Book Reviews

The Halal Melting Pot

Why Dearborn isn’t Paris.

By Spencer Ackerman

Tagged IslamTerrorism

American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion By Paul M. Barrett • Farrar, Straus & Giroux • 2007 • 283
pages • $25.00

On Christmas Eve 2006, a newly elected congressman named Keith
Ellison gave a simple affirmation of faith before a crowd of Muslim
Americans. Ellison promised that on January 4, 2007, he would place his
hand on the Koran to take his oath of office. “You can’t back down. You
can’t chicken out. You can’t be afraid,” he admonished. “You got to
have faith in Allah, and you’ve got to stand up and be a real Muslim.”
Although Ellison now represents Minnesota’s 5th District, he had
traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, to deliver his message. It made sense:
Located a few miles outside Detroit, for the last 100 years Dearborn
has been the focal point for America’s growing Muslim community;
Ellison himself was born nearby. Along Warren Avenue, Dearborn’s
central artery, Islamic community centers are just a few short steps
from Burger Kings. Thrilled that after a century of co-existence within
American society a Muslim had finally achieved national office,
Ellison’s rapt audience greeted his speech with enthusiastic
affirmations of the greatness of God.

When it became known that he would swear his oath on a Koran, one of
Ellison’s future colleagues, Virginia Republican Virgil Goode, raised
strenuous objections. Joined by Dennis Prager, a conservative pundit
appointed by President George W. Bush to the board of the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Council, Goode warned that Ellison’s actions
represented a subtle attack on Western civilization. “I fear that in
the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if
we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are
necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United
States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped,”
Goode wrote in a letter to his constituents. Not to be outdone, Prager
compared the Koran to Mein Kampf. A typically slow
pre-Christmas news cycle suddenly featured a religious-political
controversy. Muslim organizations denounced Goode and Prager as a pair
of bigots. Both refused to back down.

Prager can be dismissed as an opportunistic pundit ginning up a
controversy. Goode, however, is a more complicated story. He had
nothing to gain politically–and much to lose–by igniting an ugly public
fury against his colleague’s religious tradition. Even the de facto
leader of the Virginia Republican Party, the longtime senator John
Warner, rebuked Goode. The more likely explanation is that Goode
sincerely believes the arrival of Muslims into the American mainstream
is a threatening dislocation. (Never mind that Ellison’s own
background–born in Detroit, converted to Islam in college–undercuts
Goode’s warnings.)

Ellison had one final message for his Dearborn audience, one that
spoke directly to Goode’s intolerance. “Muslims, you’re up to bat right
now,” Ellison said. “How do you know that you were not brought right
here to this place to learn how to make this world better?” It is a
message at the heart of American Islam, and one that, after the attacks
of September 11, Muslim America’s neighbors largely do not believe it
capable of answering. What has been so bewildering, and sadly
revealing, is that five years after the attacks, there has been such
little study of who the Muslim next door actually is–a vacuum filled by
the fear and ignorance displayed by people like Virgil Goode. It’s a
shame. For, in fact, a study of Muslim America actually points out how
the pluralism that makes America what it is protects the country
against the long-term aspirations of Osama bin Laden–and how giving in
to Islamophobic demagoguery is exactly what al Qaeda wants.

The tension between American and Islamic identities is at the heart of American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion. Journalist Paul Barrett, a BusinessWeek editor who began writing about Islam while at the Wall Street Journal,
takes readers deep inside Muslim America, revealing the struggles of
identity that characterize this diverse community, particularly in an
age of constant fear over the next jihadi attack. He devotes
each chapter to a particular character–a liberal theologian, a
civil-rights activist, academics, journalists, Web designers–and uses
them to highlight a distinct issue. Barrett’s reporting is excellent.
But his failure to take his analysis as deep as his journalism makes
the book feel, in significant ways, less than the sum of its parts.

American Islam offers two central contentions. First,
that the American Muslim community is itself a glorious mosaic–in
addition to the expected imams and political figures, one of the book’s
main characters, for example, is a white hippie who found Islam on the
way to scoring marijuana. Second, the vast, moderate majority of
American Muslims have to battle some of the strident versions of their
faith in many of their major religious institutions. At times, Barrett
seems to be saying that proximity to the liberalism of America itself
has a moderating effect on Islam. The struggles resulting from this
tension have consequences that extend far outside the mosque. A Sufi
mystic sheikh remarks (before September 11), “I want Muslims in America
to know that if we continue with the Wahhabi thinking, the Wahhabi
ideology, we are going to a disastrous end ” This is not a political
stand; it is life or death.”

Some of Barrett’s characters are familiar. Asra Nomani is a former Journal
colleague of Barrett’s and a distinguished journalist in her own right.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is a liberal theologian at UCLA who famously
conceded in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that Islam had some
post–September 11 soul-searching to do–at great cost to his personal
safety–and, as a result, has been profiled in untold newspapers and
magazines. Osama Siblani, the longtime publisher of Dearborn’s Arab-American News,
is a must-call source for any journalist exploring American Islam. But
it is to Barrett’s credit that the stories presented here don’t feel
retold. Instead, his talent is to showcase his characters as people
and, in presenting their complex backgrounds, illuminate something
about American Islam. For instance, Nomani’s fight for gender equity in
her Morgantown, West Virginia, Islamic center is made all the more
profound knowing that Daniel Pearl–the Wall Street Journal
reporter murdered by Islamic fanatics in 2002 for being Jewish–was a
close friend (Nomani, abandoned by her boyfriend while pregnant in
Pakistan, even named her son in part after Pearl).

Yet the most important story Barrett tells is that of Abou El Fadl.
A Kuwaiti-born theologian, he attended Al Azhar University, a
Cairo-based seminary with vast influence over Sunni Islam. After he
came to the United States, he grew increasingly wary of the
intellectual stridency of mainstream Sunni Islam, particularly its
powerful Wahhabi variant emanating from Saudi Arabia. Contrary to Abou
El Fadl’s supple version of the faith, Wahhabism instructs that true
enlightenment and fidelity are found in an emulation of the original,
seventh-century blend of Islam; all other Islamic practices represent jahiliya,
or pre-Islamic ignorance. Abou El Fadl identified and wrote about the
intellectual dangers of Wahhabism for years and ended up marginalizing
himself from important sources of Saudi-derived funding. He received
anonymous death threats after penning his op-ed criticizing Wahhabism.
His is a riveting and inspiring story of intellectual bravery.

Unfortunately, a reader comes away from most of the chapters in American Islam
without a clear sense of what’s at stake. Obviously, it would be
preferable for Abou El Fadl’s Islam to become dominant or for Nomani to
fully integrate her mosque. But the fact that they’re facing such an
uphill struggle raises questions about Muslim America that Barrett
never quite answers, or even acknowledges. Put bluntly, does the
presence of illiberal or intolerant Islam inside America–which indeed
does exist here, alongside Abou El Fadl and Nomani–threaten the
country? To what degree do these currents augur a Europe-style descent
into a homefront clash of civilizations? To speak in the mode of Virgil
Goode, are there terrorists among us? For a book about American Islam
to be unwilling to take on the concerns of the Goodes in our midst is a
disappointing mistake. In fact, the answers to all these questions are
available, and they amount to, simply: Do not fear your neighbors.

The trouble facing American Islam is precisely the trouble that, well, doesn’t
face American Islam. While Barrett is an energetic and skillful
storyteller, the absence of Osama bin Laden in his book is a true
disappointment. That’s not to say that bin Laden holds sway over
American Muslims, but rather that he doesn’t. The key question is what
this absence means.

A good place to start is with a man named Mohammed Sidique Khan.
Khan was a 30-year-old social worker in the British Midlands who, in
2005, masterminded the London Underground plot, murdering more than 50
of his countrymen. Most significantly, he left behind one of the most
important texts of the war on terrorism: A “martyrdom” videotape
explaining his actions. It was a landmark of sorts–the first recorded
instance of a jihadi swearing fealty to bin Laden in English.

What motivated Khan? In his own explanation, it was Great Britain’s
participation in a global crusade to suppress the believers. While
Prime Minister Tony Blair strenuously insisted that the bombings had
nothing to do with the Iraq war, Khan’s words undermined him. But
Khan’s rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only scratched the
surface of his motivations. What was really at work was that a
lower-middle-class Briton, with no previous attachment to jihad,
had examined his alienation from his country and found the most
compelling explanation for it to be the one put forward by bin Laden.
In other words, Khan found that it was impossible to be both a Muslim
and a Briton. As soon as he accepted that schema, his choice–the
eternal or the fleeting?–was clear, as was his course of action.

Khan represents the success of bin Laden’s broader strategy. The
September 11 attacks were a galvanizing experience aimed less at the
United States than at Muslims themselves. Building on its
interpretation of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, al Qaeda seeks to draw
the United States into strategic overreaction–using military force in
ways provocative to Muslims, such as occupying Iraq. In that manner,
outraged Muslims around the world will begin to ask themselves: Why
does the West act like this? A significant percentage of them, bin
Laden hopes, will answer the question in the way that Khan did.

In short, bin Laden seeks what the Leninists used to call the
heightening of contradictions, to force Western countries to shrink the
psychic and political space of Muslims, especially within their own
borders, until the threatened believers feel no choice but to violently
resist. This has a practical benefit as well: After the strict security
measures taken in many countries after September 11, it is a much
sounder strategy to rely on “self-activated” jihadis who are
citizens of Great Britain or America than it is to hope a new cell of
operatives can infiltrate a Western nation. Over generations, if not
centuries, of such a snowballing clash of civilizations, bin Laden
hopes a global Muslim awakening will usher in a new Islamic age. (When
those on the right warn about a new “caliphate,” they have in mind a
cruder version of this phenomenon.)

Already, bin Laden’s approach shows many signs of working.
Highlighted by the London and Madrid terrorist attacks, a tremendous
upswing in violent Western-Islamic identity crises has begun to boil
over in Europe. Counterterrorism experts estimate that hundreds, if not
a few thousand, outraged Muslims have traveled from Europe to Iraq to
fight the U.S. occupation. The Netherlands has seen the assassination
of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh at the hands of an Islamic fanatic. Danish
cartoons crudely depicting the Prophet Mohammed sparked often heated
protests throughout Europe, as did infelicitous statements about Islam
by Pope Benedict XVI. Not all of these actions can be understood as
terrorism. But their vectors and motivations favor the unsettling
expectation that the worst is yet to come.

It is against this backdrop that the story told in American Islam
is most significant. The experiences of the individuals Barrett
profiles demonstrate that, for all of their difficulties coming to
terms with their American Muslim identity, all of them accept that both
parts of that identity can be reconciled. This is not an experience
limited to the dozen or so characters in the book. Only a handful of
American Muslims have ever been convicted of associations with al
Qaeda. Most of the mass roundups in the wake of September 11 and the
Patriot Act have resulted in dismissed or reduced charges. In stark
contrast to Europe, the proportion of radicalized Muslims in the United
States is negligible. The stories told in American Islam show
that bin Laden’s strategy of dividing Muslims in the West from their
home countries is not working in the United States. It is no small
irony that in what the jihadis consider the source of evil in the world–the United States–their fellow Muslims reject bin Laden’s analysis so completely.

Why is this? In short, America is protected from the
homegrown-radical threat because of its peculiar ability to combine the
cosmopolitan and the traditional. Throughout Europe, Muslims ghettoize
to a depressingly great extent, allowing the poverty, alienation, and
desperation of the ghetto to take on an identity-based cast. In
America, however, Muslims may be one of the first immigrant groups not
to live in ghettos. Of the largest concentrations of Muslim
populations–cities like Chicago, New York, Houston, the suburbs of
Washington, D.C., and Detroit–Muslims live in population clusters that
are at least 50 percent white. Opportunities for social and economic
advancement for European Muslims are minimal, with explosive
unemployment rates outperforming those of non-Muslim citizens. In
America, Muslim unemployment largely comports with demographic
proportion in a given area, and Muslim education rates actually
outperform almost every U.S. demographic. Finally, European Islam is
overwhelmingly homogenous, befitting a given European nation’s colonial
history: British Muslims are mostly from the Indian subcontinent, while
French Muslims are mostly North African. By contrast, American Muslims
come from around the world and in turn live dispersed in different
population clusters around the country. Dearborn may be the heart of
Muslim America, but Dearborn Muslims come from all over the world. This
heterodoxy makes it vastly more difficult for theological-political
rigidity to occur in American Muslim communities–precisely the sort of
rigidity bin Laden exploits.

But that’s not the end of the story. For all the tension between
secular and religious America, the domestic-religiosity divide is
nothing compared with the outright hostility to public displays of
religion across Europe. It is no accident that the Islamic Society of
North America, one of the oldest and largest U.S. Muslim civil-society
organizations, is located not in a blue-state redoubt of
cosmopolitanism but in Plainfield, Indiana. Here the essential
religious tolerance of Red America–not often appreciated by secular
liberals–needs to be recognized. As one rising young leader in the U.S.
Muslim community told me in 2005, “When I go out to Bush Country, it is
true that, for some people, the way I pray is peculiar. But they don’t
think I’m hallucinating when I say, ‘It’s prayer time.’” In Europe, by
contrast, conspicuous religiosity is viewed as a political threat. Out
of this fear of social balkanization, for instance, in 2003 the French
banned Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public buildings.

In short, the festering social, political, and religious
frustrations that make European Islam a potential growth area for al
Qaeda are marginal in the United States. But to say that they are
marginal is not to say that they cannot develop into identity-based
violence. On a trip to Dearborn last summer, every Muslim I spoke
with–from oncologists to imams–expressed extreme anxiety over Bush’s
definition of America’s enemy as “Islamic fascists.” Increasingly, they
feel the Bush Administration–from the Patriot Act to Guantánamo Bay to
the Iraq war to the warrantless surveillance program–has increasingly
made it harder to integrate American and Islamic identities. If the
nation continues on this path–ironically, to the “Europeanization” of
American Islam–it may find itself exacerbating, if not actually
inventing, the problem it seeks to solve.

And this brings us back to Keith Ellison and Virgil Goode. In the age of jihadism, Goode’s bigotry can’t be dismissed as merely ugly simple-mindedness. It is, without hyperbole, a security threat. What American Islam
doesn’t sufficiently explore is that America’s identity-based defense
against homegrown Islamic radicalism isn’t impregnable. If the Virgil
Goodes of this country succeed in stoking Islamophobic outrage, it is
easy to see the next Mohammed Sidique Khan growing up in Brooklyn or
Chicago or Falls Church, Virginia, and deciding, with awful
consequences, that America and Islam are incompatible after all.


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Spencer Ackerman is a senior reporter for The Washington Independent, where he writes an ongoing series on counterinsurgency.

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