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American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

Book Corner  March 2007

American Islam:  The Struggle For the Soul of a Religion
by Paul M. Barrett
New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.  Pp. 304

                   Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl

             This work is a deft presentation of the American faces, issues and religious expressions of a mosaic of American Muslims.   Most Americans remain ignorant of the historical and contemporary expressions of Islam and particularly so here in the United States.  The author's concluding words sum up the thoughtful interviews and reflections in this work:  "Muslims face critical choices as they struggle for the soul of their faith in the United States.  It is impossible to predict which attitudes and ideas will prevail." (277).   This work goes a long way in describing what these choices might be and the contexts out of which they emerge.

            Paul Barrett is a reporter and editor first with The Wall Street Journal and now with Business Week.  His reportage in this work skillfully weaves interviews, government, political and Internet resources to show what Muslims in various occupations "look like."  The chapters cover Muslims who major personal expressions may be found - even publicized - in these categories of daily endeavor:  The Imam, The Activist, The Webmaster, The Publisher, The Mystics, The Scholar and The Feminist.

            Some of the faces in this work are vaguely familiar through print and electronic media, such as the Sufi cleric, Sheikh Kabbani who has been interactive with politics in the United States to promote a more centrist interpretation of Islam; graduate student Al-Hussayen, whose Saudi background led to surveillance, arrest and a hung jury on issues related to First Amendment rights and political activity.  One voice closer to the Gettysburg area is Asra Nomani, a feminist who has attempted to integrate the Morgantown, West Virginia mosque in terms of gender representation.

            Barrett has done a thoughtful job of presenting the tensions and struggles of those who live their Islamic faith in America.  He neither excuses nor defames those of whom he writes. By way of introduction he presents these facts:  "Most American Muslims are not Arab, and most Americans of Arab descent are Christian, not Muslim.  People of South Asian descent....make up 34% 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" (7)

            American history provides rich documentation for patterns of immigration for those who are Muslim, such as this startling statement:  "By the 1920s tiny Ross, North Dakota had about thirty Muslim families, originally from Damascus by way of Minnesota."  (16).  The discipline of the Muslim path, when followed, has played a significant role in the reform of prisoners, neighborhoods and enhancement of minority communities. Barrett's coverage of the history of Islam and the African-American community is highly instructive and something of which many Americans remain unaware.

            One of the most helpful insights of this book is Barrett's ability to politically and historically sort out the differences between extreme forms of Islam - such as Wahabism and Salafism (both from Saudi Arabia) and other types of Islam.  This differentiation is useful in reading the spectrum of responses American Muslims have to the U.S and global political events.  Clearly, as Barret so well describes it overall, no religious faith has the corner on either genuine piety or deeds that violate others.  Barrett offers the reader a clear invitation to thoughtfully reconsider who the neighbor is and the stresses and joys with which they contend.




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