/11, becoming something of a pariah. A chapter on Siraj Wahhaj, a radical-leaning imam in Brooklyn, traces the complicated story of African-American Islam, whose adherents compose a fifth of the country’s Muslim population but who have tense relations with Muslims of foreign ancestry, as well as attachments to figures such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan that are shared by no other Muslims.
In telling these stories, Barrett exercises great restraint, avoiding the temptation to generalize on the basis of individual experiences. The book—which I thought was a great read—does not overinterpret, letting the reader instead, for example, hear the unadorned story of Abdul Kabir Krambo, an American-born hippie-turned-Sufi whose faith gave him an anchor in life but not quite enough equanimity to deal with the foreign-born Muslims (he was ” ‘the token white guy’ ” on the board of his mosque) who don’t always approve of his native ways. Krambo’s mosque was destroyed by arson in 1994. The mystery of whether the attack was carried out by non-Muslim Americans or anti-Sufi Muslims provides a perfect example of the complex tensions that plague Barrett’s characters.
Among scholars of terrorism these days, the accepted wisdom is that a major reason no second catastrophic attack on the United States has occurred is that the foot soldiers of jihad are not here—at least not in great numbers. Many Muslims in this country may be angry about U.S. foreign policy, but they are not alienated from American society or values. They are also more educated than the national norm, earn more than the norm, and are not ghettoized, as the Muslims of Europe are. (“American Muslims have bought into the American dream,” my friend Marc Sageman, the author of Understanding Terror Networks, likes to say. “What is the European dream?”)
But will it stay that way? One of the most moving chapters hints that it will. “The Activist” describes the trajectory of Mustafa Saied, an Indian-born Muslim who gravitates to the Muslim Brotherhood while in college and spends his time at rallies where the chant was “Idhbaahal Yahood” (“Slaughter the Jews”). He later renounces his extremism after intense conversation with other Muslims, one of whom persuades him that ” ‘the basic foundations of American values are very Islamic—freedom of religion, freedom of speech, toleration.’ ”
However, that there are some extremists afoot is clear from a chapter on Sami Omar al-Hussayen, the Saudi graduate student at the University of Idaho who was unsuccessfully prosecuted under the Patriot Act for giving material support to terrorists through his role as a Web master for a legal student group. The members of al-Hussayen’s Islamic Assembly of North America are, at the very least, addicted to some deeply anti-American rhetoric, such as the writings of the “Awakening Sheikhs” of Saudi Arabia, Safar al-Hawali and Salman bin Fahd al-Awda.
I’m persuaded that America’s culture of immigration has made a huge difference in shaping the attitudes of Muslims here. But other elements in the culture—rising Islamophobia, especially from the Christian right, and ham-handed law enforcement efforts, of the kind Barrett explores in his chapter on al-Hussayen—appear to be eroding some Muslims’ sense of belonging. And, of course, there is our presence in Iraq, which appalls most American Muslims, including the Iraqi expats who once supported the invasion. Which way do you think the wind is blowing?
I’d also like your thoughts on one of the central themes of the book—that Islam, or at least one stream of it, is being remade by its encounter with America. This notion appears in several of Barrett’s chapters, including the one on Asra Nomani, the former Journal reporter, single mother, and author of Standing Alone in Mecca, who confronted her hometown mosque in West Virginia with a determined campaign for equal treatment for women. In your superb book No god but God, you discuss the “Islamic Reformation” and mention, for example, European thinker Tariq Ramadan’s contention that the synthesis of Islam and Western democratic ideals is driving the faith in that direction. Does Barrett’s reportage suggest something similar is happening in the United States?
In any case, the changes that Barrett describes are encouraging. But as I think he would agree, it is impossible to say whether the stories he relates are indicative or isolated. What’s your take?
Part one of a four part book review conducted by Daniel Benjamin and Reza Aslan.