American Islam - The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion
By Syed Arif Hussaini
The above is the title of an insightful book published some time back by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. It presents a remarkably objective account of the challenges faced, particularly after 9/11, by various elements of the Muslim community of North America.
Islam is now an American religion, along with Christianity and Judaism, and the 6 million Muslims who live in the US are currently engaged in a struggle to reconcile their intense and demanding faith with America’s permissive society: integration with the main stream without surrendering the soul of their religion. That is the finding of Paul M. Barrett, a reporter and editor for a couple of decades at the Wall Street Journal who edits now the prestigious Business Week, in his fascinating study of American Islam.
Barrett has succeeded remarkably in presenting an objective and composite portrait of the followers of the faith and the challenges they face particularly the tensions of identity.
He brings the reader face to face with (1) the charismatic African-American Imam, Siraj Wahaj of New York, (2) a master of classical Islamic scholarship, Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at UCLA, Los Angeles, (3) the influential publisher of The Arab American News, Dearborn, Michigan, (4) the feminist, Asra Nomani of West Virginia, writer, correspondent and broadcaster, and a single mother, (5) the mystics (Sufis) Abdul Kabir Krambo and Sheikh Hisham Kabbani of Yuba City, CA, (6) the webmaster, Sami al-Hussayen, who is suspected of having violated the Patriot Act by disseminating information helpful to Al-Qaeda operatives. The charge could not be proved and he agreed to be deported to his native land - Saudi Arabia. The last character, seventh in the series, is Mustafa Saied, an activist, who had reached the US from India in pursuit of an engineering degree but who got involved with Islamic extremist setup, the Muslim Brotherhood. But, he realized the folly and returned to the main and moderate stream.
Although Barrett has focused on the seven representative figures listed above, he has traveled to all parts of the country meeting Muslim families and making a special effort to understand their problems of adjustment to the American cultural milieu. His finding: “Muslims are an American immigration success story”.
Most American Muslims, he points out, are not Arab, and most Americans of Arab decent are Christian…People of South Asian descent make up 34 percent of American Muslims. Arab-Americans constitute only 26 percent; black American Muslims are 20 percent, while the remaining 20 percent comprise Turks, Iranians, and Africans etc. Almost 60 percent of American Muslims have college degrees compared with 27 percent of all Americans. Median family income among Muslims is sixty thousand dollars as compared with the national median of fifty thousand.
Considering their relative prosperity, high level of education, and political participation, Muslims, says Barrett, are well integrated into the larger society. Muslim minorities in various countries of Europe are, on the contrary, quite poor and socially marginalized.
Owing to the profuse supply of Saudi oil money, several Islamic centers and Imams have come under the influence of Wahabi fundamentalism. They do not however represent the moderation permeating Muslim communities at large. As already mentioned, American Muslims are largely well educated, well to do and appreciate the freedom of thought and action available to them. The Wahabi precepts doled out to them during Friday sermons spark a struggle in their minds for the soul of their religion.
The spirit of enquiry that had dominated religious scholarship in various parts of the Muslim world and had generated a vibrant, throbbing, thriving society was anaesthetized a thousand years back to ensure conformity and obedience of the ruling elites. Heads turned backwards, innovative thoughts to take care of new issues thrown up by the march of events were scorned, debate and discussion were discouraged. The freedom of thought and action available in the U.S. has caused cracks in that intellectual hermitage.
The struggles of the seven representative Muslim personalities profiled in the book reflect the direct or indirect advocacy for opening the doors of Ijtehad (reconsideration and innovation) after a hiatus of centuries.
The portraits of the seven representative figures have been so truthfully and honestly crafted that they keep the attention of the reader riveted. Of particular interest to me were the chapters on the feminist, Asra Nomani and the scholar, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, inasmuch as both have openly challenged several traditional beliefs that have not evolved with the march of events – new developments and discoveries.
Fadl, for instance, maintains that the Muslims’ “intellectual heritage contains ample precedents for creative thought”. Immigrant Muslim communities in America, he contends, are typically led by engineers, doctors and computer experts who conceal their lack of deep theological understanding with superficial displays of religiosity.
Endorsing that view, Barrett writes: “Whether the issue has been women in the mosque or responses to extremism, the dearth of moderate Muslim leaders possessing charisma and eloquence has been striking … What Muslims may need is a battery of talented people to guide and inspire disparate communities.”
Barrett also points out that the conflict in the Middle East and America’s unstinted support to Israel keep provoking Muslim anger. Without abandoning Israel or the principle that a sovereign nation must protect its people “the US will have to persuade its ally (Israel) to make sacrifices in exchange for peace. Compromise, even with the hated and distrusted adversaries, is the only way to achieve normality for the Israelis, Palestinians, and Lebanese… Both political parties will have to show courage and convince Israel to fortify its moral position by pulling back from more of the areas it conquered in 1967.”
He also admits that at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay prisons “there have been excesses that only confirm suspicions that religious animus fuels American antiterrorism efforts”.
His balanced and saner thoughts contrast sharply with the anti-Islam din created by televangelists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Vines, Frank Graham and others. He has given a good account of his long and objective reporting with the Wall Street Journal. I strongly recommend this book to the readers of this review.
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