Journey into America Unleashes a Challenge for Americans
By Craig Considine
Consider the magnitude of the following events: the escalation of the war in Afghanistan; the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay prison; the emergence of new ‘detention centers’ at Bagram Airbase (Afghanistan); the re-affirmation of the Patriot Act under Obama; the controversial drone campaign in Pakistan; the fragility of Iraq’s ‘burgeoning democracy’; the corruption on Wall Street; the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; the looming debt crisis; the growing tide of Islamophobia sweeping across the continent; the threat from ‘homegrown terrorists’; the ‘racial profiling’ bill directed at people of color in Arizona; the xenophobic commentary coming from mainstream media ‘talking heads’; the domestic terrorist attacks on places of worship; the rise of far-right political parties looking to ‘take their country back’, even at the barrel of a gun. I can name even more, but for the sake of optimism, as well as your time and mine, I will stop here.
My country, as you can see, is facing many challenges. It now stands literally at an unprecedented and dangerous crossroad. America is being torn this way and that; by those on the left and the right; by immigrants and natives; by Democrats and Republicans. The very livelihood and health of my country is in danger. I wonder constantly, which roads will my country go down; which roads will my fellow Americans choose? Will it head down the roads that promote inclusivity or exclusivity; the ‘rule of law’ or ‘rogueness’; openness or isolation, listening or ignoring; respecting or disrespecting; arrogance or humbleness; objectivity or subjectivity?
It is in light of these questions in which I alert you to the significance of Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Press, 2010), a book authored by my mentor and teacher Professor Akbar Ahmed. Professor Ahmed and his team of young American researchers, of which I am a part, traveled the length and breadth of the US, visiting over 75 mosques and 100 cities in an unprecedented journey to discover America through mainly the hearts and minds of Muslims, but also through the lens of all ethnic groups in America.
The Journey into America team discussed American identity, aside from the diverse range of Muslim immigrant groups (Somalis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Indians, to name just a few) with descendants of The Mayflower in Plymouth and slave ships (whose members were America’s ‘first Muslims’) on Sapelo Island, Georgia; members of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona and first generation Mexican immigrants on the Southside of Chicago; Holocaust survivors on Sanibel Island and leaders of the Ku Klux Klan from Arkansas; and Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and members of the Nation of Islam in Harlem. It met with Catholics of Irish and Italian descent across the country and native Hawaiians in Honolulu; Mormons in Salt Lake City and Mennonites in rural Texas; Agnostics and Atheists in Silicon Valley; Patriotic veterans of World War II in Detroit and pacifist activists in New York City. The book touches on every layer of American society and identity that you can imagine. It paints, in my opinion, the most holistic and integrated picture of the ‘ America experiment’ to date.
Why do you, as an American, need to read Journey into America? Because it will help you better understand the current battlefields for American identity as well as America’s precarious and ambiguous position in the world. It will help you, as an American, better understand your history (the good and bad); the reasons for the growing anti-American sentiments around the world; the nature of the cultural intricacies and boundaries of your neighbors; the present and potential challenges it faces as the weaning superpower in the world; but most importantly, the enormous potential for America.
America’s potential, Professor Ahmed suggests, cannot flourish unless Americans quickly forge, through their own hearts and minds, a fresh American identity; one which ultimately stresses the principles laid out by the Founding Fathers but one also which does not neglect the identities that forged at Plymouth Rock or on the beaches of Normandy. Americans today must remember the vision of the Founding Fathers, especially in their current hostile and potentially catastrophic relationship with the Muslim world. In the post 9-11 era, Americans have forgotten that Franklin in the 18th century welcomed Muslim clerics to preach Islam in Philadelphia; that Jefferson owned, read and learned from the Qu’ran; that Adams highly revered the character and conduct of the Prophet Muhammad; and that Washington welcomed not only Muslims to America, but also people from all walks of life, regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity.
Whether you agree with Professor Ahmed and his team’s theories, concepts, methodological tools, viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions, Journey into America is a must read because it concerns itself with issues that affect all Americans. Americans are facing unprecedented challenges not only on their own soil but also throughout the world. For many Americans, there is no greater challenge to America than its Muslim minority and their Islamic faith. Reading this book, however, can help Americans acquire a new and greater appreciation for the diverse, vibrant and patriotic Muslim community in America as well as to both the universal principles of the Islamic faith and the honorable leadership of the Prophet Muhammad. Most important, Journey into America can serve as a spiritual guide for Americans who are trying to reclaim America’s moral clarity. The book will also remind Americans that their country is supposed to serve as a ‘beacon of hope’ that appreciates and adheres to, both here and abroad, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
As Martin Luther King Jr. stated poignantly in his I Have A Dream speech, it is time for America to ‘cash in’ on the language of the Declaration of Independence not only as it relates to its own Muslim population (and other minority groups) but also in terms of its relations with the people and countries of the world. Journey into America is a holy book for understanding the US, a quintessential read for those Americans who are trying to make America, and the world, a healthier and safer place—a country and world, of course, that emphasizes the peaceful, humane, egalitarian and universal vision once put forth by Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams.
(Craig Considine was a member of the team that conducted the Journey Into America project and Director of the film Journey into America. He is proceeding to the UK to pursue a PhD program. )