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David PinaultFebruary 12, 2007

American Islamby Paul M. Barrett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320p $25

As a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Paul Barrett knows how to get people to talk to him. American Islam is organized around interviews with seven representatives of the Islamic faith (some immigrants, others born in the United States). But in preparing this book, the author interviewed hundreds of Muslimsfeminists, Sufi mystics, African-American imams, progressive activists and confrontation-minded militants.

In his introduction Barrett stresses the urgency of such a project. The London train bombings of July 7, 2005, were carried out not by immigrants, but by U.K.-born Muslims with British citizenship. This presented both Europeans and Americans with what Barrett correctly identifies as undeniable confirmation of a threat from within Islam in the West.

His findings are reassuring insofar as they reflect the desire of many Muslims in the United States for a normal American life. Unlike the unemployed and alienated Muslims of Britain and France, American Muslims are better educated and earn more on average than their non-Muslim fellow citizens. The book demonstrates a truth worth repeating: overall, American Muslims are nonviolent and law-abiding and are happy living in the United States.

But Barrett also identifies a tension that preoccupies many of the people he interviewed: the temptation to be assimilated into what they perceive as the secular American mainstream versus the urge to assert a distinctive religious identity and separate communal loyalties. American Muslim leaders who encourage religious self-segregation sometimes focus on high-profile and divisive public issues. In a religion like Islam, which prides itself on its lack of a priestly hierarchy, leadership accrues to those who display conspicuous knowledge (as evidenced by memorization of the Koran and prophetic traditions) and conspicuous piety. Hence the emphasis on visible markers like beards or veils.

One such piety-marker is a ban on music. Although this art form has flourished over the centuries in various Islamic cultures, many American Muslim preachers, under the influence of Wahhabi fundamentalism, condemn all musical performances as a heretical innovation frowned on by the prophet Muhammad. (Barrett does a fine job of demonstrating how Saudi-funded Wahhabi activists have sought to promulgate intolerant Islamist forms of the faith in the United States.)

I can attest to the controversies over music from personal experience. Some years ago, while teaching courses on Islam at Loyola University in Chicago, I agreed to serve as faculty advisor to Loyola’s Muslim Students Association. As a Catholic who disagrees with many of the political stances advocated by M.S.A. campus groups, I found the job challenging, to say the least. One night I attended an M.S.A. gathering where a bearded student leader harangued the assembly on the immorality of listening to music. A young woman protested, But I’m not playing rock or rap or anything like that. I just like to hear Chopin’s Nocturnes while I study. His reply: That’s haram (forbidden in Islamic law), too. It’s all haram.

Luckily, some Muslims disagree. One scholar interviewed by Barrett hears evidence of the divine in Brahms and Chopin.

The scholar in question is Khaled Abou El-Fadl, who is by far the most daring and intellectually exciting thinker profiled in this book. In contrast to many Muslim apologists, with their uncritical religion-of-peace mantras in defense of Islam, Abou El Fadl is refreshingly frank in his acknowledgment that extremists can find support within the traditions of Islam. He goes further, calling on fellow Muslims to take moral responsibility for terrorism committed in the name of the Quran.

Muslims must acknowledge, Abou El Fadl arguesand for this he has endured ostracism and death threats from co-religionists in the United Statesthat Islam is susceptible to many interpretations, and that the burden is on Muslims to interpret their tradition afresh and shape a pluralistic, tolerant Islam for the 21st century. Through such arguments Abou El Fadl takes a hammer to what Barrett calls the shell of narrow-mindedness some American Muslim communities have built around their faith.

How dangerously thick this shell can be is shown in American Islam’s last chapter, where Barrett recounts the spiritual journey of a young undergraduate from India named Mustafa Saied. It is not unusual for newly arrived immigrant Muslim students, notes Barrett, facing American campus environments heavy on beer, dating, and casual sex, to seek refuge in orthodox Islam. Mustafa Saied went further. He joined an American branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

His new mentors encouraged anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and a rhetoric of avoid the kafirs (unbelievers or non-Muslims). Barrett describes Saied’s participation in an Islamic rally in Chicago, where Hamas supporters shouted chants urging the slaughter of Jews.

The individuals responsible for rescuing Mustafa Saied from this environment of hate were co-religionistsmore mature and open-minded Muslims, Barrett calls them, people who were determined to remind Saied that Islam did not command insularity and resentment of non-Muslims. These individuals, by confronting Saied with Koranic verses that praise religious diversity and pluralism, eventually won him over to a less intolerant understanding of his faith.

Barrett’s conclusion: it is up to Muslimsespecially in the UnitedStates, where divergent forms of the faith can compete more freely than anywhere else in the worldto speak up and prevent militant forms of Islam from dominating the community of believers.

Engaging and clearly written, American Islam offers a valuable snapshot of the dynamism and controversies that characterize Muslim communities in the United States today. A few points in Barrett’s book warrant correction or clarification. The first Shiite imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was killed not by Sunni forces (as is claimed on page 7) but by an embittered Kharijite (a member of a splinter sect derived from Shiism) named Ibn Muljam. [Editors note: While this error occurred in the page proofs read by the reviewer, it was corrected in the printed book.] Barrett’s extensive discussion of women’s issues in his chapter on the feminist Asra Nomani would benefit from a more thorough and systematic exposition of relevant Koran verses and sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

And I would have dearly loved to see included a chapter on the work of Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. Originally from the Sudan, An-Na’im has taught in Atlanta, Ga., since 1995, where he offers courses on Islamic law as a professor at Emory University.

An-Na’im’s critique of Islam is trenchant. He argues that Islamic law conflicts with basic human freedoms in several fundamental areas: discrimination against women, the oppression of non-Muslim minority populations and the enslavement of kafirs (the latter is especially relevant, considering the use of slavery as a tactic of state-sponsored jihad in the Sudan in recent years). In all these areas, An-Na’im insists, Islamic law should yield to recognized principles of universal human rightsthat is, the concept that individuals are entitled to respect not because of their religious affiliation but simply because they are human.

Arguments as courageous as this are surely worth including in any book on American Islam.


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