The South Asia Channel

The challenge of Islam

"America,"said Alexis de Tocqueville, "is a country of freedom where, in order not towound anyone, the foreigner must not speak freely." By these standards AkbarAhmed, a professor at American University and formerly an administrator on Pakistan'snorth-west frontier, has published a particularly audacious book. 

His book Journeyinto America: The Challenge of Islam, which comes out on June 15, speaks freely about the Muslimperspective on American society. It knowingly comes in the aftermath of acts ofterrorism carried out by American Muslims. Its focus is rightly much broader,but this sharpens its relevance.

In the spirit of de Tocqueville, whom he frequently quotes, Ahmed led a mixedteam of Muslims and Christians, Americans and foreigners, to examine AmericanMuslim society with the eye of an anthropologist and an expert on Islam. Over the course of a year the author and his team traveled to more than 75 U.S. cities across the country, visiting more than 100 mosques, residences, and educational institutions. Thebook offers plenty of colorful observations based on 2,000 interviews -- boththose one might expect (Noam Chomsky, U.S. Muslim leaders) and those one mightnot (the Ku Klux Klan and a Las Vegasstripper). In 520 pages, Ahmed gives a series of insightful vignettes oninterfaith relations, politics, conversion, and race. And then the book makes adisturbing prediction: that violence involving U.S. Muslims will continue toincrease.

Ahmed blames for this both the American intelligence and security community("the cheerleaders of the hate and fear-mongering directed against Muslims")and Muslim leaders in the United States.These, he says, "need to face the crisis in their community rather than recoilin the customary defensive manner." In any event he feels many are out oftouch, and have failed to build relationships with other faith communities --specifically, the Mormon and Jewish communities (if you're wondering whyMuslims should build relations with these two other faith-groups in particular,then the book explains this at some length).

There are plenty of better American Muslim voices, he suggests, which are asyet unheard by the mainstream media. Those voices can be heard through thisbook. They include leading African-American Muslims, given that some estimatessuggest that African-Americans, though they are a lesser proportion of U.S.Muslims generally, make up one third of regular mosque attendance in the United States.

I could have used a book like this, written about Britain, when I was in chargeof the U.K. government's outreach to Muslims from 2001 to 2003. British Muslimsare a diverse enough grouping, but in the United States they are even more so-- including rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, of over eighty differentethnicities and lacking any single religious hierarchy that is universallyrespected. Some are not religious at all; some resent being defined by theirreligion.

The whole idea of governments engaging with people on the basis of theirreligion is an uncomfortable one. Done crudely, it reinforces (ironicallyenough) the very rhetoric it is designed to counter. Islamic militants wantreligious identity to trump all others; when Britain(or the U.S.)attempts to reach its citizens through religious leaders rather thandemocratically elected representatives, it risks promoting this same agenda.

There are two quite different reasons, though, why Dr. Ahmed's book is welcome.Parts of this book are particularly good in portraying Islamic religiousleaders who have a genuine following, and can credibly promote non-violence andtolerance. This is something the U.S. government and media shouldregister.

The other reason is that, among stories that are disheartening, it has somethat give hope. A warm welcome is given in rural Alabama to a woman on the team, who iswearing a full-length Islamic robe. Radical Muslim preachers proclaim theirlove for America.Ahmed movingly describes his own interfaith discussion with the father ofDaniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Islamist militantsin 2002 in Pakistan.Studies of Muslims in Americaare not just important because of violence or terrorism -- which have entrappedonly a tiny number of practicing Muslims -- but because they represent some ofthe United States'newest, most diverse, and least understood communities. Dr. Ahmed does us all afavor by illustrating them with this marvelously diverse set of interviews.

Gerard Russell was incharge of the British government's outreach to the Muslim world in 2001-2003.He is now an Afghanistan/Pakistan Fellow at the HarvardKennedy School'sCarr Center for Human Rights.

Win McNamee/Getty Images


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