Paul Barrett talks about his book, Muslims’ split personalities, and the future of American Muslim leadership

An interview with Paul Barrett

AFTER WITNESSING THE World Trade Center attacks from his Wall Street Journal office in downtown Manhattan, reporter Paul Barrett said he realized how little he and other Americans knew about Islam in general and Islam in America in particular. After writing a series of articles for the paper, Barrett deepened his reporting, focusing on seven American Muslims. The result is American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, which profiles Dearborn, Mich., publisher Osama Siblani, scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, Brooklyn imam Siraj Wahhaj, activist Asra Nomani, Sufi convert Abdul Kabir Krambo, Saudi graduate student Sami al-Hussayen, and ex-Salafi Mustafa Saied.

ISLAMICA: How did you select the seven people you profiled in the book?

PAUL BARRETT: The process was not at all scientific. I chose people whose stories I thought were not necessarily ordinary or typical but were suggestive of larger themes and would be provocative to readers, not in the sense of offending them, but in the sense of making them think.

Asra Nomani was the one woman you profiled, although she has already told her own story in her memoir, Standing Alone at Mecca. Why did you choose her?

It would be a fair criticism to say we’ve learned enough about Asra. My response would be, “Read the story. If you think it’s redundant, mark me down a grade.” But there can be a big difference between an outsider writing about a controversy, examining it from all sides, as opposed to the person who’s in the middle of it, narrating their own story.

Your portrait of Nomani is not always flattering. She comes across in the chapter as a very contentious person.

It helps to view people in three dimensions. When you’re describing a brave and courageous person, it doesn’t do their cause any good to portray them as an absolute paragon of virtue. Why would a person turn their life upside down and throw themselves into conflict with practically everybody around them? The issues themselves help explain that, so does personality. Asra’s personality and the choices she made seem to be valid aspects of the story to explore. I am, on balance, very admiring of her. But I am also prepared to accept that other people would read what I’ve written and say, “See, he shows all she wants to do is attract attention to herself.” If you think everything she’s doing boils down to that, so be it. I think it would be a very shortsighted approach to a very complicated person who deserves respectful attention even if you disagree with her or don’t like the tactics she uses.

Some of your portraits-I’m thinking here of Osama Siblani, Siraj Wahhaj and Sami al-Hussayen-were troubling. These men are very integrated with American society, very tolerant, and yet they also seem to endorse terrorist tactics and extremist views. The portraits seem to feed into the view that if you scratch a Muslim, even a nice one, you’ll find a terrorist underneath. What sense did you make of these almost split personalities?

That’s a very interesting question. When people ask me, “What’s the big lesson in your book?” my first cut is essentially positive. That’s surprising to a lot of non-Muslims the facts about the high level of assimilation and education and income among American Muslims. It’s important to counteract the very common view that Muslims are on the periphery, struggling to survive in America.

That said, there is a duality to Muslim life in America and it deserves attention. The portraits of those men are part of an effort to pay attention to that insider/outsider status. Someone could read the book and crudely employ my work to support the argument that beneath the surface of every Muslim is the vicious soul of a terrorist. But I probably wasn’t going to change that person’s mind with anything I wrote. This internal tension exists within many Muslims. There’s not a good reason to back away from grappling with that theme.

Siblani publicly endorses Hezbollah and then has candidates for the White House seeking his political endorsement. Expressing no view on the merits of that situation, that’s fascinating. Siraj Wahhaj is the Muslim who gave the first-ever Islamic invocation in front of Congress. This guy sups with the Secretary of State and is praised by the largest predominately immigrant Muslim groups in the country. Yet he has also had, in his house of worship, virulent anti-Semitic, antiAmerican, and now-convicted terrorist figures worshipping and preaching. He’ll blow a gasket if you bring that up, and it’s not necessarily the main thing to say about him, but I don’t think you should look away from it. You should grapple with it. Why would someone with his background find those militant figures appealing? I have also seen him taking a big step away from that viewpoint. How does he explain the big step? How seriously do you, as a reader, take his step? I intentionally leave a lot of these things as open questions.

Sept. 11 seemed to bring these tensions into the open. Until then, many American Muslims justified suicide bombings in the context of the Palestinian cause. Yet when 9/11 happened, they had a heartfelt desire to condemn it. How will that tension be resolved? Is public scrutiny going to force American Muslims to come down on one side or another? Or will non-Muslim Americans have to accept that support for the Palestinian cause is a right of free speech?

You’re getting to the heart of the difficulty that many, although certainly not all, Muslims will have in taking what might be seen as the final, big step into a zone where they feel entirely comfortable as Americans. I don’t know exactly how that’ll unfold. There are tentative ways to approach the questions that might make progress possible.

For example, imagine if more Muslims and non-Muslims – and in particular more Muslims and Jews – would be willing to take a deep breath and say, “We recognize we are at loggerheads on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and yet we want to do the following three projects in our metropolitan area.” I don’t know what those projects are; you fill in the blanks. In other words, talk with people, work with people, have your kids play together, even though you know, as a Jew, that they support the Palestinians and even though you know, as a Muslim, that the Jews do not have sympathy with the Palestinians. Because we may not resolve that larger conflict in this lifetime.

People need a willingness to agree to disagree. Yes, there is a contained area where we hate each other, but we set it to one side, because 90 percent of our aspirations have to do with achievement, and college, and kids, et cetera. That’s the way things are in this country, because it is not the borderline between Israel and the West Bank.

But there are some significant legal issues here, about what constitutes material support to a terrorist organiation. That comes out in your chapter on Sami al-Hussayen, who was charged with that crime. Certainly many Muslims were shocked to find their charitable donations frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Muslims who live in the United States have to come to accept that if an organization is defined by our democratically elected government as a terrorist organization, then you’ve got to stop giving money to someone who you think is going to turn it over to that organization. That’s getting down to brass tacks. I understand some American Muslims sympathize with aspects of Hamas and Hezbollah, though they don’t necessarily sympathize with the suicide bombings, or the aspiration to sweep the Israelis into the sea and establish an Islamic state running from God knows where to God knows where. They sympathize with an organization that has given Israel a black eye from time to time. I have nothing nice to say about those organizations, but I understand why some people do. You can empathize with people you passionately disagree with. But American Muslims can’t think they have a right to give money to Hezbollah. They have got to stop, and I think most of them have.

Having said that, the American government has to help Muslims figure out how to give to legitimate causes in the Middle East. I don’t know how you get the money into the hands of people who are doing work that needs to be done. But that seems to be a legitimate complaint that Muslims have: “I want to give money toward my homeland or my coreligionists and I can’t.” The Treasury Department should help Muslims do that more readily.

In her new book on American Muslims, Mecca and Main Street, Geneive Abdo argues that in the post-9/11 world, young American Muslims in particular are taking a “rejectionist” stance. Do you agree with her assessment?

I have no doubt her reporting has 100 percent integrity, that everyone she’s interviewed has said just what she’s written. Some of the scenes that she paints are very compelling and poignant, and I have people saying similar things in my book at times. A first step toward making sense of the discrepancy between her book and my book is the old cliché, “Is the glass half full or half empty?” You can look at an ambiguous situation and describe it in more hopeful terms, citing, for example, historical experiences or other elements of context that may undercut the narrative of alienation you hear.

If you ask young people on college campuses about their concerns for the world, you’ll hear some pretty passionate, heartfelt, extreme – by which I don’t mean extremist – and emotional descriptions of the way things are. That’s a trope for people who are 20 years old. My thought is: check back with that person when they’re halfway through medical school, or after they’ve married or had kids. Have a little patience.

My experience is no more scientific than Genny Abdo’s we both went out and talked to a lot of people – but it showed me that while there is a certain degree of pessimism among many (young American Muslims), that pessimism is not fatal or necessarily permanent. And barring further calamitous events – knock wood, God- willing, whatever you like to say – that we don’t have anything like 9/11 again, a very impressive success story that has been under way for decades will get back on track.

Immigrants who come to a new society are, by definition, displaced, and there’s a certain longing for the old country. Their children have lived with a foot in the new country and a foot in the old country, and they are searching for identity; this is a very classic American experience. Look at the literature of Catholics who have come to this country. Look at the literature of Jews. By literature, I mean fiction as well as social science, and you will see similar patterns. You’re the outsider. People hate you. You wonder what you’re doing here. You wonder whether you’re being seduced by the material values of this overpowering secular culture, and it causes you to ask painful questions. Now, throw in the most calamitous terrorist incident in American history, and we are shocked that people are somewhat alienated?

I have a lot of respect for Genny Abdo’s reporting, and I’ll happily say that she knows much more about Islam than I do, certainly all around the globe. We just have different instinctive reactions to the material.

At the policy level there is a lot of talk about encouraging “moderate Islam” here and abroad. How would you define “moderate Islam”?

That’s a potentially perilous question to answer, because I don’t want to insult anyone. “Moderate Islam” is viewed almost as a pejorative by Muslims – a way for outsiders to sort Muslims out according to their degree of moderation. I want to acknowledge my awareness ofthat concern on Muslims’ part. At the same time, I insist there’s nothing illegitimate about discussing whether people are moderate or immoderate. We do it in other aspects of social and political life: we talk about politicians or religious figures in other faiths that way.

Admirable elements of moderation include the ability to empathize with people you passionately disagree with, and seeing there may be lessons to be learned from their views and their experiences. Those lessons may cause one to rethink how you live with people who disagree with you in a culture that is explicitly pluralistic, which is to say a culture that is almost certainly never going to transform itself into one where everyone agrees with you.

Moderates in the political sphere are frequently admired or deplored because of their willingness to compromise. Someone on the far left or far right might say, “That weakkneed moderate, always willing to sell out on principles.” That’s one perspective. Another perspective is you need a degree of moderation in politics, a degree of compromise, a willingness to find a position between the two poles people can live with. If compromise weren’t necessary, we wouldn’t need a legislature; we’d always want the same thing, instinctively. We would be a tribe where we all thought the same way.

Some of the same ideas apply to matters of faith. Not when someone says, “We want you to give up your faith in God or your basic principles,” but perhaps, say, on the issue of where you donate to charity. A moderate person would be open to discussing that issue.

At the end of the book, you say explicitly that there is a lack of Muslim leadership in the U.S., and your chapter on Siraj Wahhaj demonstrates this. Young progressive-minded Muslims often express a hope that as second- and third-generation American Muslims take leadership positions in student associations and mosques, Muslim culture will become less conservative. Did you see any signs of that happening?

I have seen hopeful signs in many places. In some cases, it’s really not up to me, as an outsider, to even label those signs as hopeful, but they’re worth noting.

I’ll point you to a brief section in the book about the ISNA convention that came in the wake of the horrible bombings in London in 2005. A series of public statements were made there that were blunter, clearer and, to my ear, much more helpful and leaving no room for misunderstanding on the subject of terrorism.

When people ask me, “How come Muslims never denounce terrorism?” my first answer is, “Your premise is wrong. They denounce terrorism over and over again.” Then I acknowledge that many of the statements – certainly before 9/ 1 1 and some after 9/ 1 1 – have qualifications that cause non-Muslims to ignore them. The statements in 2005 and since then have been more clear-cut. They say, “We, as Muslims, have a responsibility both inside and outside our communities to say terrorism is never ever justifiable.” That’s a demonstration of leadership. That deserves to be praised and encouraged.

Just the other day, a Muslim guy in Knoxville, Tenn., was telling me how some people from his generation were using democratic processes to take over the leadership of his mosque. It was not a coup of any sort – it happened through the open processes of electing a new board of directors, an executive committee, and so forth. He said the changes were a small-scale version of the ascendance of Ingrid Mattson to the presidency of ISNA.

I haven’t reported on that mosque myself, so I don’t know exactly what’s going on there. But what he told me points toward a new self-consciousness among Muslims who have grown up in this country and their sense that, “Now it is our turn to step up and become leaders.” It’s inevitable that the very accomplished immigrants who are now in their 60s and 70s will surrender control of national organizations and local mosques and Islamic centers. Where that will all go is an open question.
PAUL M. BARRETT, for eighteen y ears a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, currently directs the investigative reporting team at Business Week. He is the author of The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America and American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, Dec. 2006)

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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