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Among the Believers: A Book Review of Paul Barrett's "American Islam"

Paul Marshall

Paul Barrett, formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and now an editor at Business Week, became convinced in the aftermath of September 11 that we needed to learn much more about Islam in our own country, and so wrote a series of engaging profiles of American Muslims for his paper. Adding to them while on a sabbatical in 2004, he has now produced this book, whose aim is to explore what, for adherents of the Muslim faith, a “normal life” means at this turbulent moment in the history of the United States.

Barrett begins with a broad overview. He informs us that 59 percent of American Muslims hold college degrees, far above the American average of 27 percent. Most are white-collar workers or professionals, with a median family income that is 20 percent above the national norm. As for their ethnic breakdown, 34 percent are South Asians, 26 percent Arab-Americans, and 20 percent native-born American blacks, primarily converts. The remainder are principally from “Africa, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere.” About 85 percent are Sunni, mirroring the Sunni-Shiite proportion in the world at large.

This demographic sketch is followed by in-depth profiles of seven widely different individuals, whom Barrett designates according to their callings in life: “Publisher,” “Scholar,” “Activist,” “Feminist,” and so forth.

The publisher is Osama Siblani, a gregarious Shiite who arrived in Dearborn, Michigan from Lebanon in 1976, made and lost money, and in 1984 started the Arab American News, the largest Arab-oriented paper in America. A figure sought out by Michigan’s politicians, Siblani praises the American Dream—“It doesn’t matter who you are,” “You can make something of yourself”—but has gradually become radicalized. He openly supports Hizballah, for example, and his paper, Barrett writes, often projects “a grim conspiratorial world.”

Siraj Wahhaj, a Brooklyn-based African-American imam, is Barrett’s activist and “unquestionably a star in American Islam.” To criminals and others in the underclass, he stresses “personal responsibility and hard work” and condemns “liquor, drugs, gambling, and pornography.” But Wahhaj combines this stress on personal renewal with the hope that America will adopt Islamic law, including the stoning of adulterers and amputating the hands of thieves. He refuses to condemn Osama bin Laden.

Barrett’s feminist is the Indian-born Asra Nomani, whom he met when she too worked at the Journal and who was a friend of their late colleague Daniel Pearl, butchered by Islamist extremists in Pakistan. For years she has fought to persuade her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, to allow women to use the front entrance and pray together with men. Her campaign has been noisy, drawing national media attention, but has met with limited success.

Having introduced us to these and others in his cast of characters, Barrett offers, in a concluding chapter entitled “The Way Ahead,” his thoughts on the troubles besetting American Muslims since 9/11. Here he emphasizes the pressures they have had to bear, especially the widespread suspicion that has fallen on them and the increased surveillance to which they are subjected.

He also provides a set of proposals designed to improve their lot. Among other things, Barrett calls on national politicians to denounce “Islam-hating Christian fundamentalists” like Pat Robertson, demands an end to the abuse of detainees, asks prosecutors to show restraint in terrorism-related cases, and urges the White House to pressure Israel to make concessions.

By spending months with his subjects, Barrett hoped to bring them alive, with all their virtues, vices, foibles, and hopes. As he writes, he wanted to make them “real and three-dimensional, as opposed to . . . merely talking points or op-ed pieces.” In this, he succeeds admirably. But his journalistic approach to American Islam in general has its distinct limitations.

Summarizing a slew of sources, for example, Barrett suggests that there are 3 to 6 million Muslims in the United States. The lower figure in this range is derived from survey data; the higher one is methodologically suspect. Instead of merely citing dueling experts, a book-length study of Islam in America should reasonably be expected to reach careful conclusions of its own.

According to Barrett, again, there is “a broad consensus that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world and in the country.” As for the world, this assertion would be true only if we excluded many faster-growing smaller religions and measured by rates of growth rather than by absolute numbers; Christianity is currently adding more adherents than Islam. And as for America, reliable estimates show that Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Sikhism and Baha’i, are growing faster than Islam.

More to the point, and more problematic, is that Barrett’s artfully drawn profiles, while they do illustrate the diversity of American Islam, tell us little about who, in the words of his subtitle, is actually winning the “struggle for the soul of a religion.” Yet this is something that, in an age of extremism and terror, most of his readers would dearly like to know.

Even as Barrett declines to answer the question directly, some of his profiles give cause for concern. Those among his subjects who are involved with mosques, for example, tend to be more attuned to radical fundamentalist thinking than those who are not; mosque leadership is still further along the spectrum. Although the moderates among Barrett’s subjects may be more typical of Muslims in general, comparatively they lack organizational clout or rank-and-file support.

As Barrett notes, the many students who come from the Middle East to study in the U.S. tend to exercise a radicalizing effect on American Muslims. There is a reason for that. “If there is one source of influence that bears special responsibility for exporting the Muslim world’s worst ideas to the West,” he writes, “it is our equivocal ally Saudi Arabia.” Half of American mosques have received Saudi money, and “Saudi publishers inundate American mosques with books and pamphlets” pushing the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine. Throughout American Islam, one finds numerous examples of the baneful influence of Saudi texts, tapes, videos, students, imams, websites, and money.

Yet Barrett’s recommendations ignore these influences entirely. Most of his proposals are, in fact, entirely divorced from the human landscape he presents, seeming instead to fall from the sky. An example is his call to condemn “Islam-hating Christian fundamentalists” so as to protect Muslim sensibilities. This draws on almost nothing he has offered in his text apart from a few disgruntled asides of his own.

In any case, shielding Muslim sensibilities these days would seem to be a full-time job. As newspaper headlines make clear, some Muslims are upset by Salman Rushdie novels, Danish cartoons, German operas, papal pronouncements, and portrayals of Muhammad in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the chamber of the Supreme Court. Nor is that all. Most Muslims, Barrett informs us, also frown “on accommodating homosexuality and permitting abortion.” To be consistent, should he not also be urging gay-rights and pro-abortion activists to quiet down? And what about the famed Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who in his current best-selling book The God Delusion describes Islam as “analogous to a carnivorous gene complex”?

The same observation can be made of Barrett’s out-of-nowhere appeal to the White House to apply pressure on Israel. This, too, is a point whose relevance he never demonstrates, any more than he debates the actual pros and cons of U.S. policy toward Israel. Instead, it seems to be tacked on as a kind of afterthought—presumably as a way to assuage the ire of Islamic radicals.

But why should Islamic radicals be allowed to hold U.S. foreign policy hostage in the first place? And if we start with Israel, then why not similarly adjust our policies toward Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Darfur, India, or any of the numerous other areas around the world concerning which radical Muslims hold sharply defined views? And why stop with foreign policy? Are we likewise to step gingerly around those who advocate the stoning of adulterers?

Of course, the proper way to treat putatively offended sensibilities is not to silence ourselves but to demand that, like other newcomers to our shores, American Muslims adjust to living equably in an opinionated, boisterous, free society in which being contradicted, criticized, and calumniated is the normal order of things. This, indeed, is exactly what many of Barrett’s subjects have done. American Islam has great value in illustrating for us the diversity of American Muslims. It is a pity that its conclusions and recommendations should not only be at such variance with the reality it describes but should contribute so little to solving the very real problems that it brings to light.

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