SOCIETY AMERICAN ISLAM: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF A RELIGION BY PAUL BARRETT [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp, 2007]
JUDGING FROM his new book, American Islam, journalist Paul Barrett seems like the kind of friend who would tell you if you had spinach stuck between your teeth. American Muslims might appreciate such sympathetic candor. Because while they have been smiling to non-Muslims over the last six years, insisting that “if you kill one man, it’s as if you’ve killed all of humanity,” the community in fact has several large and unattractive pieces of green wedged between its two front teeth, including an ambivalence about extremism and a shortage of visionary leadership.
Because American Muslims have been unable-or unwilling-to see those blemishes, Barrett’s book can be viewed as a community service. Just as business consultants offer a professional look at a company’s strengths and weaknesses, so Barrett holds up a mirror to the community, reporting with careful research and an unsparing eye.
The minty-fresh feeling begins with the book’s cover, which might go down in history as the first Western book about Islam that doesn’t feature a picture of either a minaret at sunset or a woman in a veil. Barrett’s cover, with a bold red, white and blue color scheme, features stylized thumbnails of the seven Muslims he profiles in the book. The message is subtle but clear: Muslims are part of the American story, and they should be seen as individuals, not stereotypes.
Barrett, a longtime Wall Street Journal reporter and now assistant managing editor at BusinessWeek, structures his book around the seven stories, using each as a platform for exploring wider issues. In his chapter on Sufi convert Abdul Kabir Krambo, for example, Barrett considers the mutual hostility between Salati and Sufi Muslims in the US, describing how Krambo’s Naqshbandi sheikh, Hisham Rabbani, made exaggerated assertions about the presence of extremist Muslims in the country – a move that seemed designed to boost his own standing as an American Muslim leader.
While the tension among disparate Muslim groups competing for national influence is an important story, Barrett’s chapter on the subject is not as gripping as three others that delve into American Muslims’ complex relationship with extremist ideology.
The story of Saudi graduate student Sami Hussayen begins like a trailer for any number of recent TV shows or movies, in which Muslims appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing. After 9 /11, Hussayen, an impeccably mannered father of three earn- ing his PhD in computer science at the Uni- versity of Idaho, publicly condemned the terrorist acts and mourned the loss of innocent life, going so far as to organize a blood drive for survivors. Then it emerged, after he was arrested by FBI agents in 2003, that, during that very same period, he was volunteering much of his free time to run a website that hosted articles justifying and encouraging violent jihad against Americans and Jews.
Hussayen faced charges of “material support” for terrorism – but jurors found him not guilty. As one juror told Barrett: “It would have been nice to have that silver bullet that would take you to terrorism, [but] it wasn’t there.” In other words, maintaining a website where others air despicable opinions is not the same as openly calling for, or participating in, violent acts. In exchange for having eight immigrationrelated charges dropped, Hussayen agreed to immediate deportation, after spending 17 months in jail.
Barrett draws some sharp conclusions for law enforcement officials, who he charges were over-eager in their prosecution, resulting in a verdict, “that ought to be seen as a colossal embarrassment to the government.” American Muslims, relishing this rebuke to the Justice Department, might overlook the troubling aspects of the chapter’s opening pages. Was Hussayen sincere in publicly mourning 9/11? If so, how could he possibly reconcile that sympathy for innocent Americans with an enthusiasm for Muslim leaders who advocate violent anti-Western jihad?
The public dissection of Hussayen’s words and deeds offers a chance for Ameri- can Muslims to ask themselves hard ques- tions: if you say, even quite sincerely, that you condemn terrorism, then do you still allow hate-based ideas to continue behind what you think are closed doors, on Arabiclanguage websites, or in sermons at the mosque? Only a handful of American Muslims leaders have been outspoken, for example, in combating anti-Semitism. Muslims are squarely in the public eye now, and while the scrutiny might provoke false accusations from the suspicious-minded, it could also prompt a much-needed ideological house cleaning.
Similar themes emerge in Barrett’s chapter on Lebanese-born Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn, Mich.-based Arab American News, who openly supports Hezbollah in spite of his sometimes-warm relationship with the current administration, which designates it as a terrorist organization. Writes Barrett:
[Siblani] and others say they are frustrated to see American perceptions slipping back to those of the 1970s and 1980s, when the word “Arab” automatically conjured up hostage takers or car bombers. Yet Siblani and others like him, who seem in some ways very comfortable in America, retain their respect for certain extremists in the Middle East.
Barrett’s portrait of Siblani fleshes out the complex and emotionally intense relationship American Muslims have with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it will be years before the issue can be debated rationally on either side. In the meantime, however, American Muslims shouldn’t be surprised if non-Muslims remain skeptical of the claim “Islam means peace” when exceptions are made for Palestinians or other embattled Muslim populations.
Perhaps the most difficult chapter for American Muslims to read will be the one on Siraj Wahhaj, an African-American imam from Brooklyn celebrated in his own community and among immigrants and converts as well. Though he has accomplished much-driving out drug users from his mosque’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and lifting up troubled souls with Islam’s vision of clean living-he sends mixed messages to his many admirers, performing illegal polygamous marriages at his mosque, declaring that “Islam is better than democracy” and refusing to accept that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.
Barrett concludes this chapter with a frank and sober assessment of AfricanAmerican Muslim leadership: Warith Deen Muhammad guided the former Nation of Islam community in a moderate, mainstream direction, but “lacked the desire or will to lead an effective movement”, while Louis Farrakhan put his charisma “in the service of hatred, before sliding into irrelevance”.
The field is open to inspiring black Muslims who can combine the call for racial justice with the humane teachings of the Qur’an. What is needed is someone who does that while also abandoning the rhetoric and gestures of extremism that seem irresistible to the talented imam from Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Barrett offers Wahhaj as just one example of what he calls “the lack of bold Muslim leadership on the national level”. With the American Muslim community so divided along ethnicity and religious persuasion, he suggests what might be needed is “a battery of talented people to guide and inspire disparate communities”. Is that coming anytime soon? Barrett says he’s hopeful; it’s up to American Muslims to prove him right.