The many faces of American Muslims

Author Paul Barrett deftly upends the stereotypes that Westerners harbor about Muslims -- and shows why militant Islamism is less likely to take root here than in other countries.

Topics: Religion, Islam, Books,

The many faces of American Muslims

“American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion,” by Paul Barrett, is the ideal book to enlighten a whole host of people who don’t realize they need it. That includes everyone who claims that moderate Muslims haven’t spoken up against fundamentalist militants or that all Muslim women go around veiled or that the religion is inherently warlike. It also includes everyone whose only response to Islamist terrorism is to talk about the sins of Israel, those who claim that Islam doesn’t have a growing problem with violent fanatics or the role of women, and those who insist that it is purely a religion of peace.

Barrett, a former reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, has done a nearly miraculous job of writing thoughtfully, clearly and sensibly about a subject that usually stirs up a viper’s nest of prejudice, defensiveness and paranoia. Yet “American Islam” isn’t, strictly speaking, objective, newspaper-style reporting — even if it has some of the characteristics of that school of journalism. In this collection of portraits of American Muslims, all struggling with their religion and its place in their world in one way or another, Barrett doesn’t forgo all judgment. He has his own firm notions of right and wrong when it comes to the issues his book raises, and he’s not afraid to challenge his subjects. But he keeps himself in the background and doesn’t make a spectacle of his own role in researching their stories, as a showier (or greener) journalist might be tempted to do. “American Islam” is above all a scrupulously fair book.

This, unfortunately, makes it unfashionable at a time when many confuse incisiveness with leaping to an opinion and defending it fiercely, whether or not you know what you’re talking about. All those people who falsely believe that they’re already well enough informed about Islam to merit their fiery conclusions — as well as those who don’t really care whether they are or not — will probably never crack open a copy of “American Islam.” True, those are the people who need it most, but readers with curious and open minds will still find a lot that’s intriguing and revelatory in Barrett’s book.

The topic is especially important now, after the discovery of the plot to smuggle explosives on transatlantic flights this past summer and the successful London transit attacks of the summer before. That conspirators in both plots included British natives shocked many observers; previously, the Islamist terrorism directed at Western civilians had mostly been perpetrated by the disgruntled citizens of Middle Eastern nations. If Britain was producing homegrown Muslim terrorists, what about the United States? So far, U.S. citizens have been rare among the ranks of militant Islam (Jose Padilla, a prison convert, is the best-known exception), even though America ranks right up there with Israel as the Great Satan in the Islamist worldview.

Few of the American Muslims that Barrett profiles match any stereotype that Westerners are likely to harbor about Islam’s faithful. In truth, he leans a little toward the unconventional and even progressive members of the religion, but he aims to give all sides their due. What he gets across is the remarkable diversity of Islam in America, pointing out that Muslims are no more all alike than Christians are. He profiles a prosperous middle-class publisher, an African-American imam working out of a shabby mosque in Brooklyn, a Saudi student on trial for volunteering as the webmaster of a organization that published some anti-Semitic and anti-American materials, a white Sufi couple and their spotlight-loving, celebrity-schmoozing guru, a Pakistani-American feminist staging a campaign to allow women to worship alongside men in her neighborhood mosque, and a hard-working husband and father who dabbled in militancy before rejecting it in favor of leading “a normal American life.”

A section of Barrett’s introduction offers the best concise overview of Islam in general and American Islam in particular that I’ve encountered. He explains that “most American Muslims are not Arab, and most Americans of Arab descent are Christian, not Muslim. People of South Asian descent — those with roots in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — make up 34 percent of American Muslims … Arab-Americans constitute only 26 percent, while another 20 percent are native-born American blacks, most of whom are converts. The remaining 20 percent come from Africa, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere.”

As a group, Muslims are “more prosperous and better educated than other Americans.” Almost 60 percent of them have college degrees, compared to 27 percent of American adults overall. The median family income among Muslims is $60,000; the national median is $50,000. Eighty percent of them are registered to vote. Compared to the larger, and largely poor, Muslim populations of Western Europe, who are often concentrated in slums where the opportunities for education and advancement are few, American Muslims show, in Barrett’s words, the traits of “a minority population successfully integrating into a larger society.” This, as many commentators pointed out after the London transit attacks and the 2005 riots in Paris, is one reason American Muslims are less likely to turn to militant Islamism than their less-assimilated and more disgruntled co-religionists in Europe.

The rest of Barrett’s section on the differences between Shiites and Sunnis and the maverick role of Sufis within the faith ought to be recommended reading for those lawmakers, media professionals and military personnel who seem to be chronically baffled by the divisions. The differences among Muslim sects mean much less here than they do in Iraq, though — largely because in America, Muslims have more in common with each other than they do with the culture at large. The success of the Shiite Iranian revolution of 1979, for example, usually gets viewed as a victory for all Muslims over the Western powers who push them around; in that, Sunnis and Shiites are united. Sufis, as longtime targets for fundamentalists who regard them as heretics, are much more likely to go their own way.

Although most Muslims follow the advice and teachings of a particular, often local, mullah, what many Americans fail to grasp is that even within the three major groups, as Barrett puts it, “the faith is decentralized to the extreme.” There is no main font of Islamic authority, and so while the power of certain leaders can wax and wane, there’s no one to kick out or restrict renegade mullahs who preach hatred and violence the way the pope can excommunicate rebel priests. An observant Muslim can get by with as little as simply adhering to the “five pillars” of the religion — proclaiming faith in one God, praying five times daily, practicing regular charity, fasting during Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca — or he (and very occasionally she) can devote almost every waking hour to Islamic study and prayer.

America’s Muslim enclaves, Barrett reports, have a tendency to cluster around universities; there’s a history of Muslim immigrants coming to the United States in search of higher education and then settling down nearby. By contrast, Dearborn, Mich., became “the unofficial capital of Arab America” thanks to Henry Ford, who liked Arabs much more than he did blacks and Jews, and hired accordingly. Among American Muslims, Barrett observes, those of Asian descent have a habit of deferring to those of Arab descent, regarding them as somehow “more Islamic” because their ancestors came from the faith’s homeland and because they are often more extravagantly pious. Black Muslims often get slighted by their co-religionists, sometimes out of plain racism, but also because African-American converts are associated with the eccentric practices of the now-marginal Nation of Islam.

The media, drawn like moths to the glow of inflamed rhetoric, foster the misperception that all or most Muslims are militant. That’s a mistake that works both ways, and so, when it’s reported that someone like Franklin Graham (Billy’s son) calls Islam “a very evil and wicked religion,” Barrett writes, “many Muslims assume that the fundamentalists speak for Christians generally and that evangelical animus drives the war on terrorism.” Still, most American Muslims are culturally conservative, favoring traditional roles for women, the restriction of sexual and “blasphemous” speech, and the outlawing of abortion and homosexuality. Theirs are not communities where cosmopolitan secularists are likely to feel at home, and some of the most ferocious clashes in the book are those between the feminist journalist (and erstwhile Salon contributor) Asra Nomani and the male leaders of her mosque in Morgantown, W.Va.

Barrett also shows how many dispossessed, disempowered and disadvantaged people have turned to Islam at a time when socialist and Marxist movements have lost their credibility. That a glorious Muslim empire once reigned in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia proves that the religion can govern, and a belief in divine providence offers the promise that someday it will rule again. Siraj Wahhaj, the black imam of the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn, preaches a perplexing mixture of bootstrap responsibility and racial paranoia to his many followers in the African-American and immigrant communities. (His crossover appeal among foreign Muslims is unusual.) He has helped many of his followers pull their lives together after they’ve squandered years on crime, drugs and prison, but he also speaks of not being sure that Osama bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and he thinks that cigarette and alcohol companies are conspiring to smear Islam.

Barrett attributes the growing influence of militant fundamentalism in Islam to Saudi Arabia’s wealthy elite. To distract attention from their despotic regimes and covertly decadent lifestyles, Saudi leaders have sought to bolster their Islamic reputation by pouring their oil-derived wealth into a host of rigidly fundamentalist projects — that, many Americans now know. But beyond serving as a source for suicide hijackers, guns and bombs, the Saudis have also built hundreds of mosques in the United States and funded many charities that do both admirable and reprehensible work. Because Saudi money pays for so many features of Muslim culture, Saudis have been able to nudge conventional Muslim wisdom in the direction of their own beliefs. That’s what the liberal-minded New Age Sufis profiled here discovered when they tried to buy copies of a traditional text called “Gardens of the Righteous” for their school. The only available English translation of this collection of hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet) is published by a Riyadh-based company that has inserted lots of bellicose references to jihad that are not part of the original.

Books, pamphlets, Web sites, touring preachers, conferences and community centers — this is the stuff that religious communities are made of, and when so much of it is funded by self-serving Saudi Wahhabists, those communities are bound to drift in the direction of fundamentalism. Yet Barrett finds many voices of conscience, such as the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl of California, who has argued that the Quran can and should be interpreted in ways that emphasis peaceful coexistence with other faiths. (The fact that it can also be interpreted in exactly the opposite light is one of the ongoing perplexities Muslims must grapple with.) Born in Kuwait, El Fadl was educated in the United States and there was briefly tempted into what he calls the “Islamic Dream” — believing that fundamentalist Islam can provide a cookie-cutter set of answers to life’s most tangled dilemmas.

El Fadl appeals to many Western converts who are drawn to Islam, as his own Chinese-American wife was, by its simplicity. One of the fascinating things Barrett discovered in his research is that Christians who become Muslims frequently cite the confusing doctrine of the trinity as a reason for the shift: “They couldn’t make sense of the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all parts of the same God.” Another thing they like about Islam is the idea of “accountability,” as opposed to the Christian belief in forgiveness for the repentant. “It made more inherent sense to me,” El Fadl’s wife told Barrett, “that if nothing else, God is fair.” Yet for Western converts and those lifelong Muslims who have been raised in an atmosphere of debate and self-questioning, accepting the kind of rigid orthodoxy that Islamists and even some traditional Muslims endorse, is as disagreeable as the squishiness they find in Christian morality.

The story that frames Barrett’s book is that of Mustafa Saied, who runs his own business in Florida selling portraits of American sports heroes. He arrived in the United States from India at age 18, speaking fluent English, primed on American movies and television, and hoping to learn to skateboard, bungee-jump and hang out with girls while studying at the University of Tennessee. Like a lot of America-mad immigrants, though, he didn’t find himself entirely at his ease in this country, despite earning a “ducktorate” in a Disneyworld work-study program. As often happens with such young men, he dropped into a local mosque on impulse and was soon drawn into a radicalized Muslim scene completely alien to the Islam he grew up with.

“Islam becomes a shelter from the unfamiliar,” Barrett writes, “an identity taken to extremes as a cure for loneliness.” Many older American Muslims blame the influx of young Arab men, coming to study in U.S. universities, for the growing presence of fundamentalism in their mosques. Saied jumped in with both feet, teaching classes, giving talks, attending conferences and raising money for Islamic charities. He subscribed to the views that “Muslims are superior to all others,” that Americans “are no better than pagans,” and that “Jews are scheming to take over the world.” As is usually the case with such ideologies, “anti-Semitism provided the glue connecting claims of Muslim persecution worldwide.” Although he and his cronies considered violence on American soil to be a last resort, they heartily endorsed the idea that Israeli civilians are legitimate targets for terrorist actions. He was asked to join the Muslim Brotherhood, a loosely affiliated network of national groups seeking to “Islamicize” society.

The story of how Saied rejected this ideology is one of the most significant in Barrett’s book. At a conference for a Muslim youth group in Chicago, he and a buddy got into a debate with an older, more moderate Muslim man. This man greeted Saied’s knee-jerk tirade by arguing that “the basic foundations of American values are very Islamic — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, toleration.” Others joined in, all of them able to quote passages from the Quran that support pluralism. They did not back down, and finally Saied and a friend who came with him had exhausted their Islamist ammo. They both realized that this — the free exchange of sometimes conflicting ideas — was a part of the life they had abandoned when they were radicalized. It was as if a spell had been broken; Saied’s friend likens the conversation, which lasted for hours, to deprogramming. The similarities between certain extremist Muslim groups and cults — “trying to live in this country in a box, hermetically sealed,” as one of Saied’s college professors put it — is telling. Saied left the Muslim Brotherhood shortly thereafter.

“The critical factor galvanizing this change of heart,” Barrett writes, “was the pressure of more mature and open-minded Muslims, people who were determined to remind Saied that Islam did not command insularity and resentment of non-Muslims.” A community had nurtured Saied’s extremism, and it took another, better community to drive it out, not a P.R. campaign or a “war.” This jibes with the findings of David Kilcullen, an Australian expert on counterinsurgency profiled by George Packer in the Dec. 19, 2006, issue of the New Yorker. Kilcullen told Packer that the best remedy for extremism overseas is to foster “trusted networks” and traditional authority figures who can provide a social alternative to militancy, not just an ideological one.

So it’s no surprise that in his conclusion Barrett insists that the best remedy for Islamist militancy is more support for Muslims like Saied. After leaving the Brotherhood, Saied went on to become one of several moderates profiled in “American Islam” who write Op-Ed pieces and make media appearances in which they urge their co-religionists to fend off efforts to foment fundamentalism in their ranks.

All of the people Barrett profiles in “American Islam” are complicated individuals. In contemplating Nomani’s protests, he is careful to note the times when her priority seems to be the promotion of the book she wrote about her struggles, but he also gives her props for her courage and points out signs that she has “uncorked” tensions in her mosque that run far deeper than the discontent of just one congregant. Likewise, with Wahhaj, he frowns on the black imam’s connections with Islamism’s bad actors without dismissing his tireless and often thankless work for other Muslim communities, and his ability to redeem lives and even entire neighborhoods that the rest of American society has abandoned.

This makes “American Islam,” for all its unassuming airs, much more interesting than the usual run of reporting on this topic, which tends to be either mindlessly alarmist or indiscriminately positive. What makes the book even more impressive is a fact that Barrett casually lets drop in an aside in the chapter describing a Sufi community: He’s Jewish. That he gained the trust of so many Muslims and that he managed to tell their stories so fairly and without allowing what would have been justifiably tumultuous feelings of his own to interfere — well, there could be no better argument on behalf of the American pluralism he champions.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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